Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger

silentstarsI don’t know for sure – because I haven’t counted – but I think this is the fourth or fifth book by film historian and author Jeanine Basinger that I’ve read. Spoiler alert: I’ve loved them all.

Jeanine Basinger has a terrific way with words and her writing style is so clear, concise, personable and easy to follow. Most of the time I read her work, I often catch myself smiling and/or laughing out loud because so much of what she has to say is spot-on.

Silent Stars is a great place to start if you’re a silent film newbie (and even if you’re a silent film enthusiast like me!). It’s a lovely book that spotlights both popular and obscure silent film stars from the 1900s, 1910s and 1920s.

mabel normand
Mabel Normand

Each chapter focuses on either one silent film star or multiple silent film stars that share a common theme or thread. So, for instance, you’ll find chapters on individual stars like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Mabel Normand, Rudolph Valentino, and John Gilbert. And then, scattered throughout the book you’ll also find chapters dedicated solely to pairs of silent film stars who share a common motif: Gloria Swanson and Pola Negri share a chapter entitled “Women of the World,” William S. Hart and Tom Mix share a chapter called “Cowboys,” and Colleen Moore and Clara Bow share a chapter named “Flappers.” You get the point.

Jeanine Basinger writes about each star’s life, career, and the impact they each made on silent film history. When I think about how many films Basinger must have had to watch in order to write this book, I get positively dizzy. It’s not like she’s written a book about just one person, no. She’s written a book about and had to research sixteen people (and one dog: Rin-Tin-Tin). That’s one hell of an undertaking!

marion davies
Marion Davies

There are, unfortunately, many silent films that have either been lost or damaged and Basinger indicates the ones she hasn’t been able to watch and review. She lists their titles, discusses some of the reviews the lost/damaged film garnered when it originally premiered, but she obviously wasn’t able to give her readers her own thoughts on the actual film itself. When someone brings up the fact that the vast majority of silent films has been lost, it makes my heart bleed and I will never not feel sad knowing that these treasures are probably lost to us forever.

The variety of silent film personalities and stars that Basinger chose to include in her book is just right. I love that she didn’t just choose to write about the most popular and well-known celebrities of the day (and she could have done, very easily). Instead, she struck a healthy balance of popular and lesser known, largely forgotten silent film stars and it was wonderful getting to learn more about and discover people I hardly knew anything about beforehand.

Rudolph Valentino

Did I like it?

One thing I love about all of Jeanine Basinger’s books is how fun they are to read. When you pick books like these up off the shelf, they tend to seem quite daunting at first because they’re big, they’re heavy, they’re long and they’ve got really tiny font. Basically, on first glance, these books look quite intimidating and academic in nature but when you actually start reading them they read like a magazine article or personal essay. Basinger’s writing style is enjoyable, whimsical, and oftentimes hilarious.

I very much enjoyed reading this book, however there is one thing I could have done without: the lengthy story synopses that Basinger included in some of her chapters. If you quickly summarize the plot of a film for me in a matter of 2-3 sentences, that’s great! But I honestly don’t see the need to go on and on about a film’s story line for paragraphs and pages. In Basinger’s defense, that’s something a lot of authors and film historians are guilty of doing, not just her. Perhaps they’re trying to fill space? Regardless, it’s a minor pet peeve of mine, so don’t let this deter you from reading Silent Stars. It’s a terrific book that I’m happy to have in my collection.

Rating = 4/5 stars

I read and reviewed this book for Raquel Stetcher’s #ClassicFilmReading challenge.

One thought on “Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger

  1. I definitely have my eye on this one! I’m not as big of a fan of Basinger’s books as you are (The Star Machine drove me crazy but I Do and I Don’t was great) but I appreciate her vast knowledge and her writing style. She does make film history very approachable! Thanks for your insightful review (and I apologize for not getting to the other reviews before the comments closed! I read and enjoyed each and every one especially the Swanson on Swanson review).


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