Big stars, small screen

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Author: John Monczunski

Christine Becker has the Baby Boomer couch potato’s dream job. Over the last several years the ND assistant professor of film, television and theatre has watched countless hours of vintage 1950s television shows as she researched her study on the relationship of Hollywood film stars to the fledgling medium.

Conventional wisdom has it that ‘50s TV was populated by B-movie bit players and aging Hollywood has-beens, all trying to raise their film careers from the cutting room floor. While that may have been true in the earliest years of the medium, Becker found that by the mid-’50s many top stars such as James Cagney, James Mason, Charles Boyer, Claudette Colbert, Frank Sinatra and others regularly were appearing on the small screen. She says TV was attractive to movie stars for three main reasons. It offered them publicity, production control and money. In return, the stars gave the new medium instant credibility.

In her forthcoming book, It’s the Pictures that Got Small: Hollywood Film Stars on 1950s Television, Becker argues that Hollywood stars shaped TV and were shaped by it in several significant ways: For their part, the stars boosted investment in programming production, brought about the rapid growth of talent agencies and sold the medium as well as the products of sponsors to the public.

Meanwhile, the TV industry transformed the Hollywood star system. The “intimate and routine” quality of television programming made celebrity actors seem more familiar to their audiences, the ND film scholar argues. On TV, famous movie actors stepped out of their “star personas” and were presented as real, authentic people. Also with the advent of television, Hollywood studios no longer had a monopoly on creating stars. TV networks, sponsors, talent agencies and a host of others took a greater hand in the celebrity-making process.

By the 1960s, however, Becker says the era of major movie star involvement in TV largely came to an end. She cites the lessening popularity of the drama anthology series as a contributing factor for the wane. Stars had favored the anthology format because they could easily work in an episode or two in between film projects. With that option gone, their involvement became more difficult.

Perhaps the most significant reason for the movie star decline on TV, however, was that by the 1960s Hollywood studios had become major producers of TV programming. The studios found it more advantageous and economical to develop cheaper young actors than rely on expensive stars.

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