(This blogger does not claim to offer original thinking or opinion on these subjects but rather a composite of others’ observations noted through the years.)
An exhaustive list of cinema stars and a comprehensive analysis of their impact on the public consciousness is beyond our scope here. But we can offer some general assumptions about the forces that helped shape the film industry and a few illustrative examples of the actors involved:
From the earliest years, cinema and its stars certainly reflected their times and history. Twentieth century America’s burgeoning technology and prosperity helped engender a newfound leisure to enjoy cinema, and encouraged themes of romance and adventure in a society at relative peace after WWI. Our relatively new nation’s bold “rescue” of “old” Europe in that war, probably fostered an attitude and image—at least in our popular culture—of American brashness compared to staid and stogy European models.
Certainly, Louise Brooks and Clara Bow come to mind among the plucky American heroines of the silent screen; whereas Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle and Ben Turpin were representative of Hollywood’s tradition of upstart comedic characters.
Another theme was drawn from the assimilation of new immigrants into “the American dream” of economic opportunity and social equality—in movies such as Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant and Abie’s Irish Rose, starring “Buddy” Rodgers and Nancy Carroll.
In early cinema, facial and personality types that were chosen to represent these themes (and memes) were apparently drawn from a relatively smaller (compared to now) pool of actors or those that rose to the forefront in a (limited) selection process that predated the electronic age.
As related in Faces of Hollywood, Part 1, those actors (and their faces)—falling back on their theatre training—would need to be highly expressive in order to convey personality and dramatic effect without benefit of sound or dialogue. Then, as later, facial types (power, funny, pretty, etc.), aside from their expressions, could also convey personality traits.
One notable character actor who successfully transitioned to sound pictures was Lionel Barrymore—his voice proving to be equally impressive as his distinguished features. (Interestingly, his younger brother John, known as the Great Profile, was ranked among the screen’s handsomest leading men.) Prominent among Hollywood Heavies of the silent era was Lon Chaney, “the man of a thousand faces” of whom Ray Bradbury said: “He was someone who acted out our psyches. He somehow got into the shadows inside our bodies; he was able to nail down some of our secret fears and put them on screen.”
Then, thanks to voice in the talkies, a wider base of actors to choose from, and improved technology—fuller expressions of personality and a wider array of characterizations with greater subtlety were made possible. Such refinements continued during the so-called “Golden Age of Hollywood” (1930’s-1940’s) when casting, movie genres and glamourizing publicity became more clearly defined and systematized.
Some stars who began in silent films, such as Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson and later, Joan Crawford were endowed with both striking looks and on-screen personality. Garbo was thought to employ gestures of eyes and lips that were more sophisticated than the earlier mugging and exaggeration typical of silent actors. Swanson, however, said famously, of her silent days:” We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces. There just aren’t faces like that anymore!”
As time went on, as particular actors’ fame and celebrity became more established, one could speculate that those actors’ faces became emblematic of certain personality types in the public consciousness. For example, James Cagney’s range as an actor alone would have made him a giant of the screen but his incandescent and defiant persona helped set a standard for a type of American hero (and frequently anti-hero) seen in the likes of Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster and Clint Eastwood.
Another peculiarly American type emerged, especially after WWII: the brooding, conflicted iconoclast, personified in screen roles of Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield, Henry Fonda, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Robert Mitchum, Steve McQueen and others. Many of these were not classically handsome but through their personalities seem to reflect an American streak of quirky independence.
However, despite our history of Revolutionary and Civil Wars—evidencing a rebellious spirit and the liberation of “the common man” including our slave citizens—American literature, cinema and popular culture have always reflected a certain fascination with our homegrown “aristocracy”, as well as some European (usually British) models. Thus, we see the appeal of an Elizabeth Taylor, Vivian Leigh, Hedy Lamar, Joan Fontaine, Jean Simmons and Grace Kelly, whose regal beauty suited them to play either royalty or upper class heroines (Kelly, of course, achieving royal status in real life).
On the male side, we see certain stars whose refined good looks and manner tended to suggest upper class roles. Chief among these were Tyrone Power, Robert Taylor, Frederick March, Walter Pidgeon, Errol Flynn, Leslie Howard, Richard Burton, Lawrence Olivier, Cary Grant and Christopher Plummer. Grant’s charisma and ability to steal the spotlight merits him another special place in the Hollywood pantheon as related below.
(Certain European stars and those from the British Commonwealth who acted in Hollywood movies are thought to have been “Americanized” after being accepted and favored by American audiences.)
Another related category is the American mogul: Whether in stories of the gold rush, oil men, cattle barons, or wolves of Wall Street, there seems to have always been a receptive audience for characters (and their lifestyles) who, in typically American style, could vault from rags to riches or, even when born to privilege, multiply their wealth in our bountiful economic climate. Actors such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Michael Douglas followed Paul Newman in parlaying their sex appeal and bristling intelligence into convincing movie roles as charming but rapacious capitalists.
As alluded to above, certain stars with unique “power” faces and commanding personalities to match seemed to create their own category and dominate the cinematic world of their day. One thinks of Spencer Tracy, Clark Cable, Cary Grant, Orson Welles, and Sidney Poitier, and more recently, perhaps George Clooney and Denzel Washington; among women stars of that magnitude: Kathryn Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Stanwyck, Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman; and more recently, Barbara Streisand and Meryl Streep.
(A niche all her own was carved out by Marilyn Monroe, whose face and personality seemingly epitomized a blend of both sensuality and innocence and raised her above the many “blond bombshells” of her day.)
Finally, a genre unique to Hollywood and America is the Western: Pioneers, cowboys and Indians and the “strong, silent” rugged individualist of the frontier became the stuff of legend based on the actual interactions and conflicts between ranchers, farmers, gold diggers, rootless Civil War veterans, and adventurers, Native Americans and Mexicans.
Our colorful and turbulent Western history lends itself to the evolvement of mythic, stereotypical cinematic heroes and villains that battle against a backdrop of challenging and frequently dangerous terrain, climate and wildlife. The authenticity of these roles was enhanced by the fact that many of the Western movie stars themselves were hardy outdoorsmen and accomplished horsemen. William S. Hart, the silent era’s original Western star whose cowboy outfits were authentic-looking, portrayed Wild Bill Hickok on screen and was a highly competent rider back when that skill was more common among the general population. A successor in silents, Tom Mix, who became the first great Western star, had been an accomplished rodeo performer.
In the modern era, a long list of convincing cowboys starts with John Wayne who was mentored by professional stunt riders, Roy Rodgers, Gene Autry (also a rodeo rider), Audie Murphy (a legitimate war hero who raised horses), Randolph Scott and Richard Boone, a descendant of frontiersman Daniel Boone—and many others whose physical attributes and backgrounds suited them well for these action roles.