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Picturegoer (1933) - Are Stars Necessary?

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Are Stars Necessary?

Ever since the birth of films, I suppose, producers have been asking themselves this question, and with evergrowing insistence the public have answered "yes."

There are idealists who consider films as an art pure and simple, and who say that all actors should be subordinate to the film.

As a film producer, I know that art must first of all be commercially popular to be successful, and that one of the greatest factors which make a film commercially successful is the popularity of the stars in it.

Whichever way one looks at it, the "star" question is there, because examination of every successful play or film reveals that some strong drawing-power was responsible for the box office receipts, and that if it was not the leading player, then it was the author, or the producer, or the title, or even the effect of efficient exploitation of the production.

A production which is sufficiently startling and magnificent to justify the banging of the publicity drums, could easily be the "star" attraction, and so also could a title which is a household word.

A title, for example, like "On the Dole" would probably have box office appeal in itself. By all this, I am only trying to prove that to succeed in films, or even in the theatre, you must have a "star," and that if the magnet is not human, then there must be a substitute.

I believe in the star system, because film-making is a business, and as a director I cannot afford to lose the money I am putting into my business.

The world may complain that film stars are paid money which makes cabinet ministers' salaries look like pocket money, but, believe me, every penny he or she is paid is worth it to the producer, otherwise the producer would not pay it.

Stars are paid according to what they bring into the box office, and if they bring in £20,000, then no one can blame them that they are paid accordingly.

Maurice Chevalier once had a three-year contract signed at £500 a week the first year, £750 the second, and £1,000 a week the third. So successful was he, however, that halfway through the contract his salary was raised from £750 a week to £2,500 a week, and he was worth every penny.

At one theatre it was reckoned that "if full" the theatre would hold £900 a performance. When Chevalier played there they played twelve performances a week, and every performance was packed. The theatre thus gained £10,000 a week, out of which Chevalier was paid £5,000 as his share.

It is all really a question of supply and demand. The public demand their stars and the films supply them. When the public cease to demand, then the films will cease to supply, but I do not think this will happen yet, and after all why should it?

There is a very good psychological reason for "star worship": it fills some inherent need of which I see no reason why the public should be deprived. I know it is cynically labelled "sob stuff," but does anybody really care what it is labelled?

After all, is not sheer artistic emotion something to be proud of and not ashamed? There is little enough glamour in the drab business world of many of the audiences: why then should they be blamed for wanting it in their relaxation?

Moreover, aren't we forgetting one rather important fact: that a star only attains stardom because he or she has proved his or her worth and ability on the screen or stage.

The critics who argue that "the play's the thing" and "it's good acting and not names that count," seem to forget that a star's "name" still has some connection with his or her acting.

The public which says, "Let's go and see So-and-So's film tonight," say that because they know that "so-and-so's" film and acting is always worth seeing, and the same applies to the stage.

Those names that you see in electric light over the theatres and cinemas are all names who have proved their salt to both the producer and the public.

And if the public had seen, as I have done, the reverse of the picture, those bitter struggles to stardom — the disappointments, the sheer hard work, the poverty often coupled with starvation at the beginning, the courage and pluck and determination to win through — I do not think they would grudge them the electric lights.

Stardom is not won easily. I know people whisper about the power of the publicity drum, but no amount of publicity can create something which is not there, and a star who is only a child of publicity will not last.

And I do not think that anyone can say the "star system" means that the production as a whole is neglected. If they do, then let them spend a day, or two days, on the sets and see the infinite trouble, labour, and patience that is expended on one single shot. I have known a producer throw £40,000 of work away and start production again from a fresh angle!

You cannot destroy the star system, because at rock bottom it is the public who create and acclaim the stars.