THE BOOKSHELF
Silent Film, Part 2
by Chris Dashiell



American Silent Film (William K. Everson, 1978).

Everson taught at the New School, single-handedly saved thousands of silent and early sound films that would otherwise have been lost, and mentored a generation of silent movie buffs. This was the first modern (post-silent era) attempt at a comprehensive history, and it remains a treasure trove of information and insight.

Everson's strength is not the history of technical innovation (his account of the invention of movies is sketchy at best) but as a progression of styles, techniques, and genres. He sets the record straight regarding the Edison's studio's artistic merits, which had been previously underrated. His account of the development of film grammar is as clear as you could wish -- not only charting Griffith's progress with precision, but shining light on the importance of Maurice Tourneur, William Seiter, and such unjustly forgotten milestones as Thomas Ince's The Italian. He covers the financial development of the industry, the art of the intertitle, and the many genres, with a particularly juicy chapter on the western.

Although Everson's prose doesn't set off any fireworks -- his approach is that of a sober historian rather than a film critic -- he knows how to pack the maximum amount of information into a paragraph. His only real shortcoming is a tendency to become so involved in detail that the reader may lose a sense for the bigger picture. The book is filled with examples to illustrate trends, periods, or genres, but the author is not as strong at synthesizing his material into a vision of the art form as a whole. Nevertheless, for comprehensiveness and scope it has no rivals -- it remains of the three or four absolutely essential books on silent films.

Silent Stars (Jeanine Basinger, 1999).

A film studies professor presents an overview of the careers (and to a lesser degree, the lives) of sixteen prominent stars from the silent era, including Pickford & Fairbanks, Mabel Normand, the Talmadge sisters, William S. Hart, Gloria Swanson, Pola Negri, Valentino, Marion Davies, Lon Chaney, John Gilbert, and Colleen Moore. She says that she chose stars that were either not as well known as they should be, not appreciated well enough, or were perceived too simplistically today. Well, by these standards she could have included everyone except Lillian Gish, Greta Garbo, and the comedy giants (Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd). Silent film remains obscure in the popular mind because it's so different from film as we've come to know it since sound.

In any case, Basinger goes at her task with zest and enthusiasm. Unfortunately, her writing is repetitive and filled with superlatives that become less and less meaningful the more she piles them on. She tells us that someone or something was interesting or exciting, then tells us why, and finishes up by reiterating how interesting or exciting he, she, or it really was. This gets tiresome. It seems as if the book was padded with filler sentences in order to make it longer.

Basinger is interested primarily in the star's image and how it was perceived by fans, and conveyed by the industry, at the time. So she quotes a lot from Variety, Photoplay, and the numerous fan magazines of the day. This can be occasionally illuminating. Often, it's just banal ("Norma Talmadge has never looked better in her life," says Variety about Camille, "and the picture is an excellent example of photography and production") proving only that reviews were often as empty of content then as they are now.

The valuable aspect of Silent Stars is that Basinger has taken the trouble to see almost everything ever made by her chosen subjects. She goes through the entire career of each star, talking about most of his or her films, with an attention to details of scenes, themes, and style that you could never get from reading an outline of the plot. There are scores of beautiful stills accompanying the text, and thus the book provides a good in-depth look at a number of films that are rarely seen or appreciated. She's stronger in certain areas than others, seeming a bit out of her element with Lon Chaney and Tom Mix compared with the stars of "women's pictures" such as Valentino or Swanson. Gratitude is owed to her for devoting a chapter to Norma and Constance Talmadge, two major stars who are virtually forgotten today, and for writing about the unfairly neglected Colleen Moore, and (yes) even Rin-Tin-Tin.

The book is perhaps read quickly, skimming through the frothy verbiage while picking up the real nuggets of information about obscure Hollywood careers and films. If nothing else, Silent Stars is valuable as a reminder that the movies, and their stars, were far more popular and influential in the public imagination than they are today.

The Silent Clowns (Walter Kerr, 1975)

At first glance, considering its size and numerous photographs, The Silent Clowns might seem to be a coffee table book. It's actually one of the most comprehensive works of film criticism ever published. Before Kerr even settles down to talk about silent film comedy, he presents in his Part One, titled "The Silent Camera," a masterful analysis of the art of silent film, which he calls "the fantasy of fact." He explains how the nature of the camera, being a machine, is to reproduce fact. It is the tension between this ever-present reality and the fantasy created through various manipulations of the image that made film so captivating. Silence made the events on film seem both symbolically larger than life and insubstantial, like a fairy tale. Musical accompaniment "released" the film to an audience, gave it the rhythm and sense of flow that made the story intelligible. The introduction of sound, however, eliminated the peculiar quality of fantasy that only silent film possessed, by making the "reality" element -- the image as reflection of fact -- more accurate and substantial. Kerr reveals these insights with an intelligence and wit that is anything but dry. He always uses examples from films to illustrate his points with perfect clarity.

Finally, he argues that silence was a disadvantage overall when it came to serious drama. The reliance on pantomime meant that subjective states and emotions were difficult to do effectively. Dialogue eliminated that problem, and opened film up to the full range of dramatic meaning. Silent comedy, on the other hand, reached unparalleled heights in the silent era precisely because of the "fantasy of fact." The rest of the book, covering the history of silent comedy and the careers of its major figures, explains exactly why.

It's no surprise that the majority of the book focuses on three stars: Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. But the thoroughness of Kerr's treatment is nothing less than awe-inspiring. Relating the development of film comedy chronologically, he jumps back and forth between the three, minutely tracing the evolution of their styles, from their short films through the features, describing not only how they were funny, but why. Although it becomes clear that Kerr is a Keaton man, his understanding and appreciation of Chaplin and Lloyd is no less keen. Take for example his summing up of the Chaplin persona: "The secret of Chaplin, as a character, is that he can be anyone. That is his problem. The secret is a devastating one. For the man who can, with the flick of a finger, or the blink of an eyelash, instantly transform himself is a man who must, in his heart, remain no one." And this insight is not just an evocative label. Kerr goes on to explain convincingly how this persona of "anyone/ no one" is brilliantly employed throughout the phases of Chaplin's career. He finds the essence of Lloyd and Keaton as well, and in the process describes hundreds of scenes from their films. It is difficult to describe a scene in a silent comedy in a way that will successfully convey the humor. Kerr will make you laugh out loud over and over, and you may never have even seen the film he's describing.

He also covers the other silent clowns besides the big three -- Harry Langdon, Raymond Griffith, Sennett and Roach, Laurel and Hardy, and many others. He is frank and unafraid in his opinions -- he doesn't think Sennett's Keystone comedies are very funny, and he tells you why. Most film books that aspire to this kind of scope end up seeming like a catalogue of film titles -- the author briefly describing a plot before moving on to the next film. When Kerr traces a filmography, it's always in the context of the particular style of comedy involved, what it consists of, and how it developed over time. The Silent Clowns is both entertaining and intellectually stimulating. It's not the kind of book you should skim through. You should read it from beginning to end, learning and savoring the author's insights and ideas. Pity the author who tries to write a full-scale study of silent comedy -- it's already been done in The Silent Clowns, and it will never be done better.

©2004 Chris Dashiell
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