Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Starlets to Secretaries: the Suicide Gesture in the Silent Era
Kerry L McElroy

Last modified: 2010-05-12

Abstract


There is a standard conception of the diva as the charismatically maudlin woman who attempts suicide as the penultimate response to a failed love affair or the pending loss of youth and beauty.  But how does this trope co-exist with the arrival of cinema as the dominant form of culture consumed by the masses?  How does suicide, both as represented in the arts and as a social act, evolve beyond a perceived act of mere bourgeois ennui? And in a world dominated by cinema, how does the complex relation between fictional character, portraying actress, and spectator shift the actions and mores of each? This paper explores the predominance of the female suicide gesture in the silent era, amongst cinematic heroines, actresses, and the women in the masses who idolized and imitated emergent stars.

I will argue that portrayal of suicide and access by the public to the glamorously constructed lifestyle of the diva conflated the stereotypical reasons for the suicide act across class in the pre-cinematic era and in fact served as a morbidly democratizing force. Further, what could at first glance appear to be examination of a psychological fad will be deconstructed through the lens of the economic. I will contend that the dichotomy between the upper class suicidal gesture of romantic despair and the lower class suicide of deprivation and social ruin were never well delineated from the outset, but that the separation of the two becomes absolutely untenable in the person of the film actress. Here the film actress, rather than being a deified diva, was actually the modern demimondaine. The cinema actress was literally half in the world of the glamorous characters she plays and the fantasy land of wealth afforded by the star system and half in the world of economic instability and the possibility of slipping back into obscurity and the masses at any time. Following Mary Ann Doane, we can situate the actress as “narrative machine”, as an expendable working class commodity easily discarded when out of fashion.

Suicide amongst the masses and the relationship between imitation, spectatorship, and suicide will be discussed, and I will explore the currents across class and economics that led female spectators to identify with and imitate the diva occasionally even to the suicide gesture, as with the death of Valentino. The work will also be bolstered by examination of female suicide as represented in the films of the silent era across international lines (The Scar of Shame, The New Women, Applause).  But it is the suicide act amongst actresses themselves which illuminates the discussion of the demimondaine and the commodified woman. Beyond mere performativity of the diva, I will interrogate such factors as the new phenomena of celebrity, emergent tabloid media, and implicit social insecurities. Above all the predominant force in actress suicide was not the grand diva gesture of love at all, but the utter lack of economic stability for a demimonde woman like a film actress. I will look at starlets of the era—Lawrence, Prevost, Thomas, Entwhistle, Lingyu—who committed suicide amidst destabilized cinematic prospects and explore how these sorts of deaths took on a morbid cinematic glamour and became a meta-trope of the film industry in their own right. The intersecting discussion of these three groups of women is all the more intriguing when examined as no mere Hollywood occurrence, but rather as trope and social phenomenon observable in international context.


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