On the roll call of names that made Hollywood shine in its golden age, Dennis Morgan comes well down the list. Yet Morgan, a vaguely handsome leading man with a pleasant tenor voice, generated solid box office returns from the mid-1930s right through the 1940s. Although overshadowed by the Gables and the Garbos, he was a star of medium magnitude with his own assured place in the entertainment universe.
As Jeanine Basinger amply demonstrates in The Star Machine, Hollywood excelled at manufacturing Dennis Morgans. There was nothing accidental about his career or those of a hundred other names that are only answers to trivia questions. Hollywood needed more than great headliners to satisfy the insatiable appetite for the hundreds of motion pictures it made each year.
"There were big-name stars and little-name stars," Basinger writes, "A-list stars and B-list stars, male stars, female stars, dog stars, child stars, character actor stars, Western stars for low-budget Westerns, horror film stars for horror films, and, always waiting in the wings to step in when the established stars got too uppity were youngsters under consideration to become the next big stars." In other words, Hollywood needed Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, but it also needed "its Priscilla Lanes and its George Brents."
Basinger, the author of Silent Stars and the chairwoman of the film studies department at Wesleyan University, ingeniously picks apart the gears and levers of the machine, analyzing the careers of a handful of stars whose ups and downs illustrate the studio system at its smooth-functioning best, or reveal its hidden inefficiencies. The same system that could extract a long, profitable career from a middle-level talent like Clifton Webb could also stumble badly, as it did in trying to make a second Garbo out of the now-forgotten Anna Sten.
The machine depended, ultimately, on wayward human beings and on the X factor known as star quality, whose power everyone recognized but whose properties remained a mystery. Hollywood, as Basinger points out, "cheerfully made a living manufacturing a product it couldn't define."
The movie industry did not have a formula, but it did have a process, and in her most absorbing chapters Basinger breaks down the steps by which human raw material could be shaped into something that audiences would love and pay money to see again and again. Some of this material is familiar, but Basinger chooses her examples cleverly. Although it is no secret that actors entered into serf-like bondage, who knew that Gene Tierney battled long and hard to retain contractual control of her own teeth?
Once a budding actor had been renamed, reshaped and taught how to speak and move in front of a camera, the studio, if it sensed potential star quality, showed enormous resourcefulness in testing the waters. Audiences watching Three on a Match, a 1932 film with Joan Blondell, Bette Davis and Anne Dvorak, might have thought they were enjoying a gritty drama about three school friends. In fact, Warner Brothers was using Blondell, an established star, to introduce Davis, a newcomer, and support Dvorak, an emerging star.
With luck, an actor could be assigned a type that with even greater luck, would prove to be equally useful in films of every genre. Walter Pidgeon, a shining example of the studio system, never achieved stardom of the first rank, but typecast as the "dignified but not stuffy handsome older man," he exhibited what Basinger calls generic flexibility: