"some magnetic quality which sets them apart" -- 3/8/19

Today's selection -- from Larger Than Life: Movie Stars of the 1950s by R. Barton Palmer. Jimmy Stewart, James Dean, and the thing that makes movie stars different:

"By Wednesday, 4 May 1955, when at 8:30 in the morning he left home to shoot The Man Who Knew Too Much for Alfred Hitchcock in Mar­rakech, James Stewart, by his wife's account the 'hardest-working actor in Hollywood' (Gloria McLean Stewart, 'I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy', Photoplay, February 1951, 99), was the sort of personality who merited gilded treatment from studios, associates, and colleagues, not to say fans. The Para­mount car, waiting outside his home at 918 North Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills,  had him at the airport in time for a 10:00 A.M. departure to Chicago, where for his three-day stay at the secluded and plush Ambassador East Hotel he would have a car constantly at his disposal. In New York, for two days afterward, the Stewarts would reside at the secluded and plush Pierre (in a suite they had occupied previously), leaving on the evening of 9 May, with a pair of berths reserved on a Pan American Stratocruiser bound for Paris (where a car would also be at his disposal). Two luxurious Parisian days would be spent at the secluded and plush Plaza Athenee, again with a car, before a departure by Air France from Orly to Casablanca on 12 May; and on Friday, 13 May, at 8:00 A.M. a car would fetch them and drive them to Marrakech, where they were booked at the secluded and plush Menara, a 'hotel for tourists of good taste,' .. as Stewart is informed in the movie itself, though not, in fact, the one his character has chosen. ...

"During ... one decade, he made twenty-five motion pictures, including, but not discussed here, Harvey (1950), The Jackpot (1950), No Highway in the Sky (1951), Car­bine Williams ( 1952), The Spirit of St. Louis ( 1957), Bell, Book and Candle ( 1958), and Anatomy of a Murder ( 1959). Healthy, optimistic, and energetic, he was surely in a position to do the films he most wanted to do (see Fish­gall, Pieces of Time 211-12), and had come to the resolute conclusion that doing a lot of films was a good idea: 'Any actor who stays off the screen for any length of time is digging his own grave. I want to make as many pic­tures as I can' (to Louella Parsons, Los Angeles Times, ca. 1950-51). ...

Dean in 1955

"Thomas Pryor, report[ing] in the New York Times Magazine, ... emphasized the single characteristic [all movie stars] shared, 'some magnetic quality which sets them apart on the screen from all other actors', or what Hortense Powdermaker observed as 'tangible features which can be advertised and marketed'. What appeared to viewers as an inner or 'magnetic' quality, an essence possessed by the star and offered to the studio on the basis of a contract, was certainly also a treatment and a preparation pro­vided by others, who approached, handled, dressed, photographed, coiffed, and otherwise used certain individuals in such a way as to systematically elevate them in the public eye. Addressing the cinematography of stars in Visions of Light, for example, William Daniels comments on how the star was typically subjected to a few candlepowers' worth of augmented key-lighting, to make her pop onscreen.

"In the case of James Stewart, who moved slowly and spoke with a patient drawl, thereby invoking the image of a populist figure in whom intensive sensations of democratic fellow-feeling could be invested by view­ers, or of James Dean, who squeaked and squinted, grinned and chortled, stared and waited like a faun in the woods, stars were quietly framed and lit to occupy the center of a shot; recorded with sensitive microphones that could pick up, even amplify, their every hesitating mumble; garbed with layers of comfortable, appealing texture and color; and put to work playing characters who, by arrangement, were scripted to be forthright, stalwart, dignified, or adorable if not, as we will see, spectacularly brooding, malig­nant, antisocial, and depressive. While 'magnetism' might have been their trump, all this meticulous studio treatment did nothing but amplify and enrich it."

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R. Barton Palmer


Larger than Life: Movie Stars of the 1950s


Rutgers University Press


Copyright 2010 by Rutgers, The State University


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