Fans, community, and conflict in the pages of Picture Play, 1920–38

Lies Lanckman

University of Hertfordshire, United Kingdom

[0.1] Abstract—Fan history remains a neglected subdiscipline of fan studies, in part because of the methodological complications in dealing with a community of fans who may be deceased. Fan magazines, and particularly fan magazine letter sections, are a way for fan historians to access the views and opinions of classic Hollywood fans of the 1920s and 1930s—a community otherwise largely lost to history. Judicious use of the freely available 1920, 1930, and 1940 US census records helps researchers establish which letters were written by real, existing fans; further census information can help establish a demographic profile of the fan magazine community as a whole. Content analysis of fan letters illustrates the preoccupations of particular fans, as well as the way they established and negotiated particular codes of behavior within their fandom. A focus on particular fans who wrote to the magazine repeatedly over the course of multiple years can help historians recreate the fannish journey traveled by now-dead fans over the course of years or even decades.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan magazines; Fandom history; Film history; Readers' letters

Lanckman, Lies. 2019. "Fans, Community, and Conflict in the Pages of Picture Play, 1920–38." In "Fan Studies Methodologies," edited by Julia E. Largent, Milena Popova, and Elise Vist, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 33.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Throughout the mid-1930s, fan magazine Modern Screen published at the beginning of each year an article covering its predictions for the year to come. These were conveyed to the magazine by the mysterious Dareos, a self-proclaimed "Hollywood prophet and seer." With a long list of predictions, ranging from the obvious "four divorces of big stars" to the more specific "attempt to kidnap the child of a famous blonde," the magazine could guarantee a reasonable success rate—as indeed it regularly reminded its readers (Lang 1932, 40–41). Yet even the great Dareos repeatedly failed to predict the usefulness of magazines such as his very own Modern Screen to future fan historians. Here I seek to remedy this oversight and investigate this phenomenon in some detail.

[1.2] Anthony Slide defines the fan magazine as "fundamentally a film- and entertainment-related periodical aimed at a general fan, an average member of the moviegoing public who more often than not was female" (2010, 12). These periodicals were thus popular magazines produced for, not by, fans, published by independent companies with close ties to the Hollywood studios. They were widely read; for example, circulation figures compiled by Polley (2019) indicate that by the mid-1930s, at least eleven of these publications had a monthly circulation of more than 100,000 a month, with seven selling more than 250,000 monthly copies, with each of these issues likely read by at least three people. The longevity and popularity of these periodicals make them a rich source to film and fan historians.

[1.3] Here, in a focus on the interbellum period between World War I and World War II, a case study examining readers' letters printed in the magazine Picture Play during 1920–38 permits analysis of the different ways such letters can be used by fan historians to access past audiences, which exist now outside of the reach of oral history. Such analysis is performed first in terms of the demographics of this particular audience, but also second in terms of its particular preoccupations, including the way it conceived of its own fandom and shaped and reshaped different senses of fan community.

[1.4] Here some concerns particular to the field of fan studies—for example, the emphasis on fan agency, self-understanding, and community—are interrogated alongside the field of film reception studies, which tends to have a more contemporary focus, and which has previously tackled historical spectatorship and fandom in various guises. These two fields usefully inform one another. I begin by assessing the context of film scholarship today, with a focus on audience reception studies and on the use of fan magazines as primary sources.

[1.5] Audience reception studies as a field has a long history and is rooted in the seminal work of Stuart Hall ([1973] 1980), a cultural studies scholar who proposes a model of active, rather than passive, reception. Hall's work highlights the importance of the specific identities and experiences of audience members in their negotiations of particular cultural products. Within the field of film history specifically, this kind of research has taken on various forms, with one tension apparent throughout between the theorized/ideal spectator and the empirical study of specific extant audiences. Barbara Klinger defines film reception studies as the examination of "a network of relationships between a film or filmic element, adjacent intertextual fields such as censorship, exhibition practices, star publicity and reviews, and the dominant or alternative ideologies of society at a particular time," then notes that a "total [reception] history does not tell us […] how specific individuals responded to films," except "in the case of empirical research on fans and spectators" (1997, 108, 114). Many foundational works largely focus on such a total history; Miriam Hansen's Babel and Babylon (1991), for example, uses the reception of certain films and stars to explore the way cinematic spectatorship interacts with discourses on the public sphere.

[1.6] However, my own research is situated more within the realm of empirical research into particular spectators, as indeed are a number of other film-historical works. Shelley Stamp's Movie-Struck Girls (2000), for example, focuses on early movies and female fans; her work uses, to an extent, readers' letters as sources to investigate the spectatorship of particular films. Janet Staiger, in the earlier Interpreting Films (1992), takes a similar approach. Her work demonstrates the way both readers' letters and published reviews can be used to examine the reception of particular films. She usefully notes that "the spectator cannot be generalized into some idealized subject, devoid of networks of sexual, cultural, political, ethnic, racial, cognitive and historical differences" (138). Her later Media Reception Studies (2005) does not provide as close a reading as her previous book, but it nonetheless warrants a mention here. Its chapter on fans directly engages with Henry Jenkins's foundational fan studies work, thus bringing these discourses on fan community into contact with film history specifically, which this article also strives to do.

[1.7] Other scholars have considered reception history in the context not of the reception of particular films but of particular performers or stars. Important examples include Richard Dyer and Richard deCordova. Dyer's Heavenly Bodies (1986) in particular stands out in this regard; it focuses on three particular stars in three ideological but also demographic contexts—for example, in investigating male gay spectatorship and fandom of Judy Garland. It therefore privileges notions of fan community and identity, and it uses fan magazines as a key source, with reviews, letters, and articles fitting into the category that Dyer, in Stars, terms "criticism and commentaries"—a key way stars are created and read by audiences (1979, 62).

[1.8] Tamar Jeffers McDonald's Doris Day Confidential (2013) investigates the stardom of one particular star, but it focuses more directly on the research possibilities of fan magazines, which are at the heart of her methodology to investigate Doris Day's star persona. However, as a result of this particular focus, the book does not examine their participatory elements. Sumiko Higashi's Stars, Fans, and Consumption in the 1950s (2014) focuses on the magazine itself rather than on one particular star, and it therefore does contain a section entirely on fandom. Nonetheless, it largely ignores fan letters (and indeed individual fans), instead focusing on advice columns, advertisements, and similar elements.

[1.9] To find a broader approach to the study of empirical historical audiences apart from a specific focus on a particular film or star, and one with an interest in fan community, we must look to Jackie Stacey's Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship (1994) and Annette Kuhn's Dreaming of Fred and Ginger: Cinema and Cultural Memory (2002). Both are concerned with the experiences and memories of movie fans in 1930s (Kuhn) and the 1940s to 1950s (Stacey) Britain; both are interested in the views and opinions of fans generally, beyond one particular star or film; and both express a specific interest in the views and opinions of a real rather than theorized audience.

[1.10] Both also agree on the methodological difficulties of such a wide-ranging examination of historical fan communities. Despite the available statistics on the demographics of film-goers—and, more broadly, the films and stars they enjoy and do not enjoy—"we hardly," Kuhn notes, "know these people at all"—a sentiment Stacey, in Star Gazing (1994), echoes in the title of her third chapter, "The Lost Audience." Through a range of methodological approaches, including interviews and questionnaires, both authors attempt to find this audience again, even as they question these fans about how they experienced film culture in their younger years. Fan magazines and letters are used sparingly because the emphasis is largely on oral history. However, this interesting methodological approach is difficult to carry out today: whereas Kuhn in 2002 could still write that "the picturegoing heyday of the 1930s generation lies within living memory" (3), in 2019, this is increasingly not the case. Most movie fans active in the 1930s are now deceased, so contemporary fan historians must seek other avenues for research.

[1.11] Fan magazines are not the only resources that can be used in this context. Indeed, from the 1980s onward, scholars have used extensive archival research to unearth traces of such historical fandoms, focusing on scrapbooks, letters, and diaries. Fuller Seeley (2017) reflects on her own research in this regard, remembering "years of digging around museum, university and private archives, antique shops and eBay listings" (30). Other scholars, such as Diana Anselmo (2017), use such materials—often in combination with printed readers' letters—specifically to examine female silent film fans, uncovering, for example, the potential homoerotic desires underlying certain aspects of their fandom.

[1.12] My own choice to focus here solely on letters printed in fan magazines has two key reasons. First, the huge national and indeed international popularity of the fan magazines of the era ensured that they attracted not just fans of a particular star or film but were instead consumed by a wide-ranging group of people with some enduring interest in some aspect of film culture. Second, this popularity makes these magazines and their letters ideal as a lens through which to examine the formation of a fan community. Letters circulated between fans, or between fans and stars; scrapbooks could be shared among fan friends. However, fan magazine letter pages served "almost like a movie fan internet website that included discussion forum, blog, and tweets" (Fuller Seeley 2017, 33). A letter published in such a magazine immediately won a readership of several hundred thousand other fans, who could read this letter and engage with it, for example by writing their own replies, which in turn might also get published. In this preinternet era, fan magazines allowed fans a sense of community that they were unlikely to find elsewhere.

[1.13] Marsha Orgeron examines the fan magazine in this particular context, with a focus on participation and community, but although Orgeron states that "fan magazines regularly encouraged epistolary responses from their readers and often rewarded them as well" (2009, 5), the emphasis is on the way the magazines attempted to shape the fan community, rather than on the way this fan community may have reacted to such tactics. The focus on fan letters may be extended in this useful way—to be used specifically to investigate what Stacey (1994) calls the lost audience in an empirical sense, with a focus on fan community and self-understanding rather than on specific stars and films, or on the strategies of the magazine.

[1.14] Stacey (1993) comments on the potential usefulness of fan letters; she notes that they are interesting, but she voices a few caveats. The first of these is connected to the fact that fan letters printed in magazines were, by their very nature, selected, and in a sense mediated, by the editorial staff of the magazine. Therefore, "the agenda for legitimate topics was largely framed by the producers of the magazine" rather than freely decided upon by fans (266). The second, connected to this, notes that such "mainstream publications" may not express "the opinions of more marginal groups." That is, the letters cannot be said to accurately represent the views of all spectators (266). Third, she notes perhaps her most basic concern, affecting the fan-produced nature of the letters itself: "As 'urban legend' and more reliable academic sources have it, those printed may well be concocted by office staff at the magazine" (266). This concern is also echoed by Diana Anselmo-Sequiera: while she uses such letters, she notes that they may be "manufactured or not," and she sees them primarily as valuable to underline particular cultural discourses about fans (2015, 15).

[1.15] Although Stacey's (1993) first two arguments are well taken—and I will address them further below—I here develop a methodology to begin to address the third concern. After all, in order to use readers' letters to access this past fan community, we have to establish that at least a reasonable number of the letters were written by real members of that community. My case study provides a methodology to do this. Then, having done so, I will demonstrate three different ways fan letters contribute to our knowledge of fans of what we now term classic Hollywood.

2. Case study: Picture Play, 1920–38

[2.1] A number of digitization initiatives, through projects such as the Media History Digital Library, have recently made a wide range of fan magazines freely available online, thereby creating unique new opportunities for film researchers. Although many of these magazines could previously be found in archives, their digitization greatly improved accessibility and searchability, thus facilitating particularly big data projects, such as this one on readers' letters. Such digitization has also assisted researchers in looking beyond the two first fan magazines—Motion Picture Story Magazine, which originated the genre, and Photoplay, which has been privileged by researchers as a result of its availability on microfilm (Petersen 2013; Hoyt 2014)—and has permitted them to investigate a number of their younger yet no less popular siblings, including Picture Play, Screenland, New Movie Magazine, Film Fun, and Silver Screen.

[2.2] Elsewhere in my work on fan letters I include Photoplay and Motion Picture (Lanckman 2019), but here I choose to focus on a different magazine, Picture Play, across a period of eighteen years. (All parenthetical citations are to Picture Play.) Picture Play was a slightly later (April 1915) competitor to Photoplay and Motion Picture, which, once it became a monthly magazine in 1916, was virtually identical in format and price to these older publications. Although the magazine was not the single most popular magazine in any particular year—an honor reserved for Motion Picture Magazine (1910s), Photoplay (1920s, 1950s, and 1960s), and Modern Screen (1930s) (Polley 2019)—it was nonetheless hugely popular, with monthly circulation figures ranging from 164,649 in 1925 to 452,174 in 1937.

[2.3] These circulation figures are important in setting the scene for this case study: they demonstrate a distinction between this research into classic Hollywood fans and fan studies research focusing on later periods. Although many fans individually likely belonged to one or more marginalized groups in terms of class, gender, immigration status, race, or sexuality, the wider fandom itself was mainstream in a way many later fandoms were not. Indeed, Henry Jenkins begins the first chapter of Textual Poachers (1992, 2013) with an anecdote demonstrating the widespread social mockery aimed at Star Trek fans. This notion of marginality, of niche interest, has become inextricably linked to notions of fandom.

[2.4] Classic Hollywood fans, however, are in a crucially different position in this regard. Their fandom is that of the most influential entertainment medium available at the time. By 1930, the first year for which reliable attendance information exists, eighty million people within the United States were going to the movies weekly—65 percent of the total US population at the time (Balio 1996, 13). As a result, fan magazines were mainstream products. They were not small-run, obscure publications created by a tiny group of devoted fans. Rather, they were high-quality, often physically sizable, and widely sold periodicals—and many titles were available. By the late 1940s, "one might find as many as twenty magazines for sale at the local newsstand" (Slide 2010, 3).

[2.5] This is also connected to the definition of "fan" the magazines used. Whereas Daniel Cavicchi demonstrates that even in the nineteenth century the notion of the fan as a particularly involved lover of a particular media text or performer—whose "engagement […] was different from that of other audience members" (2007, 244)—existed, the magazines did not really use this distinction between fans and general audience members. As Slide notes, the publications were particularly aimed at "a general fan, an average member of the moviegoing public" (2010, 12)—someone who might embrace the selectivity highlighted by Cavicchi and thus focus on particular performers or films but who might also simply enjoy the movies in general. This specificity, or lack thereof, further becomes apparent when dealing with the actual content of individual fan letters.

[2.6] First, however, I will outline the parameters of this particular case study. The issue of access to fan magazines of the classic Hollywood era has in recent years been partially solved as a result of the efforts of the Media History Digital Library (MHDL); researchers can use its search platform, Lantern, to search for particular terms or issues, leaf through digital copies, download images or entire issues, and more. While the possibility of such directed searches may have its downsides—leading researchers to miss features a more serendipitous exploration might have exposed—this has nonetheless had a huge impact for the field and has greatly facilitated big data research.

[2.7] The MHDL's Picture Play holdings run from the magazine's birth in 1915 to 1938, three years before it merged with Charm magazine and thus disappeared as an independent publication (Slide 2010). The magazine only began publishing a readers' letters section, "What the Fans Think," in April 1920, and for this reason, the remit of my case study will be the years 1920 to 1938, roughly covering the period between the two world wars. In order to make the vast number of letters published in these magazines—twelve issues a year, each containing up to thirty letters per issue—more manageable, I created seven samples of three consecutive months each, spread evenly across the nineteen years of my case study, covering the years 1920, 1923, 1926, 1929, 1932, 1935, and 1938. These samples can be studied in three different ways: fan demographics, letter content analysis, and individual fans. I discuss each below.

3. Fan demographics and the US census

[3.1] The first approach I will take addresses the concern voiced by Stacey (1993) in terms of the veracity of the fan letters as letters written by existing fans, rather than by the magazine's editors. In this context, it is important to note that these letters were not, for the most part, anonymous: each letter was published alongside some identifying information of its writers, which in Picture Play often took the form of a full postal address. With this information, I was able to use the now-digitized US census records for the years 1920, 1930, and 1940, which are released with a seventy-two-year delay, to locate particular fans and thus verify their existence.

[3.2] However, the census is not only useful in this important respect. It also reveals additional demographic details about each writer, such as each person's gender, race, immigration status, marital status, and profession. After identifying a number of real letter writers, it is possible to use the additional data located in this way to examine the demographic profile of fan letter writers and thus to interrogate particular truisms about such writers, such as the fact that the magazines were consumed primarily, or perhaps even exclusively, by young women (Slide 2010; Polley 2019).

[3.3] Over the course of the twenty-one months that my analysis covered, I located 472 letters; for the purpose of this case study, I focus on fans writing within the United States, excluding foreign letters. This left me with 385 letters to research. Some of these were signed in ways that made it impossible to locate the authors using the census; all twenty letters printed in 1920, for example, were signed with initials or nicknames, as the magazine was still experimenting with its format. Nonetheless, of these 385 letter writers, I could identify 107 (27.8 percent) as real people. Although this means the majority of letter writers remain unidentified, it is nonetheless a significant number, which may help assuage concerns about veracity: many of these letters were not fabricated by the magazine's editorial staff but were written by real movie fans. (Of course, it is also likely that many of the unidentifiable initialed or nicknamed letters were in fact written by real individuals; we simply have no way of proving this.) Considering the letters on a year-by-year basis, the results are even more impressive, with over 30 percent of the letters having authors identified for the years 1929 (38.5 percent) and 1938 (32 percent).

[3.4] These 107 verified letters can then be analyzed demographically in a number of ways. Regarding gender, of these fans, 75 (70 percent) were women, and 32 (30 percent) were men. This indicates that although most readers were indeed female, a not insignificant minority of active male readers also existed. In terms of age, even this relatively limited sample of letters demonstrates a wide demographic variety. The median age of those writing to the magazine over the course of these years was twenty-one, with an average age of 24.5, thus demonstrating the existence of quite a few outliers. Indeed, twelve of the letter writers identified were over forty at the time of writing, and five were in their fifties.

[3.5] One area where this particular case study identified no diversity at all is that of race. All writers were identified as white in the census, and no subdivisions (for example, Italian, Irish, Anglo-Saxon, Jewish) were made. This does not mean that no people of different races ever read or wrote to fan magazines. In August 1940, for example, a black girl wrote to Photoplay to discuss her own nascent singing career, noting explicitly, "I am a Negro girl, so life is a little more difficult for me than for a white girl" (August 1940, 80). And of course it is possible that some of the unidentified fans might have been nonwhite. Nonetheless, these census findings demonstrate a valuable point, and one also raised by Stacey: the "mainstream" fan magazine conveyed, or at least conveyed disproportionately, the views of the racially privileged rather than "the opinions of more marginal groups" (1993, 266). This should remind researchers that although fan magazines provide valuable insights, and reach across boundaries of age, gender, geography, and often class, they nonetheless did not speak to all readers equally.

[3.6] This demographic information can be put to further use than simply examining the representation of people of different genders, races, or ages in the pages of the magazine, particularly once we add the chronological element. In this way, for example, we can see that the average age of the letter writers actually went up markedly from 1923 (21.5 percent) to 1935 (29.1 percent), possibly demonstrating the way a number of readers began reading the magazine at a young age, then remained loyal to Picture Play as they grew older. This is also apparent when the content of the letters is analyzed: many older fans describe themselves as "an old subscriber" (August 1935, 80) or note that "for many years [they] have been reading this department" (August 1935, 10).

[3.7] The possibilities of this type of demographic research can go far beyond this fairly superficial observation. For example, it would be possible for researchers with a particular interest in immigrant fandoms to look at the number of identified fans who were first- or second-generation immigrants and examine their views. Fans originating from a particular geographic location—such as Eastern Europe—could then be considered in the context of the predominantly Jewish immigration wave during the first decades of the twentieth century, and their letters could be read alongside narratives on fandom published in the Yiddish press, considered in the context of discourses on assimilation and integration. A demographic examination of fan letters first demonstrates the legitimacy of these letters as objects of study; second, it allows us to place these letters and their writers not just in the context of the history of their specific fan magazines but also in the context of various aspects of early twentieth-century history.

4. Content analysis of the letters

[4.1] The content of the letters traced can be divided into several categories, including focused on a particular star, film, or aspect of the film industry. These include a letter noting that, rather than Garbo, Dietrich, or Chatterton, "Helen Hayes is the best actress on the screen today" (July 1932, 14), but also a letter that, while criticizing the new sound cinema, asks, "Can't something be done about this?" (July 1929, 12). Such letters can be useful in establishing particular aspects of the public persona of certain stars, noting different fans' views on films or on developments within the industry. They might also have fulfilled the function of "structures of accommodation," helping fans to come to terms with significant changes in terms of their own movie-going experience (Hall 1979, 78).

[4.2] Such letters went beyond the "coming to terms" process, however, and often took on an advisory slant, sometimes accompanied by direct address aimed at stars, film industry professionals, studios, or even the industry as a whole. They thereby embody the notion of "consumer activism," through which fans "assert their right to make judgments and to express opinions" (Jenkins 1992, 278)—and indeed, in this industry-steered publication, to influence the industry directly. Some handled this fairly politely, but others took a more aggressive tone. A letter from August 1929 complains of the way starlet Eva Von Berne, whose Hollywood career lasted a mere six months, was treated by Hollywood, ending rather threateningly by stating that "those responsible for this outrage will suffer" (August 1929, 103).

[4.3] Significantly, such letters demonstrate that the fans writing them believed industry professionals, even stars, faithfully read them—a conceit supported by the fan magazine itself. In September 1923, for example, an interview with Mae Murray begins with the actress stating that she enjoyed playing varied roles, followed by the observation, "Really, really, isn't this a little too much for some of the contributors of What the Fans Think?" The fans are here posited as not just silent observers and admirers but rather as a necessary and indeed powerful group—one whose likes and dislikes matter and should be taken into account, even by stars.

[4.4] Another variant of the letter connected to stars, films, or the movie industry is the "artistic" letter; after all, one of the key characteristics of fandom is that it constitutes "a particular Art World" (Jenkins 2013, 279). Because the fairly strictly circumscribed format of the magazine letter leaves limited space for artistic impression, most of these take the form of short poems focusing on an aspect of the film industry. In 1932, one contributor wrote a rhyming ode to Greta Garbo entitled "The Great Garbo," praising the star's beauty in eighteen lines (September 1932, 14).

[4.5] Others work with the restrictions of the magazine medium in different ways, such as writers who match stars with songs that "fits [their] personalities" (July 1935, 80). One such letter I found uses classical music for this purpose; others use more contemporary songs, such as "A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich, and You" for May McAvoy (August 1926, 10). This is a fascinating use of the fan letter in that it prefigures, in a prototypical form, much later practices such as vidding. As a result of technological restrictions, letter writers might be unable to actually edit footage, but they nonetheless use their chosen songs to "draw out aspects of the emotional lives of the characters [here, stars] or otherwise get inside their heads" (Jenkins 2006, 155). This parallel is illustrated further by the letter's allusion to shipping, with the 1925 song "Tea for Two" dedicated not to one star but to a star couple, Helen Ferguson and Bill Russell, whose relationship is summarized through the song by this particular fan.

[4.6] However, many letters published in Picture Play do not focus primarily on stars, films, or the industry as a whole. Instead, they fall within the broad category of fans and fandom. These fans essentially create within the magazine's pages an "alternative social community" within which fandom can happen (Jenkins 2013, 280). Such letters perform a number of different functions of varying complexity. There is the category of letters that essentially praises Picture Play for providing fans with information about their idols but also offers them, in the letter section, the opportunity to share their opinions with one another. In July 1920, for example, three of these were published, with one fan noting, "Your department is great—I do enjoy reading other fans' views of the plays and players" (July 1920, 76).

[4.7] However, this letter also demonstrates what would become a continuous thread through the letter sections in years to come: the fact that even fans praising the magazine or letter section do not necessarily extend their praise to the specific letters printed. After noting her enjoyment of the letter department, and indeed of "reading other fans' views," a July 1920 fan continues: "But I cannot understand how 'Mary's Faithful Admirer' can ever think that Nazimova is not like a real person" (July 1920, 76). The fan then continues at some length, with a recommendation of a few Alla Nazimova films that will make the previous writer love the star as well. It ends by stating, "I do hope someone else will come to my aid in defense of this delightful star."

[4.8] This statement is prophetic for much of the rhetoric printed in "What the Fans Think" throughout the rest of its existence. Fans would not simply write to voice their own opinions or share advice. Rather, they would also react to previous letters, often over many months. In this way, the magazine letter sections, although mediated in some sense by the magazine (which chose which letters to publish), become a forum for nationwide and often international fan conversation in a way that was otherwise almost impossible in this predigital era.

[4.9] Whereas in the 1920 sample such fan reactions were mostly relatively small in scale, later years demonstrate fargoing chains of letters focusing on the same topic, and often violently disagreeing with previous writers. One such chain happened in Picture Play across the year 1925. Because the collection available in MHDL only has the issues of Picture Play from March 1925 onward, the letter chain's beginning is obscure, but later responses can help uncover the earlier letters. We can deduce therefore that in November 1924, regular Picture Play contributor Helen Klumph published an article in the form of a "letter to the fans" in which she broadly notes that some stars were kinder people or better actors than others, and that she prefers to interview those whom she personally liked.

[4.10] This inspired many reactions—I counted eighteen overall—over the course of 1925, with the first published during the first two months of that year. These letters are not available digitally but can be broadly reconstructed from the letters reacting to them in April 1925. One, by Betty Ruth Janright, reacts to Klumph's letter by saying she should instead "write about all the stars and praise all of them," because, after all, "it is just as easy to praise as to criticize" (April 1925, 12). Another, by Aaron S. Brundige, instead agrees with Klumph, noting that she should adopt a rule not to interview any star who had been divorced, thus highlighting the perceived morality of the movie industry and its stars as another area of particular concern (April 1925, 13). In April 1925, Picture Play allocated a special subsection of its letter section to the responses to both letters, as indeed it would continue to do sporadically throughout the years, in order to allow space for specific debates to unfold.

[4.11] Responses to Brundige were largely limited to this month alone, with one agreeing that only "stars whose reputations are untouched by suspicion of scandal" should be interviewed and another exclaiming "SHAME ON YOU!" at interviewers not following this rule (April 1925, 13). Others were more pragmatic, noting that Brundige had "a censor's mind" and that his rule would bar many of "the screen's most interesting personalities" from the pages of the magazine (April 1925, 13). Although debates about censorship would continue to rage in the pages of "What the Fans Think," this particular thread of debate in response to Klumph's letter faded quickly.

[4.12] Another thread, however, did not. It came in response to Janright's letter, with one letter, written by Jean Kilmer, attacking Janright's sentiments outright. This letter notes that even "little girls" like Janright should realize that it is impractical to simply praise an entire class of people outright. Instead of "rapturously throwing adjectives of admiration" upon the stars, she recommends "a little discretion and plain common sense" (April 1925, 13). However, this triggered another furious response from Janright the next month, when the young fan argued that because fans are those who can make or break stars, all stars must by definition be "wonderful people in every way," even if she had not met any of them personally. "All the real fans," she concludes, thought as she did (May 1925, 10). However, the same subsection within the letter department—Picture Play grouped all letters on this topic together—contains a letter by Marion Delahey, who disagrees both with Janright and with a separate article printed in Picture Play, and who notes that she thinks "it [is] a disgrace the way [the stars] are idealized" because they are not "gods and goddesses" (May 1925, 10).

[4.13] Further responses abounded over the course of the next few months, including one particularly scathing epistle from Kilmer—once more responding to Janright—in the July issue, in which she sarcastically declares herself "rebuffed and rebuked" because she clearly "knew not whereof [she] spoke." She then proceeds to explain in some detail that her own definition of fandom does not involve blind adoration but instead a critical approach where needed (July 1925, 118). Other fans, including M. Elizabeth Kapitz, who had written earlier to disagree with Brundige's criticism of divorced stars, wrote to agree with Janright's "determined loyalty," which to Kapitz was preferable to "the cynical knocking of some other fans" (July 1925, 118). Yet more fans wrote in response to Marion Delahey's critique of idealizing the stars. The final letter in this debate, entitled "The Debate Continues," was published in November 1925, a full year after the initial Klumph letter that started it all. It mentioned no fewer than five fellow fans by name, including original instigator Janright, whom this final writer broadly agreed with (November 1925, 117–18).

[4.14] Such a letter chain—which this kind of big data research of fan magazine materials is ideally placed to discover—is interesting to scholars for a number of reasons. For researchers interested in stars, this particular series of letters demonstrates fans in the 1920s debating the ordinary versus extraordinary nature of Hollywood stars in a sometimes crude, sometimes sarcastic, but also often fairly sophisticated ways, and with an intensity and months-long focus that clearly demonstrates the extent of this debate—which a number of key academic works discuss, including Dyer's Stars (1979) and deCordova's Picture Personalities (1990).

[4.15] The letter chain also emphasizes the way fan writing permits writers to perceive each other as individuals, aiming writers' responses at a particular person and even attempting to glean particular facts about the person on the other side of the page through the content of her letters. This individual address can also be seen in the fan letter sections more widely, outside of wide-ranging letter chains. The fact that Picture Play encouraged the publication of full addresses is important because it allowed fans to engage in or to invite private correspondence outside the magazine's pages. This happened for better and for worse. One example is a letter published in July 1930 entitled "An Appeal to 'Dorothy,'" where the writer simply wrote in—with her full address—to ask another writer, who had not allowed her full name to be published, to write to her. The fact that Dorothy was English and the letter writer American only underlines the international nature of these fan connections and communities, even in a predigital age (July 1930, 11).

[4.16] It also underlines a number of topics frequently discussed in the letter section, including the emphasis on policing the way other fans experience their fandom—essentially comprising a policing of the preferred "critical and interpretive practices" within the fan community (Jenkins 1992), and indeed agreement and disagreement about fan practices more broadly. In the context of these specific letters, it involves the approach—universally approving or more critical—that "good" fans ought to take toward their stars, but other letters address different public or private aspects of the fan experience. Such letters often combine a description of the writer's own practices with advice to other specific fans or to the fan community in general.

[4.17] The public letters often describe a real-life encounter with the star, which is then used to establish the fan credentials of the writer. Whereas other fans have only seen Rudolph Valentino on screen, this fan has met him in the flesh and can advise her fellow fans accordingly. In August 1923, the magazine published three such letters—grouped together, as was Picture Play's wont, in a small separate section—focusing on real-life encounters with Valentino. The writers' assessments of the star varied wildly, with one admiring him unreservedly and another denouncing his "ugly disposition," but they also contained observations about their own fandom, such as one fan's attempt to bring Valentino a flower, and notes about the behaviors of other fans at such events, such as those who "mobbed" him and "rushed upon him" (August 1923, 104). Other letters on real-life encounters went one step further and outright used the lived experience of the writer to advise other fans to "judge [the star] a little less harshly in future" now they have heard about the star's good behavior in real life (August 1923, 108).

[4.18] Further descriptions of public fandom experiences focus partially on fan policing but more on fan communication outside of the pages of the letter section. Such letters could focus on fan clubs. Fans could write to Picture Play simply to ask, as one person did in July 1929, "What is a fan club?," or note their membership of a fan club in order to advise fellow fans that through the increased access to the star such membership implies, they are able to defend the star against detractors (September 1929, 10). Important here is the fact that because of the publication of full addresses in Picture Play, it was easy for fellow fans to contact the letter writers personally, with many fans specifically inviting this type of direct contact as a means of communication that was less cumbersome than the letter section.

[4.19] More private fannish practices were also not exempt from discussion within the letter section. Indeed, many fans wrote in to describe the way in which, for example, they displayed pictures of their favorites in photo frames. In August 1929, one fan describes the way she purchased two photo frames five years ago, noting that one has retained a picture of Ramon Novarro ever since, whereas the other has reflected her changing tastes in stars (August 1929, 10). Yet this same month's section contained a letter from another fan who wondered about the "psychology back of collecting pictures of people you don't know and will probably never know," and which criticized the way fans went "perfectly dippy over the idea" (August 1929, 12). The writer concludes that such fans should read Freud to help fix their problem.

[4.20] Correspondence with stars was also a key topic in terms of fan practices, with letters (including several letter chains) published throughout the eighteen years examined here. A key aspect of such correspondence was the acquisition of signed photographs, which could be acquired from the studios for a fee, often twenty-five cents, to be included with the letter. Discussions on this topic varied. They included a series of practical complaints; many fans, for example, became exasperated when they sent quarters yet did not receive the hoped-for reply or photograph, which made them wonder, "Where, oh where, do the quarters go?" (July 1929, 11). Others complained about the different approaches seemingly taken by different studios, so that sometimes one received a photograph for free, and sometimes one sent quarter upon quarter without a response. "I, too," states one fan in response to an earlier letter, "think the stars should send better photos to those who send money" (July 1929, 11). Another fan takes the lack of response as a deeply personal slight, stating that even were the desired autograph to arrive after all, "I shall refuse to accept it, unless there is a note of explanation for the delay" (August 1929, 13).

[4.21] Others, however, respond in defense of the stars, often berating their fellow fans for approaching the fan correspondence question in a way they considered wrong. One English fan, for example, states that American stars were in fact "wonderful" in terms of signed pictures, whereas British stars send a postcard to their fans at best, and also questions whether those complaining about unanswered letters had even thought to include stamps (July 1926, 10). Others criticize their fellow fans in less practical ways, instead questioning their sincerity and the quality of their correspondence, which is tied to the magazine's letter section itself: "If many of the fans write the kind of letter to the stars that they send in to you for publication, I don't wonder that they never receive photos" (July 1923, 106).

[4.22] Many fans, in arguing that the stars did indeed treat their fans properly, include a list of their collected pictures in their letters, as if to establish their credibility and position as arbiter of "appropriate" fandom through their fan successes. The above writer who used the magazine letter section to demonstrate the low quality of letters stars likely received did this, naming over twenty stars she had corresponded with over the years, sometimes in very "intimate" letters, "including little snapshots" (July 1923, 106). Another letter, five years later, did this as well, this time also indicating some of the things the fan herself had done in order to reach out to stars; she sent a "water-color sketch" to one star, for example, and received a signed photograph in return; she also notes the way all autographs she has were actually signed to her by name. "The stars," she concludes, "have been wonderfully kind to me" (September 1928, 9).

5. Individual fans

[5.1] This last letter also helps to highlight a third way in which these fan letters can be used, particularly in the context of a sustained study of letters over the course of multiple decades: they can help uncover writers who had many letters published in the magazine. Once such a recurring fan is identified, Lantern makes it easy to locate the full range of such a fan's letters, which can provide researchers with a detailed view of the evolution of the fan's public fandom. Even my relatively small-scale investigation identified eight individuals who wrote more than one letter to Picture Play, with one—Elinor Garrison of Olympia, Washington—publishing letters in 1926, 1929, and 1932. It is Garrison who is the author of the above letter.

[5.2] Garrison was a white woman born between 1905 and 1909 (the 1920 and 1930 census records disagree on this) from a middle-class background; her father was the manager of a mining company. She published a total of twelve letters between January 1926 and July 1932, all in Picture Play, demonstrating her loyalty to this one specific magazine—a feat all the more impressive because it coincided also with some major changes in Garrison's own life. In September 1928, for example, she spoke of her "two years' illness," whereas by July 1930, Garrison had married; her letters from this moment onward would be signed "Elinor Garrison Henderson," sometimes preceded by "Mrs.," thereby identifying herself, through the inclusion of her maiden name, as a frequent and perhaps well-known fan while also clearly marking herself as married.

[5.3] The content of Garrison's letters echoes the development of her engagement with fandom over the range of six formative years; her three 1926 letters are fairly simple and concern themselves with her particular likes and dislikes in terms of stars and films, without any further engagement. By 1927, however, Garrison's letters show an awareness of fan community that was previously lacking. Her June 1927 letter, entitled "Some More Friends Made through Picture Play," is essentially a tribute to the different people Garrison met through the magazine's letter section. The fact that Picture Play was the only one of the magazines to publish full addresses clearly helped create an interactive fan community. Garrison mentions that two years before (so before her own first letter to "What the Fans Think") she "answered a letter from an English fan" that had appeared in the section, which led to her joining the Norma Talmadge Club, and then a year later to traveling from Washington to Cleveland to meet in person with the club's president, Constance Riquer, herself also a frequent contributor to the letter section. Garrison then goes on to list a number of other fan friends made through the magazine, including English actress Jean Webster Brouch, a fan in Siberia, and two fans in India.

[5.4] At this point, Garrison is clearly deeply involved in the international fan community, which is echoed also through her two remaining mentions in Picture Play in 1927. One letter essentially berates her fellow movie fans for their "silly and sickening poems and grief-stricken letters" about the death of Valentino (July 1927, 10), and another letter appears in the "Fan Clubs" section of the magazine as the head of a "Movie Star Snapshot Exchange" (August 1927, 120). In September 1928, she demonstrates both her engagement with fan letter discourse (here on correspondence with stars) and her credibility as an experienced fan through her letter, quoted above, on the different photographs and letters she received from a range of stars, mentioning over thirty stars by name (September 1928, 9).

[5.5] In 1929, she reiterates her connection with the wider fan community by writing a letter thanking all those who had written to her, noting that some had shared exclusive, sometimes signed, photographs with her. Once again, she includes some advice for others who perhaps wish to imitate her fannish success: "Write sincere letters to your favorites, praising or criticizing them, as you feel" (January 1929, 13). In July 1929, she publishes an update on her extensive collection (because "so many fans" had written to her asking about her "movie treasures"), this time highlighting new acquisitions made in the previous ten months.

[5.6] Garrison's remaining three letters, written in 1930 and 1932 and signed now by her married name, Eleanor Garrison Henderson, echo these earlier topics—the letter imploring Dorothy to write, mentioned above, is hers—but also push beyond this in ways that emphasize the writer's longevity within the fandom. Here the writer reflects on her own earlier fan preferences—"about four years ago my favorite was John Gilbert" (March 1932, 12)—or inquires about earlier fan initiatives that new and younger readers might not have heard of—asking about the "Valentino memorials and clubs we used to read about" and wondering if they have been disbanded six years after the star's death (July 1932, 14).

[5.7] Garrison's case demonstrates the usefulness of this type of big data research of fan letters published across a number of years. By following individual fans in this way, we can gather insights about their own demographic identity and life trajectory, as well as their fannish preferences and engagement over the years, as well as the fan communities within which they operated. First, we can investigate the meanings these communities held to particular fans; an example pertaining to Garrison might be that of her reported two-year illness, which could reflect the importance of such a fan community to disabled or long-term ill (and therefore homebound) movie fans. Second, fannish longevity created recurring or lasting fans, who could establish their fan credentials through the medium of the letter section, thus demonstrating the fannish hierarchies at play. Third, and more broadly, these letters give us a wider view of an interconnected fan community operating at this time, centered around, but not solely contained to, the letter section in Picture Play; examples here are Garrison's attempts to connect with Dorothy (her British fan friend) and her real-life engagement with the Norma Talmadge fan club and its president.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] If Dareos, the Hollywood prophet, had looked slightly further into the future, he might have gazed on a hopeful afterlife for the fan magazine. This sort of afterlife can serve a useful purpose to the twenty-first-century fan historian, particularly in terms of the way these ephemeral publications—made to bring Hollywood's news to their faithful fans rather than to last across the years—can now be cross-referenced and analyzed with some specificity.

[6.2] A demographic examination of a number of letters published between 1920 and 1938 establishes that, contrary to fears regarding the veracity of such letters, the editors of the magazine did not in fact concoct the letters themselves. Examining the content of these letters can help contemporary researchers understand the ways in which the fan community reading Picture Play functioned—in terms of its views on particular films, stars, or industry standards, but particularly in terms of its private and public practices, and in terms of fan policing, communication, and conflict. Finally, a study of particular recurring writers can demonstrate how fans' attitudes about the above topics and their involvement with their fan community evolved over the years, as they remained loyal to Picture Play but also aged alongside the movies and stars they loved.

[6.3] These three methodological approaches may be taken into a number of different directions—some of which I have mentioned in passing, others of which I have no doubt entirely failed to think of. Analysis of the Picture Play letters column demonstrates the ways in which the genre of the fan magazine can help us to access a community of intelligent, versatile, creative, and now deceased fans. Kuhn notes that "we hardly know these people at all" (2002, 3), but readers' letters sections in magazines such as Picture Play can help us get to know these fans a little better after all.

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