This article examines the emergence of the screen test as a cultural phenomenon during the silent era in the US and Europe and its role in the development of the star system. The lore that grew up around the screen test almost from its inception held out the possibility for members of the public to cross a threshold into the rarefied world of celebrity. The screen test itself is situated in the liminal space not only between audience and actor, but also between fiction and non-fiction, Europe and Hollywood, the silent era and the talkies, and the public and private spheres. In order to trace the ways in which the screen test as such was narrativized and conceptualized in its foundational stages, this article will analyse accounts from Hollywood and European fan magazines of the silent era, including articles, short fiction, and early cinema apocrypha. The article culminates in a discussion of the film Prix de Beauté / Beauty Prize (Augusto Genina, 1930), which starred Louise Brooks, herself a transnational film icon whose film career spanned the divide between Hollywood and Europe. The film’s final scene, in which a beauty queen is shot dead by her jealous husband as she watches a screen test of herself, has been invoked by a number of film scholars as an allegory of the work performed by cinema, which preserves and disseminates the image of the star far beyond the actor’s physical presence. Speaking to historical conditions of star-making while also capturing its resonance in cultural mythology, the conclusion of Prix de Beauté allows us to consider the origins and functions of screen test discourse itself.
- Louise Brooks
- Screen test