Movie Crazy pp 35-57 | Cite as

The Cult of Personality

  • Samantha Barbas


By the end of the decade following 1910, the prestige, visibility, and influence of movie stars had significantly expanded in American society. No longer confined to the movie theater, stars were everywhere. Their faces adorned advertisements for cosmetics and clothing; their exploits filled newspapers and magazines; their names appeared regularly in everyday conversation. It was almost as if someone had forgotten to stop the film at the end of the show, as if actors had spilled off the movie screen into the realm of everyday life.


Motion Picture Film Industry Consumer Culture Movie Theater Film Actor 
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    “What Makes Them Stars?,” Photoplay, November 1923, 48; Joan Cross, “Name Her and Win $1,000,” Movie Weekly May 28, 1925,5. The marriage of personality and acting was not only limited to motion pictures. In the first quarter of the century, the stage was also swept by a craze for personality. Traditionally told to disguise their own qualities by immersing themselves in their roles, actors were now urged to infuse their personal charisma into each of the characters they played. By 1910, the trend had become so widespread that one critic lamented, “It is the personalities we go to see, not the actors and sometimes not the play.” Actress Ethel Barrymore, in particular, deplored the direction the theater had taken. Personality was useful, she explained in 1911, but could never substitute for experience and ability. “Many people on the stage have a great deal of personality but little talent, and they do not go far,” she claimed. Barrymore worked tirelessly to restore talent and training to the art of acting. But even she had to admit that audiences preferred personality to ability. In 1917, Film Fun wrote a scathing review of Barrymore’s first appearance in motion pictures. Why was her performance so dull and unimpressive? “Ethel Barrymore completely lacks screen personality,” the magazine explained. See Ethel Barrymore, “How Can I Be A Great Actress,” Ladies’ Home Journal, March 15, 1911, 6; Benjamin McArthur, Actors and American Culture, 1880–1920 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984), ch. 7; Film Fun, April 1917, 32.Google Scholar
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© Samantha Barbas 2001

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  • Samantha Barbas

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