Hilary Hallett holds a Ph.D. from the CUNY Graduate Center and has received such awards as the Jensen-Miller Prize from the Western Historical Association and a research grant from the Historical Society of Southern California/Haynes Foundation. She is an historian of modern American cultural history at Columbia University whose research focuses on the history of popular culture, women, and gender and sexuality. She teaches such courses as Gender History and American Film, Hollywood & Modern America, U.S. Cultural History, and Making the Modern: Bohemia from Paris to Los Angeles.
We recently asked her about her 2013 book Go West, Young Women! The Rise of Early Hollywood, published by the University of California Press.
What was the "a-ha" moment -- the inspiration to write this book? Why did you decide on this topic? Can you remember when the connections were made for you?
This project began with a desire to emulate a particularly brilliant example of event history: James Goodman's Stories of Scottsboro. In that book, Goodman tells the story of the case from several entirely contradictory, different perspectives, opening up how culture and place can cause people to have varying points of view of the same historical moment.
My advisor at the CUNY Graduate Center, David Nasaw, had already helped me to focus my interests in the history of popular culture and gender and sexuality on a particular subject: women's roles in the early American film industry. So in looking for a dissertation topic, I began by reading around in the memoirs of people who were important to the film industry's development to find a dramatic event that everyone talked about. I quickly landed upon the so-called Fatty Arbuckle scandal of 1921-1922. The scandal arose when an actress, Virginia Rappe, died after falling ill at a hotel party Arbuckle hosted. A female guest told the police that Arbuckle had forced Rappe into a bedroom and that she had blamed him for her death. (The intimation initially was that he had raped Rappe, but this subject could not be openly discussed in the press of the day.) Arbuckle was tried three times for manslaughter before his eventual acquittal.
Every memoir from the period wrote about the event. But no one had the same idea of what had really happened or what it meant. Film scholars agreed that the scandal had resulted in the hire of the first "Movie Tzar," William Hays. But they characterized the event and its participants in very different ways.
The "a-ha" moment for me came when I began reading the newspaper coverage of the event myself, and I quickly realized that, at least initially, Rappe had been presented in a surprisingly positive, almost heroic mode, as an ambitious, plucky working girl who had managed to achieve some real success during her short life. Over time, Rappe had been transformed into a stupid starlet who was victimized by an unscrupulous beast, or, even worse, she was portrayed as a pathetic, diseased prostitute whose veneral disease caused her death. But the original press reporting contained earlier interviews with her and leads about her career that pointed to a much more complicated picture of her life. So really the project emerged from a desire to understand more about who Rappe was, what she wanted, and how she had lived before her early death. From the reporting, it was clear that debates over her role and motivations -- what she wanted before she died -- created much of the original interest in the story.
In the acknowledgments, you write that you always knew you wanted this to be a University of California Press book? Why is that so? Because of their support of film studies? Their proximity to the industry?
UCP had the unique advantage, from my perspective, of publishing both a great history list AND a great cinema studies list. That was the first thing; I wanted the book to be in company with the other wonderful books they published on those lists. And the press was also a natural fit because Go West, Young Women! is also a book about the development of modern Los Angeles -- and the press also publishes the leading histories in this area too. Finally, I think UCP produces some of the best looking academic books around, and I thought a book about image makers deserved their visual expertise.
In what ways is your book most distinguished or distinct from Cari Beauchamp's Without Lying Down? In other words, what are the major differences between these two books -- yours and hers -- they both look at women in early Hollywood history?
Cari Beauchamp's book was part of the excellent company I wanted Go West! to keep at UCP. Her book was one of several terrific books that mine benefitted from as they came out during the long process of writing my dissertation at CUNY and then turning it into a book. Beauchamp's book does what a great biography should do: it creates a compelling picture of the story and influence of one person's life: Frances Marion.
Instead of focusing on an individual, my book offers a cultural history of an era. Although it contains many brief sketches of people, it is really told more in medium or long shot than as a close-up. You ultimately learn little about the real, personal lives of the people in this book. It is focused much more on the stories that were told about the people who helped to turn the American film industry into Hollywood. In other words, my book is interested in understanding what work those stories did in the larger culture. Consequently, the sources I drew upon mostly offer a picture of this transformation from the outside more than from the inside. My book wants to explain the cultural significance of this process -- who hated the industry, who loved it, and why -- not so much to offer a history of its inner workings, which is where I see Beauchamp's interest lying more.
You write, "the burden of this book's opening chapters is to reconceive this process [of the film industry's transformation into Hollywood] by describing the central role that women and the era's sexual politics played in the metamorphosis." Tell us more about that.
Trying to learn more about Rappe led me to do a lot of reading in the era's fan magazines and in the mainstream press. I quickly realized that it would be nearly impossible to find out much about the real Rappe. But I found another story instead: how the reporting about the American film industry's transformation into Hollywood was -- at the time -- often completely entwined with the bigger story about the era's broader transformation of women's roles.
This happened in part because women played such unusually prominent roles in all aspects of the film business's development. Their experiences dramatically differed from most other work cultures of the era, in which women were usually segregated into "female" occupations or trapped in the most entry level of positions. Having all these visible women working in positions of creative leadership then made the business a natural screen, so to speak, on which to project the period's hopes and concerns about the direction of women's emancipation more broadly. In other words, part of what fueled the American film industry's success and explosive growth was not just these women's unusual work, but the excitement and dread provoked by the public representations of this work. These workers, and at times their films, quickly offered some of the most arresting examples of the "modern girl" -- a type that was attracting growing worldwide interest. It is possible to argue quite convincingly, I think, that the selling of the modern girl type -- a woman who quite simple worked and played more like one of the boys, while still displaying a kind of chic presentation -- was one of the things that the American film industry did best. This presentation also helped to account for the industry's early success.
So the actress plays a central role in feminism?
Yes, if we recall that feminism (as distinct from women's rights) was focused more on what was then called "sex rights" and cultural freedoms. As visibly independent, self-supporting women who often publicly flouted conventional morality, actresses were the natural avatars to represent women's public exploration of these new terrains.
Taking up this argument, quickly led me to root the early film industry's practices and customs in the nineteenth century stage. It is crucial to remember that not just actresses, but virtually all the greatest talents of the early industry, came out of the theater. And the stage, particularly in Anglo-American culture, had long been associated with sexual immorality. Moreover, over the course of the nineteenth century, the proliferation of theatrical venues and the advent of celebrity culture meant that it offered women more and more jobs, jobs that were often the best paid work available to women. Women's new prominence as star actresses, who were often running their own shows, was tied to their power as the main theatrical patrons. Women in the audience liked to see women doing exciting new things on stage and exploring issues that reflected their concerns. This meant that the nineteenth century stage in many ways had been an inculcator of what later got called feminism.
How important were the women journalists?
They were absolutely indispensable.They did the most to help readers imagine the movie colony as a unique landscape that was wide open to ambitious women looking for success. My focus in the book was on one early pioneer: Louella Parsons. Parsons's reporting inspired the title for my book. In one piece she explicitly resurrected Horace Greeley's old advice -- Go West, Young Man -- for the feminist end of encouraging women to follow the industry west and seek their individual fortunes. But in general I was initially surprised by the sheer number of women journalists writing in both fan magazines and mainstream newspapers. This I learned from the work of scholars like Shelley Stamp and Gaylyn Studlar was in part about the desire to attract more women into audiences. The formula was a simple one: women writing about other women would send more women readers to the movies. More importantly, I was amazed by how often the content of the stories written by reporters like Parsons was explicitly about lauding other women's uncommon accomplishments and then exhorting them to imitate these women's successes. Parsons got her start as a journalist writing at newspapers in Chicago, an early center of the American film business with a famously "movie-mad" population. Chicago was also Rappe's hometown. It was easy then to imagine how reading these stories might have encouraged her to head west too.
Tell us about your new research on Elinor Glyn.
The project is currently called The Syren Within: Elinor Glyn and the Invention of Glamour. Elinor Glyn (1864-1943) arguably invented the most commercially lucrative brand of modern English fiction: romance novels with an explicit erotic edge. The scandalous success of her sixth novel, Three Weeks (1907) got her cut from the British Society set into which she had married in 1892. But she used the notoriety associated with the book's success to launch herself as literary celebrity associated with the first sexual revolution, when the codes of Victorian sexual morality first cracked.
Her success in the role got her invited to Hollywood as an "Eminent Author" in 1920. Well into middle age, Glyn became a tastemaker and production supervisor who helped Hollywood producers figure out how to depict more convincing representations of sexual passion on screens. Along the way, she also launched some of the biggest stars and films of the 1920s, including Gloria Swanson and Clara Bow, the first "It" girl (a term Glyn coined).
Leslie Kreiner Wilson, Editor
Back to Top