Tia Butler – Discourse Analysis

Billie Burke Cover

Before beginning my analysis based on the work of Decordova, I would like to discuss the cover of the May of 1919 “Photoplay” magazine. In the image below, we can see an oil portrait of the film actress Billie Burke (AKA Glinda the Good Witch of the North). In the cover portrait, Billie Burke is painted in a style reminiscent of the French girl queen, Marie Antoinette. I think the cover is interesting to note because it presents a star both as art, through the use of the painting medium, and royalty through the use of portraiture imagery. In the Dyer reading for class, Dyer discusses how often stars are presented as better or more talented than normal people and this cover offers an interesting example of how the film industry and magazines on film tried to portray their stars to increase viewership and purchase.

I also found the cover interesting because it seems to be in conversation with Decordova’s creation of a “star”.  In his opening statement Decordova writes; “The star emerged out of a marked expansion of the type of knowledge that could be produced about the player” (Decordova 98). The star was a creation of production that relied on consumption. The cover art of a magazine would produce the star in the way the studios hoped they would be consumed or considered by the public thus, every cover image was carefully created to represent the star based on the identity created for them. For instance, the below cover showing Majorie Rambeau led the viewer to see a sincere, happy, and beautiful actress. This was utilized to build her image as a nice young woman of Broadway. As Marjorie aged she began playing harder roles such as the alcoholic mother in Min and Bill. Decordova also discussed the importance of separating film and theathre actors so Majorie, having started as a Broadway performer, needed a reputation of a nice girl to fit into Hollywood.

marjorie rambeua

The covers of magazines are the essential discourse of the celebrity image. Today, the type of magazine a celebrity is on the cover of represents the way the celebrity is perceived. Cover’s become the first mode of intertextuality by a) being the draw to purchase said magazine and b) using only a image to represent a celebrity in their entirety. An example being the below T-Swift “Cosmopolitan” cover.

t swift cover

Aside from the importance of the cover in development of a Hollywood “Star,” “Photoplay” put much emphasis on the telling the masses about the so-called ‘private’ life of the star. In the say May of 1919 magazine, pages 36 and on are full-page photos displaying stars enjoying their favorite “daily activities.”

Harriet Hammond


phyliss haver

Kathleen O'connor

“The actor’s “real” identity was no longer merely a shadowy extension of his or her work in film; it was much more-something that could emerge out of a richly drawn and relatively autonomous narrative.” In the above photo the captions and photos work intertextually to provide a narrative of the star. Captions read about Ora Carew cantering down the beach of her loyal stead (who is black and apparently named “Nigger,” but the 1910’s where a different time…) Or Kathleen O’Connor spending her days fishing (without line on her fishing pole…). These images promote the stars leading lives outside of the movies, thus increasing their authenticity. Now a fan of Phyliss Haver can hope to run into her sunbathing on the beach. By giving the stars personable personalities, moviegoers can feel a greater connection with the person on screen, acting to increase their fan base.

As Dyer states in his article the phenomenon of Stardom relies on certain preconditions (ie; production of surplus, development of mass media to share stars with the world, a perceived distinction or separation between the star and the average man, ect) and is continued through a society whose ideology allows for stars to arise. The images seen in the May 1919 issue of “Photoplay” use the manipulation of an image (the star) to perpetuate stardom. By using a text other than film that delves more into the private life of a star, stars are placed on a pedestal and made more prominent too the mass public.


3 thoughts on “Tia Butler – Discourse Analysis

  1. Tia, can you say a little more about how the covers function differently than the shots within the actual magazine itself? You say that the cover conveys the totality of the star — how does the “candid” within do something slightly differently?

    • Well –

      I guess for me the cover is the one part of the magazine that wants to be sold as a created image. It is hard for me to say exactly what I am thinking, but, maybe the best way to describe it is that the cover is a photo we know is posed. Particularly since many of the “Photoplay” covers are oil paintings of the star portrayed. Portraiture (in the painting medium), indicates a pose held for a long time, and also indicates a designed cover. If we KNOW the cover is a posed image, it functions differently because it is much more about the publicly, produced, pre-ordained image of the star. For me this is particularly poignant in the Billie Burke cover. She is made up to be a “Princess” on the cover, makeup, fake moles, fake hair, the whole nine yards. In the more candid images I show later in the post – the reader is led to believe that Ora Carew was just hanging out with her horse and a photographer went along to snap a photo of what she did in her regular free time. The candid photo creates the so called feeling of “authenticity” by acting as if the star wasn’t perfectly made up and posed next to the perfect horse. While we know both images (the cover art and the candid) are modeled and edited with the same precision, one portrays the public star we know (Billie Burke as a Princess) and the other the private person who also happens to be a movie star (Kathleen O’Connor fishing without a line).

  2. I agree Tia, I found the magazine was essentially activating the reader’s perception of both (or many) parts of the star image to emphasize the enthralling prospect of seeing a star in it’s “entirety” within the personal photos section inside the magazine. A climactic reveal of sorts, seeing one character on the cover, and a new dimension of that character on the inside (similar to seeing the star in different movies while playing relatively similar roles), creates that crucial belief in experiencing the “real”.

    DeCordova discusses this early period in which the cinema was working to establish itself as an art form and distinguish itself from the theatre. The cover functions as a part of the star discourse to highlight and perpetuate an idea of the cinema (as represented by its stars) as high class, or quality. While both the cinema and Photoplay are commercial mediums, the talent and class of the stars conveyed through personal/public discourse enabled the cinema and star magazines to gain credibility in society. This portrait cover exemplifies the importance of the star as art for increasing the popularity and respect of the cinematic medium.

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