The hardest thing about getting started with silent films is… getting started. The subject is so massive, so dense, so different from sound films that sometimes finding an entry point can be daunting.
Never fear! I’m here to help. One request that I get a lot is for beginner-friendly book recommendations. I decided to create a post so that people who want a little book-buying advice can find my recommendations in one easy location.
A few things before we start:
- All books will be non-fiction.
- They will be reasonably easy to find (I am located in the U.S. so your mileage may vary regarding ease of access)
- They will be friendly to beginners.
- They will be fun to read.
- My main selections will not include single-subject biographies but my additional selections might.
- My site is focused on mainstream Hollywood fare and my choices reflect this.
Okay, that covers everything. Let’s get started.
This is pretty much the standard text on silent films and for very good reason. Brownlow interviewed scores of silent film actors, directors, writers, cinematographers… He gathered up dozens of reminisces that would otherwise have died with these veterans of the silent film industry.
This is not a complete history of the silent screen. No single volume could possibly hope to cover such a massive subject thoroughly. Rather, Brownlow curates the most intriguing anecdotes and the most interesting interviews to recreate the feel of the era. The selections are filtered through his personal taste and interview availability, which is a fair approach. However, this has left the book open to complaints about him leaving things out. One particularly angry reviewer left an all-caps rant about him not mentioning Clara Bow. For goodness sake, people, write your own book!
Aside from a few, um, enthusiastic naysayers, the book is unanimously hailed as one of the most important works on silent film ever written. Solid scholarship is backed up by entertaining writing, interesting interviews and lavish use of stills and snapshots from the era.
Brownlow followed this book up with Behind the Mask of Innocence, which discusses the social films of the silent era (they included topics like abortion, birth control, immigration and racism), and with The War, the West and the Wilderness, a self-explanatory volume about films made in these settings. Both books are excellent reading and match The Parade’s Gone By… in quality.
William K. Everson is an important figure in silent film history for his enthusiasm, talent for finding lost films and, most of all, his gloriously tart writing style. While most nostalgic looks back at an era are fluffy little volumes, Classics of the Silent Screen has some teeth to go with the memories.
The book is well-organized. It features fifty great silent films (most of which are now available on home media) by order of release and seventy-five top stars in alphabetical order. It’s basically a to-watch list for any silent film beginner and if you follow Everson’s recommendations, you will have a very good foundation.
Everson is firmly in the cult of D.W. Griffith (as were most film historians at the time) but he also includes some quirky choices that make this list more interesting than the usual fare. His enthusiasm for Hell’s Hinges is what inspired me to seek out William S. Hart’s apocalyptic masterpiece even though I am not a huge fan of westerns.
Everson wrote American Silent Film under his own name and it’s a deeper look under the hood of the era. He also wrote genre-centric books on westerns, detective films, screwball comedies and movie villains. As an added treat, New York University has made Everson’s program notes available for all to read and enjoy at no charge. It’s a great way to bask in Everson’s barbs, soak up his enthusiasm and wonder at his odd vendetta against Glenn Ford.
If you were to read the above recommended books in order, you would be starting to get the idea that D.W. Griffith was the bee’s knees and basically the best director of the silent era. Film preservationist James Card is about to give you a much needed detox.
In this gloriously sarcastic volume, Card busts a few myths about Griffith being the only nickelodeon-era director of note and backs his assertions up with a lifetime of film collecting and curating. He also takes potshots at Erich von Stroheim’s alleged sophistication and the tedious film dissection running rampant in film studies classes.
Card comes in with all guns blazing and it’s a wonderful thing to behold. You may not agree with what he has to say but I guarantee that you will be entertained. It’s like sitting down for an intimate lunch with a side of juicy gossip. This is a book that really broadens the mind and will help new fans to realize that going against the orthodoxy of silent film scholarship is just fine.
Alas, Mr. Card has no other books available.
After enjoying some very fine writing, it’s time to take in some photos. This ginormous volume is exactly as advertised. It contains thousands of stills, ads and portraits of silent films and their stars.
What makes this book so valuable is that it’s a massive data dump. Famous, obscure, notorious and forgotten, this book has them all. And it takes a balanced approach to the early history of film. While other volumes make a short shrift of the 1900s and the early 1910s, this book includes masses of information.
The images are organized by order of date but otherwise this book is a delightful jumble. It’s easy to spend hours browsing through its contents.
You can also grab this book’s sequel, A Pictorial History of Talkies. It’s more of the same and quite fun.
We’ve talked a lot about the films but here is a book about the stars. I enjoy Eve Golden’s writing because she’s affectionate but keeps a balanced view of her subjects. She addresses all the important points in their lives but is never vulgar or obsessive, which is the case with some biographical sketches. She also does not fall into the trap of getting too close and developing a dislike for the stars she is celebrating.
Enough of what this book isn’t, let’s talk about what it is. Like Kevin Brownlow, Golden brings a personal perspective to her subject matter. While the sketches are well-researched, they don’t read like dry academic works. It’s more like sitting down with a movie loving friend and hearing all about her favorites.
Don’t be put off by the slimness of the volume or its price. This book packs a whole lot of information into a small package.
Do check out Golden’s biography of John Gilbert. Gilbert’s life, career, downfall and death have been the subjects of myths, lies and general misconceptions. Golden wades in and manages to hack away a large portion of baloney from the poor man’s legacy.
One of the most misunderstood periods of the silent era is the sound transition. People seem to think that Singin’ in the Rain is a documentary and I constantly get queries about “silent stars who failed talkies” and other such nonsense. (My response? I’ll tell you if you tell me about jockeys who failed as racecar drivers.)
Scott Eyman brings his meticulous research and eye for interesting factoids to the table and the result is a readable and fair account of an industry in flux. Eyman takes on myths, chases down the who/what/when/where/why of many important talkie events and generally creates order out of chaos.
Eyman’s biographies are some of the best on the market and he skews heavily toward the silent era. His subjects have included Mary Pickford, Louis B. Mayer, Cecil B. DeMille, John Ford, John Wayne and Ernst Lubitsch. I particularly recommend his biography of Mayer, entitled Lion of Hollywood. The famous executive has been turned into something of a cartoon bogeyman by unhappy employees and overzealous bloggers. Eyman humanizes his subject (though he doesn’t cover over the problematic elements of his life) and reveals a complicated man behind the legend. I also greatly enjoyed Empire of Dreams, Eyman’s delightful and illuminating book on Cecil B. DeMille.
I hope you find these books enjoyable and helpful in your journey as a silent film fan. One more book recommendation. You see, once you get into silent films, you will be amazed at how many people wrinkle their noses and refuse to watch even a brief clip of silent cinema. For those people, I suggest: