A cinema archivist digs into the vaults of Golden Era Hollywood and comes up with a treasure trove of goodies.
In this epochal study on how the Hollywood studio system manufactures stars (sometimes out of little but a cute smile, and other times molding and channeling that indefinable stardust quality), Basinger (Film Studies/Wesleyan Univ.; Silent Stars, 1999, etc.) demonstrates a delightful ability to mix a formidable knowledge of film history, both as business and art form, with a fan’s appreciation of what film is all about. Despite the book’s title, only the first 100-odd pages really cover the factory process—both its winners, like tap sensation Eleanor Powell, and forgotten misfires like Anna Sten, whom Samuel Goldwyn tried to turn into the next Greta Garbo, only to find out that audiences didn’t want another Garbo (“If they had to accept some other exotic European, they’d take Marlene Dietrich”). In sections like “Problems for the System: The Human Factor” (subsections are titled “Disillusionment,” “Disobedience,” “Defection” and so on), Basinger does what she does best in turning out portrait after portrait of the great and not-so-great stars and workaday B-listers who churned out the product for the old bosses. Basinger understands that it’s not the star-machine process itself that is so fascinating, but rather the stars who are swallowed and spit out by the process. The author goes right to the heart of the matter in her examination of movie stars, those immortals walking the earth who define movie magic in all its baffling glory, like the ineffable, oft-ignored genius of somebody like Bing Crosby—“he’s got that meanness, plus a touch of larceny and the ability to con anyone out of anything.” Along the way, Basinger dissects the post–World War II collapse of the star system, which was replaced by the free-for-all age in which we currently live—no less interesting in its own regard, only more difficult to codify in all its slippery chaos. Basinger gives ample space to the qualities and typecasting of the likes of Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, never indulging in sepia-tinged nostalgia for its own sake.
A smart study of star quality as an industrial process, written by an academic who still understands Hollywood’s cheap, sensuous appeal.