Fairly early in her new book about the manufacture of movie stars in Hollywood's classical period, Jeanine Basinger confesses she was an usher in a movie theater for a decade after World War II. This fact, rather than the knowledge that she is a professor of film studies at Wesleyan University, best prepares the reader for the 550 pages of "The Star Machine." Basinger has collected a remarkable array of observations and anecdotes about a wide variety of stars that are, as she warns us, unverifiable but "fun."
Greer Garson's star with the demise of Joan Crawford's in "When Ladies Meet" (1941). Another intriguing and even suspenseful section describes the inexplicable failure of the star machine to turn beautiful singer-dancer Barbara Lawrence into a star. Of the many photographs that accompany the text, the juxtaposition of one depicting the original demure costume for Lana Turner's debut in "They Won't Forget" (1937) with another of the career-launching belted sweater and pencil skirt that appeared in the film speaks volumes.
For those readers for whom the randomness of these observations about the book are not an annoyance, I recommend "The Star Machine." Otherwise, the lack of verification and the absence of an argument, for which the extended accumulation of personal opinion and chatty but fairly well-known biographical information might provide support, will prove to be frustrating. The first one-fifth of the book describes what Basinger calls the star machine, although there is little historical or theoretical depth and a complete dismissal of what she calls academic star studies.
Although her intent is clearly to entertain, her failure to establish her authority in relation to the larger field of study makes it difficult to know why one should continue to read. Further, the excessive use of often-lengthy, purely anecdotal footnotes is curious and furthers the sense that the book is an anachronous compendium of unsubstantiated observations about a fascinating phenomenon that deserves more systematic study.
At several points, the book threatens to form an argument and accumulate its material toward an end. Early in her still-anecdotal elaboration of the workings of the star machine, Basinger conveys the irrelevance of the often-pathetic reality of the lives of those chosen to be molded into stars, and the price that these men and women had to pay for the dissociation they experienced. She further explores the stark lack of glamor of these commodified lives that so enriched the studios. Yet one does not have to be an academic to wish Basinger had provided some sources for her material in order to separate what is known from what is apocryphal. Alternately, the fan magazines to which she sometimes turns might have provided a more solid and consistent grounding than mere opinion.
One of the ironies of the star machine is that while it produced hundreds of moneymaking stars through its relentless shaping and controlling of distinctive human bodies and imperfect human beings, most of the greatest stars surpassed or evaded its machinations. After describing how the machine worked to "polish, shellac, trim, tuck, reshape, repress," Basinger spends most of the book examining the lives of those who, in her terms, disobeyed, defected, disentangled, or detached themselves. She covers Tyrone Power, Lana Turner, Errol Flynn and Deanna Durbin with particular care.
The book's more-serious problems stem from the uncritical way Basinger tackles her material. While many readers will enjoy her anecdotes, asides and colloquial tone, others will be made uncomfortable by her sometimes harsh judgments about the physical appearance of various stars, before and after entering the machine. One has the sense Basinger at times believes the untreated actors really were inadequate in some way. A more thoughtful analysis might consider the ways beauty was ethnically and racially defined and symptomatic of particular historical moments.
For example, a discussion of the persona and career of Carmen Miranda could unveil the most subtle workings of the star machine, yet it is covered in less than a page of text, just before a section about dogs and children. A more specific example of this tendency occurs in a description of Doris Day as ungroomed, due to her being allowed to remain, as Basinger describes her, "bucktoothed," "gangling" and "unsophisticated." While Basinger says Day was allowed to continue in this state because Warner Brothers was cheap, more thought might suggest that notions of female beauty had been enlarged as a result of the war in ways that ultimately led to the fall of the star machine itself.
Basinger is certainly on target in recognizing the lack of material in relation to the phenomenon of the Hollywood studio star. But her approach, in which she answers her own question about why what she calls "oddities" (like Porky Pig) should become stars with, "Well, that's showbiz, folks," is not the remedy. Readers interested in the field might enjoy the work of Danae Clark, Steven Cohan, Richard Dyer and Adrienne McLean for their more nuanced, supported and equally entertaining explorations of the field.
The Star Machine
By Jeanine Basinger
Knopf, 586 pages, $35