The Star Machine

Today, I'm writing about how the old Hollywood studios created  movie stars. The photo above shows MGM chief Louis B. Mayer proudly posing with his stable of stars in 1943.

This article is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings, and Once Upon a Screen.

In mid-20th century America, Detroit manufactured cars, Pittsburgh produced steel, and Hollywood created movie stars. While the movie-making process wasn't as cut and dried as manufacturing a Ford Edsel or building a skyscraper, the old Hollywood studios were businesses that needed to turn a profit in order to survive. From roughly 1920 to 1970, these studios flourished by creating an assembly line model for film making that churned out approximately 400 films per year that ranged from B movie cheapies to prestigious costume dramas and everything in between.

The life blood of these movie assembly lines were stars. Of course, there were several components that went into making a successful film from the costumes -- designer Adrian was largely responsible for the glamorous aura of MGM -- to the director -- Michael Curtiz's urgent, fast-paced films were a hallmark of the Warner Bros. style -- but the two most powerful entities on old Hollywood lots were the producers, who, for the most part, came up with the ideas for the films and hired the cast and crew, and the stars who were the very public face of the glamour and adventure that the studios were selling to the masses.

Barbara Stanwyck covers Photoplay.
In order to churn out a steady stream of hits, the studios needed an endless parade of stars to fill their movies, just like car manufacturers needed rivets and bolts and steel mills needed iron ore. The industry naturally favored youth and beauty in its movie stars, but there wasn't any fixed formula in who could become a movie star. Audiences certainly swooned over the dashing good looks of Errol Flynn or the other-worldly beauty of Hedy Lamarr, but they also plunked down their hard-earned cash to watch long-in-the-tooth stars like Marie Dressler, Clifton Webb, and W.C. Fields.

While movie stardom was sold to the public through fan magazines as the most glamorous profession in the world, it was basically a very cosseted form of indentured servitude. Most stars signed seven-year contracts with the studios, and in exchange for a hefty salary, a bespoke wardrobe, and luxurious living accommodations, the stars toiled long hours under the hot studio lights, put up with endless nitpicking about their physical appearance, and endured significant studio interference in their personal lives (MGM chief Louis B. Mayer brought back the arranged marriage with disastrous unions between Mickey Rooney and Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor and hotel heir Nicky Hilton).

Joan Crawford hawks Lustre-Creme Shampoo in the 1955 fan magazines.
Some stars thrived in the studio system. Clark Gable, a self-professed "lucky slob from Ohio" happily spent his entire professional career in the studio system. Others were more indifferent. Laurence Olivier carved out a successful career as a leading man in the early 1940's, but he chose to return to the theater and British films after World War II. Greta Garbo is probably the most famous actress to leave the studio system behind, but she wasn't the only one. Norma Shearer, Irene Dunne, and Deanna Durbin all left Hollywood for an off-camera life. 

Others stars weren't so lucky. Judy Garland, who was perhaps the most talented star to come out of old Hollywood, was virtually destroyed by the studio system that made her a legend, while actors like Tyrone Power, Montgomery Clift, and Errol Flynn struggled after they lost their youth and dashing good looks. Mickey Rooney, who was the No. 1 box-office star when he was a teenager, endured a decades long twilight of thankless roles, money problems, and "hey, didn't he used to be" remarks.

Ginger Rogers in 1941. From Photoplay.
The studios were certainly in the business of creating stars, but there wasn't any set formula on how to do this. Some stars emerged gradually. Betty Grable toiled in Hollywood for several years before Down Argentine Way (1940) made her a star, while Audrey Hepburn became an instant star and Academy Award winner in her first Hollywood film, Roman Holiday (1953). However, there were a few patterns that emerged in the star-making process.

First, the star had to have the right name. Those stars lucky enough to have elegant and easily pronounceable names like James Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, and Lucille Ball, got a pass, but if actors arrived at the studio with unappealing, hard to pronounce, or overly ethnic monikers, they were soon rechristened. Thus, Lucille LeSueur became Joan Crawford, Archie Leach became Cary Grant, and Marion Morrison became John Wayne.

Lucille Ball in 1943. From Photoplay.
Second, the star had to have a camera ready appearance. Audiences, especially pre-code moviegoers, embraced stars of all ages and sizes, but looks played a large part in the making of a movie star. That's why Gary Cooper quickly moved from stunt rider to leading man, and why stars like Hedy Lamarr and Gene Tierney, despite sometimes shaky acting, survived and thrived in the studio system. 

Most actors endured some minor tweaking of their looks before they became stars, but others required extensive makeovers. Rita Hayworth's bombshell look that made her an icon in movies like Gilda (1946) was the result of hair lightening, electrolysis to raise her hairline, and posture lessons. Marlene Dietrich's German films show a charismatic, but average looking actress, but when she arrived in Hollywood, Dietrich became an international glamour icon thanks to expert lighting, a disciplined diet, and the ministrations of Paramount Pictures costume and makeup departments (Dietrich is a walking advertisement for the benefits of eyebrow plucking).

Finally, the studios relied on fan magazines to promote their stars to the general public. The magazines, including Photoplay, Modern Screen, and Screenland, provided a mixture of gossip, movie reviews, fashion tips, and glossy photography for their mostly female readers. Some stars didn't need to court the fan magazines -- stars who had a reputation as serious actors a la Fredric March or Spencer Tracy could get away with only doing the occasional interview -- but most female stars and the handsome matinee idols were the staples of the fan magazines. 

No one courted the fan magazines quite as assiduously as Joan Crawford. Crawford, who probably worked harder at being a movie star than anyone else, posed for endless photographs, offered her home for interior decorating features, gave tips on makeup and fashion, and offered up intimate exclusives about her love life to the magazine's breathless writers (whoever happened to be Mr. Crawford at the time also got a lot of play in the fan magazines). Even in the 1950's and 1960's, when fan magazines had mostly moved on to bright young things like Tab Hunter, Natalie Wood, and Debbie Reynolds, Crawford still shows up plugging products and answering questionnaires as the last of the old Hollywood glamour queens.

If you want to read more about the old Hollywood studio system, check out Jeanine Basinger's book, The Star Machine. You can also visit the Media History Digital Library, which has a complete collection of fan magazines.


  1. There is also an element of kismet to the making of a star. Some were given all the gifts and backing of the studio, yet even if talented and good looking, never made the grade with audiences. Marsha Hunt had more versatility than many of her MGM compatriots and, although she worked, she was never a "star".

    1. Marsha Hunt reminds me of Nancy Reagan. Both were talented and pretty, but they did not have the "it" factor that made them into stars.

  2. Excellent analysis of the star machine! I don't know how celebrities – then and now – deal with the constant pressure to be young and thin and have your looks & career scrutinized at every turn. I couldn't take it.

    Thanks for joining the Classic Movie History Project with this well-researched look at how to make a movie star.

    1. I think the scrutiny was why a lot of female stars just quit like Garbo and Shearer and Janet Gaynor.

  3. Great post! Very informative. I can tell I'm going to spend a lot of time looking at those old fan magazines ;)

    1. They are fun to look at. I like the inside the stars' homes stories.

  4. Hi Amanda. That was a nice examination of the star system. "In mid-20th century America, Detroit manufactured cars, Pittsburgh produced steel, and Hollywood created movie stars." -- and an excellent comparison with other manufacturing industries.

  5. Amanda, Nice article. I would like to respectfully disagree with you however, when you say that Tyrone Power... struggled once he lost his looks. If you look at his filmography for the 12 years from the time he returned from WWII service in 1946 to his untimely death in 1958 he starred --took the lead--in about 19 films. He also starred in 6 plays including the innovative theater presentation of John Brown's Body directed by Charles Laughton and produced by Paul Gregory. ( A recording of that production was elected for preservation in the Library of Congress along with 24 other sound recordings for 2014) Power was proud of his family's theatrical heritage, enjoyed live stage work and looked forward to being released from his movie contract with 20th Century Fox so that he could take on more varied and challenging roles. He also starred in Freedom USA, a half hour weekly radio program aired mostly in 1952 for the Ziv company, among other more routine radio productions that many stars participated in. Power was working at the end of his too short life with John Ford, Billy Wilder, George Stevens and King Vidor. There were probably lots of other actors who really were struggling who would have given their eye teeth to be involved in these projects. My reading of his published letters and the movie and theater reviews and interviews published at the time, that are available at fan sites and and in books by Mai Zetterling, Bob Buck and others who knew him personally, attest to the degree of popularity in which he was regarded throughout the world to his last days. I have no particular knowledge of Errol Flynn or Montgomery Clift's last days so cannot speak to the veracity of the same statement as applied to them. It is worth looking over some of the material about Power. I believe he struggled within the Star Machine and blossomed artistically once he was free from the system. Good to read all the entries in the CMBA Movie History Blogathon. Diane G.

  6. Great post! The star system was the first thing I've ever heard about Clssic Hollywood, even before I started watching old movies. It was at the same time interesting and perverse to some actors. And fan/gossip magazines are a whole new world I'm only now discovering!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)


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