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Celluloid September: Star Dust (1940)

Is there anything more indulgent than watching a movie about the movies? Lose yourself in the world of Old Hollywood with us this month as we watch films about the entertainment industry. Today Rodney and Samantha examine Star Dust from 1940.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: Talent scout and former silent film star Thomas Brooke (Roland Young) is traveling around looking for potential movie stars. He likes the looks of college football player Ambrose Fillmore (John Payne) as well as theater singer Mary Andrews (Mary Healy). Waitress Carolyn Sayres (Linda Darnell) has potential too, but Brooke is reluctant to suggest her to the studio because she is underage, and he had a history with her actress mother. She is determined to become a star and surreptitiously recommends herself, but it is up to her to make good in her screen test.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: I always enjoy these highly sanitized looks at old Hollywood. This one tells it like it was a little more than many, pulling no punches at the stories of young people who traveled to the studios with stars in their eyes, only to return home with hearts heavy with broken promises. It’s handled fairly lightly (as one would imagine, there are no casting couches present), but it also doesn’t mince words when pointing out that most who travel to be in the movies never actually are.

SG: Star Dust, originally titled Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, is loosely based on Darnell's own experience with stardom. She was only 15 when she signed her Fox studio contract after coming to their attention due to her work as a model and efforts by her voracious stage mother. She lied about her age, and was only 17 when this movie was made. The screen test depicted here is an exact replica of Darnell's own, right down to the costume she wore. I suspect Brooke's career is patterned after Raymond Griffith's, whose weak voice couldn't cut it in the talkie era.

RB: Darnell’s mother was actually banned from the Fox lot, maybe during the production of this film. The timeline is a little hazy from what I can tell. Sadly, these types of oppressive stage mothers often hampered the careers of those that they were desperately trying to help. Darnell managed a pretty solid career in spite of this, at least until alcoholism took hold of her and derailed things somewhat, although she was always an excellent actress and had more than a few career highlights.

SG: Screenland magazine's reviewer said, "Linda Darnell, an exquisite youngster, shows signs of true acting ability here." Silver Screen magazine wrote, "...this believably done film of Hollywood proves Darryl Zanuck made no mistake in selecting her for stardom." Behind the scenes, Darnell spent her time drawing with pastels. Her subjects included cinematographer J. Peverell "Pev" Marley, who she married three years later, and director Walter Lang.

RB: Linda’s original contract was with RKO, who never really knew what to do with her, and in a similar scenario to what we described above, she went home to Dallas. I guess some credit should go to Zanuck or someone at Fox who did see something in her and brought her back.

SG: According to Darnell's biographer Ronald L. Davis, she made $200 per week while making this film, and after its success was bumped up to $500 per week. This film has a tragic connection with the actress. She watched it the night before she fell asleep with a lit cigarette that caused a fire which ultimately claimed her life.

Darnell is gorgeous and easy to like. Likewise Healy's rich voice makes a good impression. Payne, on the other hand, is a boring actor. I pegged him as someone who wouldn't make good in his screen test because if I were picking talent, I wouldn't waste my time with someone who could best be described as adequate.

The movie is highly entertaining, especially for fans of entertainment from this era. The scene where Ambrose and Carolyn walk around the Grauman's forecourt to examine which stars' footprints match their own is wonderfully relatable. On March 18, 1940, Darnell put her prints in the cement. That's a landmark I'd like a check out someday.

RB: I wish I could remember which stars’ footprints I stepped in the one time that I visited Grauman’s. I do remember trying out Jack Benny’s handprints for size, but have no recollection of how the fit was. But I digress.

Darnell is at her loveliest during this time period, and her naiveté makes you root for her all the more in this film, especially when pitted against a particularly catty Mary Beth Hughes, who you JUST can’t stand. I agree that John Payne has all of the charisma of a bowl of soggy cereal, but Darnell is good enough to carry this on her own. The supporting cast is full of fun and familiar faces, which really adds to the joyfulness.

SG: There are several laughs to be had. I chuckled when the dour hotel stenographer (Fern Emmett) found out Brooke was from Hollywood and she got up to open the hotel door.

Pearce Parkhurt of Beverly, Massachusetts said it was, "a good picture enjoyed by all. Nothing exceptional but a very good light picture." Grumpy Logan Hedrick of Homer, Illinois said, "Only a programmer and not so hot classed as such. It's about time Fox made a few good pictures or quit trying." Jimmy Starr of the Los Angeles Herald Express said, "I thought it ended all too soon, and that's a compliment few pictures earn."

Three stars. This one can be seen on Youtube.

RB: This didn’t seem so do so well in the “rural patronage” areas of the country, based on “What the Pictures Did for Us” columns, but I found it to be a likable way to spend an hour and a half. It’s not uproariously funny but was never meant to be. I’d like to spend more time with the Hollywood that was presented here. Three Stars.

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Adam Williams
Adam Williams
Sep 17, 2021

Enjoyed the review despite the harsh Payne assessment. I guess he did come into his own in the 50s crime films--Kansas City Confidential, 99 River Street, Slightly Scarlet--where being a emotionless lug was an asset.


Rodney Bowcock
Rodney Bowcock
Sep 17, 2021

One additional note that I forgot to mention: The dramatization on the Kate Smith Hour mentioned in the trade ad sadly no longer exists, but I am 99% certain that the script does.

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