By Jeanine Basinger
Knopf. 497 pp. $35
Reviewed by Charles Matthews
The silent film may be the shortest-lived major art form in history: From the pioneers such as Melies and Porter to "The Jazz Singer" is less than 30 years. And since the majority of silent films have vanished completely, victims of neglect and nitrate film stock, their most enduring legacy may be stardom itself. There were stars before there were movies, and their fans could be frenzied: In 1849 people died in the streets of New York during the riots between partisans of the Shakespearean actors Macready and Forrest.
But those who actually saw the actors and divas of the past numbered in the thousands. Movie stars had a fandom of millions. "Silent stars bonded with their audiences," Jeanine Basinger writes. "Between them and the men and women in the seats was a strong connection forged in a quiet world of dreams and imagination." They had a greater physicality than the stars of the talkies: "In their world of silence," she continues, "these actors and actresses use their complete bodies in performance, treating the self as a single expressive unit. . . . They were not afraid of their bodies."
This physicality was enhanced by the spice that silence gave to film going -- watching a silent movie is like spying through your neighbor's living room window: "More than any other type of film, silent film is voyeuristic. If porn had a pure counterpart, it would be silent film." And unlike the actors and divas of the stage, these were stars one could emulate. No one else could dance like Pavlova or sing like Caruso, but the stars of the silent screen seemed to be ordinary folk, inspiring Johnny Mercer's lyrics for "Hooray for Hollywood," where "any barmaid can be a star maid."
In an earlier book, A Woman's View, Basinger, who teaches film at Wesleyan, made a strong case for the "women's film," examining with sympathy and insight a genre that male critics had scorned or ignored. In her new book she celebrates some erstwhile superstars who are now almost forgotten. She admits the difficulty of bringing our '90s sensibilities to the films of the teens and '20s: For example, she explains, Norma Talmadge's image and performance style seem dated. "She . . . seems rather passive and quite dull. . . . Her type of physical beauty is of its era -- slightly plumpish, round-faced, and with a nose untouched by surgery. (A nose like that wouldn't last past eighth grade in a would-be actress today.)" And yet Talmadge was once one of the most famous women in the world. Her films are almost all lost -- a loss, Basinger comments, roughly equivalent to eradicating the name of Bette Davis from film history.
Other stars have images that were distorted by the way they have been parodied in the talkies. Mary Pickford was not some ghastly superannuated "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"-style child star, and Marion Davies was nothing like the talentless Susan Alexander of "Citizen Kane." Gloria Swanson exists in our consciousness as the demented has-been she played in "Sunset Boulevard," and not as the sexy heroine of movies by Cecil B. DeMille and Allan Dwan. In "Singin' in the Rain," the scene in which Gene Kelly kisses his way up Jean Hagen's arm, hammily proclaiming "I love you, I love you, I love you," is a parody of John Gilbert's disastrous debut in talkies, just as the career-killing screech of Hagen's Lina Lamont echoes the myth that Gilbert's voice was high and effeminate. Gilbert's voice was, in fact, perfectly ordinary, but that was the problem: Silence had made him seem extraordinary -- his fans could imagine that there was a voice to match his suave manner. "Sound diminished John Gilbert," Basinger observes. It "added nothing to his ability to convey a man in love, to present a sensuous, impassioned romantic. On the contrary, sound subtracted heavily from it. Ronald Colman's honeyed voice, on the other hand, complemented his appearance and allowed him a long career in the talkies."
Basinger celebrates these stars -- plus Mabel Normand, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, William S. Hart, Tom Mix, Lon Chaney, Colleen Moore, Clara Bow and even Rin-Tin-Tin -- with vivid accounts of their films and personalities. Fairbanks's movies, she writes, "are endearing for their innocence and zest, for the boundless enthusiasm for the possibilities of life. The great thing about [him] on film was not only that he conquered his world, but that he made it seem as if anyone could do the same." His influence carried over into the sound era, she notes, in the movies of Errol Flynn and the young Burt Lancaster. (The only action star today who has anything like Fairbanks's brio is Jackie Chan.) Above all, the book will make you hunger to see movies that most of us will never see -- unless PBS or Turner Movie Classics revives them. If so, I hope they hire Basinger as commentator. Reading her descriptions is the next best thing to watching them.
Charles Matthews is managing editor of SV, the magazine of the San Jose Mercury News, and the author of "Oscar A to Z."