This is a guest post for Silent London by Ben Smith.
When Kevin Brownlow was in LA in the 1960s, interviewing cinema veterans for his unrivalled history of the Hollywood silent era, The Parade’s Gone By, there was one important figure who declined to be interviewed, Frances Marion. Brownlow admits he would have pursued her much more vigorously if he had only known then what he does now. At that time Marion was writing her memoir, Off With Their Heads!
Marion wrote some of the silent era’s biggest hits, among them screenplays for Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Early on she established an extremely successful working relationship with Irving Thalberg, and became MGM’s premier screenwriter. She found love with a former Presbyterian Minister, Fred Thomson, and helped build his career as an actor who starred in 24 westerns. Thomson’s fame in 1927 was second only that of Tom Mix, but his stardom was cut short by a contract wrangle with the banker and film financier Joseph Kennedy (JFK’s father and a man who both simultaneously swindled and reformed the studios).
Fred Thomson’s death in 1928 – variously recorded as the result of tetanus, gallstone surgery and tuberculous – left Frances Marion a bereft widow and the single parent of two children. Marion, was more than stoic in her refusal to be held back by tragedy and continued to stay at the front of her craft, being the first woman to get a solo screenwriting academy award for The Big House (1930) and another for The Champ (1931).
In 1925, the year that F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby, Marion published her debut novel Minnie Flynn, the story of an uneducated working class girl who gets a break in the New York movie world before finding fame and fortune in Hollywood. Like Gatsby it was a story about new money, unfettered morals and collapsing class boundaries. Unlike Gatsby it wore its debt to melodrama on its sleeve. This unusual book, unique among the quietly burgeoning genre of the Hollywood novel for depicting the New York/New Jersey film industry, has been forgotten by history.
The chances are, you will recognise the name on the spine of this book. Farran Smith Nehme is one of the smartest, most elegant writers on classic and silent film that you can find. She blogs at her own site called Self-Styled Siren, and writes for publications from Film Comment to the New York Post. The chances are that you will recognise some of the characters in Missing Reels, Smith Nehme’s debut novel, also.
There are a few names dropped here that will chime – from Kevin Brownlow to Jean Harlow to Mordaunt Hall, in fact this novel is peppered with more classic film references than you might think feasible. But it’s the personalities here that will resonate. Ceinwen, our heroine, is a young woman living in a scuzzy New York flatshare in the late 1980s, working in a vintage dress shop and spending all her free time at the movies watching the classics. She’s a bit of a mess, but she’s all right by me. Her job is awful, and low-paid – she is sustained only by cigarettes, hairdye and the pleasure she gets from sashaying around town in a genuine 1930s ensemble. By chance (don’t roll your eyes), Ceinwen discovers that her grumpy downstairs neighbour once starred in a silent movie, a lost curio directed by a precocious talent. That’s all it takes to get Ceinwen hooked on the hard stuff, and before you know it, our vintage vixen is a deeply embedded within the silent film nerd community.
Now, I’m not a nerd, and you’re not a nerd (though you may be a geek), but some of those silent movie fans out there are a little nerdy don’t you think? Not that there is anything wrong with that. Missing Reels is a paean to nerds and nerdery – I felt my silent movie obsession toughening up with every page I turned. Ceinwen’s hunt for those abandoned reels takes her, and her stuffy English academic boyfriend, through film fairs, archives, private collections and secret stashes. She meets people who love silent cinema and people who fetishise and hoard it – but mostly, people who respect it. I love the sequence when she settles down to watch her first Roscoe Arbuckle two-reelers at a Mack Sennett fanclub screening.
“this was the best silent-movie audience she’d ever encountered. No restlessness … No talking. Every laugh was related to something on screen. They picked up every gesture, no matter how small. The first glimpse of Fatty – Roscoe got a round of applause, Mabel Normand’s face got an audible sigh, Buster Keaton got a shout of recognition … And Arbuckle was a marvel, holding his own even with Keaton, supple and flexible in the way he moved.”
The silent-movie bug can be contagious that way. When you’re with people who love silent cinema, those old movies seem to be even more precious.
I saw a lot of myself in Ceinwen – I suspect there is rather a lot of Smith Nehme in there too – and I have met a few Freds, Harrys and even Andrews too, her mostly lovable, mostly eccentric guides through the silent cinema maze. How could you not adore Harry, a cinephile maths professor who encourages Ceinwen’s flickering interest, and who patiently drops this sassy line on a firefighter dead set on destroying a cache of nitrate: “Think of it more like, the Mona Lisa happens to be really flammable”? In fact, Ceinwen joins their ranks – going from film fan to silent “nut” in a few hundred pages. This is really a book about passion, misdirected, perverted or beautifully nourishing – it’s Fever Pitch for the Pordenone crowd. You could write a book like this about stamp collecting I suppose, but it wouldn’t have the same glamour for me.
I must confess, the hilarious scene in which Ceinwen attempts to keep her end up in an awkward post-sex conversation with that no-good British boyfriend of hers, while simultaneously reading a movie monograph, was almost too close to my bones. Smith Nehme knows better than most what it is to be immersed in this world, and Missing Reels is a portrait of a woman following her heart and blowing her cool at the same time. That’s what makes it funny, and poignant too.
Now I asked you not to roll your eyes earlier, because we have seen a few hunt-for-a-lost-movie novels before. But that doesn’t stop us getting excited when it happens in real life does it? And the Murnauesque Gothic romance that Ceinwen makes it her mission to uncover really does sound like a beauty. Part of this novel’s charm is that we’d all like to discover a lost film. And more than that, we’d all like to represent for silent cinema, to combat the prejudices that the elderly star of that film, the snippy neighbour, has clearly taken to heart: “Ooooh folks, here’s this little clip from the dark ages, before everybody figured out how it was really done. Don’t worry, it’s not too long, we don’t want to bore anybody.” That’s Ceinwen’s real mission.
Now it’s my turn to blow my cool. I love this book: it’s witty and sharp and feminine and fabulous. If you know how to pronounce Borzage, if the mere mention of a nitrate copy of Flaming Youth sets your heart a-flutter and if you’ve ever worn a scarf in your hair and hoped you looked like Clara Bow, then this is the novel for you.
Missing Reels is out now in the US, published by The Overlook Press, priced $26.95. It will be published in the UK by Duckworth in spring 2015.