The thesis of Jeanine Basinger’s 1999 book Silent Stars is to re-evaluate silent era actors she feels have been misunderstood and forgotten by modern audiences. An admirable goal, though what results is a mixed bag.
Much has been made of Basinger’s selections for analysis: Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, and especially Lon Chaney are hardly obscure to silent film fanatics. Now, were Silent Stars aimed at folks with little familiarity with the period or newbies, then these choices would be understandable. Those who have never seen a Pickford film would expect a “bargain basement Shirley Temple” as Basinger puts it. John Gilbert’s talent and charisma as a romantic and swashbuckling lead have been overshadowed by the squeaky voice myth. The Talmadges are totally forgotten in the public mind, and so on. The issue is silent film fans seem to be the target audience for this book. We know who these people are, we know how horribly they are misremembered by the general modern public. Basinger seems to be preaching to the choir.
Basinger’s enthusiasm for the silent era is the book’s best asset. Her descriptions of the appeal of these actors, for both the 1920s and modern audiences, are well-put. She wonderfully pinpoints the erotic mystique of Valentino and the comic effervescence of Marion Davies. The most interesting chapter analyzes the Talmadge sisters Norma and Constance, getting to the heart of why they were so popular back in the 1910s and 1920s.
Overall, not a bad read and recommended for folks just getting into this little appreciated medium, but it’s hardly essential if you’re a seasoned silent film geek.