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Promotion at the Production Level

stars publicity hollywood magazines

Nothing was too private if it interested the public, nothing was too trite if it got copy, and nothing was too exaggerated if it sold a ticket. It was this kind of material that freely found its way into any newspaper, magazine, or radio station in the country. Good, bad, or ridiculous, someone would be willing to read it, enter it, or buy it. No single audience was ever exposed to all the promotional material created for a motion picture. Publicity announcing a premiere drew an exclusive opening-night crowd. Previews of coming attractions whetted the appetites of loyal fans. Magazine articles, Sunday features, and news items stoked the interest of casual moviegoers. And, of course, movie ads in the local newspaper kept audiences in touch with the current fare. These were the common, expected ways to present the latest Hollywood feature to the audience   and together with publicity stunts, trivia contests, merchandising tie-ins, and the like, they constituted motion-picture promotion.

The publicity department of a major studio was organized like the city room of a newspaper. Publicity directors such as Howard Strickling at MGM, Edward Selzer at Warner’s, Tom Bailey at Paramount, Harry Brand at 20th Century-Fox, and Russell Birdwell at Selznick-International functioned as editors who assigned stories and reviewed finished copy before it was released. They also personally handled front-office news concerning such matters as the hiring and firing of key studio personnel, the acquiring of important properties, and the financial affairs of the company. A suicide, a messy divorce, or a scandal turned their job into public relations with the goal of protecting the image of the studio or of salvaging the reputation of a star.

Working under the publicity director were the unit reporters, who covered the big pictures, and publicists, who were assigned to individual stars. Unit reporters were almost always former newspapermen and rarely earned more than $150 a week for the usual six-day week they put in. A unit reporter prepared a synopsis of the plot and special-interest stories about the production and its stars for use by newspapers. A publicist’s job was to handle the public relations of a top star and sometimes even his or her private financial affairs.

To satisfy the huge demand for information about stars, other sections of the publicity department supplied fashion layouts for fan magazines and planted tidbits with gossip columnists Louella Parsons, Sheilah Graham, and Hedda Hopper, among others. Gossip columnists typically commented on affairs of the heart. They seldom dug up information on their own but relied on news from the studios. Studios and stars were happy to cooperate since even unfavorable publicity in a gossip column kept the name of a star in print and the myth of Hollywood alive.

The still-photography department supplied the iconography for promotion. Photographs were the physical artifacts of the motion-picture experience. During each major production, a still photographer took stills of every key scene to be used for lobby displays, advertising, and poster layouts. To service pulp magazines and newspapers, the studio needed high-contrast photos in shallow focus.

For fan magazines and glossy publications, the studio needed higher-quality photos, which were the special province of glamour portrait photographers. These photographers had the task of capturing in a single image the screen persona of a star. As John Kobal put it, “they had nothing to do with making movies, but everything to do with the selling of the dream that movies meant.” The most skilled of these portrait photographers—Clarence Bull at MGM, George Hurrell at Warner Bros., Ernest Bachrach at RKO, and Eugene Robert Richee at Paramount—experimented with “backgrounds, shapes, textures, lighting, and produced a unique genre which not only served a specific function, but—unlike many of the films of the period—survives as an art form.” 60 All photos were taken by an eight-by-ten-inch large-format camera. After a negative was processed, artisans retouched it to eliminate excessive weight around the waist, hips, throat, and shoulders by scraping the negative and stippling it (adding new dot patterns to the negative). They also removed lines and skin flaws from the face. After all physical imperfections were removed, the negative was airbrushed to give the face an alabaster appearance on the prints.

Glamour portraits served many purposes, but the main one was satisfying the needs of fans. Margaret Thorp observed the scene and said,

Fan mail comes into Hollywood’s studios daily by the truck load. Special clerks are needed to sort it on each lot. A conservative estimate puts the letters addressed to players at a quarter of a million a month. A top star expects about three thousand a week…. The bulk of the mail, at least 75 per cent, is made up of requests for photographs or for some personal souvenir. ( America at the Movies [New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1939], p. 96)

Fan magazines were the most voracious consumers of publicity. Photoplay, Modern Screen, Silver Screen, and other such magazines had monthly circulations of nearly a half million each. Each magazine usually contained at least one signature of photos that were specially printed on gravure presses to ensure high-quality reproduction. Fans wanted color photos that were clear and suitable for framing on a bedroom wall or pasting in a scrapbook, and were willing to pay extra for such magazines.

Stories in fan magazines dealt with romance, marriage, children, divorce, and death. Adult stars such as Greta Garbo, Carole Lombard, and Errol Flynn made the best copy, along with such child stars as Shirley Temple, Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, and Mickey Rooney. “Every aspect of life, trivial and important,” said Thorp, was “bathed in the purple glow of luxury.” The magazines revealed that Bing Crosby bred racehorses, that Shirley Temple had 250 dolls, and that Joan Crawford had a famous collection of sapphires and diamonds. Clothes were “endlessly pictured and described, usually with marble fountains, private swimming pools, or limousines in the background.” Regardless of the luxury depicted, one purpose of these articles was to bring the image of the star down to earth: “She takes care today to make it known that she is really a person of simple wholesome tastes, submitting to elegance as part of her job but escaping from it as often as possible. It soothes the fans to believe that luxury is fundamentally a burden.”

Hollywood’s publicity machinery was thus designed to mesh comfortably with merchandising tie-ins. If advertising attempted to associate consumer products with romance, marriage, and sexual fulfillment, it found a handmaiden in the movies. Ranked second only to food products in the amount spent on advertising, the cosmetics industry signed stars to appear in literally hundreds of thousands of ads—"ads which dutifully mentioned the star’s current film"—making cosmetics synonymous with Hollywood. 62 Stars also dutifully provided testimonials for ads hawking soap, deodorants, toothpastes, lotions, hair preparations, and other toiletries.

Fashion specialists tried to popularize the latest creations to come out of Hollywood’s costume design shops. “Vogue printed Adrian’s sketches for Camille (1936) and Marie Antoinette (1938). Luise Rainer primped for photos in a room full of spectacularly plumed hats from The Great Ziegfeld (1936). Marlene Dietrich appeared in layouts in splended Russian sables and brocades designed by Travis Banton for The Scarlet Empress (1934).” Gimmicks such as these were supposed to generate commercial spin-offs. For example, Adrian’s “little velvet hat, trimmed with ostrich feathers,” which Garbo wore “tilted becomingly over Page 171  one eye,” created a vogue for the Empress Eugénie hat. “Universally copied in a wide price range, it influenced how women wore their hats for the rest of the decade,” said Edward Maeder. Walter Plunkett’s wardrobe for GONE WITH THE WIND “produced a merchandising blitz unequaled in the history of period film publicity tie-ins. Brassieres and corsets, dress patterns, hats and veils, snoods, scarves, jewelry, even wrist watches, were marketed as ‘inspired’ by the film.” 63 No dress in the 1930s was as copied as the Scarlett O’Hara’s barbecue dress.

The power of the movies to popularize fashion styles was harnessed by Bernard Waldman and his Modern Merchandising Bureau. According to Charles Eckert, he played the role of fashion middleman for most of the major studios:

By the mid-1930s Waldman’s system generally operated as follows: sketches and/or photographs of styles to be worn by specific actresses in specific films were sent from the studios to the bureau (often a year in advance of the film’s release). The staff first evaluated these styles and calculated new trends. They then contracted with manufacturers to have the styles produced in time for the film’s release. They next secured advertising photos and other materials which would be sent to retail shops. This ad material mentioned the film, stars, and studio as well as the theaters where the film would appear. (“The Carole Lombard in Macy’s Window,” p. 8)

Waldman branched out by franchising a business called Cinema Fashions Shops. By 1937, more than four hundred official Cinema Fashion Shops were in operation (only one was permitted in each city) and an additional fourteen hundred stores were handling a portion of the star-endorsed style lines. As a result of Waldman’s merchandising efforts and the studios’ willingness to publicize costume designs, the names of the leading studio designers, notably Adrian of MGM, Orry-Kelly of Warners, Edith Head of Paramount, and Walter Plunkett of Selznick, became as familiar to shoppers as the stars themselves.

Hollywood added a new dimension to its advertising efforts during the thirties by taking full advantage of radio. If Hollywood wanted to exploit radio stars in the movies, radio also wanted to exploit movie stars for its own purposes. By the mid thirties the two industries had developed a symbiotic relationship. The radio audience had an “insatiable interest in the stars, scripts, and formulas developed by the movies,” said Michele Hilmes, but the two networks could not effectively exploit this interest until 1935, when AT&T removed the double transmission rates, which required networks to pay for the transmission of a broadcast both to and from New York. When AT&T dropped the rates, NBC and CBS built new studios in Los Angeles and “produced a veritable deluge of programming.”

Hollywood talent and source material was used in four types of programming. Musical variety shows such as Maxwell House Coffee’s “Show Boat,” “The Rudy Vallee Show,” and “Kraft Music Hall” combined big names, lesser stars, and regular performers in a mix of music, comedy, dialogue, and vignettes. Dramatic series such as Campana Balm’s “First Nighter” and DuPont’s “The Calvacade of America” showcased top dramatic stars. “Cavalcade of America,” which presented historical dramatizations, “built up a reputation for thorough and accurate research as well as dramatic appeal,” said Hilmes and “attracted stage and screen actors who had formerly remained aloof.” Among the stars who   portrayed historical figures on the program were Clark Gable, Raymond Massey, Charles Laughton, Lionel Barrymore, Dick Powell, Tyrone Power, and Edward G. Robinson. Hollywood gossip columns hosted by Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, Walter Winchell, and others found an eager listening audience for their tales of Hollywood life. From the studio’s perspective, radio gossip and talk shows were found to be as effective as promotion in the print media.

The movie adaptation was particularly effective as a publicity device. The “Lux Radio Theater,” hosted by Cecil B. DeMille, represented “the culmination of its type” and remained one of the most popular shows on the air. The show was divided into three acts with breaks for commercial messages and interviews conducted by DeMille with that evening’s stars. Most adaptations were broadcast after the release of a film and served to boost theater attendance. Among the hit pictures adapted for the program were DARK VICTORY, with Bette Davis and Spencer Tracy; THE THIN MAN, with William Powell and Myrna Loy; and MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, with Gary Cooper.

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about 6 years ago

Just used this to help illustrate an entry at my classic Hollywood blog, "Carole & Co.", about two vintage Carole Lombard portraits currently being auctioned at eBay (http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/430619.html). Thanks for the help.