Thursday, March 29, 2007

No one would ever write these about Britney Spears.

Scholars of pop culture know that celebrity culture is hardly a recent creation. You can read the newspapers of the 19th century (and earlier) and get the same obsession with celebrities, the same celebration of people who are famous for being famous, and the same fixation on appearance and style over achievement and substance. But modern American celebrity culture really began at the end of the 19th century, with the appearance of Buffalo Bill. (For more on this I recommend Larry McMurtry's The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America and Joy Kasson's Buffalo Bill's Wild West: Celebrity, Memory and Popular Culture). By the early 20th century American celebrity culture was in a form recognizable to modern couch potatoes, and by 1920 it was just hitting its peak. Everything that modern celebrity culture has now was present then. There were witless, self-important demi-mondaines and courtesans lauded in the popular press. There were actors and actresses hyped too soon and then destroyed through hubris, a poisonous press, or the machinations of studio heads. There was even a Trial of the Century, in the form of poor Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's trial for the murder of poor Virginia Rappe. (As always when the subject of Arbuckle comes up, I can't help first reminding people that he was never convicted of murder--two hung juries and an innocent verdict--and then quoting David Thomson, from his magisterial Biographical Dictionary of Film:
...the combined forces of scandalmongery and puritanism would not be dissuaded. Arbuckle was made a scapegoat, as though after calling a man "Fatty" for years and rejoicing at his humiliation on film the public could only move in on him with trained hostility...the moral realities of Hollywood life were something the public hardly dreamed of; even so, one hit was enough to furnish it with nightmares that demanded cleansing action. Arbuckle's own exaggerated ugliness drew upon him all the public's hypocritical loathing of depravity.

Do enough research into popular culture of the 1910s and 1920s, and you're left with a feeling that, modern distributed media and 24-hour demand for information be damned, celebrity culture before the Great Depression was more prevalent, and uglier, than what we've got today. Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons may have had more power, but the gossipmongers of the 1910s and 1920s had more venom. Modern celebrity culture is bad; what was present before the Depression was far worse, just as necrotizing fasciitis is worse than local tetanus.

But in one respect celebrity culture of the 1920s is to be preferred to what we have now, and that's in the area of fanfiction.

Fanfiction is of course not a 20th century invention--magazines in the 19th century had Mary Sue stories written by teenage girls about famous Native Americans--but it reached its apex in the 1920s and 1930s, in the form of Celebrity Pulps. Celebrity Pulps--and I'll have much more on them in my Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes (MonkeyBrain, 2008, get your advance orders in now)--were pulp magazines in which stories were written about celebrities, usually but not always actors and actresses. (I realize that, because the stories were published, they don't meet the current definition of fanfiction, but, honestly, what else can we call them but fanfiction?) In these stories the celebrities were shown (if they were actors/actresses) to lead lives typical of their film characters or (if they weren't actors/actresses) exaggerated versions of their real lives. Imagine a series of pulps in which Sylvester Stallone--not "Rocky," but Stallone the actor--is shown winning boxing matches. Celebrity Pulps (and I'm using the label "pulp" loosely) were a European creation, and appeared from Portugal to the Soviet Union.

Harold Lloyd

You know Harold Lloyd, of course--one of the greats of silent film, a peer of Chaplin and Keaton. In 1924 he appeared as the hero of Harold Lloyd #1-5. Written by Paul Hain, one of the more successful authors of the heldromans (German pulps), Harold Lloyd portrayed Lloyd as fighting crime, romancing women, and finding adventure across the United States and Europe, in stories with titles like "The Cavalier in His Homeland" and "His Highness, the Prince of Film." (I've been unable to find an image of Harold Lloyd, so enjoy this one instead).

Eddy Polo

Eddy Polo you might not know, which says a lot about how short-lived fame is. Polo (1875-1961) was in his time a giant. Polo's IMDB page gives you a hint about the kind of career he had, but doesn't really give you a sense about just how widely known he was; suffice it to say that "The Hercules of the Screen" was the equivalent of Stallone or Schwarzenegger in their heydays. Polo appeared as the hero of two Celebrity Pulps, Der Zirkuskönig, Eddy Polo #1-6 (1922), and Eddy Polo Serie #1-58 (1923-1924). The fictional Polo is a circus owner and wandering adventurer who travels around the world, alone or accompanied by his circus, and helps innocents, fights crime, and pulls of stunts like...well, remember the opening to the first Matrix--you know, this one--(God bless Youtube)--with the parkour chase? The fictional Eddy Polo laughs at jumping over only one building--the fictional Eddy Polo would have jumped from the building to that passing subway. And made it. He appeared in stories with titles like "The Rancho El Dorado War" and "The Female Vampire." (I've been unable to find an image of any of Polo's Celebrity Pulps, so there's this uninspired one instead).

Al Capone

Yes, that's right. Al Capone Celebrity Pulps. Al Capone der König der Gangster #1-50 (1932-1933), Al Ripper. El Terror de Chicago #1-12 (1932), and undoubtedly more I haven't been able to find. (Look, if you want to spend your time going through the Országos Széchényi Könyvtár, looking for oddly-spelled variations of "Al Capone," be my guest. Reading Hungarian makes my eyes bleed). The fictional Capone is shown to be a bad man, but he often ends up fighting men even worse, such as Yellow Perils and the Ku Klux Klan.

Lee Parry

Lee Parry was never popular in the United States, but in Europe in the 1920s she was huge. And in Paul Rosenhayn and Paul Hain's Lee Parry--Die Tollkühne Abenteuerin #1-35 (1924) she was a crime-fighting adventuress, traveling around the world (Montmartre, Upsala, the Rif desert, Whitechapel), making friends (the Gypsy Princess, the White Knight), and fighting interesting opponents (the Lady in Black, the Smiling Muslim, and the Death Club). (It must be said that the Pola Negri Celebrity Pulp which appeared in Poland in 1924, though considerably shorter-lived, is the most interesting of the Celebrity Pulps with women in it. Why? Three words: Rudolph. Valentino. Slash).

Harry Hill

Valy Arnheim, like Lee Parry, was popular only in Europe, but also like Parry Arnheim was very popular in Europe. Arnheim wasn't known by that name, but instead by the name "Harry Hill," which was the name of his character in a number of his early films. In 1921 Arnheim/Hill appeared in Harry Hill, der Weltmeister der Sensationen #1-27 (1921-1922). Harry Hill began by recycling the plots of Arnheim's movies before moving on to new adventures, using Arnheim's image for illustrations of Hill (as above), and portraying the fictional Hill in the way that the movies characterized him, as an adventurer and explorer active around the world and in the land, sea and air. He appears in stories with titles like “Mask Number 74,” “A Detective Duel,” and “The Chinese Diamond.”

Harry Piel

No one mentioned here has been treated worse by posterity than Harry Piel. Just look at his Wikipedia entry and his IMDB entry. The man directed over 100 films and appeared in over 60 of them--and yet he only gets 24,000 hits on a Google search, and many of those not worth looking at. (On the other hand, he stayed in Germany under the Nazis rather than taking the honorable route chosen by Conrad Veidt and Peter Lorre, among others, so swive Piel sideways). In the 1920s Piel was the protagonist of four Celebrity Pulps: Harry Piel – der Abenteuerer König und Verächter des Todes Innen #1-18 (1920-1921), Harry Piel - der Tollkühne Detektiv #1-92 (1920-1923), Harry Piel Abenteuer #19-150 (1922-1926), and Heinz Barkhoff’s Harry Piel, Abenteuer #1 (1928). The fictional Harry Piel is a crystallization of his film persona, with many of the stories being retellings of his film plots. The fictional Piel is a "gentleman of the world," a detective-adventurer at ease in the abysses of the wilds and in the big city, fighting for good, helping the poor and downtrodden, rescuing imperilled maidens, and so on. He is occasionally Watsoned by Murphy, a newspaper reporter. Piel appears in stories with titles like “The Sky Pirate,” “The Great Unknown,” and “A Night of Terror in Paris.”

Hans Stosch-Sarrasani

Hans Stosch-Sarrasani (1883-1934) was famous in Europe as a circus clown, and later became the owner and operator of the Circus Sarrasani. The history of circuses in Europe would make a fine book for someone to write; circuses go back in Europe much farther than Americans might think, and the evolution of the circus in Europe is more interesting than you'd guess. Prominent circus performers were celebrities on par with actors and actresses, and Hans Stosch-Sarrasani was at the top, enough so that when he was fictionalized, his adventures sold quite well. He appeared in two Celebrity Pulps, Hans Stosch-Sarrasani #1-80 (1923-1924) and Hans Stosch-Sarrasani #1-100 (1925-1926). (That's 180 issues; Doc Savage only had 181). The fictional Stosch-Sarrasani is a circus owner but is also a cowboy and has adventures around the world, sometimes teaming up with his real-life employee Billy Jenkins. Stosch-Sarrasani encounters Apaches, visits tea-houses in Japan, goes on hunting parties in the Indian state of Baradhot, and fights Cossacks in the Caucasus. He appears in stories with titles like “The Opium Den of Tung-Sui-Men,” “The Wizard of Martinez,” and “His Last Trick.”

Billy Jenkins

You won't have heard of Billy Jenkins, most likely. Jenkins (1885-1954), née Erich Rosenthal, was only a circus performer, and a German circus performer at that. But, and I say this with no hyperbole, you could put him in the ring with prime-of-life Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and Master Chandgiram, and Jenkins would have made cowboy sauce out of the lot of them. Let's just say that the number of Stasi agents the 65-year-old Jenkins is supposed to have quietly killed for the BND might never be known, but it's double figures at least, and probably with his bare hands. Don't be fooled by his sweet smile in the photo above; Jenkins was a bad man. (Jenkins was no Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., of course). After college Jenkins went to the American West and worked as a cowboy--keep in mind this in 1910, when there were still real cowboys in the American West. He spent several years in America and then returned to Germany and went to work as a rider and animal trainer for various circuses, including Hans Stosch-Sarrasani's Circus Sarrasani. Jenkins achieved international fame--not just European, but international fame--in the 1920s as a circus performer, and appeared in a number of Celebrity Pulps, including Billy Jenkins #1-4 (1930), Die Abenteuer Des Billy Jenkins #1-264 (1934-1939) and Die Abenteuer Des Billy Jenkins #1-370 (1949-1963). (By comparison The Shadow only appeared in 325 issues). The fictional Jenkins is alternatively a cowboy and a secret agent for the U.S. government, active in the American West, in Alaska, and in Central and South America. He has his very own arch-enemy and is wanted by the law in Arizona for a crime he did not commit. Jenkins has a Cheyenne sidekick, Hunting Wolf, and a companion wolf named Husky. Jenkins’ stories have very Gothic settings--decayed graveyards, abandoned mines, and the like–and involve things like car hijackers, gold thieves, killer plagues and zombies.

Cliff Aeroes

And, finally, my favorite of all the Celebrity Pulps. (Except perhaps for the aforementioned Pola Negri Celebrity Pulp, or maybe the Lillian Gish Celebrity Pulp, in which Gish is shown to be a conscienceless playa). Julius Jäger (1889-1952) was a circus performer who gained fame in Europe under the name of "Cliff Aeros." In 1942 he founded the Zirkus Aeros, which remained active in East Germany until 1990. In 1955 he appeared in the East German Celebrity Pulp Cliff Aeros - Die Menschliche Sternschnuppe #1-16. (Yes, there were East German pulps. Gloriously demented pulps. But you'll have to read my Encyclopedia to find out more). Cliff Aeros described the adventures that Cliff Aeros had as he traveled the world with his circus, bringing proper communist justice to the masses oppressed by capitalist wickedness. Some of the story titles of Cliff Aeros were “A Dying Man Flies to Heaven,” “The Trip with Crocodiles,” “A Leap Through the Bayonet Tire,” and “Aeros at the Bullfight.”

There's certainly a lot more fanfiction now than there was in previous decades--there are literally hundreds of thousands of fanfiction stories over at FanFiction.net, and that's just one fanfiction site of many. (Harry Potter alone has almost 290,000 stories on Fanfiction.net). But given the choice, I'll take the Celebrity Pulps. After all, there are a lot of stories in which Hermione and Snape fall in love, but there's only one issue (Tom Mix, Król Cowboyów #23) in which Tom Mix fights the Mafia the Old West, or in which Pancho Villa fights Japanese spies in Mexico (General Villa, der Mexikanische Rebellenführer #3).

2 comments:

fiduciary said...

Where do you find this stuff? Just amazing. Why are so many circus heroes German? I'm trying to picture that East German cowboy, and all I'm getting is Mike Meyers Dieter.

"Touch my top hat! Touch it!"

This strikes me as a real untapped lode of culture - something so wildly popular 100 years ago that's almost entirely forgotten today.

I think the 1930's were a real demarkation for a lot of things. I think the Depression caused a lot of soul-searching. People didn't know who to blame for their misfortune, and ended up imposing censorship on movies and publications.

Just my dime (penny?) theory.

Keep it up!

Kate said...

Please do open up about your sources! I just found this entry on the slight temptation of a Google search for "Rudolph Valentino fanfiction" and am impressed by the thoroughness of your knowledge. That, and I'd like to read these myself. Do tell!