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The Star Machine

The Star Machine

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Add This - The Star Machine

Written by Jeanine BasingerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jeanine Basinger

  • Format: Trade Paperback, 608 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • On Sale: January 6, 2009
  • Price: $18.95
  • ISBN: 978-0-307-38875-9 (0-307-38875-1)
Also available as an eBook.
about this book

From one of our leading film authorities, a rich, penetrating, amusing plum pudding of a book about the golden age of movies, full of Hollywood lore, anecdotes, and analysis.

Jeanine Basinger gives us an immensely entertaining look into the “star machine,” examining how, at the height of the studio system, from the 1930s to the 1950s, the studios worked to manufacture star actors and actresses. With revelatory insights and delightful asides, she shows us how the machine worked when it worked, how it failed when it didn’t, and how irrelevant it could sometimes be. She gives us the “human factor,” case studies focusing on big stars groomed into the system: the “awesomely beautiful” (and disillusioned) Tyrone Power; the seductive, disobedient Lana Turner; and a dazzling cast of others—Loretta Young, Errol Flynn, Irene Dunne, Deanna Durbin. She anatomizes their careers, showing how their fame happened, and what happened to them as a result. (Both Lana Turner and Errol Flynn, for instance, were involved in notorious court cases.) In her trenchantly observed conclusion, she explains what has become of the star machine and why the studios’ practice of “making” stars is no longer relevant.

Deeply engrossing, full of energy, wit, and wisdom, The Star Machine is destined to become an invaluable part of the film canon.

“That some of the [Hollywood star] types Jeanine Basinger writes about in her long, luxurious, often delicious book[, The Star Machine,] 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. . . . 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.)”—Scott Eyman, New York Observer (December 3, 2007)

“Engaging . . . An engrossing analysis of the studios’ involvement in the making of movie stars in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. . . . Smart, deeply researched but also chatty and fast-flowing . . . [Jeanine Basinger] animat[es] [the Hollywood star] machine with literally hundreds of anecdotes and pointed observations . . . reliably grounded in Basinger’s head-on-a-swivel awareness of exactly what both the film industry and the star-making public were thinking at any given moment. . . . Basinger’s study of the studios’ relentless spin control makes an instructive prism through which to view long skeins of Hollywood film history–for example, the 77-year show- biz run of the lovingly depicted Loretta Young (who’s a vision of desirability in her introductory photo, one of many well-chosen pictures illustrating the book).”—Fred Schruers, Los Angeles Times (November 29, 2007)

“Ever wonder why certain folks became great stars, while others, equally talented, slipped through the shiny Hollywood cracks? In The Star Machine, film historian Jeanine Basinger examines the glory days of the studio system, from the 1930s to the beginning of the ’50s. Through anecdotes and insight she depicts the creation and manipulation of stars including Errol Flynn, Lana Turner, Deanna Durbin, Loretta Young, Norma Shearer and Tyrone Power. Like trained ponies, they were expected to do as they were told–and to keep prancing. Some balked; some misbehaved. Basinger looks at the consequences, and goes on to compare ‘then’ and ‘now,’ by deconstructing temporary stars who’ve sought to take control of their own destinies.”—Pat H. Broeske, Bookpage (December 2007)

“Basinger does well at explaining the temporal aspects of [Betty] Hutton’s–to modern eyes–mystifying appeal. . . . Basinger quickens to the WWII-era stars she saw as a youth, and her passages on Mickey Rooney, Van Johnson, and long-forgotten male ingénue Lon McCallister are warm and thoughtful. How right it is to admit a childhood fear of braying straight man Bud Abbott: ‘Abbott was just mean, a scary and dangerous old grown-up.’ And Basinger is refreshingly affectionate toward pure studio product like Dennis Morgan–people who lacked the X factor but fulfilled their roles as the poor man’s Cagney/Grant/Astaire. The cogs in the machine are gratefully acknowledged.”—Robert Horton, Film Comment (November/December 2007)

“Movie stars under Hollywood’s studio system were product, Jeanine Basinger says in The Star Machine. At first blush that may sound wrong-headed: Surely films were the product and stars merely cogs–albeit important cogs–in their production, but in 550-plus pages of entertaining and informative text the author proves her assertion to a fare-thee-well. . . . The author, whose enthusiasm for movies is reflected on every page, has a deft way of encapsulating the kernel of an actor’s attraction.”—Roger K. Miller, Chicago Sun-Times (October 28, 2007)

“On the roll call of names that made Hollywood shine in its golden age, Dennis Morgan comes well down the list. Yet Morgan, a vaguely handsome leading man with a pleasant tenor voice, generated solid box office returns from the mid-1930s right through the 1940s. . . . As Jeanine Basinger amply demonstrates in The Star Machine, Hollywood excelled at manufacturing Dennis Morgans. . . . Ms. Basinger . . . ingeniously picks apart the gears and levers of the machine, analyzing the careers of a handful of stars whose ups and downs illustrate the studio system at its smooth-functioning best, or reveal its hidden inefficiencies. . . . [I]n her most absorbing chapters Ms. Basinger breaks down the steps by which human raw material could be shaped into something that audiences would love and pay money to see again and again. . . . Ms. Basinger chooses her examples cleverly. . . . [W]ho knew that Gene Tierney battled long and hard to retain contractual control of her own teeth? . . . Ms. Basinger has a bouncy, bright style and a shrewd eye for identifying precisely the qualities that made this or that actor click with audiences, and, in machine terms, guaranteed durability. Sweet and a little prim, Jean Arthur conveyed to 1940s audiences ‘the true feeling of delicious sexual frustration.’ The book is filled with happy observations like these.”—William Grimes, The New York Times (October 31, 2007)

The Star Machine examines how the studios manufactured and maintained the stars’ personas, and how, in turn, the stars responded to and maneuvered in the studios’ often suffocating embrace. . . . Her dissection of . . . Errol Flynn’s and Irene Dunne’s overlooked careers is perceptive, and the case she builds for their strengths is cogent.”—Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic Monthly (November 2007)

“An enormous new book of star lore . . . Eager to concentrate on the routine workings of the movie industry . . . [Jeanine Basinger] concentrates on the second tier of stars–the Tyrone Powers and Loretta Youngs and Greer Garsons. Large and small, the stars were part of a balanced ecology in the great terra firma of the studio. Basinger plots their genesis and rise; she glories in their sheer staying power as proof of the system’s strength . . . Basinger nestles with almost delicious comfort into the intimate procedures of star manufacture. The story is familiar, yet still startling as an example of the industrialization of the ineffable.”—David Denby, The New Yorker (October 22, 2007)

“Most people know the big stars of Hollywood’s golden era, the Hayworths and Gables kept under closely controlled contracts by film studios from the 1930s through the 1950s. In The Star Machine, Jeanine Basinger describes the lesser-known ‘Edsels,’ her term for actors who didn’t work out. Ms. Basinger . . . examines how studios used star-making in their business plans. When a ‘product’ (actor) wasn’t sellable, she says, ‘they cleared it off the shelves.’”—The Wall Street Journal (October 19, 2007)

“A treasure trove of goodies. In this epochal study on how the Hollywood studio system manufactures stars, Basinger demonstrates a delightful ability to mix a formidable knowledge of film history, both as business and art form, with a fan’s appreciation for what film is all about. In sections like “Problems for the System: The Human Factor,” Basinger does what she does best in turning out portrait after portrait of the great and not-so-great stars and workaday B-listers who churned out the product for the old bosses. Basinger understands that it’s not the star-machine process itself that is so fascinating, but rather the stars who are swallowed and spit out by the process. The author goes right to the heart of the matter in her examination of movie stars, those immortals walking the earth who define movie magic in all its baffling glory, like the ineffable, oft-ignored genius of someone like Bing Crosby . . . A smart study of star quality as an industrial process, written by an academic who still understands Hollywood’s cheap, sensuous appeal.
Kirkus (starred review) (September 1, 2007)