We thought that headline would grab you.  Hope it did.

Certainly, we all have our choices about who were the biggest stars of the golden years of Hollywood from the Thirties to the early Fifties, when the old line studios commanded the movie universe. (The greatly transformed Hollywood studios still do today more or less, but that’s a discussion for another blog.)

Hello, everybody.  Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys,  here again to ponder the nature of star power, and who had it in the largest quantities.

There certainly were many stars in the 1930s and 40s.  MGM claimed to have the most under contract,  or as the studio out it, “more stars than there are in heaven.”

But the other major studios had their share as well.  To the moguls and their front offices, box office receipts dictated who were the biggest stars of any particular year. Those whose pictures grossed the most were ipso facto stars. (That standard, of course, lives on to this day.)

But was that the only measure of stardom? And, how did one measure Star Power, in the first place?  Was it strictly in box office receipts? fan mail? press coverage?

A while ago we came across a passage in Jill Schary Zimmer’s 1963 book, “With A Cast Of Thousands: A Hollywood Childhood.”  The author is the daughter is Dore Shary, the executive who succeeded mogul Louis B. Mayer as MGM head during a five year period beginning in 1951.

Schary had his ideas about stardom and, although he and Louis B. did NOT see eye to eye on most things, we suspect they had similar ideas about what makes a star. For his part, Schary felt that it was what he called a “motor” that begets the magical effects stars emanate.

It was the “motor” that “makes one person a star, and another a person,” wrote Zimmer. “(Schary) felt some stars had what one might call Cadillac motors, while others, less great perhaps, were merely Fords.” (Note:  This was written back when General Motors didn’t require government bailouts.)

“This motor is not make-up or clothes or hair.  It is not stature, size, kindness, or even talent. Three smaller than lifesize ladies, June Allyson, Debbie Reynolds and Jane Powell, have ‘motors’. Motor, unfortunately, has nothing to do with being a Decent Human Being, despite Daddy’s fondest and most wistful hopes.”

Zimmer comes to the conclusion that “movie stars are not real people. They are something special and different, not better, necessarily, and there is no point worrying about it or trying to be one or trying to understand.”  

That clears it up, doesn’t it?  

For our part, we think one of the key measures of true stardom has to be longevity. And our choice for the biggest stars of the Golden era is the couple pictured above, Joan Crawford and John Wayne. (Let us know if you disagree, and who your biggest star choices are.)

In the Thirties, Crawford was riding high. Wayne was still in B westerns. But in the Forties (when they costarred in “Reunion in France”) her star was in decline, his was rising. She, of course, made a spectacular comeback a few years later and won an Academy Award.

His movies continued to make money and get better, and he finally won the coveted Oscar late in his career. Their total careers as stars spanned decades: Wayne’s some 154 pictures, (half of those B westerns) and Crawford’s 80.

But there is no doubt they remain two of the biggest stars ever produced by the Hollywood Studio System. You could say that both had Rolls Royce motors.


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