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50 The presidency had deep roots in a culture of performance. Like entertainers , presidents (especially after 1900) exploited rapidly developing mass media to augment their presence in Americans’ lives. Whether he was politically strong or weak, a twentieth-century president benefited from the status he enjoyed in Washington society; the perception of the power of the office around his person; public relations, advertising, mass periodicals, radio, and the other machinery of modern celebrity; and the innovative example of Theodore Roosevelt, who infused his time in office with dramatic gestures, theatrical oratory, and evocations of aggressive masculinity. Into this context arrived motion pictures, the most powerful new force in celebrity creation to date. As a business, the movies replicated the production methods of the great industries, as well as the distribution mechanisms of retailers and theatrical performing circuits. Like the theater, the motion picture industry also came to market its leading performers—its “stars”—as commodities as fully as it sold its productions. The modern cult of personality , advanced by the theater and exploited by public figures such as Theodore Roosevelt, reached its apogee in Hollywood’s crafting of its most charismatic leading actors and actresses. Much of the movies’ power derived from what early Hollywood producers and directors were fond of calling their “verisimilitude”—their apparent, ultimate success at turning real sights and sounds into art, using real people and real locations—the ideal to which C H A P T E R 2  THE STUDIOS’ GOLDEN AGE AND THE WHITE HOUSE, 1929–1945 the studios’ golden age and the white house 51 realist literature, painting, the phonograph, radio, and even photography had separately aspired but could never reach. The movies, though, also exploited fantasy, creating exaggerated visions of space, time, and personality that often pulled the medium away from realism. Motion pictures’ precarious straddling of both reality and escapism, interestingly enough, was roughly equivalent to Americans’ highly conflicted feelings about politics: leaders and voters alike simultaneously struggled to confront ugly realities and to pursue seemingly fantastic goals of national unity and harmony, with the voters often putting their faith in politicians who made unrealistic promises and ran on platforms of utopian change. As the United States struggled through the Great Depression and fought World War II, presidents and motion picture actors fulfilled similar cultural roles and increasingly crossed paths in both work and play. In the decade and a half after 1930, the movie star became both a commodity and a template of the American personality, broadly conceived. At the same time, Hollywood studios built themselves into corporate institutions that became central to American culture’s self-identification. In those years, similarly, the president—particularly Franklin D. Roosevelt—became an active broker between the diverse and competing segments of US society, attempting to ease conflicts between interest groups. In the broadest sense, for their own political benefit presidents increasingly sought to take the pulse of American culture—to divine its evolution in rapidly changing times—and to serve as spokesmen for its values. As part of this pulse-taking, Roosevelt in particular paid increased attention to the content of motion pictures, and to the style and substance of the performances given by their leading players. Through his interaction with the movie world, Roosevelt especially absorbed lessons about performance and artifice that served him well on the political and international stages. The story of the motion picture industry’s origins is a familiar one. Although he was not the first inventor in the field, Thomas Edison patented the first kinetoscope in 1893 and then, to profit from the device, he built the first moving picture studio, the “Black Maria,” at his New Jersey laboratory. By the late 1890s Edison had competition, rival studios such as American Muto- 52 the leading man scope in New York City, whom he also frequently faced in court over alleged patent infringements. Moving picture devices and production also spread across the world. In the United States, individuals first witnessed moving pictures through hand-cranked peep shows. Only after 1900 did film projectors become common, and over the succeeding decade the movie business made a full transition to showing its films on theater screens for groups of viewers. New York City’s close-packed masses were the ideal audience for the expert retail merchants, mostly Jewish immigrants from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, who began to blend film production and distribution into the studio–theater chain...


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