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Hollywood Fan Magazines - From Mary Pickford to Angelina Jolie: Q&A with Author Anthony Slide

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Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Motion Picture
Wholesome silent era superstars Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks drawn by Vargas (probably best known for his drawings of naked and semi-naked women in Playboy), Motion Picture

Long before Robert Pattinson, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, Angelina Jolie, Kristen Stewart, Zac Efron, and Will Smith, there were Tyrone Power, Claudette Colbert, Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marilyn Monroe. And before them, Norma Talmadge, Rudolph Valentino, Charles Chaplin, Florence Lawrence, and Lillian Gish.

Just like long before stuff like TMZ, Entertainment Weekly, MTV “News,” and PopSugar, there were – the almost invariably more entertaining, more literate, and more informative – Photoplay, Motion Picture, Modern Screen, Picture-Play, and The New Movie Magazine.

Film historian Anthony Slide's recently published Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine: A History of Star Makers, Fabricators, and Gossip Mongers (University of MI Press) is a classy, thorough examination of the socio-historical role of movie fan magazines, which covered the careers, lives, and loves of Hollywood movie stars, from the 1910s to the magazines' demise in the late 1970s.

“The fan magazine is such a seemingly worthless object, and yet it is of interest and value to both the film scholar and the sociologist,” Slide writes in his introduction. I couldn't agree more. I'm no sociologist, but fan magazines of the '20s and '30s were incredibly valuable during my research for my biography of actor Ramon Novarro.

As Tony Slide (we've known each other for several years) explains in Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine, those publications gave you a glimpse – however rainbow-colored at times – into both the moviemaking world and the socio-economic-historical-political context in which that world existed.

Tony – whose perception of modern stardom might radically change if he spent more time with Robert Pattinson, Brad Pitt, or Sandra Bullock fans – has kindly agreed to answer several questions (via e-mail) about Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine for Alt Film Guide. See below.

Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Photoplay
Popular late '20s lovebirds Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell (7th Heaven, Street Angel), Photoplay

Joan Crawford Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine Anthony SlideHow did the Hollywood fan magazine come about? Who came up with that idea? Had there been film fan magazines in Europe or was that an American invention?

The fan magazine was an American invention. Earlier, there had been trade papers published for the film industry, but the idea for a fan magazine, geared towards the filmgoing public, came from the popular, general magazines of the day, which had begun in the 1880s and whose style and format the first fan magazines copied.

The first fan magazine was The Motion Picture Story Magazine (which later became Motion Picture), first published in February 1911. It was followed by Photoplay, first published in August of the same year.

The first British fan magazine, Pictures and the Picturegoer, also began publication in 1911. This first British fan magazine was a weekly, while virtually all of the American fan magazines were published on a monthly basis.

 

Among the fan magazines published during the studio era, which one was the most influential? Which one, would you say, was the most truthful?

Photoplay was probably the most influential of the fan magazines, and it remains the one that is best remembered today.

As to which was the most truthful, that is a very difficult question to answer. All of the fan magazines were basically honest, even if they might bend the truth a little. They might put words into a star's mouth, but the words were in all probability what that star would have said had he or she been a little more intelligent or literate.

 

How did the studios “control” the fan magazines? Or did they? What about the stars? Did they have any control over what stories were published about them?

The first two fan magazines were both mouthpieces of the producers. Those belonging to the Motion Picture Patent group were behind the founding of The Motion Picture Story Magazine. The independent producers supported Photoplay.

By the mid 1910s, both fan magazines were less dominated by those behind their creation and routinely published whatever they chose. Certainly, almost from the beginning, the fan magazine writers would need to approach studio publicists for access to the stars, but such access appears to have been freely given.

Obviously, some stars had their favorite fan magazine writers and those writers had direct access to them. I joke, but there is a certain truth to it, that Joan Crawford never met a fan magazine writer that she did not like.

By the 1930s, the studios were concerned at the lack of control over what the fan magazines were publishing, and in 1934 the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, to which all the major studios belonged, began issuing so-called Hays cards (named after Will Hays) to accredited fan magazine writers. Without the card, the writers could not get access to the studios and the stars. You had to be very careful what you wrote for fear of being “blacklisted.”

Claudette Colbert, Photoplay
Claudette Colbert drawing by James Montgomery Flagg on Photoplay; two-time Oscar winner Luise Rainer, whose “tempestuous life” is described in the magazine, turned 100 last January

I recall reading a quite negative and personal story in The New Movie Magazine written by columnist Herbert Howe about MGM star Ramon Novarro. How could something like that have been allowed, especially since it involved a star at the all-powerful MGM?

Any other glaring instances of such negative stories taking place from the mid-20s to the early '50s, during the height of the studio era?

The New Movie Magazine was one of the best fan magazines to emerge in the late 1920s/early 1930s. It cost only ten cents, compared to the 15 cents the other magazines charged, and it was available only from Woolworth stores. At the time, it had the highest circulation of any fan magazine, and, as you are aware, Herbert Howe was one of its main writers. (He even got his name on the cover.)

The demise of The New Movie Magazine was concurrent with the start of the Hays card. So, obviously, the magazine writers could write what they wanted, subject to editorial control.

I don't know that you can talk of “glaring instances of negative stories.” Quite frankly, fan magazines would not generally write in negative fashion about an industry on which they were reliant for their survival – but, see my answer to your next question.

 

A scandal such as MGM producer Paul Bern's suicide in 1932. Bern, of course, was married to MGM star Jean Harlow when he killed himself. Many stories and rumors have been spread around about that case – but how many are later “additions” to the tale?

In other words, was MGM actually able to do effective damage control at the time? If so, how could they achieve such a feat?

How often did such “damage control” tactics need to take place? And did they go beyond the fan magazines – and into other sources in the media?

Fan magazines avoided references to Paul Bern's suicide. However, in August 1934, Modern Screen ran a story on Jean Harlow which mentioned the suicide. The article itself is quite sincere, but that did not stop The Hollywood Reporter from denouncing the piece.

In many ways, it was this article, and others like it, that led to the creation of the Hays card. And, again we come back to the Hays card and the power it gave the industry to control what was written about it.

 

Innuendos in film fan magazines, whether about sexual or romantic or other personal matters: Would you say many readers “got it”? Or were they aimed strictly at readers within the film colony? Any examples?

You will have to read my book for a full coverage of innuendo in the fan magazines, and even I have problems sometimes determining what is innuendo and what is simply the language of the day.

What, for example, does one make of a piece from a 1939 issue of Modern Screen, titled “Vincent Price's Priceless Hat.” It is all about “a very gay Fedora on his even gayer boss.” Now, we know that “gay” was not in common usage back them in reference to homosexuality, but this piece is really something and really seems to suggest that Vincent Price was, well gay.

 

Film fan magazines and politics: Did they avoid dealing with political matters or were they vocal about them?

For instance, during the anti-Red hysteria of the late '40s and early '50s, what stance did the fan magazines take? Did they defend Hollywood personalities, or did they go after alleged communists? Or did they keep mum about the whole matter?

Politics and fan magazines did not mix, and the magazines practically ignored the blacklist and the issue of alleged communists. When Photoplay talked about “Hollywood Reds” in May 1952, it was discussing Van Johnson's red socks! However, the same magazine did run a piece in August 1947, written by novelist James M. Cain, in which he asked “Is Hollywood Red?"

Nita Naldi, Picture-Play magazine
Silent film vamp Nita Naldi (The Ten Commandments), Picture-Play magazine

Anthony Slide Interview Part II: Hollywood Fan Magazines, Scandals, and Innuendos

The decline of the film studios – in terms of box office revenues – in the mid-50s coincided with the appearance of several tabloids, most notoriously Confidential Magazine. Why did that happen since the studios seem to have been so powerful and all-controlling in previous decades?

In the 1950s, the studio system came to an end. Fan magazines, and others, no longer had to go to the studios for access to the stars. With stars no longer under contract, fan magazines could approach them directly – but at the same time, stars had an opportunity to say “No” to the fan magazines, and many did.

 

The film fan magazines died out even before the advent of online gossip sites. How come?

I don't have a definitive answer to the question. I believe it lies in the demise of the stars of the golden age and the rise of a new type of star, less of a legend and more of an ordinary human being. Who wants to read about real people? We want to read about gods and goddesses.

By the 1950s, the fan magazines seemed to concentrate on only two stars, Elizabeth Taylor and one who was not Hollywood-created, Jackie Kennedy. There is a limit as to how much one can publish on these two ladies.

Also, with the arrival of People magazine in 1974, the fan magazines seemed obsolete. Circulation figures were way, way down, and publishers simply could not justify continued publication. In fact, Photoplay ceased publication in 1980 and merged with one of People's rivals, US magazine.

 

The old film fan magazines and today's gossip rags, whether in print or online: What are the differences? What are the similarities? Whether in terms of what gets published and how the studios/stars/agents use them to promote themselves and their product?

If truth be told, there is no similarity between the fan magazines of the golden age of Hollywood and what is published today in print or online. Why? Because you don't have the stars anymore. Yes, you still have the publicists and they still control access to their clients, but are the clients' lives as exciting or as glamorous as those lived by the stars of the 1920s and 1930s? I don't think so.

Back then, we wanted to be told that Mary Brian used Lux soap or see photographs of her bathroom. I'm sorry, but I don't want to see photographs of Angelina Jolie's bathroom and I don't care what soap she uses.

I suppose the sad reality is that today the fan magazines would be reporting on Brad Pitt's brand of condom. But I would rather read about those two handsome, all-American guys, [English-born] Cary Grant and Randolph Scott sharing a beach house, or, a couple of decades later, [also English-born] Roddy McDowall and Tab Hunter wandering around the home they are sharing in their shorts and engaging in such all-American practices as checking their little black books for female date.

Don't understand what I am talking about? Then buy and read Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine!

Update

Joan Crawford Inside the Hollywood Fan MagazineAuthor and film historian Anthony Slide will be present at Larry Edmunds Bookshop in Hollywood to introduce and sign copies of his new book, Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine: A History of Star Makers, Fabricators, and Gossip Mongers. The book-signing will take place at 1 p.m. on May 16.

The actress on the cover of Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine is Joan Crawford, who was always very friendly with the press. That may well have helped Crawford to keep on going for nearly five decades.

Other Anthony Slide q&a's at Alt Film Guide: two-time Oscar-winning director Frank Lloyd, Incorrect Entertainment, Now Playing.

Larry Edmunds is located at 6644 Hollywood Boulevard. Phone: 323-463-3273.

Images: Courtesy Anthony Slide

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