by Kristen Dunn
In the 1920s Americans experienced social and economical changes that led to the development of a consumerist society. For the first time in America’s history, the country was largely an urban nation. Urbanization meant that Americans could no longer provide for themselves by working the land, instead turning to stores in their new city homes. Leisure time also emerged during this era of rapid urbanization. Working only during weekdays, urbanites needed to occupy their time outside of the office. Movie production companies capitalized on America’s need to entertain itself and grew in popularity during the era. Turning out stars such as Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino, movies became a staple in American culture by advertising these masculine actors. Production companies turned actors like Valentino and Fairbanks into products—celebrities—marketed to women for the purposes of selling movies. Women would consume these movies because the production companies told them to do so through advertisements. These women believed they could choose between which version of masculinity they preferred, but their choice was a false one—it did not matter which man they chose: only that they consumed the movie.
Marketing celebrities such as Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino involved film production companies creating a distinct image and personality for each man. The ability to sell films defined the film industry’s success, and its ability to sell movies was tied to the visibility of their players. In his book Dangerous Men, Mick Lasalle writes, “In this world, personality became central to success” (3). To ensure the success of the actor’s personality, leading cinema expert Lucy Fischer explains that production companies “could change their [actors’] names, arrange for them to undergo plastic surgery, tell them whom to date, decide what screen roles they would play, and launch publicity campaigns to control their image” (8). Movie companies spared no effort in making the actors ready for the publicity they would (hopefully) face. Publicity meant that consumers saw the celebrities and would consume their movies.
One such celebrity, Rudolph Valentino, who starred in the film The Sheik (1921), had dancing experience, handsome features, and an alluring Italian heritage that helped his production company create a successful marketable celebrity. Valentino’s celebrity embraced a new, changing view of masculinity. The film industry portrayed this less masculine actor as almost feminine. Prominent professor of film studies Gaylyn Studlar asserts that “Valentino’s emergence as an idol seemed to be the result of women’s perverse search for a new model of masculinity with an erotic promise that made him much more dangerous than the physically passive mollycoddle or effeminate sissy boy” (151). Although effeminate, Valentino captured the hearts of American women with one smoldering glance. In the film The Sheik, the actor is robed in sumptuous fabrics and has a soft, yet handsome, face. Turning on the charm, he seduces his on screen love interest by staring at her menacingly with wide eyes and the women in the theatre fall for, what film professor Mark Lynn Anderson describes as the “Valentino mystique […] the star as both sexual menace and object of erotic contemplation” (qtd. in Fischer 66). Production companies understand this seeming paradox in Valentino’s character and capitalized on it by featuring the actor in movies that would play up his primitive, vamp like qualities (Lasalle 7). Seeking to consume a feminized portrayal of masculinity, women would pay to see Valentino seduce his on-screen love interests and hope to learn more about their own sexuality.
Conversely, the film industry marketed Douglas Fairbanks’ boyish charm and chiseled physique, paired with a winning smile. Unlike Valentino, the film industry portrayed Fairbanks as a tough, free-spirited celebrity, an image more easily reconciled with traditional male roles. Starring in high action films such as The Thief of Bagdad (1924), Fairbanks drew women to the theatres in droves to see his toned torso. Production companies understood that women wanted to gaze at his sculpted body, and would costume him in skin baring outfits to please the women’s fancy. In a review of the film The Thief of Bagdad, the author notes how Fairbanks’ low-rise pants and lack of shirt highlight his muscles and allow him to move freely on the set (“The Screen”). In this film, he takes full advantage of his athleticism, performing a long series of athletic tasks to prove himself a worthy prince. In doing this, “Fairbanks was a delight, and he remains delightful, an appealing figure of fantasy” (Lasalle 6). The film industry convinced women they needed an athletic version of masculinity in their lives, implying Fairbanks—“the figure of fantasy”—was one alternative women wanted.
Fairbanks and Valentino starred in movies that showcased their physical characteristics. The marketing of these movies capitalized on the image of each man’s celebrity and relied on the idea that women were conditioned consumers. Film companies featured the allure of the “Valentino mystique” in all Valentino’s films. The effeminate actor kept women coming to the theatres in flocks. Lasalle explains that women may have seen that “[t]he sexy moments in The Sheik (1921) […] weren’t romantic in the traditional sense, but tense with the threat of rape” (7). Intrigued by the danger of what could happen and Ahmed Ben Hassan’s unpredictable actions, women escaped from the reality of their lives and entered the world of Valentino—a mysterious world with threats of violence that may have been tempered by the actor’s effeminate personality.
Unlike Valentino, movies that featured Douglas Fairbanks showcased his impressive athletic abilities made possible by his toned physique. Attracted to the advertising of his playful attitude and winning smile, women came to view Fairbanks’ movies, such as The Thief of Bagdad. In this film, the celebrity stretches his athleticism in all directions, climbing up a rope using only his upper arm strength, swimming to the seafloor, and travelling across the desert in harsh weather conditions. His athleticism alone would leave any woman impressed, but the lowly thief that Fairbanks portrays tests his physical strength to prune himself for the princess, the woman he tries to impress. He does all of this while wearing a winning smile that would melt his woman’s heart. Women conditioned as consumers came to understand that they desired Fairbanks’ youthful masculinity.
The film industry targeted women with their celebrity advertisements. Film companies understood that women were the most powerful consumers because they were the most susceptible to advertising. According to the UN Platform for Action Committee (“Women and the Economy”), women’s instinctual role as nurturers and caregivers leads them out to the stores to consume goods for their families, and themselves. The UNPAC also asserts that women watch for advertisements for sales, coupons, or comparisons of different consumer goods that all perform the same function. To film companies, this meant that women actively searched for differences in the products—actors—movie companies developed. Women desired a choice between different masculinities in the movies they consumed. Production companies provided women with a choice. Presenting different masculinity models, the industry let women believe the choice they made was important. The women’s discernment, though, did not matter to the companies churning out movies. It did not matter if women chose to consume Valentino’s movies or Fairbanks’ movies, only that they consumed the movies. By deluding women into believing their choice in consumption mattered, that the choice they made helped them understand themselves, production companies benefited greatly.
The marketing of celebrities, such as Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks, as a consumer product had America’s women flocking to the theatres to purchase a look at these men. Production companies recognized a woman’s need to choose a form of masculinity that best suited her preferences. Women believed that the form of masculinity they chose taught them something about their own sexuality—what it meant to be a woman in relation to a man. The women could chose between the buff Douglas Fairbanks and the effeminate Rudolph Valentino, but their choice ultimately was a false one. The choice they made did not matter; production companies still earned profits from women consuming any image of masculinity.
Fischer, Lucy J., ed. American Cinema of the 1920s: Themes and Variations. Piscataway: Rutgers UP, 2009. Print.
LaSalle, Mick. Dangerous Men: Pre-code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man. New York, NY: Thomas Dunne /St. Martin’s, 2002. Print.
“The Screen.” Rev. of The Thief of Bagdad. New York Times (1923-Current file) 19 Mar. 1924, ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851-2007), ProQuest. Web. 13 Nov. 2010.
The Sheik. Dir. George Melford. Prod. Jesse L. Lasky. Perf. Rudolph Valentino and Agnes Ayres. Paramount, 1921. Internet Archive. Web. 04 Nov. 2010.
Studlar, Gaylyn. This Mad Masquerade: Stardom and Masculinity in the Jazz Age. New York: Columbia UP, 1996. Print.
The Thief of Bagdad. Dir. Raoul Walsh. Screenplay by Achmed Abdullah. By Lotta Woods. Prod. Douglas Fairbanks. Perf. Douglas Fairbanks. 1924. Internet Archive. Web. 4 Nov. 2010.
“Women and The Economy—Women as Consumers.” Welcome to UNPAC – UN Platform for Action Committee Manitoba (UNPAC). Web. 07 Dec. 2010.