In a 1937 movie called They Won't Forget, a teenage girl made an instant sensation in a small part that consisted of little more than a shot of her sashaying down a street. In 1991, a young actor caught everyone's attention playing a bit part as a good-looking hitchhiker in Thelma and Louise. Lana Turner spent the next few years being built up by MGM, the studio which had her under contract. She was given lessons that taught her how to walk and how to talk, that tested out how much she could sing or dance. She was dressed in different types of clothes, had her hair done in different colors, photographed in different ways to see what suited her best. She was given more small parts in a series of carefully chosen films that allowed her to more or less "practice" acting, and to see what kind of roles fit her. By her breakout year of 1941, she was ready to take on leads where she held her own against the biggest MGM male stars, usually in big dramatic weepies where she was primarily required to look gorgeous and attract men. Pitt had already done his training in bit parts on TV and smaller movies. Over the next decade and a half he chose a variety of roles that were intended to keep him from being too closely identified with one type; in Troy, he's the conventional sword and sandals stud but in Twelve Monkeys he's a crazy like a fox mental patient. He made just enough box office hits to balance out the flops, and just enough leading man popcorn movies to allow him to take risks in less conventional films. MGM would never have allowed a star like Turner to flip from being a leading lady one day to playing a showy character part the next. Then again, she might not have had the ability to do that—in fact, she probably didn't. The role Turner was really best suited to play was "glamorous movie star," and when the time passed for her to play that type, she drifted without any other resources to fall back on. In today's entertainment business (and always remember that it's a business first, art second…if that), actors are left to make their own decisions, manage their own careers, and figure out their own paths. Some very talented, well-trained actors and actresses never make an impact because they make bad choices and can't seem to figure out who they are. Others with astonishingly few natural gifts manage to hang on and thrive by following a carefully executed plan that makes the most of what they have.
Jeanine Basinger's The Star Machine studies the studio system that produced Lana Turner during a period that lasted roughly from the advent of sound to the failure of the studios during the mid-to-late 1950s. This heyday of moviemaking efficiency was marked by an ability to turn out an astonishing amount of product, and the large number of movies produced each year allowed studios to basically test dozens of young hopefuls, to see who had any skill, what that skill was, and whether the audiences liked and noticed that person. If a studio signed twelve pretty small town beauty contest winners to a short term contract, gave them a variety of lessons and parts in a few cheap movies, and got one promising star who would be signed to a long-term contract and go on to make several big money-making pictures each year for the next ten years, the money spent on all twelve was a good investment. The studio system worked because of an economy of scale. In a way, it's like the horse-racing industry—a lot of money is spent each year trying to develop winners and one winning race horse pays for all those that don't pan out. Those who aren't big winners may be steady performers in small scale races for a while, just like actors who toiled in B pictures for less glamour but a decent paycheck. Others are just cut loose, never to be heard from again—both horses and actors.
Basinger uses a number of case studies to illustrate how the studio system (which she calls the star machine…over and over and over) worked both for and against actors. She uses Eleanor Powell as an example of the system working at its smoothest. Powell was a moderately good looking girl who had one skill—she was a tremendous tap dancer and MGM didn't have any great female tap dancers. Before she even made a movie, MGM fixed her up like a house getting worked over before being put on the market. Her teeth were capped, she was given laser treatments to get rid of her freckles, she got a new hairstyle, and had her eyebrows reshaped. She was put through a number of tests to determine just the right lighting for her and the right style of makeup. Clothes were found to hide her figure flaws. She was sent to MGM's posture classes and given an exercise program that was designed to smooth out the lumpy muscles she'd developed on her legs from years of hard dancing. She later was given diction and acting lessons, all courtesy of MGM. In her first film, Broadway Melody of 1936, she was supported by a number of studio pros, including Robert Taylor and Buddy Ebsen. Called on to be little more than a nice girl next door who happened to be a fabulous dancer, Powell made a good impression in a movie that was a big box office hit. She came off as likeable—she could be the average girl's best friend and the average boy's girlfriend—and then had that fantastic dancing talent that made her memorable.
MGM worked to build up her name, putting a bunch of articles in the movie magazines of the day that astonishingly, detailed Powell's transformation from okay looking to movie star pretty. And that was just pretty, never beautiful or glamorous (makeup can only do so much). MGM had plenty of glamour girls already and as necessary as the glamorous, otherworldy beautiful dream creatures are to movies, there also is a need for those who are like you but just a little better; part of the illusion of movies is that this can be you, this is about you, this could happen to you. When a girl in 1936 picked up a magazine in a drug store and saw how Eleanor Powell's looks could be improved enough to make her a movie star, that girl could believe that she could be made to look like a movie star, too. She could go to a movie and when she saw Powell onscreen, think she's just like me (aside from the tremendous dancing talent).
All the effort that MGM put into building Powell up turned out to be a good investment. She had about a ten year career, and by the end of her run, when her style of dancing had more or less passed out of fashion, she was ready to get out of the business and settle down with her husband, actor Glenn Ford, whose career was just on the rise. Everything had worked according to plan. Powell had been an agreeable employee who did what she was told, performed her specialty well, and made money for MGM. There were a lot of Eleanor Powells at the different studios in the 1930s, many of them forgotten today (just as many of today's actors and actresses will be forgotten in thirty years) but in their time they were an important part of a system that produced many movies, some good, some bad, for audiences that wanted as many as the studios could put out.
The number of movies put out each year required a factory-like efficiency from the studios. Clever scheduling could allow a supporting actress stalwart like Joan Blondell to film several movies at the same time—playing the same wisecracking with a heart of gold dame in each picture, she could film a scene or two on one set then move on to the next to do her thing again on the same day. And not every movie was a big, glossy production. When we hear Clark Gable made twelve or thirteen movies in his first year at MGM, it sounds astonishing. Many of those, however, were quickie westerns that were filmed in about a week and probably were barely more than an hour long. The total is less than a full season of episodes of a TV show. But the little westerns and bit parts that MGM put Gable and others in during their first few years under contract had a purpose—they taught them how to act for the camera and they analyzed their "type" (important for a new contract player who, unlike Powell, didn't have one identifiable specialty). It also gave the studios a chance to analyze audience reaction to different actors to see who "took" and who didn't; sometimes movies introducing two or three new stars were produced as sort of a big audition for the public, to see which one had appeal. The number of fan letters a star in the making might receive, audience response at previews, or even other studio employees (legend has always had it that the MGM secretaries were the first ones to buzz about Gable) gave the executives a chance to see who to develop. Once they decided on someone they orchestrated everything about that actor's life. They created a life story if the real one wasn't appropriate, planned appearances at hot nightclubs and restaurants, invented hobbies that helped support the onscreen persona. Gable didn't know anything about hunting and fishing, but a planned campaign to present him as a man's man, outdoors type was so successful that he actually took up those pursuits and came to like them; he actually became the person MGM wanted him to be (btw, this is just my own info on Gable as an example of the studio system…Basinger isn't very interested in him. Her point, made in the book's intro, is that she wants to deal with some of the stars who have been less studied than some of the real luminaries of the era. This is understandable, but also limiting—obviously tons have been written about Judy Garland, but few stories in Hollywood better illustrate the ups and downs of the studio system at work).
There was room for all types in the star system—tough guy leading men, ordinary guy leading men, suave leading men, dancing or singing (preferably dancing and singing) leading men, exotic or foreign leading men; glamorous leading ladies, working class leading ladies, wife leading ladies or girlfriend leading ladies, dancing or singing (preferably dancing and singing) leading ladies. And for each A list type at a studio, there was a secondary version; if Tyrone Power was busy, George Brent might step in. Bogart's early career includes a number of roles that were originally intended for bigger star George Raft. Just as long as you were a definable type, you could fit into the system (though it wasn't a good idea to have too many of the same type or be too close—Ann Dvorak, a fine actress, suffered from looking too much like Joan Crawford, and unfortunately didn't have Crawford's cutthroat drive). The worst crime a star in the making could commit—aside from arguing too much—was to not have a type. Stretching or breaking out of that type was not encouraged.
Not everyone's turn through the system went as smoothly as Powell's or Gable's. Basinger uses Lana Turner and Errol Flynn as examples of stars whose offscreen exploits ran out of control. At first, both, like Gable, seemed to be fulfilling the images MGM and Warners, their respective studios provided. Lana was the glamour girl who showed up every night at a different club, covered in diamonds; Flynn was a hard-drinking, womanizing playboy. Problems cropped up when they went too far. Flynn began to drink too much and was accused of statutory rape (he was acquitted); Turner began to cycle through husbands the way other actresses went through hairstyles. At first audiences loved it, then they began to tire of it. Studios controlled everything about their stars' lives but after a while the trouble could get to be too much. And the worst thing a star could do was get in trouble when they were in the downward part of their careers. Turner, no longer quite as young or in fashion, was cut loose by MGM by the end of the '40s, the same with Flynn.
Others got in trouble because they became discontent with the image the studio created for them. Deanna Durbin was a hugely popular teen star who made literally millions for Universal. Forgotten now, she was one of the biggest stars in the world from the late '30s to the early '40s (how popular? If you go to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, look at the movie star pictures on the wall in Anne's room—the many are of Deanna Durbin). Durbin's movies were typically about a plucky young, all-American girl who solved everyone's problems and also happened to have a super soprano voice that could reasonably handle classical material (important in an era in which there was a drive to make high culture part of popular culture—radio made orchestra conductors, violinists, and opera singers household names). Durbin's biggest crime was growing up. Universal continued to try to put her in the same type of roles, though just as perhaps a young wife instead of a school girl. Durbin itched to try something more, but when she was finally given a chance to do darker, more adult material, audiences weren't impressed. No one except Durbin was interested in Durbin growing up. She married, left the business and moved to France to live in quiet anonymity.
Durbin wasn't the only one to walk away. Basinger's other examples of this are Norma Shearer, who married and left to live in Sun Valley once she realized her day as a leading lady were over. The talented but always edgy and nervous Jean Arthur left the movies to pursue what she claimed was her real love, the theater (and proved to be too anxious for that, leaving several productions during rehearsals or right before opening). Loretta Young extended her already long career by moving to television. The incredible Irene Dunne broke free from the chains of being tied to one studio and freelanced or signed deals that allowed her to work with one or two other studios. She made movies that are classics into the early fifties, then left to become, of all things, a delegate to the UN. Others weren't able to game the system to make the most use of their talents, but didn't have the courage to leave. Basinger's example for this category is Tyrone Power. He was a handsome man from a theater family who showed the ability to do more than he was given, but Twentieth Century Fox had a winning formula for audiences with Power: he played the hero of costume dramas in which he wasn't called upon to do much more than be handsome, romance a lady, and swashbuckle a bit. He was unhappy with it, but didn't leave until he was no longer wanted.
In addition to close studies of these types, Basinger also devotes sections to some well-known character actors who seemed unlikely stars but were able to build long-careers due to some individual quality that appealed to audiences (or through sheer grit, like Mickey Rooney). Actors like SZ Sakall, Edna Mae Oliver or Clifton Webb played the same character over and over in dozens of movie, coming on and doing what could be called their shtick; when audiences saw them they knew what to expect and they loved them for it. Others whose names are long forgotten regularly filled in supporting roles as secretaries, waitresses, doormen, taking these parts precisely because they were competent, but unmemorable (today these terms mean different things to us—a character actor is someone who is a versatile actor who can play any number of types; a supporting role is the best friend, parent, or second romantic lead, roles that are often more fun or interesting for actors than the standard leads). She covers "oddities," that is people who seemed to have made it because of one weird skill or personality type that is no longer fashionable, and stars who were created during World War II to make up for the absence of the big male stars who had gone off to war. She finishes with a section about contemporary actors and actresses and how some of them manage their careers in comparison to the studio days.
If you're a fan of classic movies, especially the era from about 1930-1955, then there is much to like about this book. It can be a sort of old home week, as you read about familiar movies and stars. You'll find some material that you've read about before but maybe some new anecdotes or bits of information as well. Basinger can be very entertaining, especially gleeful when writing about fashion horrors or movie plots that are beyond absurd; she has some great captions on the many photos scattered throughout the book (particularly funny are the ones of stars posed for different holidays. Dorothy Lamour, of all people, in full Thanksgiving pageant Priscilla Alden pilgrim gear, staring nobly off at some imaginary Plymouth Rock, was my favorite). Basinger takes a real delight in writing about the attractions of the different stars, both male and female, but especially male. She notes briefly that much has been written about "the male gaze" and the objectification of women on film, and then proceeds to gleefully objectify the many male stars she covers in the book. She writes downright rapturously about "his melting eyes" and "fine figure" and on and on (if you played a drinking game based on how often Basinger calls Tyrone Power "beautiful," you'd be in a coma by the end of the book). Her enthusiasm is rather charming; on her jacket photo, she looks like the kind of professor who invites her graduate students to her house and serves them tea and cookies, but her words make her seem more like the woman at the bachelorette party strip club junket, who sits in the front row hollering and stuffing dollar bills into the g-strings of the alarmed dancers.
But the book raised many questions, too. In a discussion of actors who were particularly well-dressed (you betcha she covered that topic), she notes that Clark Gable always looked good, but didn't compare to others such as Errol Flynn because "he was short." Ummmm…Gable was 6' 1" or 6' 2"; short for an NBA point guard today, yes, but in 1936 he actually stood out because of his size. That was the most baffling thing I found in this book and I kept coming back to it again and again. It's a little detail but when you find small details wrong, it's hard not to wonder what else isn't right. Another detail that could have been easily checked was when Basinger marveled at how much was packed into the famous Deanna Durbinn-Judy Garland short, Every Sunday, calling it only twenty minutes long. Actually, it's only 11 or maybe 14 minutes, which makes it more remarkable (it was on Turner Classic a few weeks ago). Again, this is the tiniest of details, but it raises doubts. She leaves information out, too, that made me wonder—she excused John Wayne for not enlisting in World War II because he was 35, over the age of enlistment, but doesn't mention that Gable enlisted in the Air Force and actually flew in combat missions at the age of 41. There are many spotty "If you talk about this, why not that?" like this moments in the book (btw, I swear I'm not obsessed with Gable—it's just that I read every book about movies in our local library when I was a kid and that included a few Gable bios). To make matters even more difficult, she rarely includes specific citations. There are quotes and stories galore in the book, but rarely do we know where she got them. The bibliography is a slim two pages, which for a book of this length (about 550 pages) doesn't seem much.
This is mostly due to the fact that a large part of the book is based on Basinger's own recollections of seeing movies first hand (from comments she makes, I'm guessing she's in her early seventies…if I'm wrong, I'm sorry, Ms. Basinger!), how she saw audiences react, and how she feels about them on repeated viewings. This can be a help, as when she describes how she saw audiences respond to certain stars, but also a hindrance in that her own personal favorites get an enormous pass or excuses to make them more than they were. She unabashedly admits to loving Betty Hutton and then proceeds to argue that Hutton's career has been undervalued. Hutton made some popular movies, was probably better known as a radio singer, and was a certain type that sold well during World War II; to try to make her more than that is a tough sell, though. She had some talent and some personality, but was hardly an immortal, despite Ms. Basinger's attempts to make her seem worthy of that status (Basinger even calls the Hutton-Astaire movie Let's Dance underrated, saying that the only reason people give it short shrift is because it's not up to the standard of some of the Astaire classics; trust me, it deserves its fate. In his autobiography, the always kind Astaire struggled to find something nice to say about it, and in his long career, it's surely one of his worst. I tried to watch it once and believe I fell asleep during it).
Basinger also tries to sell Norma Shearer as a great actress. Competent? Yes. And maybe in her early, pre-Code films she was more interesting than she was once she segued into her Grande Dame phase, but she turned into a costume rack in the mid-thirties and never turned back. Basinger tries to protest that the Shearer-Leslie Howard Romeo and Juliet is pounded simply because the leads were too old, but in reality is a touching rendering of the tale. Actually, the age of the stars is an insurmountable barrier that renders the story senseless and makes it seem like nothing more than a vanity project. It's also painfully slow and overstuffed. Same with Shearer's Marie Antoinette. It seems like a production and costume designer's showcase and nothing more. Basinger argues that Shearer isn't given her due because today we don't understand her Gracious Lady persona. The real problem is that Shearer decided in the early '30s that being a star wasn't enough for her and what she really wanted was to become the film equivalent of a Great Lady of the Theater, so the second half of her career is full of these deadly, costume dramas that Shearer couldn't enliven. One of Basinger's fallbacks for a favorite that isn't remembered today is that we don't get that "type" anymore. I understand what she's saying, but the problem is that there are enough stars remembered from that era that it can't be just a case of a generation cap or culture clash. The reason we remember some of the big names are because they had something that made them transcendent. Trust me, the real stars are remembered. She can sometimes seem like the person who is always making a Hall of Fame case for the favorite player of his or her childhood, who is really nothing more than a good player; we always overrate the idols of our youth.
I thought the sections on the oddities and characters were okay, but perhaps not necessary in a book supposedly about stars. I would rather have seen more time devoted to something like actors who didn't sign studio contracts and freelanced (I'm pretty sure Cary Grant did and Burt Lancaster as well), or about what happened when actors refused roles or were suspended. I'm assuming she didn't want to devote time to the landmark Olivia de Havilland case against Warners because it's been written about before, but in a book about the studio system, it would seem to be important to talk a little more about those who bucked the system. The section on contemporary actors also didn't work well for me. The problem with dealing with live people still in the business is that they can cycle from high to low in a matter of a year or less; I'm guessing that accounts for some of Basinger's seemingly random and bizarre choices of stars to write about (Matthew McConaughey, gets almost two pages, a veritable paean to his supposed star quality and ability to manage his career skillfully and on his own terms; this is inexplicable, unless his plans included never making a good movie). This section probably should have been smaller and more focused. Or if she wanted to deal with contemporary stardom, it might have been more helpful to look at examples of people who've become movie stars through nontraditional routes, such as standup comics, models, pop singers or rappers (I'm not saying they're good or worthy stars, just that it's something that unfortunately happens).
One of my biggest complaints about the book is that it has footnotes on almost every page. AAAAARRRGGHHH. Not just one, but often two or three, and they're often paragraph sized; the footnotes often take up a quarter or third of a page. Physically, they're visually distracting and it's often difficult to match up the asterisks and little crosses with their counterpart in the text. From a writing point of view, you know I've said this again and again and again—if a footnote is that big and contains that much information, it probably belongs in the text. It's often incredibly important information too. In one chapter she describes how Van Johnson rose to fame during World War II, casually noting in the text that he had a plate in his head. In a long footnote she explains that he was in a near fatal car accident during the filming of one of his early movies, A Guy Named Joe, and that Spencer Tracy insisted on holding the production until Johnson was well enough to continue. I don't think this is footnote material. One line about what was the number one box office hit for a certain year? Yes, that's a footnote. A story about how the main subject of the chapter's career was nearly ended before it began? Isn't that part of the story? I found these notes just so exasperating and infuriating after a while.
Finally, I can't tell what Basinger thinks of the star system she's explaining. Does she think it was a good system because it allowed Hollywood to crank out so many movies at a consistent, if not always high level? Does she think it was bad because it chained actors to types that didn't allow them to grow? Does she think we should have it today? I honestly couldn't tell by the end of the book. I'm not brilliant, but I can usually figure out an author's point in a book. I couldn't in this case, though (maybe my concentration was too disrupted from sorting out the reams of footnotes).
In my opinion, the studio system had its purpose. It helped solidify a fledgling industry. It provided a steady stream of movies in a time when people didn't have TV or the Internet as options, so a new slate of movies every week was of paramount importance (and by slate I mean an A picture, a B picture, cartoon, a short, a serial). You may wonder why more stars didn't try to fight the system or strike out on their own, but it would have been hard for someone to turn down a steady paycheck during the Depression, no matter what you had to do. If your biggest complaint was that you were being stunted as an artist, you were doing too much better than everyone else to really complain. I'm glad it existed, because it has provided us with so many movies that are both marvelously entertaining and that tell us so much about the time and place during which they were made (even a period piece will reflect the values and ideas of the time when it was filmed). I'm glad it ended because that's the only way movies could have continued to grow. Once you know the rules you can break them.
You can always learn from the past. Sometimes the classic movies can seem unintentionally funny, or strange, or stupid. Sometimes, though, they're glorious. Actually, in some ways, they're always glorious.