The idea of celebrity has morphed over time, growing from a celebration of status, achievement, or honor into a robust and nuanced form of societal self-reflection and desire. Early versions of celebrity were closely tied with social and political hierarchy. Powerful figures like Alexander the Great were represented through various forms of art and collectibles, often purchased and consumed solely by the wealthy and literate class. These early celebrities had lasting reputations but the sense of closeness we feel today to modern celebrities (or it's perceived illusion) did not exist until recent years. At the time of Alexander the Great, around 336 B.C., consumption was limited and often one-dimensional. The idea of modern celebrity didn’t begin to percolate until the late-18th century when society, ripe with necessary tools, fostered an environment for its growth. Today’s celebrities benefit from our development in storytelling and media sharing, which took a new turn as portraiture and memoirs gained popularity. In the 19th century newspapers began publishing human-centric stories and the rise of photography and film piqued the interest of the general public, later offering up modern deities in the form of Hollywood’s Golden Era actors and actresses. In many regards American film has been monumental in shaping our current concept of fame and celebrity.
To understand the impact of Golden Era film on our concept of celebrity, first an understanding of the linear technical development in film is paramount. In the first two decades of the 20th century, silent films were the primary medium of onscreen entertainment and birthed a wave of innovative talents from actors and directors to marketing mavens alike. Acting was characterized by overly expressive gestures which compensated for a lack in audio content. Films were played in small venues often accompanied by corresponding live music which helped portray narrative. When sound was first introduced, these films, nicknamed “the talkies,” amplified the popularity of two distinct genres, gangster films and musicals. Both flourished and brought on a wave of new celebrities. Actors required vocal projection that was agreeable with the public and this phased out many of the silent era stars. This caused a major shift in the industry, changing the script for how and why Hollywood’s studios cherry picked it’s burgeoning celebrities. It took some time for this new form of film to ripen in artistic discovery but eventually blossomed into the longer format narrative we still follow today. Character development was more pronounced, storylines more complex, and aesthetic quality enhanced. New filming techniques, lighting, and special effects were introduced mesmerizing viewers. At the center of it all was Hollywood’s leading women and men. With their newfound fame came immense pressure. Paparazzi and gossip columns became popular. The public was not just interested in film but in the personal lives of celebrities. Studios began investing in the publicity of their contracted actors, arranging press tours, and pushing scandalous stories which encouraged the admiration and fascination of the talent. The academy awards gained popularity and served as a beacon of credibility for studios and the talent they fostered. The American obsession with celebrity was born. Golden Era film was the first form of entertainment that allowed the public to visually embrace a form of escapism that satisfied human desires while acknowledging the human condition, especially at a time of global unrest during World War II. These films and their characters were a type of relatable therapy. They gave us hope. Their characters were approachable yet untouchable, perfect yet flawed. These celebrities became a reflection of who we are and who we want to be. The lasting cultural impact of Golden Era film is unparalleled and paved the way for modern celebrity culture as we know it.
By: Alexis Kanter
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