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

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If It Works For Mary...: Advice from America's Sweetheart
Anke Brouwers

Last modified: 2010-05-12


Contemporary entertainment stars such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Jane Fonda, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Fran Dresher, Madonna a.o. offer us advice on wellness, love, health, sex, relationships and cooking in books or on personal websites. This is not a new phenomenon. Silent movie stars were ardent public advisors and occasionally even dared to ventilate opinions about concrete political “hot” subjects (which stars would refrain from today.) For example, Corinne Griffith and ZaSu Pitts published cookbooks. Colleen Moore wrote a guide on how to make money on the stock market and Mary Pickford discussed spirituality and openly defended suffrage and emancipation. This paper will focus on Pickford’s advisory texts and its relationship to nineteenth century advise literature. We will look at examples from Pickford’s syndicated column “Daily Talks” (1915-1916), at articles from later in her career, and at Why Not Try God? (1935) and My Rendez-Vous With Life (1936).

In the nineteenth century, advice literature (conduct, courtesy or etiquette books) was a popular non-fiction genre in America. In fact, advise literature invaded other literary genres, most notably sentimental literature which used fictional characters and situations to dramatize and illustrate this advice. Pickford’s texts contain similar rhetorical strategies: metaphors, anecdotes, and aporia are put in the familiar and reassuring voice of the intimate friend mixed with the hortatory or inciting manner of a teacher. In terms of content there is also a striking overlap as the texts contain modernized ideas on female responsibilities, domesticity and love of the home, self-government, religion, education, courtship etc. In contrast to the authors of advice manuals of the previous century, Pickford was a celebrity and her readership were people who knew often intimate details of her personal life. The texts therefore contain (often apocryphal) “real life”-anecdotes drawn from the star’s life or relate to the experiences that her most famous fictional characters went through. The lessons are “dramatized” and played out by Pickford, the movie star and “America’s Sweetheart,” in written form. The existing image of the star is reiterated but at the same time, new unseen, elements are introduced.  

Questions this paper will raise are: In what way is this kind of advice congruent with nineteenth century traditions of advise literature and didactic literature such as sentimental texts in particular? Is the voice that emerges from the pages of these books consistent with or explicitly cognizant of the existing star image? Can we construct a consistent world-view when piecing these various texts together? In what way does the respective ghost-writer enter the text? And finally, what authorizes the star to present her knowledge or advise through these texts?




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