Monday, June 30, 2014

Books: Silent Stars

The 2014 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

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.

Jeanine Basinger
As for Pickford, while she was a true film superstar, Basinger shows that she was, in a way, a prisoner of that fame as well, specializing in woman-child roles that the public ate up yet a sophisticated and shrewd businesswoman in real life. As co-founder of United Artists, hers is one of the longest lasting legacies of the silent era, and Basinger goes in depth about her career - in which we see how she was as much a funny lady as a drama queen - as well as her marriage to Fairbanks, a public sensation that made Brad & Angie pale by comparison.

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.

Main Street

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