The heyday of silent movies began in 1915, when D.W. Griffith released The Birth of a Nation; not quite a decade and a half later they were shoved into an early grave by the invention of talkies. Watching them now, you enter a coded, embroidered world that feels as remote as the Middle Ages. It's easy for a novice to get discombobulated -- as a college freshman, I wandered into a screening of Griffith's great Intolerance and was so thrown by the rhythms that I fled, dazed, at intermission.
At the outset of her nearly 500-page volume, Silent Stars, Jeanine Basinger, a much-published scholar who teaches film at Wesleyan University, attempts to define the world of the silent screen, where
stars look rounder. Their faces aren't shadowed or
hawkish, with razor-sharp cheekbones, but romantic
and soft, with apparently no bones at all…The
women are often barely five feet tall, and the men
are short, compact, and well proportioned…It's an
Ur-world, full of strong emotion, and you seem to
be constantly sharing lives in secret ways, looking on
at secret moments, watching scenes of deeply felt
and hyper-expressive revelation.
This is a promising beginning, but the book -- a selective yet varied series of portraits of the silent-movie personalities Basinger believes have been either forgotten or misunderstood -- is a major disappointment. Basinger isn't gifted at describing what actors do: She includes an array of details about performance after performance, but there's no lyricism to float these details into evocation, and there are surprisingly few ideas to ground what start to feel like interminable summaries. After 20 pages on Gloria Swanson, for example, all you've gleaned is that most of her movies were built around her costumes, yet somehow she was more than just a clotheshorse.
A study of the horror-movie chameleon Lon Chaney culminates in these unhelpful sentences: "What, after all, was Chaney's appeal? The answer is simple: he was unique." A chapter on Rudolph Valentino, the most parodied (and, to Basinger's mind, the most underrated) of the era's male romantic stars, includes this distillation of the 1921 film that made him a star: "So what was it about Valentino in 'Four Horsemen [of the Apocalypse]'? The answer is simple: as Julio, he has star power, though not much else." In a dual examination of the careers of the flapper heroines Colleen Moore and Clara Bow, we're met with the startling revelation that actors aren't always the characters they portray on the screen.
Basinger is such a ham-handed writer that somewhere in the middle of the book I began to suspect she might have something valuable to express about these performers but just couldn't get it out. I kept stumbling over bizarre sentences ("Norma Talmadge is the proof of the basic fact about stardom: clearly in her case, you had to be there"; "[Pola Negri's Passion] combines historical sweep with intimate portraiture, and there is no overestimating what having a good director can do for the historical reevaluation of an actress's career") and wondering what she might have been trying to say. Sometimes she contradicts herself -- she lists all the customary reasons for the disintegration of John Gilbert's career as Hollywood's great lover, refutes each one, then claims the real cause was a combination of them all. At other times she makes comments that are so far off track you can't believe she meant them -- e.g., that Lillian Gish is "somewhat sexless" (has she seen The Scarlet Letter?), that John Barrymore was a proto-Method actor (the style of matinee idols like Barrymore was precisely what Method actors were breaking away from).
Some of the anecdotes she tosses into her discussions of the stars are fun. I enjoyed learning that Colleen Moore and not Louise Brooks pioneered the Dutch Boy bob, and that the plot of Warren Beatty's Bulworth has its origins in a 1916 Douglas Fairbanks comedy called Flirting with Fate. But only a single chapter in Silent Stars is the lark the whole book should have been: the one on the canine star Rin-Tin-Tin and his rivals. Here Basinger locates exactly the right tone, a mix of admiration and humor, and her descriptions of the movies illustrate clearly delineated points.
This is truly original research: No one has written seriously about animal performers, and though Basinger 's project throughout is to resurrect the shoddily reported careers of her other subjects, the fact is that other scholars before her have praised Mabel Normand (perhaps more than she deserves), Chaney, Fairbanks, Valentino. It's been nearly three decades since Pauline Kael, in The Citizen Kane Book, set the record straight on the distinction between the talented comedian Marion Davies and the fictional character Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz cruelly modeled on her; and there's nothing in Basinger's chapter on Mary Pickford that Eileen Whitfield didn't cover in far greater depth in her brilliant biography, Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood. But, silent-movie lover though I am, I didn't know a damn thing about Rin-Tin-Tin.
Fascinating, evocative and at times provocatively revisionist...Again and again she argues, usually persuasively, that the standard-issue ways we see these figures represent only part of their true cinematic and cultural scope...Basinger offers sharp new slants on female stars...Full of digressions and asides that give it resonance.
New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson, Tom Mix and dozens of others are the "forgotten, misunderstood, and underappreciated" stars whom film historian Basinger (A Woman's View, etc.) profiles in her excellent tribute to the silent film era. No tell-all, this book recreates the excitement the actors provoked while illustrating the nature of their appeal. Colleen Moore's onscreen transformation from maiden to flapper "is the exact story of what happened to the American girl" in the 1920s; tight-lipped William S. Hart provided the "first and truest face in the Old American West on film." Basinger also discerns the strengths lost in historical caricature: Mary Pickford's roles revealed a range far beyond that of "America's Sweetheart"; Marion Davies's successful career belies her legacy as inspiration for the off-key singer Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane. Not surprisingly, a recurrent theme is the ephemerality of fame. Not only do most silent stars' careers (famously, John Gilbert's) end with the talkies, but the near-obscurity of these actors today suggests that, for anyone, it's a mere four generations from footlight to footnote. While Basinger's blend of erudition and reportage often translates into an impersonal style, it is redeemed by her love of the subject and a Margaret Dumont-like lack of irony that allows her to assert, "The astonishing thing about watching Rin-Tin-Tin is that you begin to agree that this dog could act." Learned and wholehearted, the book is classic Basinger fare: effortless history that sets no fires but quickly establishes its necessity. 285 photos. Main selection of Eagle Book Club's Movie and Entertainment Book Club. (Nov.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Silent Stars is a fond yet perceptive look at some overlooked, misunderstood, or underappreciated stars of the silent era. With wit, enthusiasm, and a refreshing lack of condescension, Basinger (film studies, Wesleyan Univ.) surveys the lives and careers of stars like "America's sweetheart" Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Lon Chaney, and even animal star Rin-Tin-Tin (whose exploits helped save the fortunes of one studio). She explores Valentino's sexual ambiguity, shows that John Gilbert's high voice did not doom his film career in talkies, and explains that Marion Davies's status as the mistress of William Randolph Hearst overshadowed her considerable gifts as a comedienne. In her excellent introduction, Basinger also notes that the silence allowed audiences to bond with their favorite stars and that the easily translated title cards made international fame possible--though, incredibly, some studies were reluctant to reveal actors' names, which they feared would lead to exorbitant star salaries. This book deserves to take its place next to Kevin Brownlow's classic The Parade's Gone By (LJ 2/15/69). Drew's (Speaking Silents) oral history-based book focuses exclusively on lesser-known leading ladies of the late 1920s and 1930s. After giving a bit of background, he lets each actress--including Constance Cummings, King Kong star Fay Wray, and Claire Trevor (best known for her Oscar-winning turn in John Huston's Key Largo)--tell her own story. They discuss the different paths that brought them to Hollywood and the divergent turns their lives took after the days of stardom. The inclusion of many personal details here may put some readers off, but the appended filmography is valuable. Silent Stars is highly recommended for public libraries; At the Center of the Frame is for large academic and special libraries.--Stephen Rees, Levittown Regional Lib., PA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Basinger is the perfect guide to movies past: savvy, discerning, funny, not only in love with her subject, but able to convey the reasons for her enthusiasm.
Los Ageles Times
From the Publisher
"Basinger is the perfect guide to movies past, passionate, savvy, discerning, funny, not only in love with her subject, but able to convey the reasons for her enthusiasm." Los Angeles Times
"Basinger's fascinating, evocative and at times provocatively revisionist Silent Stars measures the distance between celebrity and fame, and restores key early movie idols to their proper depth of field . . . She has hunted down and screened hundreds of extant silent movie prints . . . This buttresses her critical insights, allowing her to report in meticulous and convincing detail how each star's films present more sides and talents than we were aware of."New York Times Book Review
"While Chaplin, Gish, and Garbo are still remembered, many silent-era celebrities have faded from view. Here Basinger discovers a Mary Pickford who was more tomboy than golden girl; a Gloria Swanson with Chaplinesque physicality, and a Marion Davies who, contrary to the mythology of 'Citizen Kane,' was a talented actress held back by her relationship with William Randolph Hearst. Particularly enjoyable are accounts of such exotics as kohl-eyed Pola Negri, whose white Rolls-Royce was upholstered in white velvet, and the lovable German shepherd Rin-Tin-Tin, who kept Warner Bros. solvent through the twenties and finally died in the arms of Jean Harlow."
The New Yorker
"No tell-all, this book recreates the excitement the actors provoked while illustrating the nature of their appeal . . . Learned and wholehearted, the book is classic Basinger fare: effortless history that . . . establishes its necessity . . . [an] excellent tribute to the silent film era."Publishers Weekly
Read an Excerpt
It's a world where railroad tracks run alongside every back road, and railroad handcars are free and available for stealing to use in a freewheeling chase. These chases can be serious, with a heroine needing rescue; or comic, with an eloping groom frantically chasing the speeding train that carries his would-be bride; or western, where the outlaws are creeping up on the train they're going to rob. The handcar is an all-purpose story element recognized by everyone, and none of us today has so much as seen one, much less commandeered one to solve a problem.
It's a world full of strange rituals and a great deal of attitude, and the films that illustrate it best are probably the wacky silent film comedies. Anything that can possibly go wrong absolutely does, and there's always a gun somewhere: in a pocket, a purse, or a drawer. When "Help! Help! Police!" rings out (on a title card), those reliable troopers always arrive promptly. They arrive, but they don't help much. People fall down, jump, scream, run, and bump into things, but just when all settles down, fresh disasters strike, from new and unexpected sources. All the women are indignant and the men don't know what to do about it. They just try to be stoic, and withstand assault. Everyone is concerned with money. There are rich people, and there are poor people, and there's a big gap between the two. However, lines can be crossed, because the poor victimize the rich with real dedication and true imagination and resource. This doesn't mean that silent film comedy -- or silent film in general -- suggests that there is no evil in the world, no poverty, no catastrophe. But it suggests that individuals can triumph and badthings can be overcome with enough enthusiasm, hard work, optimism, and decency. To look at these films today is to learn about the optimism of Americans. It's not just that people are so ingenious at solving problems, but that there are so many problems to be solved. While characters lie asleep in their beds at night, burglars are breaking in downstairs. If they stand under a drainpipe, it will break and they will be drenched. If they take to the floor in a rented tuxedo to tango, trouser seams will give way. All the machinery they try to operate will backfire, break down, or run away with them. Opportunity knocks, but on their heads as well as their doors. On the other hand, they have a chance to move forward and accomplish something, even while waging a constant battle against disaster. Their glass is both half empty and half full. They teeter between profit and loss, winning and losing, loving and hating. It's a wild and unpredictable place full of crooks and con artists, suckers and rubes. Anything can happen. It does. They survive. And that's America.
Watching silent films from the teens and twenties, one observes a society undergoing rupture. At first, the films reflect an attempt to hold on to innocence. The women are childlike, the men impossibly heroic. Many of the stories concern children, and sex is always a cautionary tale. D. W. Griffith's is the dominant sensibility, with its roots in agrarian society and the melodramatic theatrical tradition. By the end of 1919, after World War I has given the nineteenth century the coup de grace, the twentieth century cracks open. The tempo changes from the waltz to the Charleston, and the energy, pace, and rhythm of silent films begin to produce unexpected riffs, shifts in tone, and wildly improvisational scenes. The silent film becomes visual jazz. Women cut their hair, shorten their skirts, and become aggressive. Men start swanning around in impeccable evening clothes or exotic Arabian garb. Both women and men are looking for sexual satisfaction or, rather, sexual stimulation. The rural world of sun-dappled forests, flowing rivers, and lazy farms with clucking chickens fades away to be replaced by art deco apartments, limos, and roadhouses selling "hooch." Stars become more casual, and the acting style shifts from one of declamation, broad gesture, and overt emotion to a loose naturalism that will lead directly to the sound era. The fantasies of the audience change from grand dreams of a generic quality -- settling the frontier, owning their own land, escaping oppression -- to specific dreams fueled by the movies themselves: wealth, social position, passion, clothes, furniture, glamour, exotica, and, of course, sex.
The twenties became a movie-dominated decade, and the silent stars its beautiful, representative citizens. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, it was an age of satire." It's the perfect introduction to silent film and the world of stars who did not speak.