Silent Film, Part 1
by Chris Dashiell

The first thirty to thirty-five years of movie history were momentous. Many of the techniques, indeed the very elements (or "grammar") of film were developed during that period. And yet scant attention was paid to the silent era until the 1980s, when the advent of videocassettes allowed viewers more access to the films from that time. The idea of silent films as quaint, silly, and not worth one's time or attention dies hard. Especially since the idea is not without some justification: this was, after all, the beginnings of the art, so some of the work does have "primitive" qualities. But cinema also achieved greatness then -- at a level that was sometimes very exalted indeed. Even now, the number of informative books about silent movies are few and far between. Here are a few of them:

The Parade's Gone By.... (Kevin Brownlow, 1968).

Brownlow is arguably the key figure in the revival of interest in silent film. He's been involved in the restoration of scores of classic movies -- his greatest achievement in that regard being the restoration of the Abel Gance epic Napoleon, a project that took some two decades to complete.

The Parade's Gone By... is not an organized chronological history of silent film. It's more like a big scrapbook: a tribute to the era crammed with hundreds of fascinating photos, and featuring excerpts from interviews with directors, writers, actors, cinematographers, and others. The book starts out with some of the earlier stories: Vitagraph, Griffith, how Hollywood got started, and so on. Then it becomes a more scattershot affair: a kind of grab-bag. There are chapters on Allan Dwan, Pickford, Clarence Brown, De Mille, Swanson, and several more obscure figures. There are whole chapters on Ben-Hur, and Fairbanks' Robin Hood. Sprinkled among these are sections on directing, title writing, editing, musical accompaniment, and the role of the producer.

The style is anecdotal. For the most part, Brownlow takes the role of the enthusiastic promoter of what was then a slighted period in film, although he does let fall a critical comment or two (comparing De Mille's later films unfavorably with his earlier ones, for instance). The accumulated effect of the stories and details is that of opening a long-closed door and wondering at the wealth hidden inside. Even though it's a huge book, with tons of information, it makes you want to learn more.

In 1979, he published Hollywood: the Pioneers, which was meant to accompany the wonderful Hollywood series on public TV. It's shorter than The Parade's Gone By... but once again we have a wealth of photos from early Hollywood, and an informative text, with each chapter focusing on a different person or aspect: the patents war, stunt men, Valentino, the cameraman, von Stroheim, etc. It's a bit lightweight compared to the first book, but still good.

From Peep Show to Palace (David Robinson, 1996).

This is probably the most accessible history of the earliest years, from the invention of motion pictures in the late nineteenth century up to 1913. Robinson makes a convincing case for the crucial role of William K. Dickson, and his careful explanation of the process of discovery and invention helps the reader grasp exactly how movies work. The movie is filled with interesting facts: it would seem, for instance, that the first public showing of a film on a big screen was not Lumiere's Employees Leaving the Factory, but the Latham brothers' 8-minute film of a prizefight between Charles Barnett and "Young Griffo," shown at a NYC storefront in May of 1895.

Robinson covers familiar subjects, such as the influence of Edwin S. Porter, and Griffith's expansion of film narrative, while making it seem fresh and new. He also talks about the early audiences, the financial aspects, and the gradual development of the movie theater. There's a 16- page color insert and tons of black-and-white photos. It's actually a rather short book (176 pages) but it's indispensable.

Seductive Cinema (James Card, 1994).

Card was a film archivist who made the George Eastman House museum into one of the world's greatest movie archives. His book is a combination of memoir and film essay, written in a conversational style that is sometimes awkward. He also expresses some very unconventional opinions: for instance, he considered Griffith to be tremendously overrated, taking credit for achievements that were not his, and he also slams the critical vogue for Erich von Stroheim, which he considers a reaction to Stroheim's treatment by the studios that is unmerited by the quality of his work. Although I am not convinced by his arguments, they are certainly provocative and interesting.

Card extols the importance of German film, especially The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. His enthusiasms seem to be influenced by his personal involvement: he says a lot about Gloria Swanson (a friend) and Louise Brooks, whose rediscovery he played a major part in. It's a lively read, but not very illuminating if you're looking for a balanced picture of the era. As an archivist, Card offers a wealth of juicy anecdotes about the task of finding, preserving and restoring silent films. In the process, he illuminates some fascinating obscurities, such as the director Monta Bell, and the early British pioneer of cross-cutting, the close-up, and the moving camera, James Williamson.

One of the best sections concerns the thorny issue of what speed a silent film should be projected. He was the first to correct the common misconception that there was a standard 16-frame-per-second projection speed. The silent film cameras were usually hand- cranked, so the speeds were variable, but the film were usually more in the 22-frame-per-second range, which is closer to sound speed.

Seductive Cinema often succumbs to the weakness of naive memoir -- everything seems to be about Card and who he knows and what he did, which crowds out the real subject we're interested in. But even though the book seems clumsy and shapeless, there's enough interesting material in it to make it worth a silent film lover's while.

©2004 Chris Dashiell