The film critic of the Boston Globe explores film celebrity and waxes philosophical about what it means to and for the rest of us.
Burr (The Best Old Movies for Families, 2007, etc.) has both a fan’s and scholar’s grasp of the history of film, and he travels along a celluloid highway that extends from the early days of Thomas Edison to Zac Efron. Of greatest interest to the author is our evolving notion of celebrity—of what celebrities mean. He cites few authorities to support his view of our psychology, however, and he freely employs locutions like we want and we expect throughout. Burr notes that the earliest performers were anonymous, until actress Florence Lawrence (1886–1938). After that, the author ably shows, the names became virtually all. At near fast-forward speed, he takes us through the careers and contributions of the pioneer generation (Lillian Gish, Charlie Chaplin, Tom Mix et al.), with some stops for closer looks at the rise and precipitous fall of Fatty Arbuckle, the arrival of the talkies and the emergence of the great screen presences of the 1930s and ’40s—Gable, Harlow, Cagney, Bogart and others. Burr examines how studios sought to homogenize and manage their performers’ images (we knew what we were getting in a John Wayne film), and he offers a lengthy analysis of, and tribute to, Brando. He then deviates a bit from his subtitle by looking at the varying natures of celebrity in TV and popular music. He also mentions the meltdowns of Cruise and Gibson and the difficulties for female actors (they must not age).
A focused history of films that occasionally flirts with—but does not wed—portentousness.