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Camera Obscura 16.3 (2001) 9-57
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Technologies of Early Stardom and the Extraordinary Body
Jennifer M. Bean
If everyone can agree that "why and how stars came into prominence and what purposes they served for their audiences" is a question of critical import, then exactly which stars we recover and from when remains at issue. 1 It seems logical to begin with the years between 1912 and 1922, a decade coextensive with the first flush of stardom's powerful, public appeal. What happens next is remarkably unclear. If we bracket the few familiar names --Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford--coterminous at the start with that of D. W. Griffith, and appraise the vampish Theda Bara as more notorious than illustrative (more infamous, so to speak, than famous), we are faced with a curious lacuna: the conspicuous absence of early women stars. Ineluctably linked to the crisis of the archives and to the paucity of film remnants from the period, with surviving prints in often precarious condition, elisions of all sorts haunt the historical register of early cinema. Yet whatever the outcome of battles that must be waged in the name of preservation agendas, one thing is clear: it would be a serious mistake to overlook the copious documents extant from the media system of early stardom. Here we traverse not a "ruined [End Page 9] map" but a densely textured topos. 2 Here we encounter a pantheon of unusual female stars collectively known as "those daring misses of the movies." Agile and dauntless, ready to swim, race, fly, dangle, and fall for the sake of the screen--cinema's first en masse celebrities were anything but ordinary. Indeed, an array of quite extraordinary women typifies the onset of film stardom; extraordinary in the way that people usually are not, but in precisely the way that stars are supposed to be.
Perhaps the most adulated figure of early film fame was Pearl White. Known to her contemporaries as the "Heroine of a Thousand Stunts," White's fearless disposition and exceptional physicality became the emblematic badge of a career that catapulted to unprecedented heights following her 1914 performance as the intrepid heroine of The Perils of Pauline (dir. Louis J. Gasnier and Donald MacKenzie) and careened through approximately 200 films, 11 of which were action serials, totaling over 180 episodes by 1924. Her work during those years was risky business, as the saying goes, especially if we believe accounts tallied by Picturegoer in 1921 that White had suffered--and emphatically survived--"3,750 attempts against her life" while performing for the camera. 3 Other figures are both breathless and lavish: in 1917 the Pathé-Frères company proclaimed that White's four serials to date had profited $24,570,000 at the box office, a lucrative bit of business for the war years. 4 While Pathé executives counted their dollars, public accolades mounted in various quarters. After defying the Clutching Hand and his dastardly death ray in the The Exploits of Elaine (dir. Louis J. Gasnier and George B. Seitz, 1914), White became the darling of European surrealists and an icon of the Ballets Russes. 5 After defeating enemy spies in Pearl of the Army (dir. Edward José, 1916), she struck a pose as recruitment model for the United States Army and was elected honorary president of the American Cadets. 6 After exposing the schemes of the one-armed master criminal in The Iron Claw (dir. Edward José and George B. Seitz, 1916) and recovering the sacred "Violet Diamond" in The Fatal Ring (dir. George B. Seitz, 1917), she was ranked among viewers' most favorite players. 7 After her caper as the eponymous avenger in The Lightening Raider (dir. George B. Seitz, 1919), [End Page 10] she garnered the friendship of Spanish novelist Vincent Blasco Ibanez and the "adoration of Latin America" more broadly. 8 Such honors reveal the technologies of an emergent star system, with its circulation of paraphernalia and its inflated rhetoric, at work; but they also imply a figure in excess of that system, one whose drawing power refuted...