“Certainly No Clark Gable” – Reflections on the Journalistic Discourse about Hollywood Character Actors, ca. 1915-1949

Linn Lönroth, Stockholm University, Sweden

8 April 2020


In a reader’s letter entitled “Character Actors are the Greatest” published in Picture-Play Magazine in 1926, an anonymous film fan criticised the allegedly much too predominant journalistic focus on Hollywood’s leading stars. “Always I read of stars – stars – stars!” the fan objected, and declared that leading actors were better understood as “merely a set of rather good-looking nonentities.” While emphasising the brilliance of players such as Dale Fuller, Cesare Gravina and Joseph Swickard, the letter suggested that film fans of the day were starved of stories about “the true artistes of the screen” – the character actors.[i]

Albeit not representative of the views of the editors and writers of Picture-Play Magazine, this reader’s letter is nevertheless indicative of a more widespread cultural fascination with the “non-star” in Hollywood, and particularly with the character actor. Consistently in US fan magazines and newspapers from mid 1910s and onwards through the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, character acting was a significant point of journalistic interest that gave rise to lively discussions about the hierarchies of the star system and its effect on the profession of film acting. Typically framed within discussions of stardom, character actors were imagined as embodiments of difference that offered contrast to the leading stars and a glimpse into a less glamorous side of Hollywood. Distinguished by their alleged peculiarities, individual quirks, unremarkable lifestyles and run-of-the-mill presence on screen, these actors were celebrated as quintessential examples of “non-stars” in Hollywood.

Drawing on a wide array of articles, interviews, films reviews, gossip columns and other types of journalism from Hollywood fan magazines and US newspapers from the classical era, this essay explores the significant popular discourse that emerged around the character actor.[ii] While previous research has shown how such national press coverage helped to create and sustain the notion of the film star and affirm its place within US film culture, I will argue for how the notion of the “non-star,” as exemplified by the character actor, was similarly established within this film culture.[iii] Because of the close ties between the film industry and the fan magazines in particular, as emphasised in previous studies, this discourse arguably also indicates the overlooked importance of the “non-star” to the industry itself and to classical Hollywood filmmaking.[iv]

Personality vs. Versatility: The Silent Era

In order to better understand how the notion of the “non-star” gained in cultural significance in the US, it is worth going back to the emergence of the star system and the development of the many non-starring categories of actors that this system brought about. In her study of typecasting in US cinema, Pamela Robertson Wojcik has shown how the development of the star system in the early 1910s indeed gave rise to a more hierarchical division of labour among film actors. While the stars were positioned at the top of this hierarchy, the majority of actors rather had to settle for filling the many non-starring, supporting roles that the movies required. The character actor emerged at this point as a “mid-level player,” as Robertson Wojcik suggests, as it was ranked above a number of other non-starring actors, such as bit players and extras. It was, however, invariably ranked below the star. Although a certain level of movement up and down the star system’s hierarchy was possible for some actors, Robertson Wojcik notes that is was unusual for character actors in particular to ascend in the ranking. Despite their status as mid-level players, then, character actors were perceived as possessing qualities that ultimately prevented them from attaining starring roles.[v]

This dividing line between stars and character actors is worth emphasising, because it very quickly made its way into the popular discourse of the time. Already in the mid 1910s but increasingly so in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, the character actor was very emphatically imagined as existing in a dichotomous relationship with the leading star. Although journalists found various ways of addressing and conceptualising this dichotomy over the years and decades, there was a notable consistency within the discourse and a prevailing sense that character actors deviated from the prevailing Hollywood ideal.[vi]

In journalism from the silent era, this perceived difference between stars and character actors was primarily expressed in terms of acting technique and personality. Curiously, the majority of reporters also sided with the character actors and emphasised their alleged superiority over the stars. While the latter tended to be described as mere figures of beauty whose personalities were simply repeated across films, character actors were instead perceived as versatile in their roles and as possessing tangible acting skills. As the New York Times put it in 1920, character actors are the “true highlights of photoplays.” Their acting style involves the “art of impersonation” and of allowing their individuality to become “absorbed” by the character in question.[vii] Stars, on the other hand, only ever rely on their good looks and personality. As such, they have to confine themselves to playing only one type of role: “that of being themselves, as they have become known to the public.”[viii]

Arguing along similar lines, many other newspaper reporters and fan magazine writers suggested that character actors were the “bright fellow[s]” or “fine old actors” with “real merit” and “skilled artistry.”[ix] Contrary to popular perception, the story went, it was the character actors who gave the most “splendid” performances; invariably a step above those of the “stars they support[ed].”[x] Indeed, within this discourse, the stars were conceived as having little to show in terms of acting technique and were rather described as “Greek gods,” “modern demigods or goddesses” or “vivacious little dolls who play silly flapper roles,” and so on.[xi]

Closely associated with the notion of the character actor’s versatility was also the idea of physical disguise. Repeatedly when discussing the character actors’ skills in impersonation, journalists emphasised the actors’ physical appearance and ability to disguise themselves in convincing ways. While the stars had to look natural in order to be recognised as the personality with whom the public had become familiar, most writers maintained, the character actors were instead free to experiment with costume and make-up in order to obscure their own “self.” As the character actor Theodore Roberts put it himself in Photo-Play Journal in 1920, the character man is someone who “carries his personality in his make-up box.”[xii]

For Roberts, the fact that his profession indeed required him to actively disguise himself was in fact something he deemed as a blessing. In his article, which was given the title “The Happy Lot of the Character Actor,” Roberts imagined the stars as being in constant worry about their looks and personalities. Character actors such as himself, however, never felt tied down by Hollywood’s constrictive beauty norms and ideals. As he put it:

I thank my stars that I have no need to be “Lean and Slippered,” but can grow fat with no fear of the shrivelling of the salary envelope. I am on my knees in gratitude that the fates decreed me a personality that did not lend itself to the fluff and pulchritude but called upon me to clothe myself in the habiliments of other personalities than my own.[xiii]

Figure 1: Theodore Roberts, “The Happy Lot of the Character Actor,” Photoplay-Journal, June, 1920, 22. Accessed via The Media History Digital Library

Contrary to Roberts’ positive outlook, however, most writers were critical of the fact that character actors were unable to attain starring roles. There was also a strong sense that the star system had destroyed the art of acting in favour of an emerging personality cult. While criticising Hollywood’s growing obsession with young and pretty film stars with popular personalities, many reporters called for change and envisioned the character actor as taking centre stage in this process. As Screenland argued in 1923, “golden curl[es]” and a “perfect profile” doesn’t do it anymore, “the public is actually demanding that actors act!”[xiv] On a more radical note, The Los Angeles Times even went so far as to proclaim that the “rise of the character actors” would come with the inevitable demise of the star system.”[xv]

Although this kind of rhetoric had little effect on the realities within the US film industry, it is nevertheless notable that certain strands within this silent-era discourse about character actors evidently formed a critique against the consolidation of the star system. Because the character actors were perceived as representing different (and, according to many journalists, better) values than those of the stars, they were repeatedly singled out as symbols for change. In this way, the character actor became central to the imagination of a film industry in which versatility was valued higher than beauty and personality. Consistently, reporters also positioned themselves, and indeed the publication they wrote for, as active agents in this change and as champions of the underdog who advocated a different Hollywood.

Godlike Beauties vs. Everyday Eccentrics: The Sound Era

As sound came to US film industry and the studio system was further consolidated, the hierarchies of the star system were reinforced rather than undermined. The discourse about character actors, however, grew stronger. Not only was there more written about non-starring actors more generally in the 1930s and 1940s, many reporters were also becoming increasingly persistent when it came to differentiating between stars and character actors. As focus shifted from the versatility of character actors and the set personalities of stars, journalists were now increasingly concerned with the supposedly unconventional nature of character actors and the ways in which their physical appearances differed from those of the stars. Although reporters continued to celebrate the character actor and to position themselves as rooting for the underdog, the sometimes reactionary tone of the silent-era discourse nevertheless faded. Rather than envisioning or calling for radical change, journalists were now reinforcing the hierarchies of the star system by persistently establishing the character actors as figures that diverged from Hollywood’s constrictive beauty ideals.

In particular, notions of physical attractiveness, glamour and youth were held as counterpoints to that which defined the character actor. There was also a growing tendency to pathologise the bodies of these actors and to foreground their traits and attributes as flawed. Numerous writers for instance drew attention to the character actors’ weight (which was typically just brought up if the actor was considered overweight), purportedly strange or asymmetrical facial features, old age or quite simply what was thought of as their unattractive (or at very least plain) bodies, especially when defined in contrast to the svelte, taught or sculpted physiques of the leads. While the stars were described as otherworldly, extraordinary and beautiful, then, character actors were rather defined according to their alleged shortcomings and imperfections. This could, for instance, include their “chubby” or “fat” bodies, “pop-eyed” and “potato pan” faces, “un-actorish-looking” appearances, “stooped shoulders,” “long nose[s],” “thick and bushy” eyebrows, “thinning hair,” “mush mug” faces, oversized Adam’s apples or more generally their lack of “sex appeal.”[xvi] As Gladys Hall put it in reference to the character actor Walter Connolly in an article published in Modern Screen in 1934, “[h]e is certainly no Clark Gable.”[xvii]

Figure 2: Gladys Hall, “Average But Wonderful: A grand story about a great actor, Walter Connolly,” Modern Screen, December, 1934, 37. Accessed via The Media History Digital Library

Descriptions such as these were typically also accompanied by comments about the character actors’ peculiar behaviour, acting styles and personalities. Frequently, writers emphasised the eccentricity of the character actors’ mannerisms and commented on their posture, gestures or facial expressions. Writing in 1937, a reporter in Hollywood for instance drew attention to the “excitable” and “neurotic” foibles of Edward Everett Horton. His fellow character actor Henry Ametta was similarly noted for his “extremely nervous,” “fidgety,” and “worried” manner.[xviii] Various other reporters emphasised traits or “idiosyncrasies” such as “flutterings,” “jitters,” “bewilderment,” “occasional wheezes” or the “nervous” temperament, “snooty reserve” or “whimsical” nature of specific actors.[xix] Weighed against the otherwise naturalist, restrained and subtle acting styles that permeated Hollywood, as explored by scholars such as Roberta Pearson and Cynthia Baron, it is notable that character actors were perceived as so prone to exploring more ostentatious or eccentric forms of performance.[xx]

The blatant body shaming and othering that invariably also characterised these kinds of conversations were usually, and very much indifferently, justified as a way of stressing the alleged “humanness” or “ordinariness” of the character actor. This might seem contradictory, but the eccentric traits and attributes that many writers associated with these actors were also believed to make them into recognisable figures from everyday life. In comparison to the “unearthly” and “glamorized” “pretty boys” and “eye-filling gals,” as a reporter in Photoplay described the leading stars in 1938, the character actors were rather perceived as “real human beings.” As the writer put it, it was their job to provide the “human background” of the otherwise fairy-tale like worlds of the movies.[xxi] Although the discourse about these actors was growing increasingly problematic, then, the journalists were nevertheless in agreement that the characters actors brought something unique to the movies, and crucially something that the stars could not provide.

Struggles for Attention

Besides this continuous dialogue about the perceived difference between stars and character actors, the 1930s also saw the emergence of a conversation in press about an imagined power struggle between the two parties. In these discussions, character actors were described in a rather jarring language as reporters drew analogies to theft or burglary when referring to what they saw as a particularly arresting performance.[xxii] Variations of the expressions “stealing the show” or “stealing someone’s thunder,” as they are still known and used today, were hence beginning to be used in reference to the performances of certain non-starring actors.[xxiii]

The figurative use of language within this context cannot be emphasised enough. Metaphors, analogies and hyperbole were invariably used to amplify the reporters’ points and to add a sense of drama, comedy or fun to their writings. Typically, journalists reached for words such as “picture stealing,” “scene stealing,” “screen theft,” “lens larceny,” “cinema-swiping,” “film lifting,” “plundering” or the like while simultaneously referring to the character actors as “bandits,” “muggers,” “thieves,” “larcenists,” “pickpockets” “star kidnappers,” “film falcons” and even “rascals.”[xxiv] It was also common to describe successful character performances as though the actors were “turning the tables,” “outsmarting,” “upstaging” or even “eclipsing” the leading stars, thus evoking a sense of Hollywood being turned on its head.[xxv] It is important to note that the term “character actor” was occasionally used in conflation with, for instance, “minor actor,” “supporting actor” and sometimes “bit actor” within this context. The primary aim appears to have been to shed light on the alleged power struggle that played out between stars and non-stars in Hollywood at large.

Figure 3: “Picture Stealers,” Silver Screen, August, 1937. Accessed via The Media History Digital Library

A number of journalists of the time even took it upon themselves to act as detectives of sorts in order to identify the many guilty offenders among the non-starring actors and to call attention to the alleged danger they posed to the status quo. In a photospread entitled “The Most Dangerous Men in Hollywood” published in 1938, for instance, Hollywood presented a list of what they called “the screen’s worst scene stealers.” Each of the eleven actors (one of whom, curiously, was a child actor) were presented with a thumbnail story as well as a photograph in the style of a mugshot. Among those accused were Charles Ruggles, who was noted for his “long record of picture stealing,” Leo Carrillo, who allegedly “terrorized many quiet dramas” and Edward Everett Horton, whom the reporter suggested was “particularly dangerous to romantic scenes where the heroine and hero wish to be alone.” Notably, the listed actors were also conflated with their on-screen characterisations and described as though they were deliberately plotting to hijack the movies. Their various physical traits, mannerisms and acting techniques were further described as devious “disguises” or “appearances” that were “assumed” in order to “gain access” or “entrance” to the most important scenes.[xxvi]

Figures 4 and 5: “The most dangerous men in Hollywood,” Hollywood, October, 1937, 38-39. Accessed via The Media History Digital Library

However extreme these usages of hyperbole appear to be, they were by no means unique or stand-alone examples. Some journalists even assumed a faux point-of-view of a judge or prosecutor and argued that, to put it in the words of Katherine Alberts, the character actors should be “charged” with “grand larceny” and “[handed] over to the audience for sentence.”[xxvii] Other reporters referred to the actors as “pirates” or “little devil[s],” suggested that they were part of the “Hollywood underworld” or compared their alleged scene thefts with “kleptomania” and even “cradle snatching.”[xxviii] The Chicago Daily Tribute went so far as to suggest that the FBI agent Edgar J. Hoover and Attorney General Frank Murphy would probably have to make an “emergency trip” to the East Coast in order to “combat the wave of scene stealing.”[xxix]

Caught up in the midst of this chaos, of course, were the stars, and they were typically described as defenceless, victimised or outright scared of the presence of their supposed subordinates. A reporter in Modern Screen suggested that movie stars were haunted by a sense of “terror” whenever they found out that a “picture stealer” was “on the lot.” The best thing for the poor stars to do, the journalist suggested, was to simply say a quick “don’t-let-him-steal-my-picture prayer” before shooting commenced.[xxx] Similarly, a journalist in Silver Screen suggested that the stars did what they could to “protect themselves” in the “dog-cat-dog business” of Hollywood filmmaking. With “hawklike eyes,” the stars watch the rest of the cast to see that they are not “photographed too glamorously, that they are not given the choice lines, that they are not given scenes that are ‘fat’ in dialogue content.”[xxxi]

Despite the typically problematic wording of this conversation and the somewhat ridiculous claim that the stars were the real victims, the majority of the articles were nevertheless jesting in tone and the reporters were evidently rooting for the character actors to come out victorious in their fight for the limelight. There was also a clear intention of bringing these actors into the public eye and to suggest that the success of movies often hinged on the presence of non-starring actors. The general idea was that a certain degree of scene stealing was necessary in order to break up the movies’ otherwise unrelenting focus on the leading stars. As Silver Screen put it in 1935, the entrance of a character actor on screen is like “a ripple of joyous expectations” sweeping over an otherwise “dying party.”[xxxii]

Even so, the idea of scene stealing of course implied ownership and it arguably affirmed the idea that the limelight did not belong to the character actor, but rather to the leading star. The whole narrative of there being struggles for attention on screen was presumably also a dramatic (in a narrative sense) and engaging way of illustrating the hierarchies of the star system and the tensions it gave rise to. Not only did it allow readers to familiarise themselves with certain non-starring actors and to recognise their place within the hierarchy. Arguably, readers were also encouraged to interpret film performance on a meta-level in the sense that the acting styles of non-starring actors could be read as calculated attempts to upstage the leading stars. That is, as deliberate schemes of resistance that challenged the status quo.

On the whole, the significant journalistic focus on character actors during the classical helped establish their place within US film culture. Because the actors’ appeal was persistently traced to how they differed from the stars, the discourse also consolidated the value of the “non-star” more generally to contemporaneous fan culture and to the Hollywood filmmaking tradition. In an article published in The Ogden Standard in 1918, the American screenwriter Al Giebler attempted to shed light on precisely this alleged indispensability of small-part actors. In his article, entitled “The Supporting Cast in a Movie Film,” Giebler curiously tried to prove his point by comparing the movie business with baking pudding. Just as you need a variety of ingredients to make a tasty pudding, he suggested, you need a variety of actors to make a successful photoplay. As he put it, “the two stars could no more pretend to be the whole show and get away with it than the two eggs could say, ‘Behold us! We are pudding!”[xxxiii]

Figure 6: A. H. Giebler, “The Supporting Cast in a Movie Film,” The Ogden Standard, Jan 19, 1918. Accessed via Chronicling America: Historic American Newspaper, Library of Congress


[i] S. H. P., “Character Actors are the Greatest,” in “What the Fans Think,” Picture-Play Magazine, September, 1926, 115.

[ii] The material for this essay has primarily been collected from digital repositories. In particular, I have gathered material from the Media History Digital Library (MHDL) and ProQuest Historical Newspapers. A limited number of articles have also been retrieved from the Library of Congress digitised newspaper database, Chronicling America as well as the Internet Archive. The fan magazines I have accessed range from leading periodicals with extensive runs in the MDHL database, such as Photoplay, Modern Screen and Motion Picture Magazine, to those with shorter life spans and with less extensive runs in the database, such as Movie Classic and Motion Picture Classic. When it comes to newspapers, I have primarily found relevant material in papers such as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Daily Tribune and The Washington Post. I have also gathered material from fan magazines and collections of clippings from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the Margaret Herrick Library.

[iii] See e.g. Richard Abel, Menus for Movieland: Newspapers and the Emergence of American Film Culture (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2015); Richard DeCordova, Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990); Richard Dyer, Stars, 1. ed., (London: BFI, 1979).

[iv] See e.g. Anne Jerslev, “American Fan Magazines in the 30s and the Glamorous Construction of Femininity,” in The Nordicom Review (No. 1, 1996), 195-209; Anthony Slide, Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine: A History of Star Makers, Fabricators, and Gossip Mongers (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010).

[v] Pamela Robertson Wojcik, ‘Typecasting’ in Movie Acting: The Film Reader, ed. Pamela Robertson Wojcik (New York: Routledge, 2004), 177-181.

[vi] It is important to note that terms such as “character actor,” “supporting actor,” “minor actor” and, to a lesser degree, “bit player” were often used interchangeably during these decades. While this variation of terms partly appears to have been a way for journalists to simply vary their language when referring to non-stars, “character actor” was by far the most widely used definition within this context.

[vii] “Actors and Stars,” The New York Times, April 25, 1920, X4.

[viii] “Actors and Stars,” The New York Times, April 25, 1920, X4.

[ix] “The Character Actors are Getting all the Bouquets,” Photoplay, November, 1927, 24; “Thirty Years a Trooper,” The Washington Post, January 15, 1928, F5; Lillian Blackstone, “Frozen Echoes,” Motion Picture Magazine, August, 1917, 126; “Thirty Years a Trooper,” The Washington Post, January 15, 1928, F5.

[x] Scoop Conlon, “Character Actors Come into Their Own After Long, Hard Struggle on Silver Screen,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 18, 1922, D1.

[xi] Conlon, “Character Actors Come into Their Own After Long, Hard Struggle on Silver Screen,” D1; “Actors and Stars,” The New York Times, April 25, 1920, X4; “Thirty Years a Trooper,” F5.

[xii] Theodore Roberts, “The Happy Lot of the Character Actor,” Photoplay-Journal, June, 1920, 22.

[xiii] Theodore Roberts, “The Happy Lot of the Character Actor,” Photoplay-Journal, June, 1920, 22.

[xiv] Eunic Marshall, “Grand Larceny: Anent the gentle art of stealing the picture,” Screenland, October, 1923, 40.

[xv] William Foster Elliott, “The Character Actor’s Boom: Claude Gillingwater Talks on Recent Developments,” The Los Angeles Times, June 11, 1922, III35.

[xvi] Mary Weisse, “Guy Kibbe’s Case” in “Fan Mail,” Hollywood, August, 1936, 16; “Here’s One Fat Man Somebody Loves,” Photoplay, January, 1935, 47; Larry Reid “Accidentally Funny,” Movie Classic, December, 1936, 77; Carlisle Jones, “Picture Stealer No. 1,” Screenland, August, 1936, 88; Cyril Vandour, “He Supplies the Background,” Photoplay, April, 1938, 33; Fanya Graham, “Man Behind the Medals,” Picture Play, Oct, 1934, 29; Jones, “Picture Stealer No. 1,” 58, Hamilton, “Roundup of Characters,” 21; Gladys Hall, “Average But Wonderful: A grand story about a great actor, Walter Connolly,” Modern Screen, December, 1934, 37; Jones, “Picture Stealer No. 1,” 88; Hamilton, “Roundup of Characters,” 20; Fanya Graham, “Man Behind the Medals,” Picture Play, Oct, 1934, 29.

[xvii] Gladys Hall, “Average But Wonderful: A grand story about a great actor, Walter Connolly,” Modern Screen, December, 1934, 37.

[xviii] “The Most Dangerous Men in Hollywood: Thumb-nail stories on the screen’s worst scene stealers,” Hollywood, October, 1937: 38-39.

[xix] “Screenland Honor Page,” Screenland, November, 1936, 6; Larry Reid, “Accidentally Funny,” Movie Classic, Dec, 1936, 77; Reid, “Accidentally Funny,” 77; Fanya Graham, “Man Behind the Medals,” Picture Play, Oct, 1934, 29; Maude Cheatham, “For Laughing Purposes,” Silver Screen, September, 1937, 54; Ralph Wotherspoon, “Edward Everett Horton” in “What do You Think? Letters from our Readers,” Picturegoers, April, 1946, 14; Judith Ann Ice, “These Charming Thieves: Insight into the lives of active players you read little about,” Picture Play, June, 1934, 60.

[xx] Cynthia Baron, “Stage Actors and Modern Acting Methods Move to Hollywood in the 1930s,” Cinémas, 25:1, 2014, 109-129; Roberta E. Pearson, Eloquent Gestures: The Transformation of Performance Style in the Griffith Biograph Films (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

[xxi] Cyril Vandour, “He Supplies the Background,” Photoplay, April, 1938, 33.

[xxii] It is worth noting that there are occasional examples of these expressions being used in a similar context already in the 1920s. However, these types of articles appear sparingly in the early 1920s and it is only towards the end of the decade and much more so in the early 1930s that a trend begins to emerge.

[xxiii] The expression “stealing someone’s thunder” itself dates back to theatrical traditions of the early 18th century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term goes back to an utterance made by the English dramatist John Dennis, whose method for simulating thunder on stage was “stolen” and supposedly used more successfully in someone else’s play. See: “To steal (someone’s) thunder,” Oxford English Dictionary, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[xxiv] See e.g.: C. L. “Occupation – Picture Stealer.” Picturegoer, July, 1943; “Special Art Section: Scene Stealers! Pat and Jo – by request,” Screenland, May, 1936; Dwight Evans, “An Open Letter to Jack Oakie,” Screenland, February, 1941; Herbert Cruikshank, “Forty Thieves of Hollywood,” Modern Screen, May, 1931; Judith Ann Ice, “These Charming Thieves: Insight into the lives of active players you read little about,” Picture Play, June, 1934, 31; Shelia Graham, “Piracy on Film Seas Involves Notables,” LA Times, September 1, 1936, 14; M.A.C. “Scene Stealer!” Picturegoer, November, 1943, 11.

[xxv] Mack Hughes, “Tricks of the Trade,” Modern Screen, Sep, 1937, 10; Hughes, “Tricks of the Trade,” 10; Review of The Flame Within in “Reviews,” Modern Screen, August, 1935, 6; Samuel Richard Mook, “Empty Honors: Scene stealers are given their due, but their artistic thefts bring them little,” Picture Play, February, 1933, 40.

[xxvi] “The Most Dangerous Men in Hollywood: Thumb-nail stories on the screen’s worst scene stealers,” Hollywood, October, 1937: 38-39

[xxvii] Katherine Alberts, “Caught with the Goods,” Photoplay, April, 1932, 37.

[xxviii] “Picture ’Pirates’,” Picturegoer, August, 1932, 16; Paula Berc, “Our Eugenes Off to Una,” in “Movie Classic’s Letter Page,” Movie Classic, December, 1931, 8; Ed Sullivan, “Looking at Hollywood: Scene Stealers,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 19, 1939, 9; Georges Kay, “Not Guilty!”, Picture Play, January, 1933, 22; Georges Kay, “Not Guilty!”, 22.

[xxix] Ed Sullivan, “Looking at Hollywood: Scene Stealers,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 19, 1939, 9.

[xxx] Herbert Cruikshank, “Forty Thieves of Hollywood,” Modern Screen, May, 1931, 46.

[xxxi] Ed Sullivan, “Picture Stealers Spotted,” Silver Screen, November, 1938, 76.

[xxxii] Patricia Keats, “The Picture Savers: Edward Everett Horton, Henry Armetta, Ned Sparks,” Silver Screen, March, 1935, 32.

[xxxiii] A. H. Giebler, “The Supporting Cast in a Movie Film,” The Ogden Standard, Jan 19, 1918: no page number.

Linn Lönroth is a PhD student in Cinema Studies at Stockholm University in Sweden. Her dissertation is an archival study into the histories of character actors in Hollywood during the classical era. In addition to exploring the popular discourse and fan culture that emerged around these actors, the thesis examines how the industry defined, typecast, employed, credited and promoted their non-starring actors during this period.

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‘Stardom and the Archive’ symposium, University of Exeter, 8-9 February 2020: Report

Georgia Brown, Queen Mary, University of London

28 February 2020


The ‘Stardom and the Archive’ symposium, hosted by Lisa Stead and Becky Rae at the University of Exeter, opened with an engaging keynote from Maryanne Dever, who had travelled all the way from Sydney’s University of Technology to challenge our perceptions of what is an archive. By raising questions about the material traces of stardom, the cultural and political economies of archiving, hierarchies of archival significance and value, and the treatment of rubbish or trash in the context of archival collecting and processing, Maryanne started us all thinking about what ends up in an archive and how it gets there. In particular, those items which generate significant emotion in a researcher, not because they have academic significance, but because of their connection to the subject.

Maryanne Dever, Keynote: ‘On Britney Spears’ Shopping List’ (courtesy of Lisa Stead)

This enthusiasm was re-invigorated during the second keynote given by Lucy Bolton (Queen Mary, University of London), who not only described her experiences working with the archives of Vivien Leigh, Marilyn Monroe and Iris Murdoch but also what items are in her own Bolton Archive. This created an atmosphere, maintained over the course of the whole conference, where everyone felt they could let their ‘Fan Flags Fly’ and show, not just their knowledge about their chosen star or archive, but also their sheer joy and excitement about their subject. Most conversations during the subsequent breaks were dominated by the question “what is the one item would you like to have in your private collection/archive?”

Lucy Bolton, Keynote: ‘A Theorist Loose in the Archives of Vivien Leigh, Marilyn Monroe and Iris Murdoch’ (courtesy of Lisa Stead)

The panels themselves were equally inspiring, showcasing a variety of exciting projects and alternative approaches to both star studies and archival research. It was just such a shame that they were so well curated and programmed that it made choosing which panel to attend extremely difficult.

In the ‘Reframing and Retelling via the Archive’ panel, Anthea Taylor (University of Sydney), Jennifer Voss (De Montfort University) and, Sarka Gmiterkova (Masaryk University) discussed how information held in archives can re-visit and challenge the accepted knowledge and opinions. At the same time, Linn Lönroth (Stockholm University), Sarah Rahman Niazi (University of Westminster), Robert Shail (Leeds Beckett University) and Cathy Lomax (Queen Mary, University of London) each examined the different ways that press and publicity were used to create, or to maintain, the star image in the ‘Archiving Press and Publicity’ panel. Using a variety of archival sources, Linn examined how Preston Sturges harnessed the collective skills of his character actors to create the phenomenon that was “The Preston Sturges stock company”. Sarah introduced us to the metaphors of romantic Urdu poetry, which were used to describe the star bodies of 1930s and 40s India in two rare Urdu texts, Filmi Priyan (Film Fairies, 1936) and Filmi Titliyan (Film Butterflies, 1945). It was especially evocative as these texts contained little to no pictures of the stars. From no imagery of star bodies to an abundance, Robert bought along examples of 1960s press books, held at the BFI archives. Using Albert Finney as a case study, he examined how Finney’s image was used and adapted through the 1960s – from angry young man in Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (1960) through the fun-loving Tom Jones (1963), to the man trying to return to his roots in Charlie Bubbles (1968). The last speaker of the panel, Cathy used the financial records, held at the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library to examine the later-life advertising career of Joan Crawford. Focusing on the 1973 advertisement for Eve of Roma Cosmetics, Cathy demonstrated how Crawford established a degree of control over her image which had been denied to her in her early career under a studio contract.

‘Archiving Press and Publicity’ panel: Linn Lönroth, Sarah Rahman Niazi, press book of Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) from Robert Shail’s paper, and Cathy Lomax (courtesy of Llewella Chapman).

With a focus on British stars, Andrew Spicer (UWE, Bristol), Llewella Chapman (University of East Anglia) and, James Chapman (University of Leicester) demonstrated how different archives can hold different types of information which can be used, in particular accessing financial records to examine the costs of stardom in the ‘(British) Stars in the Archives’ panel. While in the ‘Making Visible’ panel, Lies Lanckman (University of Hertfordshire), Ciara McKay (The University of Edinburgh) and Lisa Stead (University of Exeter) examined previously unexplored elements of a star’s life and/or star image were examined. After briefly describing the circuitous series of events which led her to learn Yiddish, Lies introduced us to the discussions of Norma Shearer in the Yiddish-language American press. While the English-language press did showcase her marriage to Irving Thalberg, creating a star image based upon a happy wife and working mother, Lies had us thinking about the narratives which are neglected in mainstream medias, but which are there to be explored and examined in media of marginalised groups. This theme of re-examination and re-framing was sustained by Ciara and her analysis of Irene Dunne, using archival material from 1930 – 1935. Previously dismissed as “lady-like”, Dunne’s star image in fact encompasses modernity with the validation of working women and “companionate marriage” with her own bi-costal marriage and the suggestion that women “can have it all”. Following a last minute withdraw – and given the weather everyone was very surprised there were not more – Lisa stepped into the breach and took the opportunity to introduce us to the work she had been undertaking to interrogate Vivien Leigh’s connections with the South West of England. And there will be more about that subject in a little bit… For now, back to the conference.

‘Making Visible’ panel: Lies Lanckman and Ciara McKay (courtesy of Lisa Stead)

James Downs (University of Exeter), Melanie Williams (University of East Anglia) and Pamela Hutchinson showed how both too little, or too much can create issues for a researcher in the ‘Gaps, Challenges and New Archival Methodologies’ panel. After spending time at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum in Exeter, James was inspired to research Anton Walbrook, no small task given this very mysterious man left behind no official archive and, indeed, very little paper trail at all. But James persevered and, after building his own archive, will be releasing his biography very soon. Melanie, on the other hand, had the opposite problem of so much information relating to Diana Dors. With a long and varied career – film star, chat show host/guest, memoirist, columnist, commentator, pin-up, recording artist, sitcom actress, variety/cabaret act, celebrity slimmer – as well as her personal life, it is more a question of having to be very focused. Pamela then took us on a tour of star graves and memorials opening our academic minds up to an archive beyond those made up of paper and photographs. Many in the audience were worried that this might have been a morbid and upsetting topic, whereas it was very thought provoking, with many of us considering a star’s posthumous image, few of us include that of their final material legacy, their memorials and final resting places. While in the other panel, ‘Image and Persona through the Archive’, Claire Smith and Wendy Russell (British Film Institute), Polly Rose (University of Bristol) and, Laura Milburn (University of Birmingham) presented on how a star’s image and persona can be examined through their archive.

‘Gaps, Challenges and New Archival Methodologies’ panel: James Downs, Melanie Williams and Pamela Hutchinson (courtesy of Lisa Stead)

The final two panels of the day focused on fandom in one room and Cary Grant on the other. Ellen Wright (De Montfort University) and Michael Williams (University of Southampton) both looked at fan magazines to explore the relationship between stars and their fans in the ‘Archives and Fandom’ panel. While Kathrina Glitre (UWE Bristol) discussed Cary Grant’s impact upon the production of Night and Day (1946) in the ‘Cary Grant and the Archive’ panel. With information from the daily production reports, written by the film’s production manager Eric Stacey, which are currently held at the Warner Bros. Archive at USC, Kathrina was able to pinpoint particular scenes where Grant had made a significant changes. By conducting a close analysis of this scene – the one where Cole Porter is trying to manipulate his new wife into giving up their honeymoon so he can go and work in New York – Kathrina was able to demonstrate how Grant’s attention to detail enhanced the performances in the scene. This was followed by Charlotte Crofts (UWE Bristol) who explained the curation of the Cary Comes Home Festival and his continuing impact upon the city of Bristol. She described how the festival uses locations around Bristol to stage a number of events, with previous ones being Bringing Up Baby (1938) being screened in the Natural History Museum and Notorious (1946) screened in a wine cellar along with wine tasting. Charlotte had everybody wishing they could attend both 2020 festivals, the one held in Bristol 20 – 22 November, and the one to be held in New York to mark the 100 year anniversary of Grant’s arrival in America.

‘Cary Grant and the Archive’ panel: Kathrina Glitre and Charlotte Crofts (courtesy of Lisa Stead and @ReframingVL)

The two panels held on the morning of Day 2 were ‘Regional Stars, Regional Archives’ with Yektanursin Duyan (Mardin Artuklu University), Claire Mortimer (University of East Anglia) and, Caroline Lankhorst (De Montfort University) who all presented on how a star is shaped by their national and regional identity and, at the same time, ‘Vivien Leigh and the Archive’ with Denise Mok (University of Toronto), Georgia Brown (Queen Mary, University of London) and, Vicky Haddock (Zenzie Tinker Conservation/RAMM) each explored different ways of examining the star image of Vivien Leigh. Visiting us all the way from Toronto, Denise explored the images held in the Edith Nadajewski Scrapbook Collection. A life-long film fan, Edith collected a vast collection of star images and curated her own archive of scrapbooks, each dedicated to a different star. Using the appointment diaries, held within the Vivien Leigh Archive at the V&A Museum, I provided insight into the day to day arrangements of a working actress, and demonstrated just how much effort Leigh expended on preparations for her performances and on her own image. The final paper of the panel was given by Vicky were she explored the impact that Leigh and the characters she performed, had on the dressmaking patterns of the 1930s and 1940s. These three papers demonstrated the labour that Leigh herself put into how she looked and just how much effort fans went to emulate her.

‘Vivien Leigh and the Archive’ panel: Denise Mok, Georgia Brown and Vicky Haddock (courtesy of Llewella Chapman)

Braving the weather, many conference attendees stayed in the afternoon for the Reframing Vivien Leigh exhibition, which showcased the research findings of a 20-month project lead by Lisa Stead (University of Exeter) and the project’s research assistant Becky Rae (University of Exeter), and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project was run in partnership with the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM), Topsham Museum and the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. Lisa led a round table with Rachel Nichols (Topsham Museum), Shelley Tobin (RAMM), Phil Wickham (Bill Douglas Cinema Museum), Keith Lodwick (V&A Museum) and Kendra Bean (Vivien Leigh biographer) as they discussed Vivien Leigh and her connection to the South West. In particular, Shelley and Rachel spoke about the Vivien Leigh items held in their collections. These included dresses designed by Victor Stiebel and by Harald, which had been donated by Suzanne Farrington, Leigh’s daughter, after her mother’s death. She chose to send them to her aunt, Dorothy Holman who established the Topsham Museum and who had a curatorial relationship with Freda Wills at RAMM.

Curators roundtable and Q&A: Shelley Tobin, Rachel Nichols, Phil Wickham, Keith Lodwick and Kendra Bean (courtesy of Lisa Stead)

The highlight was the discussion of the nightdress from Gone With the Wind (1939), which Leigh was given as a gift from producer David O’Selznick. However, we were told that her husband was disappointed that she chose this item, as he would have preferred the Burgundy Ballgown. This lead to much speculation as to why she chose the nightdress, with the practical ones amongst us stating that, with a war on, she would have gotten more use out of a nightdress, not to mention it would be easier to transport back. Indeed, it was so easy to pack that it spent some of its existence stored in a plastic Sainsburys bag. But worry not, this dress is now being properly looked after in the museum archive, to the extent that they had brought a replica with them for display at the exhibition.

Replica of Vivien Leigh’s nightdress from Gone with the Wind (1939) (courtesy of Llewella Chapman)

The exhibition had some other wonderful items on display, including the painting which Leigh herself painted, and which was bought at the recent Sotheby’s auction. We were also able to explore the outputs of Lisa’s research project. These included, getting up close and personal with the 3D models of the clothes held by Topsham Museum and RAMM, travelling with Leigh using the digital map and listening to the 3 episode podcast. All of these outputs can be found on the Reframing Vivien Leigh website (http://reframingvivienleigh.exeter.ac.uk)

Reframing Vivien Leigh exhibition (courtesy of Lisa Stead)

It was an inspiring weekend, which generated many exciting conversations, and I would like to extend my thanks and congratulations to Lisa Stead and Becky Rae for organising both the conference and the exhibition. And I must not forget the conference dinner, where the allocated tables encouraged more conversations with new people. Future conferences will have a lot to live up to.

Georgia Brown is a PhD researcher in the department of Film Studies at Queen Mary, University of London. Her research studies the prosodic prominence and overall rhythms in each of Vivien Leigh’s onscreen performances, by analysing the suprasegmental characteristics of accented words and the associated changes in the fundamental frequency (F0). This study will develop an understanding of how Leigh’s voice was impacted by ageing and illness and how this has affected her star image. Georgia has presented her research at the University of Lincoln as part of the Extra Sonic Practice series, at the BAFTSS ‘Stardom and Performance’ Symposium and at the ‘Stardom and the Archive’ Symposium at University of Exeter. Her next paper will be at BAFTSS 2020 in St Andrews.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

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