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Going Hollywood: Movie Fan Magazines

February 27, 2014 Archive Insight

Motion Picture Magazine for September 1918, "Lillian Gish"
Motion Picture Magazine, originally published in 1911, was the first movie fan magazine. This issue for September 1918 featured movie star Lillian Gish. / THF113869

From the beginning of the movie business, Americans wanted to know about the movies and their stars. As thousands of letters flooded movie studios, public relations departments tried to accommodate fans’ interest. By 1910, the demand for information was out of control. In February 1911, J. Stuart Blackton, head of Vitagraph Studios, helped to organize Motion Picture Story Magazine, soon shortened to Motion Picture Magazine — the first movie fan magazine.

Movie fan magazines were filled with stories and photos of movie stars. They informed readers about new films being introduced, answered questions about how movies were made, provided synopses of current melodramas, offered recipes of the stars, featured the latest Hollywood fashion styles, provided tips on scenario writing, and offered contests with prizes like trips to Hollywood and tours of the movie studios.

Photoplay was introduced in 1912, and by the early 1920s, more than a dozen such magazines crowded the newsstands, with names like Cinema Art, Film Fun, Motion Picture Journal, Movie Weekly, Picture Play and Screenland. The cover art captured the glamour of the times and featured beautifully detailed renderings of the popular stars of the day. The illustrators were some of the best in their field. But by the late 1930s, photographs, which were cheaper to produce, replaced the illustrated cover art.

Film Fun Magazine for July 1919, "The League of Smiles"
Early movie magazine cover art featured renderings of the stars by some of the best illustrators of the day. The cover of Film Fun for July 1919 depicted comic actor Charlie Chaplin. / THF113875

Most movie magazines relied on movie studios for information and access to stars. The stories that appeared were carefully controlled by the studios’ public relations staff. It was a strange marriage between the studios, which needed the support of the magazines, and the magazines, whose existence depended on the success and goodwill of the industry. The tendency was to create articles that reflected the movies as a hardworking business and the stars as professionals. The magazines were filled with stories about actors like Edward G. Robinson, Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn and Rudolph Valentino as well as articles about social and moral issues created by the movies.

Beginning in the 1910s, movie magazine advertising appealed to men and women from all social classes. By the early 1920s, the ads began to focus on young, middle-class men and women who, like today, were viewed by advertisers as having greater disposable incomes.

In 1924, Photoplay promoted itself as the young generation's favorite periodical. By the later 1920s, that demographic had shifted further to focus heavily on women. Soon stars were making forays into the world of commercial advertising. Movie star endorsements of commercial products, considered taboo in the 1910s and 1920s, became an accepted way of selling both stars and products by 1935. The emphasis, in most cases, was on beauty and hygiene products and cigarettes.

Hollywood Magazine for May, 1940, "Cary Grant Sounds Off"
By the late 1920s, movie magazines’ demographics had shifted heavily toward women. Hollywood magazine for May 1940 depicted popular heartthrob Cary Grant. / THF113873

The post-World War II era produced a more cynical moviegoer whose interests were inclined to scandals and gossip and who was no longer satisfied with the carefully crafted stories put out by the studios. Movie magazines changed with the mood of America, but it wasn't enough. Increasingly, readers turned to the "scoops" and scandals handed out by "scandal sheets" like Confidential and Hush Hush. Television talk shows reduced the need to simply read about the stars when the information and the stars themselves were beamed directly into America's living room each day. In an attempt to survive, some magazines merged; others broadened their coverage to include music, television and other areas of entertainment. Slowly, their titles vanished from the newsstand, with Photoplay lasting the longest before finally fading away in 1980. But movie magazines didn't really vanish — they just assumed a different form in publications such as People, Premiere and Soap Opera Digest.

Photoplay Magazine for October 1974
Photoplay was the last of the original movie fan magazines, ending publication in 1980. The October 1974 issue reflected Americans’ increasing inclination toward scandals and gossip. / THF113867

For more on this topic, see Kathryn H. Fuller’s At The Picture Show: Small-Town Audiences and the Creation of Movie Fan Culture and Barbara Gelman’s Photoplay Treasury.

This post by Terry Hoover, former chief archivist, The Henry Ford, originally ran as part of our Pic of the Month series in January 2002. It was updated for the blog by Saige Jedele, associate curator, The Henry Ford.

California, 20th century, popular culture, movies, by Terry Hoover, archives

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