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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first movie fan magazine. When Motion Picture Story Magazine debuted in movie theater lobbies in 1911, it bore little resemblence to celebrity magazines today.

The magazines contained hardly any information about the individual “picture players” at first. Their main  purpose was to promote the new movie industry, not the people in them. In fact, the first movies didn’t even have credits. Instead, movie magazines provided summaries of the plots of the latest pictures to entice readers to buy tickets. If you bought one of these magazines, you would see very few pictures (except for some movie stills) and a lot of text. Very different from today!

Soon readers began asking about the players: were they married? What made their hair so pretty? Her skin so smooth? The magazines’ publishers caught on, and before long movie magazines included more and more information about performers. The magazines asked readers to write in and vote for their favorite players, who soon became mainstays in the magazines. The coverage in the 1910s was almost universally positive–mainly because the movie studios themselves underwrote the first magazines, and studio publicists also provided much of the material. “Gossip” items focused on the players’ hobbies, newest purchases or vacations, and of course news about their upcoming roles.

It’s tempting to think that there were no scandals, no troubling celebrity behavior back then. There certainly was…just not in the earliest movie magazines.

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