The Pop History Dig

“A Star is Born”
1910s

Cover of Kelly Brown’s book on Florence Lawrence, Hollywood’s first movie star.  2007 paperback edition.
Cover of Kelly Brown’s book on Florence Lawrence, Hollywood’s first movie star. 2007 paperback edition.
      The movie industry of the early 1900s, during the silent film era, was not the star-centered commercial enterprise it is today.  Most actors, in fact, labored in obscurity.  And film makers liked it that way.  The film studios then were out to produce a cheap, standardized product and part of the strategy was to keep actors anonymous and low paid.  Indeed, most actors of that day focused on the Vaudeville stage, and many, in fact, thought it down right horrid to work in the “flickers.”

     But during the early1900s, the seeds of change were being sown, as a few actors tried some self-promotion in the trade press, and film exchange owners were also beginning to see that audience familiarity with actors was good for business.  Still, one of the most popular actresses of that day was Florence Lawrence of the Biograph Studios.  But Lawrence was not known to movie fans by her real name.  A Canadian in her twenties, Lawrence had already made 38 films for the Vitagraph Co. before coming to Biograph.  But even at Biograph, though her face was well known, she was simply known to the public as “The Biograph Girl.”  Then came a film producer named Carl Laemmle.

     Laemmle, born into a Jewish family in 1860s Germany, had come to the U.S. when he was 17.  He opened a Chicago nickelodeon some years later, and moved into film distribution in the Midwest.   By 1909, after fighting with inventor and film-maker businessman Thomas Edison over film distribution rights, he established his own film production company, the Independent Motion Picture Company of America, also known as IMP.  “Biograph Girl” Florence Lawrence, meanwhile, had a falling out with her employer, and Laemmle hired her to his company.  Laemmle then went about creating some first-of-a kind publicity to introduce her.

 

Biograph Girl Dead !

Copy of ad on the 'Florence Lawrence incident,' which mentions IMP's new film.
Copy of ad on the 'Florence Lawrence incident,' which mentions IMP's new film.
     Although there are some variations on the story, plus a degree of myth-making added over the years, the gist of what happened appears to be roughly along the lines that follow.  In February 1910, Laemmle planted a fictitious news story that the actress had been killed in a street-car accident. Newspapers and magazines were the only real “media” then, and key to spreading a story of the kind Laemmle had created.  After Laemmle gained press attention for his false story, he then placed ads in newspapers and the movie trade press that the story about Lawrence’s death was, in fact, a lie.  In the March 12, 1910 edition of Moving Picture World, a full-page announcement appeared explaining that Biograph — angry over losing its “Biograph girl,” Lawrence, to Laemmle — had created the false story.  This announcement also included a small photo of Lawrence and explained, by the way, that she was making a new movie for Laemmle’s IMP called, The Broken Oath, and that “very shortly, some of the best work of her career” would be released (in the ad, the film’s title was misspelled as “The Broken Bath”).

The new 'star.'
The new 'star.'
     Laemmle then arranged for — and publicized — a personal appearance for his soon-to-be-star, along with her leading man, King Babbott, and the film’s director, in St. Louis, Missouri.  They  made two appearances at St. Louis theaters — the Gem and the Grand Opera House.  According to Karen Ward Mahar writing in Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood: “The St. Louis Times announced their arrival by train, planned a welcome party,  and offered a clip-out coupon to female fans who would receive a photograph of Lawrence upon presenting it to the actress.” Lawrence “was mobbed by a huge crowd of fans, who tore the buttons off her coat.” It was the first staged media appearance by a film star.  At the event Lawrence “was mobbed by a huge crowd of fans, who tore the buttons off her coat,” according to historian Robin Cross. Lawrence that day in St. Louis drew more people to her coming out event than had the President of the United States, William Howard Taft, who had visited the city a week earlier.  Thus, with this event and its generated press, “a star was born,”created by the studio head Carl Laemmle, who would later help found Universal Studios.  Before long, Florence Lawrence became a well-known film personality and a household name.  Laemmle — with the help of a growing print media at the time — had created the early outlines of the Hollywood “star system,” though it wasn’t called that at first.  No longer would movie actors and actresses labor in obscurity, or go unnoticed or unnamed.  Again, Karen Ward Mahar writing in Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood, notes: 
Carl Laemmle, founder of the IMP film company, staged the Florence Lawrence event, making her America's first 'film star'.
Carl Laemmle, founder of the IMP film company, staged the Florence Lawrence event, making her America's first 'film star'.

…A mere two months after Lawrence’s live appearance in St. Louis, Moving Picture World’s “Man About Town” [magazine column] professed astonishment at “the interest the public has taken in the personality of many of the picture players.”  Letters allegedly poured into the offices of film manufacturers and exchanges, from both men and woman, asking for autographed photos of their favorite leading actors.  One actress [Florence Turner] claimed to have received three thousand offers of marriage just three months after the Lawrence incident.  By the end of 1910, Moving Picture World’s “Picture Personalities” column profiled Florence Turner of Vitagraph, Mary Pickford of Biograph, and Pearl White of the Powers film manufacturing company.  Even if it did not invent the film star, the Lawrence incident signaled to the industry that the star had arrived.

 

“Famous Players”

Mary Pickford, who followed Florence Lawrence as the ‘Biograph Girl,’ soon became a giant star with Adolph Zukor.
Mary Pickford, who followed Florence Lawrence as the ‘Biograph Girl,’ soon became a giant star with Adolph Zukor.
     Other fledgling Hollywood studios by this time were also moving toward promoting the names of actors to make them popular.  In 1912, Jewish emigree Adolph Zukor established a film distribution business using the moniker “Famous Players in Famous Plays.” He soon found himself running a business that sought to bring noted stage and Vaudeville actors to the screen, one of whom was a child actress named Mary Pickford.  Pickford, in fact, had initially followed Florence Lawrence as the Biograph Girl.  However, by 1913 the Famous Players Film Company was established, producing The Prisoner of Zenda.  That year, Zukor told Mary Pickford’s mother, “if feature pictures succeed, we expect to pay according to the drawing power of the box office.”

     By 1915 Pickford was on a salary of $10,000 a week — a huge amount at the time — and her drawing power became the foundation of the evolving Zukor empire which,  after a series of business deals, became Paramount Pictures with Zukor as president.  At Paramount, Zukor revolutionized the film industry by organizing production, distribution, and exhibition within a single company.  But it was the movie stars like Pickford and others who became the collateral on which the film companies could borrow huge sums of money.

Theda Bara, starring in 1917's 'Cleopatra.'
Theda Bara, starring in 1917's 'Cleopatra.'
     Another film maker who helped push the early star system forward in the 1910s was William Fox.  A German-Jewish immigrant like Carl Laemmle, Fox had made a fortune in the film exchange business.  By 1915, he went into film production as head of the Fox Film Corporation.  But Fox needed a star, and his solution was simply to create one.  Fox transformed a somewhat “plain Jane” stage actress named Theodosia de Coppet (Goodman), into the screen’s first ‘vamp’ and million-dollar star, Theda Bara.  His early movies with Bara, such as A Fool There Was (1915), produced the funds to help found the Fox Film Corporation, while others with Bara like Cleopatra (1917) helped make Fox a successful studio.

Clara Bow, 1921, among the early film stars signed by Paramount’s Adolph Zukor, an early booster of Hollywood’s ‘star system’.
Clara Bow, 1921, among the early film stars signed by Paramount’s Adolph Zukor, an early booster of Hollywood’s ‘star system’.
     Carl Laemmle was on the rise by then too, becoming a partner in 1912 in the Universal Film Manufacturing Company.  Known later as simply Universal or Univeral Studios, Laemmle  would eventually become its sole owner.  In March 1915, Laemmle, amid much publicity,  opened his new Universal City studios on the north side of the Hollywood Hills.  Built on some 230 acres of farmland, it was world’s largest motion picture production facility.  Hollywood was now the place where more and more films were being made, shifting from its former New York and New Jersey base.  In 1915 alone, over 250 pictures poured out of the Laemmle’s Universal City studios, most of them two-reelers and serials.

     Adolph Zukor at Paramount, meanwhile, developed many of the leading early film stars.  In addition to Mary Pickford, Zukor would also sign Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, and Wallace Reid.  With so many “famous players,” Zukor’s Paramount was able to introduce block booking, which meant that an exhibitor who wanted a particular star’s films had to buy a year’s worth of other Paramount productions.  It was this system that gave Paramount a leading position in the 1920s and 1930s.  It also later led the government to pursue the company on anti-trust grounds.  In any case, it was the early star system that helped build the Hollywood studios into the business giants they would become.

 

Celebrity & Fan Culture

     “The Famous Players were now more important than the Famous Plays,” film historian Robin Cross would later say of the changing film industry in the 1910s.  Celebrity culture was on its way, now given a much larger reach in those early days of film promotion.  Celebrity culture — born in the early movie star system of the 1910s and fueled by the urban masses — would go well beyond film & Hollywood.But celebrity culture would go well beyond film, becoming a powerful force in its own right and a key part of entertainment and marketing economics in the years to come.  For celebrity culture would not only rise in Hollywood and film, but also in radio, sports, and later television, spawning a host of new specialties and cottage industries, from talent agencies to a vast new advertising industry.

     There is, of course, a lot more detail on the history and rise of the Hollywood star system.  But it does appear that “mass appeal stardom” first took hold in the film industry of the 1910s in part through the actions of business-wise film makers and promoters like Carl Laemmle, Adolph  Zukor, William Fox, and others.  This “movie star” phenomenon was soon spread to the urban masses by the eager newspaper and magazine industries, forming a “celebrity press” that stoked the rise of celebrity and fan culture that followed.

     Stay tuned to this site for additional history on the rise of celebrity, in Hollywood and elsewhere, and especially its impact on business, politics, and popular culture. For additional film history and celebrity-related story choices at this website, see for example, the Film & Hollywood category page and the Celebrity & Icons category page. Thanks for visiting – and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 30 October 2008 
Last Update: 1 August 2014
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “A Star is Born, 1910s,”
PopHistoryDig.com, October 30, 2008.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

Robyn Karney (ed.), Cinema Year By Year, 1894-2005, London: Dorling Kindersley, Ltd., 2005, p.79.

“Paramount Pictures,” Wikipedia.org

Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915 (History of the American Cinema, 2), Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, May 1994, 337 pp.

Karen Ward Mahar, Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood,  John Hopkins University Press, 2006, 332 pp.

Kelly R. Brown, Florence Lawrence, The Biograph Girl: America’s First Movie Star, North Carolina, McFarland & Co., 2007, 230 pp.

“Bette Davis Eyes”
1981

Bette Davis captured by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine, January 23, 1939.
Bette Davis captured by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine, January 23, 1939.
      In May and June of 1981, the most popular song around was a tune about a Hollywood actress — or more precisely, about her eyes. “She’s got Bette Davis eyes” was the refrain made famous by the top-selling song of 1981, appropriately titled, “Bette Davis Eyes.”  The song was performed by singer Kim Carnes, and was originally written in the mid-1970s by singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon and Donna Weiss.  DeShannon had also recorded a version of the song on her New Arrangement album of 1975.  But it was the Kim Carnes version of the song in 1981 that became the big hit.

     “Bette Davis Eyes,” in fact, became the third best-selling song of the entire 1980s decade, ranking only behind “Physical” by Olivia Newton John and “Endless Love” by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie.  In 1981, it also won Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Record of the year. Released on the EMI America label as a single in the spring of 1981, the song spent a total of nine weeks at #1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart during May, June and July.  It remained in the Top 40 for about 20 weeks.  The Kim Carnes album containing the song — Mistaken Identity — also hit #1 and sold over eight million copies.

Music Player
“Bette Davis Eyes”

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Song History

     Jackie DeShannon has stated that she was moved to write “Bette Davis Eyes” in 1974 after seeing the classic 1942 film Now Voyager, and one scene in particular, in which actor Paul Henreid, smitten by Bette Davis, is falling over himself lighting cigarettes for her.  In the lyrics for the song by DeShannon and writing partner Donna Weiss, an intriguing, teasing woman is presented (see lyrics below).  Bette Davis, of course, was a Hollywood legend.  She had appeared in more than 100 films.  She was known in part, for her large, expressive eyes, her engaging repartee, and for her sometimes sassy film roles.  More about Davis in a moment.  First, the song.

DVD cover for 1942 film, 'Now, Voyager.'
DVD cover for 1942 film, 'Now, Voyager.'
      In 1980, Kim Carnes was a 34-year-old singer and songwriter who had experience in both Hollywood and the music business.  She had begun her career at the age of 18 in Los Angeles, singing commercial jingles and doing nightclub work.  In the 1960s she joined the New Christy Minstrels folk troupe where she met Kenny Rogers and Dave Ellingson, later marrying Ellingson with whom she did some joint singing and songwriting.  She also produced some solo albums in the 1970s and had a minor hit or two. Her songwriting, however, was more successful —  with Frank Sinatra, David Cassidy, and Kenny Rogers, among others.  A duet she sang with Kenny Rogers, “Don’t Fall In Love With a Dreamer” in early 1980, became a Top 5 hit, and also had a related album, Gideon.  About that time, Carnes was recording another album for EMI called Romance Dance and worked with producer/engineer Val Garay.  The album charted and included Carnes’ first solo Top 10 hit, a version of Smokey Robinson’s “More Love.”  Carnes and Garay then began work on a new album.

Cover for single of 'Bette Davis Eyes' by Kim Carnes released in 1981 by EMI Records America.
Cover for single of 'Bette Davis Eyes' by Kim Carnes released in 1981 by EMI Records America.
      During their search for material, songwriter Donna Weiss brought some of her songs over to the studio where Carnes and Garay were working. One was a demo for a newer version of the 1974 “Bette Davis Eyes” song. Karnes and Garay both liked the melody and the lyrics, but the total package wasn’t quite there yet. However, one of their band members — keyboardist Bill Cuomo — gave the tune a more contemporary arrangement, along with a half dozen other musicians backing up Carnes. As Carnes would later explain to Dick Clark: “It’s Bill Cuomo, my synthesizer player, who really came up with the new feel, changing the chords. The minute he came up with that, it fell into place.” Garay recalls that ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ was recorded live in a North Hollywood studio.” I think we did three takes and the one we used was take one,” he said. Carnes has also written about recording the song: “I heard this song about a year before I finally cut it. My band, Val Garay and I rehearsed it for three days before coming up with the right feel. It was a completely collaborative effort between all of us. The next day we cut this track ‘live’ with no over-dubs and got it on the second take…” The song quickly became a major hit, along with the album. In addition to Carnes’ Grammy award for the song, Garay was also nominated for Producer of the Year, but lost to Quincy Jones.

“Bette Davis Eyes”
1981

 

Her hair is Harlow gold
Her lips sweet surprise
Her hands are never cold
She’s got Bette Davis eyes

She’ll turn her music on you
You won’t have to think twice
She’s pure as New York snow
She got Bette Davis eyes

And she’ll tease you
She’ll unease you
All the better just to please you
She’s precocious and she knows just
What it takes to make a pro blush
She got Greta Garbo stand off sighs
She’s got Bette Davis eyes

She’ll let you take her home
It whets her appetite
She’ll lay you on her throne
She got Bette Davis eyes

She’ll take a tumble on you
Roll you like you were dice
Until you come out blue
She’s got Bette Davis eyes

She’ll expose you, when she snows you
Off your feet with the crumbs she throws you
She’s ferocious and she knows just
What it takes to make a pro blush
All the boys think she’s a spy
She’s got Bette Davis eyes

And she’ll tease you
She’ll unease you
All the better just to please ya
She’s precocious, and she knows just
What it takes to make a pro blush
All the boys think she’s a spy
She’s got Bette Davis eyes

She’ll tease you
She’ll unease you
Just to please ya
She’s got Bette Davis eyes
She’ll expose you, when she snows you
She knows ya
She’s got Bette Davis eyes


First Lady of Film

     Bette Davis, meanwhile, was still very much alive when “Bette Davis Eyes” became a hit song in 1981. In fact, she was then still actively performing, appearing in TV and Hollywood films, and would continue doing so through 1989. Davis began her film career in 1930 after a stint on Broadway. Born in Lowell, Massachusetts in April 1908, Davis had studied acting at the John Murray Anderson’s Dramatic School in New York where one of her classmates was Lucille Ball. In Hollywood, she was sometimes called “The First Lady of Film.”

     During her career, Bette Davis appeared in more than 100 films. She gave notable performances in films such as Dangerous (1935) and Jezebel (1938), each of which earned her Oscars. In fact, she was nominated for an Academy Award five years in a row — 1938, 1939, 1940, 1941 and 1942.  Another memorable performance by Davis came in All About Eve (1950) as the character Margo Channing.

Davis, right, in 'All About Eve' with Anne Baxter.
Davis, right, in 'All About Eve' with Anne Baxter.

     “In her heyday, as the reigning female star at Warner Brothers,” wrote Terrence Rafferty of The New York Times in 2008, “she was as electrifying as Marlon Brando in the ’50s: volatile, sexy, challenging, fearlessly inventive.  She looked moviegoers straight in the eye and dared them to look away.”

     In Hollywood, Bette Davis also became the first woman to be president of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, elected to that post in 1941. In 2008, on the 100th anniversary of Bette Davis’ birth, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in her honor, the 14th in the Postal Service’s “Legends of Hollywood” series.


Madonna, Too

 

     In addition to being the primary subject of Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes,” the famous actress was also mentioned by name in Madonna’s #1 hit song of 1990, “Vogue”, which was Madonna’s tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood. But Bette Davis herself reportedly liked Kim Carnes’ song and wrote to Carnes to tell her so.  In liner notes from Carnes’ Gypsy Honeymoon album she writes about Bette Davis’s reaction to the song:

 “…After the release of the record, Miss Davis sent me a note explaining how much she loved the song and that she was especially thrilled because her young grandson now considered her to be very contemporary. I developed a warm and special friendship with Miss Davis that lasted through the years. Shortly before her death, I sang the song live for her at a tribute held in her honor.”

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Featured at right, Bette Davis in various
films & still shots, 1930s & 1940s.
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New Life for “Eyes”

     Over the years, meanwhile, the Kim Carnes version of the “Bette Davis Eyes” song has held up reasonably well.  Through the 1990s and beyond, the song was still being discovered by new listeners and recorded in new forms.  A CD version appeared in 1996.   In late August 1997, EMI UK and EMI Music Group Australia released a dance version.  And by 1998, “Bette Davis Eyes” still had enough appeal that Cleopatra Records released the song as a down-loadable MP3, selling on Amazon and other outlets.  In late 2003, another dance version was released with several different mixes. 

The visual image used for a 1998 MP3 version of 'Bette Davis Eyes' by Kim Carnes for Cleopatra Records.
The visual image used for a 1998 MP3 version of 'Bette Davis Eyes' by Kim Carnes for Cleopatra Records.
The cable TV channel VH-1 has also aired “Bette Davis Eyes” videos in programs such as “The Best Videos of the ’80s” and its “Pop-Up Videos” series.  And last but not least, You Tubers have also produced some interesting video versions of “Bette Davis Eyes.”  One enterprising video maker at You Tube has put together a nicely-done collage of Bette Davis stills that flash in sync with the Kim Carnes song — images that pretty much cover the film career of the famed movie star.

     With the help of music it seems, the legacy of Bette Davis has been given some additional exposure and added luster, and will no doubt help to send those just discovering her to inquire further about her life, or into the many books that have been written about her.

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Date Posted:  27 June 2008
Last Update:  16 August 2010
Contact: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Bette Davis Eyes, 1981,”
PopHistoryDig.com, June 27, 2008.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

1996 CD of Kim Carnes song, 'Bette Davis Eyes'.
1996 CD of Kim Carnes song, 'Bette Davis Eyes'.

2001 Dutch dance mix CD of Kim Carnes song, "Bette Davis Eyes."
2001 Dutch dance mix CD of Kim Carnes song, "Bette Davis Eyes."

Blair Jackson, “Kim Carnes’ Bette Davis Eyes,” Mix Online Extras, September, 1, 2003, MixOnline.com.

Bette Davis, official web site, BetteDavis.com

Fred Bronson, “The Top Songs of 1981″ and “The Top 100 Songs of The Eighties,” Billboard’s Hottest Hot 100 Hits, 4th Edition, New York: Billboard Books, pp. 405-406 and p. 490.

Kim Carnes, album liner notes, Gypsy Honeymoon: The Best of Kim Carnes (1993).

“Kim Carnes’s Greatest Hit of All,” Members.AOL.com.

DivasTheSite.com, Bette Davis background and listing of Bette Davis books & DVDs. Site visited in 2008.

Terrence Rafferty, “The Bold and the Bad and the Bumpy Nights,” New York Times, March 30, 2008.

Kim Carnes” and “Bette Davis,” Wikipedia.org.

You Tube collage of Bette Davis stills set to the Joe Cocker tune, “You Are So Beautiful.”

A detailed account of Bette Davis’ reaction to Kim Carnes and the song “Bette Davis Eyes” can be found in Whitney Stine’s biography of Davis, I’d Love to Kiss You…Conversations with Bette Davis, Simon & Schuster, 1990.

Randolph E. Schmid, “Bette Davis Featured on New 2008 Stamps,” Associated Press, December 27, 2007.

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