• • Book Reviewer Tracey O'Shaughnessy discusses the new release and the author in this interview for The Republican-American. Author Jeanine Basinger heads Wesleyan University's film studies program, and often writes about classic cinema.
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Wesleyan film historian's book reveals the cogs that kept Hollywood a well-oiled machine
• • BY TRACEY O'SHAUGHNESSY, Republican-American
• • There's a story told about MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer discovering that Greer Garson, one of his pet leading ladies, had married her "Mrs. Miniver" co-star Richard Ney. Ney, 12 years Garson's junior, had played her son in the Oscar-winning 1942 movie that defined Garson as the decorous iron butterfly whose steely grace could smite Nazis and aphids.
• • "What will people think," the bellicose Mayer roared. "You've married your own son!"
• • But, as Garson reminded Mayer, that was only in the movies. In real-life, she wanted to marry Ney before he went off to war. "Well," Mayer allegedly sighed, "maybe he'll be killed and our problem will be solved."
• • Like most stories told about Mayer, this story is likely apocryphal. But it is revealing, not only for what it says about Mayer, but for the light it sheds on the old studio system, the subject of "The Star Machine," by Wesleyan University's Jeanine Basinger.
• • Basinger, 71, is one of the country's top film historians and a certified film groupie. Basinger is less Waldo Lydecker, the vituperative critic of "Laura," who writes "with a quill pen dipped in venom," than Hedda Hopper. "My fondest dream is that I will go to my mailbox and the mailman will give me a letter and I will see 'France,' on the return address," Basinger confides. "And Deanna Durbin would have said, 'Thanks for the nice write up.'"
• • Basinger laughs heartily. An earthy South Dakota native who mixes academic precision with charming Midwestern patois, something like her Deanna Durbin fantasy happened to her 40 years ago when she wrote The New York Times to protest its snarky profile of Joan Crawford. The Times printed her letter as a column and ran it in its Sunday pages. Joan Crawford, about whom Basinger was devising a class, woke her up at 7:30 that morning.
• • "Jeanine?" the distinctive Crawford intoned, "You are a great lady." Within weeks, Crawford appeared in Basinger's class at Wesleyan to answer questions — — the only time the star ever did so.
• • As chair of Wesleyan's venerable film studies program and its new cinema archives, Basinger is frequently called on to narrate re-released classic film DVDs, like the 1942 Bette Davis melodrama "In This Our Life."
• • "They cannot say it. They cannot show it. They cannot even go near it," Basinger said recently, over a roast-beef wrap at Middletown's Luce. "But they manage it: there's a subplot about incest."
• • That, Basinger says, is what replenishes her, after seeing these movies dozens of times. "They knew how to be suggestive," says Basinger. "They were so skillful and they were so finely crafted and they were lean. These movies knew how to imply, suggest and move on."
• • The idea for "The Star Machine" has been percolating around Basinger for a long time. Most of her writings, from "Silent Stars" to "A Woman's View," touches on the old studio system, which has become in recent years some sort of oligarchic archenemy, a multi-tentacled beast that spewed fantasy and falsehood, simultaneously spawning and strangling its progeny. "The Star Machine" seeks to unravel the factory system that produced iconic stars like Clark Gable, Irene Dunne, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Errol Flynn.
• • But even the studio executives themselves could not define the product they were manufacturing.
The studio system was, as David Denby has written, "the industrialization of the ineffable."• • And it was industrialization. "Hollywood was a factory," Basinger writes. "It operated on the principle that if it dropped a lot of nubile young blondes into the star-making machine, at least one of them might come out looking like a heartbreaker."
• • The entrepreneurs who ran the system, like Mayer, operated under a clinical pragmatism. "The idea of a star being born is bushway," he said in 1958. "A star is created, carefully and coldbloodedly, built up from nothing, from nobody. … Age, beauty, talent — — least of all talent — — has nothing to do with it. … We could make silk purses out of sow's ears every day in the week."
• • What makes "The Star Machine" absorbing is the number of people who should have made it, but never did. These were people like Barbara Lawrence and Peggy Dow, Alexis Smith and Ana Sten. They went through the same hackneyed hoops, physical transformation and publicity machinations as the Barbara Stanwycks and Loretta Youngs, but they didn't catch fire.
• • Mae West, who made less than a dozen films, understood the game.
• • "It isn't what I do," she said, "but how I do it. It isn't what I say, but how I say it. And how I look when I do it and say it."
• • The book's best — — and to Basinger's mind — — most heartbreaking example is Rosemary Clooney.
• • "I love Rosemary Clooney," says Basinger. "She's one of my all-time favorite singers. She's a warm and charming personality. She's easygoing and she can really sing. Why the heck didn't she become a real movie star?"
• • Part of it, Basinger writes, was that Clooney was with a studio (Paramount) not known for developing musicals. Part of it was that Clooney's easygoing persona looked flat on screen, and part of it was that she lacked the indescribable pizzazz that another band singer — Doris Day — had in spades.
• • "Doris Day really has punch on screen," says Basinger. "She's unique. She can do it all and Warners knew what to do with her. There's so many accidents involved."
• • Yet Basinger is an impenitent devotee of the old studio system for one reason. "I love movies," she says. In its heyday, the studio system turned out 400 to 500 movies annually. "I'm a good moviegoer," Basinger says. "Give me the system that gives me the best stuff. The studio system was an efficient system that produced a great product."
• • It's now become cant to think of the studio executive as a fast-talking, cigar-chomping tyrant, based on a few juicy tidbits of hyperbolic anecdotes spun by embittered stars. While Basinger concedes that moguls were "colorful men with uneducated backgrounds," she reminds readers no studio could compete with the malfeasance of Enron and that "no Hollywood mogul … ever crashed quite the way Martha Stewart or Leona Helmsley crashed."
• • Maybe not, but working at a movie studio was grueling. Actors worked a six-day week, beginning at 7 a.m. and finishing between 6 to 8 p.m. Actual shooting began at 9 a.m., and somewhere in between, actors were expected to learn their lines.
• • The ambitious and dedicated, like Crawford, were generally up before 5 a.m., learning lines, getting to the hairdresser and exercising. Betty Hutton talked about getting to the studio at 6 a.m. and staying until 9 or 10 p.m. She worked through lunches, learning lyrics, and on Sundays on dance routines.
• • "I began to crack and if anyone looked at me, I cried," she said.
• • And but for a few flukes — — Garson in her incandescent debut "Goodbye Mr. Chips," Vivien Leigh, a virtual unknown, nailing Scarlet O'Hara — — actual stardom came after a lot of years of hard work. "They were grinding it out," Basinger says. "It was a factory. You got left at the post if you dropped off."
• • Between 1932 and 1936, Basinger notes, Cary Grant made 24 movies at Paramount. Clark Gable made 17 films in his first three years at MGM (1931-34) Humphrey Bogart spent nearly 20 years trying to find his feet, filming dozens of memorable duds, including "The Return of Dr. X," in which he plays a mad scientist with a skunk-like stripe through the center of his hair. Had George Raft not turned down the role of Sam Spade in "The Maltese Falcon," it's unclear whether Bogart would have ever emerged as the existentialist man of integrity for which he's remembered.
• • The idea of a star crafting his own aesthetic, a la Robert DeNiro or Meryl Streep, was unheard of during the studio's heyday, the Depression.
• • "The luxury to think of your work as a 'career' is a product of our time," says Basinger. "It's not the product of people born in poverty, trying to put food on the table. They were hustling a living." Many stars, like Crawford and her arch-nemesis Norma Shearer, were supporting parents or extended families.
• • Still, Hollywood's exacting schedule, combined with the studios' manipulation of stars' personal lives was too much to bear for many.
• • "We were really like slaves," Ann Rutherford said. "You were chattels of the studios. They could buy and sell you." As Ava Gardner famously quipped, "Stardom gave me everything I never wanted."
• • The omnipresent studio chose everything for stars, from their homes, to their hairstyles, to their dates. It also eliminated the necessity to think. Elizabeth Taylor admitted after she left MGM that she had no idea how to write a check. After Lana Turner was let go from her contract, she said she waited outside for the studio car to drive her home.
• • And yet, of course, they don't make 'em like that anymore. As Joan Collins said, "Glamour is on life support and is not expected to live."
• • Basinger says only a few stars — — Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie and perhaps Julia Roberts, come close to the level of their predecessors. Sharon Stone had it, and lost it, the result, Basinger believes, of not finding suitable roles. That, of course, is part of the problem.
• • Once the studio system collapsed in the early 1950s, stars could and did make their own decisions — — often with disastrous results. Without a studio publicity department to gloss over their peccadilloes and misdemeanors, stars broke the "fourth wall" with their audience. They devolved from impeccably crafted phantoms into pajama-wearing, latte-toting slobs like us.
• • "The studio made some mistakes, but they didn't make as many as individual stars make today," Basinger says. "It's harder to be a star today." Individual stars have to create and finance their own mini-studios of publicists, lawyers, business managers and personal assistants. "It's a tough, unforgiving business. This is why the business hated Marilyn Monroe. The business just didn't have time for that and, you know what? Most businesses don't. They don't have time for people who are late, for people who are sickly, or people, sadly, who are mentally ill."
— — Source: — —
• • Publication: The Republican American — — www.rep-am.com
• • Byline: Tracey O'Shaughnessy
• • Published on: 23 December 2007
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