Review of Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger
Alfred A. Knopf 1999 497 pp. 35.00
Copyright © Steven E. Alford
Imagine meeting your maker "while cradled in the lap of
the blonde bombshell Jean Harlow." Imagine having "an orchestra for
mood music," while you worked, and eighteen doubles to cover for you
when you were tired. Such was the life of a silent screen star.
Such was the life of . . . Rin Tin Tin.
Such is the flavor of Jeanine Basinger's delightful Silent
Stars. Basinger's formidable erudition is artfully concealed
beneath a charming, intimate style of writing. In this, her sixth
book, she succeeds in offering a revisionist history of her favorite
film stars of the silent era, from the celebrated Mary Pickford to
the important but more obscure Colleen Moore and the Talmadge
Sisters. While some readers may question her idiosyncratic method of
choosing subjects (Louise Brooks, for example, barely merits a
mention), everyone will be both entertained and instructed by her
chapters on the Cowboys, the Keystone Kops, Flappers, and the
strangely sad career of Marion Davies.
Although films were first projected commercially in 1895, the
notion of a movie star didn't take hold until around 1908, given the
studios' hesitancy in granting actors bargaining powers. With the
popularity of Florence Lawrence and then, to a much greater degree,
Mary Pickford, the studios realized they could earn more money by
publicizing the personalities of their actors in fledgling movie
magazines such as Motion Picture Story and Photoplay
In a contemporary era where American films dominate, we forget
the universal appeal of silent films and their title cards. "Because
title cards could easily be translated into other languages, their
stardom was international, knowing no boundaries of politics or
culture. And it wasn't snobbish, because anyone could afford a
Given the general disdain for the movies by "serious"
actors, roles could be had by attractive, ambitious teenagers who
looked good in clothes. One silent screen character "receives one of
the most crucial pieces of advice one could get in a woman's movie.
Wondering how to rise out of the gutter, she is told, 'All you need
is some nifty clothes.' Tom Mix, screen cowboy, "dressed beyond the
nines--he went for the high teens. He had a purple tuxedo and six
hundred pairs of boots and shoes--all with his initials on them, of
course." Imelda, eat your heart out. And, to dispel the idea that
Valentino was only a Shiek, she gives us a two page fashion-show
spread of the many looks of Rudolph.
"Overdressed, oversexed, suffering clotheshorses," Pola
Negri and Gloria Swanson made careers out of playing "types." "Most
of the silent stars play representational types: the all-American,
the Latin Lover, the stalwart hero, the country rube for the men; the
vamp, the city siren, the unhappy wife, the small-town sweetheart for
the women." This was the era of the male "matinee idol," defined as
"an actor with eyelashes," and the "IT girl." Dorothy Parker's
response to Clara Bow as the IT girl? "IT?" she laughed, "She had
What we don't often realize is the brevity of the stars'
incendiary fame. Valentino, for example, arrived in Hollywood in
1918, and was "a virtual nobody in 1919, a star in 1921, off-screen
from 1922 to 1924, dead in 1926" at the age of only thirty-four. The
Talmadge sisters lived "the definitive silent film show business
story: deserted by their father, driven by their mother, supported by
a strategic marriage, raised to immense success in a new medium that
made them household names, and then wiped out by sound."
Most chapters are structured around the career and private life
of a major star (such as John Gilbert) followed by an examination of
lesser contenders for the throne (such as Ramon Novarro and Francis
X. Bushman). Without contentiousness, Basinger seeks to correct
misapprehensions about the stars' lives.
But she has real fun with the oddities of this
fledgling culture industry. Movie titles, for example: Max Sennett's
Love, Loot, and Crash is perhaps the quintessential movie
title of all time. Or the title cards themselves: in Sawdust and
Salome , Norma Talmadge "plays a circus performer who marries a
man whose family spurns her. ('You have married a woman who has worn
tights!' they cry out)." In The Goldfish we read: "Take me
away from here. Take me to Detroit and teach me to make shoes."
Hollywood, bent on making money, unknowingly also
fostered an American ideology. "This idea-that ordinary people were
really special if only life would give them a chance--was an idea
that America was ready to embrace." The Sennett comedies capture the
contrast between our era and that of the silents. "Today, the
questions are big but easily solved. Then, the questions were small
but required heroic individual effort to figure out. We've progressed
from brave little humans tackling small troubles and prevailing to
big humans tackling imaginary woes (aliens and dinosaurs) and blowing
them to kingdom come, the final resolution."
Like today, the movies were a place for escape, where women
onscreen found themselves "living in a world where the snow is never
cold, their feet never get wet, and pneumonia strikes only when
needed for plot development." Making connections between the silents
and such "modern" films as Unforgiven and Bullworth
, Basinger reminds us both of the charming peculiarities of the
silent era and its links to our glossy modern melodramas. Silent
Stars is a book with legs.