The Muscles of Hercules beneath the Skin of Antinuous’: Mapping Herculean Stardom in film fan-magazine discourse
During the silent era, the myth and iconography of antiquity provided a ready-made vocabulary for Hollywood to fashion its new idols for the modern world. While explicit and implicit references to Apollo and Venus were readily appropriated in studio portraits and fan-magazine features for the streamlined age of Art Deco, the figure of Hercules stirred uneasily in what Photoplay magazine termed in 1928 ‘the world’s new Olympus’. While Hercules’ large build was a gift for publicising stars associated with strength (‘Hercules reincarnated’ or the ‘Hercules of the Pictures’, a trope going back to the early 1910s), his sometimes weary demeanour (the Farnese sculpture being most often cited in fan-magazines) also carried negative connotations. As one British fan wrote in 1924, Hercules was ‘too large’, and there ‘..are plenty of living models to-day who “out-model” any of the old masters of statuary’.
This chapter moves beyond on-screen portrayals of Hercules to more oblique uses of his myth and image. I focus on the ways film fan-magazines and the trade press marshalled the discourse of Hercules into their construction of stardom, examining how the demigod was ‘reincarnated’ into modern form through a series of mythic hybrids which produced a new mythical genealogy of stars, tempering the image of Hercules to the tastes and needs of the contemporary audience. We thus encounter intriguing mythical combinations, with Hercules merged with Apollo, Adonis, Mercury, and even Antinous. I argue that these formulations were part of an industrial strategy aimed at raising the cultural prestige and authority of cinema itself in the silent era. While I focus on stardom’s formative decades, I also signpost Hercules’ continuing influence on stardom today.