The Star Machine

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9781400041305: The Star Machine

From one of our leading film authorities, a rich, penetrating, amusing plum pudding of a book about the golden age of movies, full of Hollywood lore, anecdotes, and analysis.

Jeanine Basinger gives us an immensely entertaining look into the “star machine,” examining how, at the height of the studio system, from the 1930s to the 1950s, the studios worked to manufacture star actors and actresses. With revelatory insights and delightful asides, she shows us how the machine worked when it worked, how it failed when it didn’t, and how irrelevant it could sometimes be. She gives us the “human factor,” case studies focusing on big stars groomed into the system: the “awesomely beautiful” (and disillusioned) Tyrone Power; the seductive, disobedient Lana Turner; and a dazzling cast of others—Loretta Young, Errol Flynn, Irene Dunne, Deanna Durbin. She anatomizes their careers, showing how their fame happened, and what happened to them as a result. (Both Lana Turner and Errol Flynn, for instance, were involved in notorious court cases.) In her trenchantly observed conclusion, she explains what has become of the star machine and why the studios’ practice of “making” stars is no longer relevant.

Deeply engrossing, full of energy, wit, and wisdom, The Star Machine is destined to become an invaluable part of the film canon.

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About the Author:

Jeanine Basinger is the chair of film studies at Wesleyan University and the curator of the cinema archives there. She has written nine other books on film, including A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930–1960; Silent Stars, winner of the William K. Everson Award for Film History; The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre; and American Cinema: 100 Years of Filmmaking, the companion book for a ten-part PBS series. She lives with her husband in Middletown, Connecticut.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Part One: Stars and the Factory System

It’s a crackpot business that sets out to manufacture a product it can’t even define, but that was old Hollywood. Thousands of people in the movie business made a Wizard-of-Oz living, working hidden levers to present an awe-inspiring display on theatre screens: Movie Stars! Hollywood made ’em and sold ’em daily, gamely producing a product for which its creators had no concrete explanation. Sometimes they made films that told the story of their own star-making business, and even then they couldn’t say what exactly a movie star was. They just trusted that the audience wouldn’t need an explanation because it would believe what it was seeing—star presence—could verify its own existence. “She’s got that little something extra,” muses James Mason in 1954’s A Star Is Born, quoting actress Ellen Terry for credibility. Since he’s talking about Judy Garland as he watches her sing “The Man That Got Away,” the point is made. (“She has something!” cries out Lowell Sherman when he spies waitress Constance Bennett in the earlier version of the story, What Price Hollywood?) Hollywood just told people that “he” or “she” or “it” (let’s not forget Rin Tin Tin and Trigger) had “that little something extra” and let it go at that. As a definition, it wasn’t much, but it was all anyone needed—and there’s no arguing with it.

The truth is that nobody—either then or now—can define what a movie star is except by specific example,[1] but the workaday world of moviemaking never gave up trying to figure it out. As soon as the business realized that moviegoers wanted to see stars, they grappled with trying to find a useful definition for the phenomenon of movie stardom, which is really not like any other kind. Marlon Brando called all their attempts “a lot of frozen monkey vomit.” Adding up the monkey’s offerings, it’s clear that over the years, Hollywood collected a sensible list of informed observations: A star has exceptional looks. Outstanding talent. A distinctive voice that can easily be recognized and imitated. A set of mannerisms. Palpable sexual appeal. Energy that comes down off the screen. Glamour. Androgyny. Glowing health and radiance. Panache. A single tiny flaw that mars their perfection, endearing them to ordinary people. Charm. The good luck to be in the right place at the right time (also known as just plain good luck). An emblematic quality that audiences believe is who they really are. The ability to make viewers “know” what they are thinking whenever the camera comes up close. An established type (by which is meant that they could believably play the same role over and over again). A level of comfort in front of the camera. And, of course, “she has something,” the bottom line of which is “it’s something you can’t define.” There’s also the highly self-confident version of “something you can’t define” that is a variation of Justice Potter Stuart’s famous remark about pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

The last one makes sense. “Seeing it” is, in fact, the only reliable definition of stardom. The problem for the business was that audience members didn’t all agree on what they saw. Some said that Greer Garson was a talented actress of ladylike grace and charm, but Pauline Kael called her “one of the most richly syllabled queenly horrors of Hollywood.” For their legions of fans (who still endure), Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald were the believable epitome of musical romance, but for Noël Coward they were “an affair between a mad rocking horse and a rawhide suitcase.”[2] Hollywood followed majority opinion, promoting the stars for which there was the most consistent audience agreement, while they worked hard to figure out the mystery of why one person (Clark Gable) could be loved by fans and someone who looked just like him (John Carroll) could not. It was Topic A in Hollywood, and studio bosses didn’t discuss it only in isolated boardrooms. They read stars’ mail, quizzed fan clubs, and enlisted the help of movie magazines to create questionnaires about who the public liked and why. Answers from fans almost always boiled down to one thing: a popular movie star was perceived to have a tangible physical presence. “He’s so real. I almost feel I can reach out and touch him (Gable).” “She’s adorable, very warm and real (Janet Gaynor).” “When she’s on screen, you can’t look at anyone else, and you feel you’re right up there with her (Garbo).” “I think he’s just like someone I could know right here in Ohio, and if I needed anything he’d step down and get it for me (Van Johnson).” In other words, it’s what Elvis Presley’s character in Jailhouse Rock (1957) tells his co-star after he unexpectedly kisses her. She sputters about his “cheap tactics,” but he nails down the reason she’ll accept him: “That ain’t tactics, honey. That’s just the beast in me.” Orson Welles told Peter Bogdanovich that this “beast” was best represented by Jimmy Cagney, who passed the real test of the term “star quality” because he could “displace air . . . be a screen filler.”

Fans confirmed their desire for this tangible presence, telling moviemakers what they responded to in movie stars really was something that seemed physical. Great movie stars were “alive” inside the frame. It was their home, their owned space. They were utterly at ease up there (and, sadly enough, often nowhere else). When Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, two consummate stars, sing “Did Ya Evah?” in High Society (1956), they prove the point. “Did Ya Evah?” was a tough assignment. Sinatra and Crosby had to sing, dance, hit their camera marks, respect the sophisticated Cole Porter lyrics, deliver scripted dialogue, stay within their characters, pretend to be slightly drunk, keep the beat of the orchestra playback, move around a specially designed library set with limited space while following a specific choreography that had to look improvised, and never forget that they were rivals for the audience’s affection, “Frankie” and “Bing.” They have to watch out for each other in more ways than one. (Each was keenly aware of the other’s star power.)

“Did you hear about poor Blanche? She got caught in an avalanche,” sings Sinatra, carefully enunciating Porter’s words. “Game girl,” mutters Crosby, riffing on the lyrics. “She got up and finished fourth.” Sinatra responds with his own ad lib: “I think I’ll dance!” As he wobbles by, Crosby cautions, “Well, don’t hurt yourself.” These men are what stars are, doing what stars do. They seem as if they’re making it up right in front of you. Looking at them performing “Did Ya Evah?” is a lesson in star definition: two hardworking professionals are executing a complicated musical assignment in order to look like two amateurs who’re reeling through an accidental musical romp. Fifty years later, after they’re both dead and gone, they are still alive inside the frame—still making it appear that it’s happening right in front of you, in the moment. The illusion of stardom is always the illusion of ease.

In the “golden era” of Hollywood, filmmakers knew that stardom required personalities like Crosby and Sinatra. Finding such stars was what the studios did. But how did they do it? Was there a formula? No. But there was a process. The hard part was that the process cost a great deal of money, and it was fraught with potential disasters. No matter what they did, no matter how smart they were about it, it could go wrong, because no one knew for sure what they were doing.

Moviemakers asked themselves many questions to define stardom. Was it luck, an accident of fate? When Alice Faye got appendicitis and had to be quickly replaced in Down Argentine Way (1940), her desperate studio (20th Century–Fox) stuck a cute blonde who’d been around town for nearly a decade into her part: Betty Grable. Given a chance by an appendix, Grable succeeded and became even more famous than Faye, lasting for an unprecedented decade at the top of popularity polls. All her life, Grable said her stardom happened because “I was just lucky.” The business asked itself, “Was it only luck?” Or did it require some special role that fit perfectly to what the actor could do? When five-time Olympic gold medal swimmer Johnny Weissmuller was cast as Tarzan, the role gave him a lifetime of fame. Since he was no actor (by his own frank admission), a movie with little dialogue and a lot of swimming fit him perfectly. No Tarzan, no Johnny?

Maybe actors became big stars because they seemed to incorporate their own opposites. Shirley Temple, that adorable little tot, was also a bossy brat who faked her way forward. If you met a kid like that in real life, you’d want to smack her. Robert Walker seemed shy and innocent, but Hitchcock brought forward some disturbed quality that made him perfect as the evil Bruno in Strangers on a Train (1951). Barbara Stanwyck was tough but vulnerable. Tyrone Power was masculine yet feminine. Carole Lombard seemed like a fun pal, but she was the ultimate in sophisticated glamour. Maybe it was that a star had to find the perfect on-screen mate to supply some “other half.” As Katharine Hepburn famously said about Astaire and Rogers, “He gives her class and she gives him sex.” Was it some perfect co-starring that made magic and solidified t...

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Descripción Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, New York, U.S.A., 2007. Hardcover. Estado de conservación: New. Estado de la sobrecubierta: New. 1st Edition. Film historian Jeanine Basinger gives us an immensely entertaining look into the "star machine," examining how at the height of the studio system, from the 1930s to the 1950s, the studios worked to manufacture star actors and actresses. With revelatory insights and delightful asides, she shows us how the machine worked_when_ it worked, how it failed when it didn't, and how irrelevant it could sometimes be. She gives us the "human factor," case studies focusing on big stars groomed into the system; the "awesomely beautiful" (and disillusioned) Tyrone Power; the seductive, disobedient Lana Turner; and a dazzling cast of others--Loretta Young, Errol Flynn, Irene Dunne, Deanna Durbin. She analyses their careers, showing how their fame happened and what happened to them as a result. (Both Lana Turner and Errol Flynn, for instance, were involved in notorious court cases.) Deeply engrossing, full of energy, wit, and wisdom, THE STAR MACHINE is an invaluable part of the film canon. With 221 black-and-white photographs. 586 pp, with Index. Mint, new, unread, first edition, first printing, in new, mylar-protected dust jacket. *Packed carefully and shipped in a box to insure arrival in pristine condition. {Not remainder-marked or price-clipped} BUND. Nº de ref. de la librería 023141

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