How Studio Stars Got Their Twinkle

By Jeanine Basinger
Alfred A. Knopf, 586 pages, $35

For all of posterity’s gaping wonder, Hollywood’s star system was a legendarily inexact science. For every Garbo or Dietrich successfully snatched from obscurity by someone with a discerning eye for languid pain (in the case of the former) or sexual insolence (in the case of the latter), there was an Anna Sten; for every Clark Gable, there was a James Craig or a John Carroll; for every Myrna Loy, there was a Marsha Hunt.

But let’s face it, one Tyrone Power pays for a lot of failed male ingénues.

The studios’ basic modus operandi was to try to clone success, replicating those personalities and physical types that had already tickled the fans’ fancy. Robert Montgomery led to Franchot Tone; Tyrone Power led to Jeffrey Hunter, and so forth. That the imitation seldom brought an equivalent lightning down from the skies was irrelevant; the object was to feed a public need, as well as to let the talent feel some hot breath on the back of their neck. Nobody was irreplaceable.

The star system existed only because the movies used to be a volume business. If a studio is making 10 or 12 movies a year, you can just go buy people, which is what happens today. But if you’re making 40 or 50 a year, as was the norm in the 1920’s, 30’s and often in the 40’s, it’s much more economical to develop talent in-house.

There’s no real equivalent for this system in the movies today. But there is in TV—another volume business, where the star trajectory tends to go downward, from pay cable, or network, to lower-rung USA, then to Lifetime and, just before death, Sci-Fi. Every once in a while, miraculously, a George Clooney will claw his way up to movie stardom, but most of the time, stars, like water, have a way of finding their own level, which is why David Caruso has become the most outrageously Shatneresque of television hams.

That some of the types Jeanine Basinger writes about in her long, luxurious, often delicious book no longer exist—the classy WASP gentleman, for instance, exemplified on the high end by the miraculous, saucy William Powell, and on the low end by the frigid Robert Montgomery, or by distaff equivalents such as Irene Dunne and Claudette Colbert—doesn’t negate what they meant to previous generations, and what they can still mean to us.

(One of the advantages of the long view is that it discourages smugness. For every old-time star who provokes a response of “What were they thinking?”, it’s always wise to imagine what succeeding generations will make of our bewildering nonentities—Meg Ryan and Matthew McConaughey, among many others.)

A lot of The Star Machine is about stars frozen in amber, locked in their time—Deanna Durbin, for instance. Ms. Basinger seems to think that some star types are dead and gone, conveniently staked through the heart, even though it seems to me that they’re still out there stalking innocent blood. Wallace Beery, for instance, is a genuine horror of loutish sentimentality, but the lovable-slob type persisted through Walter Matthau, John Belushi and Chris Farley—and have you looked at any of Billy Bob Thornton’s recent movies?


MS. BASINGER TELLS her story with her customary verve and sass—she’s the Rosalind Russell of film historians, though she might prefer to be compared to Glenda Farrell. She tosses off at least one line I wish I’d written: “[Mickey] Rooney had talent to burn, and he burned it.”

For much of The Star Machine, Ms. Basinger gives every indication of having a great time, mostly because she’s clearly scratching personal itches. Her piece about Tyrone Power, who deserves to get into actor’s heaven just for Nightmare Alley, is the best thing ever written about that sad, undervalued actor, who had everything going for him except timing. (He had the looks for his time, but he would have been better served by being an actor in our time.)

On the other hand, Ms. Basinger’s piece on Betty Grable feels longer than some of Grable’s movies, which is saying something. Sometimes, stars can be explained away with one simple sentence: “There was a war on.”

I do think that a book this intrinsically discursive shouldn’t be so long. For starters, I could easily have done without the last 30 pages, wherein Ms. Basinger attempts to bring things up to date by discussing people like Tom Cruise, Brendan Fraser and—the horror!—McConaughey.

But there is no star system anymore, and there hasn’t been since the studios dumped the contract system in the 50’s. A genuine star today is far more important than any studio, or any studio head, and that’s 180 degrees from the situation 60 years ago.

That low rumble you hear is Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner whirling in their tombs like lathes.


Scott Eyman reviews books regularly for The Observer. He can be reached at How Studio Stars Got Their Twinkle