I like silent movies fine, but it wasn't until I read Jeanine Basinger's Silent Stars that I begun to understand what the silent era of film was like, for audiences as well as for the stars themselves. I don't think anyone today can truly appreciate the difference sound made in the industry, because we've lived with sound films all our lives, but when the movies began to talk, the change was widespread and irrevocable.
Basinger, the author of I Do and I Don't, among other books, chooses to spotlight what she calls "silent film stars who are somehow forgotten, misunderstood or underappreciated." Most film buffs might not think of stars like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Lon Chaney or Rudolph Valentino as falling under any of those categories, but Basinger argues that there was more to them and their careers than is generally known.
Even casual film fans know Valentino, for instance: the great exotic lover who danced the tango and carried women away into the desert, but in his day, he was the pre-McConnaisance Matthew McConnaughey, regarded as little more than a pretty-boy of dubious acting ability by the critics, but adored by women. Basinger explores how Valentno's screen image was crafted, little by little, over time, through his wardrobe, his physicality, his air of mystery and, of course, his dancing.
Silent Stars sheds light on lesser remembered stars as well, including Western stars William S. Hart and Tom Mix; sisters Norma and Constance Talmadge; European beauty Pola Negri (the woman on the cover); Hearst paramour Marian Davies; even Rin-Tin-Tin! As with I Do, Basinger's writing style is engaging and personable without being too academic. One can easily get into this book without knowing much about the silent era or movies in general. Indeed, it has inspired me to seek out some of the movies featuring these stars. I've already started with Fairbanks; expect to see more silent movie posts in the coming months.