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Monday, June 9, 2008

Inside the Dream Factory

Classic Hollywood’s star system

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  Jeanine Basinger brings a fresh new level of dedication to classic film in her fascinating survey of the much-maligned studio system, The StarMachine (Knopf), a 550-page book that is difficult to set aside.

  Her provocative approach balances an encompassing analysis of the “dream factories” that catapulted so many stars into that celluloid stratosphere of the 1930s-’50s with biographical surveys of individual stars “under the influence” of a system unparalleled in the ingenuity of marketing. Basinger doesn’t delve into such famous names as Davis, Gable, Crawford and Cagney, concentrating instead on the less publicized. She wisely avoids a final definition of star quality, calling it “something palpable” and “immediately there—out of the ordinary, ambiguous.” Among the examples cited are Barbara Stanwyck, described as tough but vulnerable; Tyrone Power as masculine yet feminine; Carol Lombard as a fun pal, but the ultimate in sophisticated glamour; and Shirley Temple as “a bossy brat who faked her way forward.”

  Once the studio had decided on potential star material, the studio worked like a juggernaut from hell to make corrections before launching their newest commercial venture. Stars were products: Names could be changed; biographies could be faked. Physical features had to be made camera ready: Gable’s ears were too big; Greer Garson’s cheekbones photographed flat; Rita Hayworth’s hairline was raised by electrolysis; dancer Eleanor Powell was put on a diet to de-emphasize her muscular thighs; and Fred Astaire was trained to capitalize on the winsome quality of his unhandsome elfin looks.

  Publicity was the life’s blood of the star-making launch pad. In an era of movie magazines, under the all-seeing eyes of dragon lady columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, not only was scandal to be avoided—unless it involved romance between such screen beauties as Lana Turner and Tyrone Power—but lackluster biographies might require some fabrication. Lucille Ball was said to be an avid polo player and was credited with saving a freezing child in an open-cockpit plane. Lucille neither rode horses nor flew.

  The great studios weren’t just factories in name only. Each had its own makeup, costuming and set-designing departments with accommodations for an army of workers. MGM covered more than 70 acres. Hundreds of extras could be costumed within an hour. A dozen films might be in progress on any given day. “You could live there,” according to Janet Leigh.

  But mechanics alone do not account for the magic results produced during these golden years, nor explain the longevity of certain performers after the studio system had vanished. The unyielding artificiality of the studio system does not entirely account for the quality of the finished product, either. Casablanca, Notorious and Now, Voyager are remembered today and stars such as John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Katharine Hepburn retained their status well into their senior years. Others, like Norma Shearer and Loretta Young, are all but forgotten.

  In an era dominated by the stranglehold of the Hollywood Production Code, stars were the only major commercial asset of the studio system—and the main reason that the largest studios even existed. Since violence, profanity and sex were taboo, these rare human beings called stars had to be showcased with the finest writing, production, cinematography and particular sensitivity to each actor’s carefully developed screen type. Audiences liked to feel comfortable with their favorites, and ultimately it was up to the stars to deliver. Those that succeeded presented the ultimate of professionalism, cinematic polish and that ephemeral degree of charisma only the audience can determine. The icons of that era set standards that remain the yardstick for the present day.

  Perhaps the greatest irony was that the restrictions of the 1930s and ’40s did not squelch creativity, but enhanced it. Given the limited thematic scope allowed by the morals code, the demands to be original and unique required a stringent discipline that challenged the imagination of the most talented writers and directors. The studio bosses would not have tolerated the sloppy editing and obscure continuity of many recent films.

  The Star Machine is a valentine to a treasured past, but one that pulls no punches.

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