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Shining a light on the star-makers

The old Hollywood studio system amounted to glamorous slavery, according to film scholar Jeanine Basinger.

By Jeanine Basinger

Knopf. 588 pages. $35

Reviewed by Roger K. Miller

Movie stars under Hollywood's studio system were product, Jeanine Basinger says in

The Star Machine

. At first blush, that may sound wrongheaded: Surely films were the product and the stars merely cogs in their production. But, in 550-plus pages of entertaining and informative text, Basinger proves her assertion to a fare-thee-well.

"The product was not any individual movie," Mexican-born star Ricardo Montalban put it succinctly. "It was the actor. They created a persona they thought the public would like . . . it was amazing."

When studios were at their peak (the 1930s through the 1950s), they called it "type," which, Basinger says, is "persona with its hat on." Either way, it's "the creation of a second self that is believed to be the original self."

For the question was not, Can movie stars act? The question was, Are they believable on-screen? Hollywood's star machine was designed to find people whom audiences could believe in when put on celluloid. If they could act, so much the better.

"I'm no actor, and I have 64 films to prove it," Victor Mature said, amiably acknowledging his limits, as a surprising number of stars did.

The machine was much more organized and efficient than people give it credit for being. Basinger, chair of film studies at Wesleyan University and author of several books about film, sees it as ruthless.

Studios controlled nearly every aspect of actors' lives. It was highly paid, glamorous slavery. Ann Rutherford said, "Yes, we were really like slaves. You were chattels of the studios. They could buy and sell you."

The work could be long and grueling. Some, like Gail Russell, could not bear up under it; in 1961 at age 36 she was found dead, surrounded by empty vodka bottles. Others, like Joan Blondell, never let it get them down.

Those three women, unknown to most readers today, illustrate the book's focus. Basinger concentrates not on legendary names like Clark Gable and Bette Davis, but on less stratospheric, yet still high-profile, products of the star-making machine, such as Tyrone Power and Loretta Young.

Studios did not hide the machine from the public. Movie magazines such as Photoplay, industry-serving (and sometimes industry-written) as their articles otherwise were, made the process quite clear to the consumer.

Basinger divides her book into two sections, the first being an objective look at the star-making business, the second a more subjective one at the stars it produced. No machine works perfectly, and chapter titles in the second section alliteratively describe the ways Hollywood's broke down - Disillusionment, Disobedience, Defection, Disentanglement and Detachment - with actor-examples for each category. (Errol Flynn was extremely disobedient.)

The Star Machine

is studded throughout with scores of photographs. While overall the prose is agreeably nonacademic, occasionally it runs to infelicitous breeziness or to cliches and automatic phrases - e.g., "the film that MGM was built to make."

Today, in contrast to all that, stars are on their own. Studios do not guide their development (or their private lives). They have a freedom that machine stars struggled to achieve, but there is a trade-off in personal privacy and in the large staffs they must support themselves.

Signs are, Basinger reports, that the business is losing confidence in stars and that audiences are less interested in star-driven films. The business, in other words, is being turned on its head: In the old days, you became a star and hoped the system would let you become an actor. Now, you become an actor and hope the system will make you into a star.