Friday, October 9, 2015

Book Review: The Star Machine, by Jeanine Basinger (2007)

Tyrone Power and Loretta Young on the cover of The Star Machine, by Jeanine Basinger, 2007.

Film critic and author Jeanine Basinger.

Deanna Durbin, Universal's big star of the late 1930's and early 1940's, and one of Basinger's favorite movie stars.

Ann Sheridan, "the oomph girl."
Film historian Jeanine Basinger’s 2007 book The Star Machine is a thorough examination of how the studio system operated during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Basinger is the chair of film studies at Wesleyan University, and it’s very clear that movies have been a life-long passion for her. The Star Machine is 550 pages of details about film stars and movies that might not be familiar to modern audiences. 

The Star Machine’s biggest strength is also its biggest problem: Basinger is a huge fan. And while that means that she’s actually taken the time to watch all of these obscure movies, it sometimes gets in the way of her writing. Sometimes her writing just gets too fan girly, like when she’s gushing (repeatedly) about how good-looking Tyrone Power was: “Power was beautiful. Not handsome. Beautiful. Solid, substantial, and with great masculine dignity, but with the kind of physical looks that can only be labeled ‘beautiful.’” (p.143) Basinger thinks that Tyrone Power was the best-looking man ever, and, tellingly, the section in the index with the most entries for Power is "physical beauty of." Basinger also is driven to hyperbole when writing about Deanna Durbin, a very popular child star of the 1930’s and 1940’s. When summing up Durbin’s career, Basinger writes, “No matter how many imitators Hollywood might develop, there was only one Deanna Durbin, and there will never be another one.” (p.294) I’ll admit I might be guilty of these same crimes in my writing, as when on occasion I might be overly effusive when describing the attractiveness of my favorite actresses, like Kim Novak or Natalie Wood. And there’s nothing wrong with being a big fan of someone and showing it, I just think there’s perhaps more of it in this book than is necessary.

The most interesting part of The Star Machine is the beginning, as Basinger tells us how the studios discovered future stars, groomed them, and tried to find suitable roles for them. It’s a fascinating look behind the scenes of the powerful studios. Basinger is an insightful critic who is able to easily explain the appeal that these movie stars had. That being said, her criticism is mainly about the movie stars themselves. She does not dive deeply into the technical side of filmmaking, as she is more interested in the effect that these movie stars have on us in the audience. 

In the middle section of the book Basinger details the careers of several movie stars. Rather than focusing on huge legends like Cary Grant, John Wayne, and Katherine Hepburn, she writes about the careers of actors like Irene Dunne, Loretta Young, William Powell and other stars of the 1930’s and 1940’s. I think that Basinger’s point is that stars like Grant, Wayne, and Hepburn have been thoroughly analyzed elsewhere, and she wants to shed light on some stars who aren’t as well known today. I understand that, but I think it might also have been instructive to profile some huge stars like Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford to see how they succeeded in Hollywood for so long. 

The Star Machine is saddled with an awkward conclusion, “Stardom without the Machine” that is a shallow look at current movie stars, and really doesn’t add anything to the book.

One gripe I have about The Star Machine is that I’m a little annoyed at how few sources Basinger cites. Her bibliography is just three pages long. For a 550 page non-fiction book! She also doesn’t cite quotations. It really puzzles me as to why Basinger’s publisher didn’t make her do this. When Alice Faye said of Tyrone Power, “Ty was the victim of the Hollywood system that grinds actors and actresses down, makes them give their blood and their souls to the movies” as she’s quoted as saying on page 179 of The Star Machine, when did she say it? To whom did she say it? I have no idea, because Basinger does not cite the source for this quote. It drives me batty that her publisher let her get away with this. If I’m reading a non-fiction book, I want to know where the author is getting their information from. The ultimate goal behind citing a source for a quotation is so the reader could theoretically find that same quote, so they know that the author got it right. I believe that Basinger has done the research and that she knows her stuff, I just want her to show her work.  

If you want to learn about Hollywood during the studio system, The Star Machine is a great reference. But you really need to be a fan of pre-World War II Hollywood, as Basinger doesn’t cover the career of anyone who started making movies after 1940. If you still remember Ann Sheridan, then this is the book for you. You know, Ann Sheridan, “the oomph girl,” star of The Footloose Heiress, She Loved a Fireman, and Appointment in Honduras. You remember her, right? Good, I’m glad I’m not the only one.

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