Hilary A. Hallett, Go West, Young Women! The Rise of Early Hollywood.
Over the past twenty years, feminist film historians have made a concerted effort to produce a body of work that chronicles the formidable achievements and challenges of women working in the silent film industries transnationally. Going far beyond a simple inclusion of the omitted, they have fundamentally challenged and restructured the theoretical and methodological paradigms of film history and theory. This rethinking has expanded our notions of authorship, broadened our objects of study and invited exploration of the affective relationships between scholars and their subjects. This groundswell of collaborative activity was marked in the mid-1990s by the founding of The Women's Film Preservation Fund (New York Women in Film and Television's unparalleled partnership with MOMA) and the international conference Women and the Silent Screen, first held in 1999. Feminist film historiography has had enormous impact, bringing the work of female film founders into wide circulation through highly visible channels (from the Turner Classic Movies series Women Film Pioneers (2000) to the groundbreaking recent retrospectives of filmmakers Alice Guy Blache at the Whitney Museum (2010) and Lois Weber at Il Cinema Ritrovato (Bologna, Italy, 2012). Jane Gaines, who spearheaded the much-anticipated Women Film Pioneers Project, a free online collection of essays and archival material launched in 2013, declares that the work of this collective movement 'create[s] a new realm of cinema history' (1). Following scholars such as Gaines, Miriam Hansen, and Shelley Stamp, a new generation is reimagining the contours of film history with recent volumes such as Amelie Hastie's Cupboards of Curiosity, Karen Ward Mahar's Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood, Jacqueline Najuma Stewart's Migrating to the Movies, and Mark Garrett Cooper's Universal Women, alongside critical anthologies edited by Jennifer Bean and Diane Negra, Vicki Callahan, and Antonia Lant. Hilary Hallett's new book, Go West, Young Women!, which explores the real and imagined migration of Anglo-Saxon women to early Hollywood, offers a rich and ambitious contribution to this growing body of innovative work.
Hallett's pioneer story par excellence presents both a cultural history of Los Angles and a welcome account of the roles women played in shaping the institution and imaginary of Hollywood. Contesting long dominant myths about the film industry's origins in the singular genius of white male figures from Thomas Edison to D. W. Griffith, Hallett reconceives the origins of American cinema by reading the transitional era of the 1910s as the culmination of a century of contested and changing racialized gender norms. Leaning on canonical cultural histories as well as feminist scholarship, she provides original archival research that demonstrates how the rise of early Hollywood emerged largely out of a circulation between female stars, writers, and audiences that tied the success of the fledgling movie industry to the success of women's emancipation. Between 1910 and 1913, the concept of feminism emerged as distinct from that of Woman Suffrage, emphasizing women's sexual rather than political rights. Hallett highlights the ways the newer, radical concept of feminism was also closely associated with movie stars, journalists, and filmmakers shaping the emerging star culture of early Hollywood. Women flocked to what Hallett describes as a Hollywood Bohemia, creating a public culture that challenged the era's normative gender and sexual roles. However, as the prewar 'romantic melodramas' and serialized narratives--which celebrated the adventures of strong-willed American girls--gave way to the post-war emphasis on 'Orientalized glamour' which foregrounded adult female sexual desires on screen, tides of backlash followed.
In a series of attentive readings, Hallett highlights both the overt racism and the implicit racialization of censorship and reform campaigns, including the 1912 Sims Act, Henry Ford's anti-semitic propaganda campaign, and the efforts of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as the General Federation of Women's Clubs. In Hallett's account, demands for reform and censorship in the American film industry converged around the nationwide response to 'the Fatty Arbuckle Scandal', which is often remembered as Hollywood's first sex scandal. Accounts vary to this day, but it is generally agreed upon that actress Virginia Rappe attended a hotel party hosted by star comedian Arbuckle, went into one of the suites with him, and was later found 'in great pain, tearing at her clothes' (22). She died several days later. After two deadlocked juries, Arbuckle was acquitted of any wrongdoing. Radically re-reading the Fatty Arbuckle-Virginia Rappe tragedy, putting Rappe rather than Arbuckle at the center, Hallett argues the scandal was the denouement of the era's larger racialized debate about gender and sexual roles. She provocatively concludes that the Arbuckle scandal marked a shift in Hollywood's relationship to feminism and women's sexuality that continues to resonate to the present day. Thus, she has proposed a new origin story for Hollywood, one with white women and the era's changing sexual politics at its very core.
In the first half of the book, Hallett contests frontier histories that have masculinized the west by re-examining the mass migration of young, white women to Hollywood. Hallett connects this exodus to the emancipated figure of 'The Actress' and the influence of what she calls 'women-made women' in early Hollywood. With an impressive breadth that weaves together an eclectic range of texts (from Theodore Roosevelt's Country Life Commission to Rupert Hughes' Souls for Sale) she argues that women such as Florence Lawrence, Pearl White, and Louella Parsons, among others, played an integral part in inventing HOLLYWOOD. This invention, Hallett argues, went hand-in-hand with the imaginary of women's emancipation in the 1910s, producing a type of popular feminism that provides continuity with today's Third Wave feminism. For some, Hallett's positioning of feminism will highlight how contentious the meaning and history of the term remains today.
Hallett very persuasively argues that the gendering of the emergent star system in early Hollywood grew out of the nineteenth century stage, presaging both modern gender roles and our own celebrity-seeking culture. Brilliantly culling from unexpected sources, such as Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, Hallett ties the rise of the female star to the emergence of female audiences and the feminization of American culture from the late 1830s onwards. In this genealogy of stardom, Hallett introduces the great dramatic actress of the stage, Charlotte Cushman, as Mary Pickford's most important foremother. She argues that the fan culture that supported Cushman's fame, particularly with her 'breeches roles', anticipates modern interpretations of sexual difference as performance rather than essence (29). Hallett triangulates between these new female audiences, Cushman, and the ascendency of female novelists and playwrights, effectively demonstrating how the growing importance of women as consumers and producers of popular culture created variations in the melodramatic form that shaped the motion pictures during the 1910s (40). In this adroit discussion, Hallett insists that the 'Pickford Revolution' was a century in the making; the emergence of the female film star is tied to the self-transformation promised by the melodramatic form that dominated the press, theatre, and popular fiction in the nineteenth century. Hallett thereby irrevocably demonstrates the gendered and formative imbrication of nineteenth century theatrical practice and the creation of early twentieth century Hollywood (29). That she builds this argument on the back of the legendarily queer Cushman's celebrity while focusing on a largely heterosexual imaginary leaves a host of compelling questions for other scholars to explore.
Hallett chases the evolving star culture and gender norms as they constitutively transform the early film industry through the celebrity journalism of Louella Parsons, among others, asserting these journalists 'retooled the frontier thesis that then commanded the country's view of its past to describe motion pictures as a gold rush business for ambitious, single, young white women on the make' (16). Looking closely at the star personas of Pickford, Florence Lawrence, and the serial queens Helen Holmes, Ruth Roland, and Pearl White, Hallett emphasizes the construction of these stars as specifically western heroines. She highlights the association between woman's emancipation and the west, especially the coincidence between California's 1911 legislation of woman suffrage, female jury duty, the 8-hour workday, and the relocation of many movie studios to Los Angeles. Indeed, throughout the book Hallett consistently returns to the ways that the myth of the Western Frontier was refashioned and tied to the lure of Hollywood with white women's emancipation at stake. Given the racialized centrality of her engagement with the frontier thesis and western migration, it is curious that she does not consider the forced western migration of indigenous people on the Trail of Tears; the ways indigenous stars themselves played a role in shaping early Hollywood. Most notably absent is therefore the star couple Red Wing and Young Deerand and the indigenous 'uprising' against the moving pictures that contested the very myth of the west these women-made women were leveraging ('Indians War on Films', Moving Picture World, March 18, 1911, 581). Indeed, the structuring absence of indigenous people in this quintessential pioneer story begs a critique of empire and a questioning of the racialization of the pioneer paradigm itself.
The second half of Go West, Young Women! gives a fascinating account of the postwar shifts in gender and industry norms. At this point, reformers' blame for the threatening new sexual discourses emerging with the cinema is redirected from the women-made women of early Hollywood to the increasingly racialized figures of 'foreign', Jewish, male producers. Hallett's reading argues that the 'Orientalized glamour' of Gloria Swanson, Elinor Glyn, and Rudolph Valentino created a space where women-made women could and did radically question traditional gender and sexual norms. In one of the most provocative (and perhaps problematic) sections of the book, Hallett argues for the positive aspects of Orientalized consumerism, giving a genealogy of glamour that she traces back to designer Elsie deWolfe. As Hallett explains, figures like deWolfe connect the transformative power of glamour with courage.
Singling out Sumiko Higashi, Hallett takes historians to task for their generally critical view of consumer culture, arguing that this view ignores stars, obscures understanding of women's role in creating our culture, and reduces the multiple idiosyncratic meanings that motivate behavior to 'one familiar meaning, the production of passive, narcissistic feminine subjects' (28, 118). Here, one wishes she had engaged further with de Beauvoir's treatment of 'The Actress' to include the author's discussion of the hidden traps of narcissism, which Hallett implicitly contests without explicitly engaging. Hallett propels her discussion of these new 'foreign' images of glamorous female desire into a nuanced reading of the virulently anti-semitic censorship campaigns waged against them by Henry Ford, the Ku Klux Klan, and the more genteel (but still problematic) discourses of the General Federation of Women's Clubs. Her discussion of the contradictory discourses in the General Federation of Women's Clubs is particularly finely drawn, critically considering the class and racial positions they embody while acknowledging their articulation of a modern analysis of sexual assault.
Hallett's book is a provocative and much needed addition to our evolving understanding of power, celebrity, and gender in early Hollywood. It will be of great interest to readers in star studies, cinema studies, American studies, women's studies as well as critical race studies. As a part of the larger movement in feminist film historical scholarship, Go West, Young Women! prompts us to look anew at old sources, questions, and paradigms with the promise not just of seeing different things, but of seeing differently altogether. It is a must read for those who wish to understand our shared nineteenth century theatrical legacy, the transitional and post-war years of film history, as well as the legacies of early film history today.
(1) Jane Gaines, 'Women and the Cinematification of the World', in Sofia Bull and Astrid Soderbergh Widding (eds), Not So Silent: Women in Cinema Before Sound (Stockholm: Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis, 2010).
University of California Santa Cruz
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|Publication:||Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2013|
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