Our latest Stipend holder blog comes from Dr Ellen Wright, who is Senior Lecturer in Cinema and Television History at De Montfort University, Leicester. Ellen looks at the view given fans of Hollywood stars at home.
I was thrilled to receive a stipend to visit The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum earlier this year. My research tends to examine the material culture around Hollywood cinema in the classical era so I’d been keen to have a look at the museum’s broad and varied collection for years.
I wanted to examine materials towards research projects on the representation of female sexuality and American patriotism in Hollywood swimming movies featuring Esther Williams, and wartime fan clubs for British female film stars such as Anne Crawford and Jean Kent and had arranged to spend two days in the archive with these items.
However, a trip around the museum revealed an Aladdin’s cave of further inspiring delights and a conversation that evening, with museum curator Dr Phil Wickham, in a charming riverside beer garden not far from the archive, was even more enlightening, reminding me that no matter how broad, deep, accessible and exciting an archive is, its most important resource is its archivists.
Phil asked me about my research interests more generally, and I told him about a preoccupation I have with the incestuous relationship between photography and Hollywood film. Photography has always been integral to shaping the public’s aspirational, idealised perception of Hollywood, not just its geography but its stars, its community, its values, and probably most importantly its glamorous mythology.
I waxed lyrical about my love of photographs featuring film stars posed proudly outside gaudy Californian mock period, or ranch inspired homes, or stiffly ‘relaxing’ in their immense, immaculate sitting rooms. Phil suggested he find me out a few extra bits to look at the next day.
I arrived at the archive the next morning to discover an array of expected treasures and was like a child on Christmas day. Amongst the riches were numerous film fan magazines featuring ‘At Home With the Stars’ pictorials and several books of linen postcards produced in the 1930s and 40s by American print companies such as Longshaw Card Co. and Newman Post Card Co., featuring photographs of film stars’ homes and gardens, and of the surrounding Californian landscape of palm-lined boulevards, fields of vibrant red poinsettias, immaculately-groomed highways, winding coast side roads with beautiful sea views and modern, white civic buildings.
These artefacts are so fascinating because they offered early Hollywood audiences a romanticised notion of the geographical and ideological space of Hollywood, not just because of the physical locations depicted, or because of these postcards’ visual idiom - the gaudy use of colour: the unnaturally blue skies, the vibrant green of the manicured trees, shrubs and grass, the colourful flashes of exotic flowers and the bright white stucco of the homes, that would put the finest Technicolor production to shame, but also because of the ideals that these images encapsulate.
These postcards (particularly the fold-out booklets of cards) with titles such as ‘Homes of the Movie stars,’ serve to satisfy the public’s expectations of Hollywood and of how its stars should live and feed the notion of Hollywood as a community, a neighbourhood of stars. They are manufactured as kitsch, eye-catching mementos of a visit to America’s film capital that offer owners a vicarious ‘at home with the star’ experience that can simultaneously function as a means to identify a particular stars’ home if the fan should be out sight-seeing in LA or, produced with a space on the booklets’ front covers for an address and a stamp, they are also a low-cost, mass-produced gift to be mailed home to envious friends and relatives.
Yet these postcards initially appear unremarkable. The homes featured are more or less interchangeable in their banal middle class perfection and other than for the inset image of their star owners and the printed clarification, often in the top right hand corner of the card; ‘residence of Judy Garland, Bel Air,’ ‘Home of Tyrone Power, Brentwood,’ there is no sign of the stars themselves. The reader has to settle for glimpse into a star’s personal life through a tantalising open door at Gary Cooper’s Brentwood home, an enticing open upstairs window at Bob Hope’s North Hollywood home or a glimpse of a remarkably modest car parked in in the driveway at Ginger Rogers’ Beverley Hills home, presumably ready and waiting for Ginger to hop in and pop to the store.
Ginger Rogers' home (EXE BD 14012)
The ‘At Home With the Stars’ genre of pictorials in some of the collections’ film magazines and annuals purport to offer fans a slightly greater level of intimacy with the star but are still problematic. The stars are posed ‘casually’ reading a magazine on their sitting room floor, in front of their grand piano, on their front step, with their handsome dog, or ‘relaxing’ by their swimming pool. These are just three of many recognisable tropes which still appear in contemporary celebrity publications such as Hello even today and which continue to offer fans an enticing insight into their star idol’s private life. These contrived promotional images stand as an excellent metaphor for Hollywood’s unique brand of glamour, featuring pristine home interiors that resemble film sets, or exterior shots of often identikit, new homes and pools call to mind sound stage facades, Victorian follies or hollow theme park constructions, in the hyperreal manner detailed by Umberto Eco[i] and just beyond the frame, and beyond the star’s friendly, smile, lays the industry machinery and the star’s invisible, essential labour.
It is no coincidence that the ranch vernacular in which many of these homes are built borrows the iconography of the pioneer. Geographically, Hollywood was little more than a collection of orange groves before the film industry arrived en masse and rapidly developed the area into a thriving film capital and model of American capitalist modernity. In line with the American dream, the stars, who were generally understood within the broader media to be self-made members of the nouveau riche, pose proudly, presenting the fruits of their labour and exhibiting their excellent taste, offering the briefest of behind-the-scenes glimpses into their homes and home lives and proffering proof that despite their fine and fabricated surroundings, and their expert star performance, they are still somehow authentic, still essentially like their fans.
A 1926 black-and-white, candid style promotional photograph from the archive encapsulates this contradiction excellently. It depicts screen heartthrob Rudolph Valentino, ‘outside his Hollywood bungalow where,’ according to the typed note on the back of the photograph, ‘in his spare time, he has wont to pursue his favourite hobby of gardening.’ Yet bizarrely he undertakes this grubby, strenuous activity in stylish dress shoes, smart, light coloured trousers, shirt, tie and blazer.
Publicity photograph of Rudolph Valentino gardening (EXEBD 40543)
There is an incongruity between the image and the text here. There is a suggestion of modesty linked to the simple pleasure of gardening, the bungalow residence and the lack of spare time presumably due to hard work. Equally as a star who faced public accusations of effeminacy in the popular press[ii] while publicly labouring in in a homophobic industry and society, gardening was presumably a reassuringly rugged pastime. Yet the sophisticated and somewhat louche film star persona of the ‘Latin lover’ established by the Hollywood machine, that drove female cinemagoers wild and fed accusations of effeminacy, meant that in order to be recognisably Valentino, and to ensure the level of glamour associated with the Valentino brand was maintained, Valentino here had to garden in a smart jacket.
Whilst the candid, star-off-screen nature of the photographic subject connotes an intimate authenticity, as Stephen Gundle observes, ‘Distance is a necessary factor in the maintenance of glamour. It serves to conceal or disguise the aspects of a person’s being that are not glamorous.’[iii] Purportedly candid images such as these can therefore inadvertently reveal to the film historian more than they probably intended to. The star’s leisure has been commoditised and their home subsequently re-situated as a space for labour rather than relaxation, a phenomena with which many of us in the current neoliberal work economy may well identify. As such these extra-textual representations of stars, just like the notion that Hollywood is a community and an industry essentially like any other, are representational circles that cannot be squared.
As texts these images were part of larger aspirational lifestyle ideals that simultaneously enabled Hollywood studios to build and maintain star brands and the brand of Hollywood more broadly. They offer contemporary observers fascinating insights into past representational ideals, whilst simultaneously demonstrating and seeking to conceal the permeability not only of the line between the private and public in the Hollywood studio system, but of the star and the real person behind that stars’ carefully constructed image.
[i] Eco, U. Eco, U, Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality (London: Minerva Press 1995).
[ii] In 1926 American newspaper The Chicago Tribune viciously referred to Valentino as the ‘Pink Powder Puff.’ see for example: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3605366/For-fear-of-pink-powder-puffs.html [accessed 28/08/2018]
[iii] Gundle, S. Glamour: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) p.14
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