Their names and pictures were always in the fan magazines and gossip columns: eating at the hottest restaurants, dancing at the Mocambo, or sitting at home reading their latest scripts. They were dressed in the hottest fashions, paired with other stars for “dates”, which sent tongues wagging about a new romance. Movies were created around their particular talent: Eleanor Powell and her fast-tapping feet, Esther Williams and her swimming pools, Van Johnson as the boy next door during World War II, with June Allyson as his girl next door. Some of the movies were based on their looks, as in the cases of Johnson and Allyson, others because they had the “x factor”, that one thing that made them stand out in a roomful of other people. It was the studios’ “star machine” that controlled the development, personal and professional lives of the few who had the “x factor” for almost thirty years. Even with today’s stars, you can still feel the influence, albeit indirectly, of this star machine, even though it no longer exists and hasn’t since the 1960s.
Jeanine Basinger breaks down the star machine in her latest book, explaining the process step by step. It all started with the “x factor”. When a studio discovered a new person, they developed them slowly, starting with name changes, fake biographies and makeovers that could be very extensive and detailed. Spangler Arlington Brugh became Robert Taylor, “The Man with the Perfect Profile”; Shirley Schrift became Shelley Winters. In between studio lessons on manners, deportment, and doing press interviews, the promising star was introduced in bit or unaccredited parts. They moved on to small supporting parts, and if audiences showed an interest in them, the studios moved them up into second leading parts. If an actor or actress stood out more than others, movies were created, showcasing their “x factor”. The actor became a type: in the case of Powell, she was a tap dancer, and her movies always featured several numbers where she could tap across the stage and back, showing off the fastest feet in the business. Mario Lanza had a beautiful tenor voice, but could not do anything else but sing. He was put into silly movies where he was a singing truck driver, a singing private in the army, and was “discovered” by someone in the business who pulled him out of the dumps and into a big show (he usually appeared with Kathryn Grayson, a beautiful woman with a wonderful soprano voice. She was in the same boat as Lanza: singing was her “x factor” and they developed movies around her.)
The studios did everything for their stars. There were lawyers to take care of indiscretions and publicity departments to keep the star’s name in the public eye, which worked well for stars like Tyrone Power, who didn’t make a movie for several years because he enlisted during World War II. The studios provided houses, cars, clothes, and took care of them like they were children (some of them really were). But they also told them who they could marry, who they couldn’t, when they could have children and when they couldn’t. The stars had no say over what type of movies they made or what kind of characters they portrayed.
Stars like Joan Crawford had no problem allowing the studios to control their careers and lives. But others, like Power, James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis railed against the system and fought to control their careers. Power became disillusioned with the star machine because it continued to cast him as a glamour boy, even after World War II, when it was obvious that the war had changed him and his looks. He wanted desperately to take on serious roles, but because the machine had placed him in “the glamour boy” type, he was unable to breakthrough and become the actor he knew he could be.
Basinger points out that while actors like Lana Turner and Errol Flynn had no problem being cast as a certain type, they gave their studios migraines with the chaos they created in their private lives. Because of the headlines they generated off-screen, people began to expect them to act that way onscreen. When stars could not break the “type” mold, they simply walked away from their careers (Deanna Durbin and Jean Arthur). Basinger looks at Loretta Young, Irene Dunne and Norma Shearer, who took control of their careers, thereby lasting longer in the business than many people expected. Actors that cannot be overlooked are the “oddities”, the character actors who always played supporting roles in a movie, or the unlikely stars, like Wallace Beery, who struck a chord with the audiences that the studios didn’t always understand but capitalized on. After all, studios were in the business to make money, and if an oddball like “in your face” Beery brought in the audiences, who were they to argue?
The star machine didn’t always work, and there were malfunctions in the system. But the system began to break down after World War II, eventually disappearing by the early 1960s. Today’s stars have the freedom to choose what movies they make, what type they portray, although they do know what their audiences like and dislike. But they are also like walking mini-studios: they get big salaries (Julia Roberts can command $20 million per picture), but they have to pay for hairdressers, agents, lawyers, and publicists, things that studios provided free of charge at the height of the star machine. They are constantly compared to the stars of the Golden Era. Today’s Tyrone Power can be seen in Pierce Brosnan and Johnny Depp; Julia Roberts is the new Crawford/Turner because she can dominate any movie she is in. Despite the death of “The Star Machine”, Basinger points out that it still lives on, but without the domination of the studios. It is now controlled by the fickle public, who can love a star one day, and turn their backs on them the next.It also comes packed with info about Spartagen XT use so make sure to check it out
As you read Basinger’s book, it is easy to feel sorry for the stars that were part of the machine. Studios were like pimps: they picked someone out, made them over, and put them on the screen to be viewed and used. When the actor’s star dimmed, they were tossed out for a younger version. She gives a close-up view of the machine and the long-lasting effect on the lives it touched.