Go West Young Women: Historian Hilary Hallett's New Perspective on Early Hollywood

January 23, 2013
Motion picture magnate Mary Pickford keeping track of her screen persona, "Little Mary" in 1918 (Image credit: Margaret Herrick, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills)

When historian Hilary Hallett was researching the cultural history of early Hollywood, she drew on her expertise in feminism and film production to find a defining event about the fledgling industry—the Fatty Arbuckle scandal, a lurid episode involving the death of a beautiful young woman that set off a tabloid frenzy comparable to that surrounding the O.J. Simpson trial.

The 1921 incident centered on model and actress Virginia Rappe, who died under mysterious circumstances after attending a hotel room drinking party hosted by Arbuckle, the popular, portly silent film star. He was acquitted after three trials; the first two juries deadlocked.

Hallett, an assistant professor in the History Department who also teaches in the American Studies program, found herself focusing on the attention Rappe received. Like thousands of other women during the 1910s, Rappe had journeyed west to find her fortune in the new center of the film industry. Indeed, by 1920 Los Angeles had become the first western boomtown where women outnumbered men.

With the publication this month of her first book, "Go West, Young Women! The Rise of Early Hollywood," Hallett has broken new ground on a piece of history that had been largely ignored. “I discovered many promotions encouraging young women like Rappe to go west,” Hallett said. “Movie publicists depicted this new frontier in a classic American way, as a place of opportunity for the young and ambitious. Except in this case, it was female migrants that were especially encouraged.”

Hallett, who joined Columbia in 2007 as a post-doctoral fellow after teaching at Rutgers and Johns Hopkins, studied theater and filmmaking at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and later earned her Ph.D. at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her adviser there was the distinguished historian David Nasaw (GSAS ’68, ’72), whose latest book "The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy," has gotten rave reviews.

Nasaw praises the original approach she took in her book. “Hilary blasts through the barriers that divide women's history from film, business and social history to tell a remarkable, multilayered story of young women who set out to make their mark—and, against all odds—did just that,” he said.

Why had this female migration west been ignored in previous studies of early Hollywood?

“Until the current generation most film scholars weren’t much interested in historical work,” said Hallett. “What interest there was tended to focus on figures who had already been canonized, such as D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin.”

Yet the success of promotions aimed at women sped what Hallett calls “the feminization of movie fan culture.” Even women who didn’t literally heed the call to “go west” were part of this phenomenon. “In reading fan magazines and going to the movies, it became [women’s] vicarious way of supporting their own emancipation.”

Fueling that migration were the industry’s first promoters, among them Louella Parsons, whose own rise from secretary to nationally syndicated columnist was proof that in Hollywood, anything was possible.

Parsons trumpeted the accomplishments of these successful women — especially the first motion picture stars—presenting movies as a place where, Hallett said, “brains and beauty could reinvent the terms of feminine success.”

Embodying that combination of beauty and brains was silent screen actress Mary Pickford—Hollywood’s first great movie star—who received hundreds of letters daily from female fans. But she was also a producer, writer and co-founder of United Artists, along with Chaplin, Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks.

Hallett's book also tackles what she calls the “revolution in morals and manners” after World War I that led to the Hays Code, the first internal censorship guidelines accepted by the film industry. The Arbuckle scandal was one of the forces driving implementation of the new restrictive rules for what could be shown on screen.

“Rappe came to stand for all young women who dreamed of heading west to work in the industry,” said Hallett. “[Her death] provided a very public forum to debate Hollywood's role in encouraging these ambitions.”

Hallett sees a vastly different cultural landscape in Hollywood today. “The industry has been oriented toward an international audience of teenage boys for about a generation,” said Hallett. “Producers don’t want a lot of dialogue in most movies because then someone has to dub it or translate it. The more special effects, the better. It’s quite sad for those who prefer more dialogue, character-driven stories.”

—by Amy Lennard Goehner