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 ticket."

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 THOSE!"

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.