SILENT STARS by Jeanine Basinger


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Basinger brings considerable expertise but insufficient adventurousness to the all-too-often neglected world of silent film. Silent film, to paraphrase L.P. Hartley, is a foreign country, they do things differently there. The silent cinema had its own aesthetic, in some ways profoundly different from the movies that followed, and that aesthetic is unfamiliar to all but a handful of film scholars and buffs. On the evidence of her superb analysis of the ’40s family melodrama, A Woman’s View (1993), Basinger should be an excellent guide to that lost era. She has produced a sizeable tome devoted to 16 prominent actors and actresses (and Rin-Tin-Tin) of the period whose purpose, as she explains, is to celebrate “a group of silent film stars who are somehow forgotten, misunderstood or underappreciated,” a group that might be said to include almost anyone who was a star in Hollywood’s silent era. Unfortunately, Basinger is unduly timid in surveying the field. She includes among her subjects such overly familiar faces as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, Rudolf Valentino and Lon Chaney. Certainly, as Basinger points out, Fairbanks and Valentino are not sufficiently recognized for their comedic efforts (indeed, the first half of Fairbanks’s formidable career consists of breakneck comedies), but surely there were others equally deserving of rediscovery. Basinger is smart and perceptive, and her survey is filled with startlingly astute flashes. For example, she connects the appeal of Mack Sennett’s slapstick comedy to a world in which physical labor was still the norm rather than the exception. But the results, for all its undeniable intelligence, feels at once overly familiar yet insufficiently detailed. A mixed blessing, of considerable value but finally unsatisfying. (300 b&w photos)

Pub Date: Nov. 4th, 1999
ISBN: 0-679-43840-8
Page count: 496pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 1999


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