Significant historical changes in the status of movie stars have paralleled decisive technological, economic, and social changes that have affected the American film industry as a whole, such as the coming of sound, the Great Depression, and the rise and fall of movie attendance. The contractual terms and salaries for movie stars have also been affected by the same factors.
In the highly competitive and expanding market that existed between 1910 and 1920, the most popular silent-movie stars eventually obtained contractual terms that equalled and possibly exceeded their individual contributions to box-office success, and some of them also became involved in film production themselves, although the development of sound and its demand for experienced stage and radio performers ended the careers of many silent film stars.
Those working during the early 1930s, when movie attendance declined and industry power was concentrated in the hands of a few studios, were placed in a poor bargaining position, and studios began exercising near autocratic control over the star system.
The fashion image most associated with the 1930s – a decade of Depression, unemployment, fascism and the approach of war – is probably the glamorous Hollywood pale satin evening gown, a bias-cut creation slithering to the floor, lowbacked and clinging to the thighs. This ambiguous garment did not look very different from a nightdress, and managed to appear both sultry and languid – chic and upper-class in the pages of Vogue or trampishly sexual when worn by Jean Harlow.
The revolution wrought by sound had given rise to a new galaxy of stars and introduced new types of pictures. Many of the familiar figures of the movie world continued in the talkies their success in silent films; a few staged remarkable come-backs after a period of eclipse while they adapted themselves to an unfamiliar technique. Actors and actresses of the legitimate stage, who had often scorned the pantomime of the silent film, made their hopeful way to California in droves, and a good many of them remained. Singers and dancers, for whom the talkies represented an entirely new opportunity, were suddenly in great demand. In a whirl of expanding energy, Hollywood exploited all the means at its disposal to reach the still broader market for popular entertainment now opening up.
The slinky lines of the early thirties, and the return to a more waisted, full-skirted and puff-sleeved silhouette later in the decade both emanated from Paris, but it was their interpretation by Hollywood designers such as Adrian and Orry Kelly that ensured their rapid dissemination to a much wider audience. Glamor lingerie, one of the consumer items popularized by the movies in the 1920s, began to be mass produced after the development of synthetic fabrics, notably nylon which was discovered in 1935.
The diversity of pictures that sound made possible was the most characteristic feature of the movies in the 1930’s. They were filling the democratic role that the theatre itself had played a century earlier, and nightly programs often showed a startling resemblance to those of the popular playhouses of that earlier day. As well as straight theatre, the movies offered a modern equivalent for the equestrian melodramas, elaborate burlesques, and variety shows which had once had such wide appeal.
At firstrun houses there might be seen in quick succession a classical play filmed with all the artistry the producers now commanded, an extravagant girl-and-music show, a detective thriller, a bloodand-thunder western melodrama, a sophisticated comedy, and a slap-stick farce. A single show, again like those of mid-century, invariably included one of these main features; one or more specialities, which might well be a singing or dancing act (the news reel was an innovation for which the theatre had had no parallel); and a comedy short, which took the place of the nineteenth-century afterpiece.
The feature films derived from plays of the legitimate stage ranged from Camille to Petticoat Fever, from Pygmalion to Idiot’s Delight. Historical romances were elaborately produced: Disraeli was a favorite picture one year, and in another Cimarron, a story of Oklahoma pioneering. Gone With the Wind was a sensation at the close of 1939. Well-known classics were adapted to the screen, with such notable successes as Captains Courageous and David Copperfield. New possibilities opened up with animated cartoons. The “Silly Symphonies” had a great success, and one of the most popular pictures in 1937-38 was the cartoon fairy-tale (photographed in color) of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Since the 19th century there had been attempts to manufacture an artificial substitute for silk, the most luxurious fashion fabric. By 1930, rayon was made from pulped wood cellulose; nylon and other synthetics were later developed from chemical products and by 1938 ten percent of apparel fibers in Britain were synthetic. The rich and elegant still wore underwear of real silk, but the availability of artificial substitutes meant that ordinary women could also aspire to a more glamorously attired sexuality and a greater sophistication.
Although sections of the clothing industry remained based in small craft tailoring shops and in the sweatshops of centers such as the Lower East Side in New York City and London’s East End there were also major innovations in the mass production of clothes, which further broke down distinctions between skilled tailors, semiskilled workers in tailoring shops and factory workers and outworkers. Conveyor-belt production was introduced, and the more precise sizing of mass-produced clothes developed.
This last was a contradictory development, far the intention was to individualize garments, yet individuals were sorted into groups according to their measurements. it eould be seen equally as an index of the expanding possibilities for the expression of a customer’s unique personality and as part of the increasing conformity of modem mass society.
Department stores, where clothes eould still be altered to fit or were even custom-made, remained the mecca of middle-class customers. The appearance of firms aiming to sell to this market to men as well as women – was a further development of mass production. Menswear firms with their own factories were able to transIate personal measurements into factory-made elothes, while for women “wholesale” ar “middle-class couture” firms designed distinctive house styles and took pride in the elegance of their creations. This was the era when it was distinctly possible but sartorialiy disastrous – far two identically dressed women to come face to face at a social function.
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