Silent reading: book reviews roundup

Who can resist a good film book? Not me. Sometimes I have to close my eyes when I pass a bookshop, just to save my bank balance..

Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to dip into several new silent movie-related books – some of which have been sent to me to review. In fact I have spent so much time reading them that there aren’t enough hours left in the day to report on them all. Here instead, are some rapid-fire reviews of books worthy of your consideration.

Every one of them would repay the decision to spend a leisurely afternoon browsing in the library of your choice – some you may even want to splash out on as a gift or a treat to yourself. I am sure you deserve it.

Assunta Spina (1915)
Assunta Spina (1915)

Silent Features: The Development of Silent Feature Films 1914-1934

Edited by Steve Neale (University of Exeter Press)

A great idea for a book, and one that is bound to be popular with students and scholars alike. The idea is to track the development of the feature film as a form, via a series of meticulous case studies. Each essay here functions as a mini-monograph on one feature film, covering its sources, production and critical reception in admirable depth.

This book has 17 chapters and almost as many contributors. It roams across films from Europe, Russia, America, China and Japan, and many of the choices are far from the usual suspects. There are some much-feted classics here, Assunta Spina, Wings, I Was Born, But …, The Phantom Carriage, but also The Strong Man, Lazybones, Miss Mend and The Wishing Ring. With each leap to different place and time, it’s hard not to wish for a second or third volume to fill in all the gaps.

Two British silents are covered, while Steve Neale’s essay on Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan notes the similarities of that film with the 1916 adaptation from the Ideal studio. Piccadilly is the subject of a rich analysis by Jon Burrows which is both a pleasurable read and consistently illuminating. Another great silent London film, Maurice Elvey’s Palais de Dance (1928), is discussed in detail by Martin Shingler. Hopefully, his excellent essay may pique more interest in this overlooked film.

John M Stahl (centre), directing Husbands and Lovers (1924)

The Call of the Heart: John M Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama

Edited by Bruce Babington and Charles Barr (John Libbey)

You can’t have failed to notice the spread of Stahlmania by now, and not before time. Babington and Barr have been on a mission to put John M. Stahl back where he belongs in the annals of great American film directors. Perhaps it’s because he made “women’s films”, because melodrama is an unfashionable word, or because some of his best films were remade by  Douglas Sirk (and it’s not long since he was fished out of the “forgotten” category), but Stahl hasn’t had his due for a while. That was before screenings of his best silent and sound films became some of the most popular programmes at Pordenone and Bologna last year. And before this impressive book.

This volume, with contributions from writers around the globe, represents a truly exhaustive study of a single director. There are essays on each of his films, even the lost ones, and biographical pieces by Babington to fill in some of the mystery surrounding this undersung director. Many people will be familiar with Stahl’s sound films, such as Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and the 1930s melodramas Back Street, Only Yesterday and Imitation of Life. Showcased at last year’s Giornate, however, the silent films are a revelation, and in their command of emotional complexity, freewheeling narrative and telling human detail cast a fresh light of the triumphs of the best sound films.

Richard Koszarski kicks off the silent section with a meticulous study of Stahl’s first substantial screen work, The Lincoln Cycle of short films on the beloved US president. Watching these shorts, Stahl’s ambition and talent is obvious from the outset. It’s clear now, that Stahl’s silent work alone deserves re-evaluation and a series of brilliant essays in this book by Lea Jacobs, Charles Barr and Imogen Sara Smith explore his first features with insight and clarity. Many of these films are very rarely shown,  but this book should encourage more screenings.

Those of us who have been working on Stahl as part of this project expressed just one regret when we gathered at Pordenone. It was that we had been able to see all the other films before writing our individual pieces, because they are all connected, in such fascinating ways. The lurid plotting of Leave Her to Heaven has its roots in Stahl’s silent era melodramas, the immense sensitivity of his 1930s “women’s pictures” is trailed in the emotional delicacy of the later silent features. Thorough as this work is, and definitive as it feels right now, it may well be the start of something bigger.

The Exploits of Elaine
The Exploits of Elaine

Film Serials and the American Cinema 1910-1940: Operational Detection

By Ilka Brasch (Amsterdam University Press)

The film serial was once a staple of cinema programming, until TV came along and spoiled the fun. In this thoroughgoing study of the form, scholar Ilka Brasch gets to grips with what exactly made the serial such a compelling format. It’s goes beyond the thrill of the cliffhanger. Brasch has plenty to say on the appeal of the weekly thriller, but also drills into the “operational aesthetic” that informs our love of technological wizardry on screen and the particular pleasures of the police procedural drama.

And although the film serials may no longer grace our cinema screens, as Brasch points out, the rise of home video and digital streaming has allowed many of us to become 21st-century serial fans all over again. I couldn’t help but think of how popular daily serial screenings have become at Pordenone and Bologna. Maybe the serial has legs after all. How’s that for a last-minute twist?

Pauline Frederick and Clarence Brown on the Set of Smouldering Fires (1925)
Pauline Frederick and Clarence Brown on the Set of Smouldering Fires (1925)

Clarence Brown: Hollywood’s Forgotten Master

By Gwenda Young (University Press of Kentucky)

Another undersung Hollywood director, whose renown has suffered in part because he excelled in making “women’s pictures”, Clarence Brown is responsible for some of the truly great films of the silent era. If you’ve seen The Eagle, Smouldering Fires, The Goose Woman or the sublime Flesh and the Devil, you may marvel that anyone could overlook the man who has the honour of being Kevin Brownlow’s favourite director.

Gwenda Young’s excellent and elegantly written critical biography covers Brown’s life and career, but the focus is squarely on the films and the talent of the man who made them. She reveals the European influences on his work, his discomfort within the studio system and why being remembered merely as the man who made Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford great does him no justice at all.

I highly recommend you seek this book out, and more of Brown’s wonderful films, too.

The Unknown (1927)
The Unknown (1927)

Picturehouse Poems

Edited by Harold Schechter and Michael Waters (Everyman)

This sleek hardback volume is a real literary treat for cinephiles. Simply, it’s an anthology of poetry about the cinema and it’s a joy to dip in and out of. Many of the poems evoke the joy of a trip to the cinema, or the magic of a particular film. Who could resist Allen Ginsberg on The Blue Angel, for example? Others are a touch more critical, such as Langston Hughes’s ‘Movies’: “(Hollywood laughs at me, black – so I laugh back.)”

My favourite silent-themed selections include Gerald Costanzo’s ‘Fatty Arbuckle’ and Angela Ball’s ‘To Lon Chaney in The Unknown‘. Kurt Brown evokes the fleeting pleasure of watching a silent film on DVD: “that dim world of silence doubled by time”. Elizabeth Alexander’s ‘Early Cinema’ tells a tale of two young black teenagers who pass as white in order to see The Sheik in a segregated cinema, while Elizabeth Spiers recounts a visit to a retro peep show in Brighton in ‘Mutoscope’: “I peer into the tunneled past, so small, is faraway and fragmentary.”

The moving movie poem of all, perhaps, is ‘Mrs Myrtle Tate, Movie Projectionist’ by Richard Brautigan: “Oh, honor this mothersisterbride of magic lanterns with an endless waterfall of visions.”

  • You can order Picturehouse Poems here.
  • Are you a fan of The Unknown, Tod Browning’s silent horror film starring Joan Crawford and Lon Chaney? I am. I am also immensely surprised to learn that I have been nominated for a Rondo Hatton Classic Film Horror Award, for a Blu-ray extra I contributed to the Indicator release of another circus-set shocker, Berserk! (1967), discussing Joan Crawford’s career, from the silents to the sixties. If you’d like to buy the Blu-ray here’s the link, and if you’d be so kind as to vote for me in the Rondos, thank you very much – and here’s the link for that.


Early Cinema in Scotland

Edited by John Caughie, Trevor Griffiths and María A. Vélez-Serna (Edinburgh University Press)

This is a really valuable find. A multi-contributor volume covering the history of early Scottish film and filmgoing in admirable detail. There are chapters on subjects including small town cinemas, cinemas workers, travelling shows and even the representation of Scotland in early film – quoting an indignant Scottish correspondent in The Bioscope in 1917:

“I am going to advocate that every American producing company which attempts to produce a Scottish picture should have a Scotsman on their staff to keep them right as to what is the correct wear for the ladies and gentlemen of the land o’ cakes. We do not all wear kilts and Glengarry bonnets …”

The concluding chapter on the coming of sound to Scottish cinemas is followed by a very useful filmography until 1927.

You’ll be pleased to know that the Bo’ness Hippodrome gets several mentions. If you are going to the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival this year, be sure to catch up with Caroline Merz’s chapter on ‘Rob Roy: Britain’s First Feature Film’, the research for which was first presented, I believe, at the British Silent Film Festival Symposium. Merz’s chapter deals with the 1911 film directed by Arthur Vivian, while Hippfest will be showing a later biopic of the Scottish folk hero, the 1922 film directed by William Kellino and starring David Hawthorne. However, as a regular visitor to Hippfest, I was slightly taken aback to learn that the “jeely jar” tradition may not be backed up by hard evidence. This book is full of surprises.

Piccadilly (1929). Photograph: BFI

London on Film

Edited by Pam Hirsch and Chris O’Rourke (Palgrave Macmillan)

This is another book that roams in and out of the silent era, but how could we ignore one of this blog’s favourite subjects – the Big Smoke on celluloid? Silent London readers will be especially keen on Roland François-Lack’s chapter ”Local Film Subjects’: Suburban cinema, 1895-1910′ and Mara Arts’s investigation of ‘Glamour and Crime: The London Nightclub in Silent Film.

François-Lack digs into the work of early pioneers such as RW Paul on outer London streets, and sends up a rousing call for Greater London to celebrate its silent cinema heritage – and not just in the city centre. I couldn’t agree more. “I would argue,” he writes, “that the study of cinema and the city should begin, as cinema did, in the suburbs, where film subjects are always, for the locals at least, local.”

Arts, meanwhile brings us to the West End and into the fetid world of films including The Pleasure Garden and Piccadilly. As she argues, as much as British silents showed the glamour of these spots, they consistently linked them to illegal activities as well.

Ian Christie’s chapter ‘East-West: Reflections on the Changing Cinematic Topography of London’ pulls together more of the city’s cinema geography. The popular clash of cultures evoked by East End and West End in silent films such as Piccadilly, has arguably been updated and complicated by more recent films that drill into the specifics of obscure regions. Take, for example, the very different depictions of west London in Notting Hill and Kidulthood.

Mary Pickford and Frances Marion

Minnie Flynn

By Frances Marion

In 1924, screenwriter Frances Marion was at the heart of the Hollywood elite, and through her friendship with Mary Pickford, she had seen the life of a film star up-close. This is the moment she chose to write a novel about the “tragedy of success”, as a warning to young girls everywhere who dreamed of making it in the movies. “I call it propaganda,” said Marion, “but the publishers call it a novel.” The predatory producers, financial risks and emotional toll of the movie business are all laid bare in this gripping and frank book. The eponymous heroine is a “chippy” shopgirl living in a New York tenement, who is discovered by a sleazy actor and eventually becomes June Day – a phenomenon in a fur coat. Marion lambasts the gossip, pretensions and desperation of studio folk as well as the offering an insider’s view of silent moviemaking. Minnie’s path to the top is hardly easy, but it’s the disillusionment and humiliation of her inevitable decline that resonates the most – including a delicately heartbreaking final scene. As one of the novel’s few morally upright characters says: “Hollywood is a little, narrow house, Minnie, and some of us have made of it a cell.”

Billie Dove
Billie Dove

Seduction: Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood

By Karina Longworth (Custom House)

Karina Longworth, a critic best known for her film history podcast You Must Remember This, has taken an audacious, and welcome route to writing a new Howard Hughes story. She tells the tale of the troubled Texan who spent his family’s tool-making fortune on movies and aeroplanes, through the women that he met, and often disposed of, along the way. Accordingly, this book is called Seduction: Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood. The mogul is at times barely more than a pivot on which Longworth can rest the stories of the women who were often exploited or abused in their pursuit of a movie career, such as Jean Harlow and Faith Domergue, and those who appeared to have emerged relatively unscathed such as Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn. As Longworth puts it in her introduction: “The female body bas always been a key building block of cinema – a raw material fed into the machine of the movies, as integral to the final product as celluloid itself.”

And so, this is a book about Hollywood in which Hughes is a symptom of a greater sickness, Hollywood misogyny, not simply a book about the man himself – there are plenty of those already. Longworth’s focus is on the women, then the movies, and then the man himself – and rigorously so. Along the way she also offers some very valuable analysis of the gender politics of films from Red-Headed Woman (1932) to The Bigamist (1953).

Longworth compares Howard’s mishandling of his girlfriend Billie Dove’s career with the creative relationship she previously enjoyed with director Lois Weber. By contrast, Hughes’s enthusiasm for placing Dove in material such as risqué pre-code comedy Cock of the Air (1932), which was delayed due attracted censorship interference, diminished her profile in the crucial talkie transition years.

Anyone who has listened to Longworth’s podcast will perceive her flair for dramatizing snippets of Hollywood history in these pages – whether in the intimate detail of romantic relationships, or the negotiations inherent in studio production. Highly recommended.

Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922)
Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922)

Douglas Fairbanks: The Fourth Musketeer

By Ralph Hancock and Letitia Fairbanks. Edited by Kelley Smoot (Lyons Press)

This beautiful book is somewhere between a film history artefact and a movie star biography. This is an illustrated reprint of a 1953 biography of the wonderful Douglas Fairbanks, written by author Ralph Hancock with the star’s niece Letitia Fairbanks. This is the story of Fairbanks as the family wanted it to be told – any biases that may lurk therein are part of the history of the star and his legend, just as much as his coverage in fan magazines or studio releases.

It’s a novelistic kind of biography, a gripping and sentimental story of a much-loved star, augmented by artwork and photographs. You may want to, as I did, rush to certain key scenes in the story first. Romantically inclined types will not be disappointed. Take this life-changing encounter for Fairbanks:

The day was one of the scarlet and gold autumn days along the Hudson, an especially romantic setting for new adventure. It came in the modest form of a petite woman in a black velvet gown and ermine hat and muff. An actor, whom Douglas knew casually as Owen Moore, came forward and introduced them.”I don’t believe you’ve met my wife,,” said Moore. ” She’s known as Mary Pickford.

For something a little more sober, I highly recommend Tracey Goessel’s The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks (Chicago Review Press). However, to sample the flavour of a star’s life, the myth as well as the man, this is a silent movie-lover’s treat.

Together (1956)
Together (1956)

London Diaries

By Lorenza Mazzetti (Zidane Press)

Italian filmmaker, writer and artist Lorenza Mazzetti was one of the founders of the Free Cinema movement back in the 1950s, which is when she also made the terrific modern silent Together (1956), set in the east end of London.

In 2014 Mazzetti published Diario Londinese, her account of making her British films, and now that book has been released in this country by the Zidane Press, translated into English. As filmmakers’ diaries go, these are distinguished by her novelist’s flair. She incorporates her dreamlike memories of her youth into the text, and tells her story in an invigorating present tense.

Together, a more-or-less dialogue-free piece, which tells the story of two brothers, both deaf and without speech, working in the docks in London’s East End. They become increasingly isolated from the local residents, which eventually has tragic consequences. Mazzetti’s evocation of a tight sibling bond is combined with her own experiences of being a stranger in London, as described in the Diaries. “I really felt like an outsider, and being a twin I felt like a double, but wasn’t quite sure of what I wanted to say.” The brothers are baffled by their interactions with adults, and mocked by groups of children.

It’s a powerful portrait of outsiderdom, and perhaps all the more so because Mazzetti had not visited the East End before she began location scouting. Her description of first exploring the bomb-damaged area, shrouded in thick fog, conjures a scenario Hitchcock would be proud of. “I know this is London, but it feels as if I landed in some fairytale with ogres and witches.” She is bothered by a screeching noise, which grows louder and louder: “These aren’t birds, however, they’re screaming children! They’re running everywhere, swarming together and then suddenly disappearing left and right, only to reappear again shrieking.”


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3 thoughts on “Silent reading: book reviews roundup”

  1. I started collecting film books when I was 12 years old and I’m still addicted to purchasing them and hunting down rare copies of out-of-print books. I read Karina Longworth’s book last month and enjoyed it, but I have to admit I liked the first half of it a lot more than I did the second half. My favourite film decades are the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s so once Longworth was done writing about those decades, I pretty much lost interest in the rest of the book. I also picked up the Douglas Fairbanks re-print last month and hope to get to it soon! Right now, I’m reading The Lion of Hollywood by Scott Eyman.

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