Movies Silently Presents: A Beginner’s Bookshelf

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:

  1. All books will be non-fiction.
  2. They will be reasonably easy to find (I am located in the U.S. so your mileage may vary regarding ease of access)
  3. They will be friendly to beginners.
  4. They will be fun to read.
  5. My main selections will not include single-subject biographies but my additional selections might.
  6. My site is focused on mainstream Hollywood fare and my choices reflect this.

Okay, that covers everything. Let’s get started.

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The Parade’s Gone By… by Kevin Brownlow

parade's gone by

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.

Further Reading:

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.

Classics of the Silent Screen by Joe Franklin (ghost-written by William K. Everson)

classics of the silent screen

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.

Further Reading:

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.

Seductive Cinema by James Card

seductive cinema

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.

Further Reading:

Alas, Mr. Card has no other books available.

A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen by Daniel Blum

pictorial history of the silent screen

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.

Further Reading:

You can also grab this book’s sequel, A Pictorial History of Talkies. It’s more of the same and quite fun.

Golden Images: 41 Essays on Silent Film Stars by Eve Golden

golden images

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.

Further Reading:

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.

The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution by Scott Eyman

speed of sound

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.

Further Reading:

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:

green eggs and ham

17 Replies to “Movies Silently Presents: A Beginner’s Bookshelf”

    1. Yes, her enthusiasm is infectious (though she does mix up a few things). I like that she gives men and women equal weight as there is a tendency to make those lists male-centric, especially considering the enduring popularity of the Big Four.

  1. Excellent book list! I have the first two (All hail Kevin Brownlow!). I love the title of “The Speed of Sound”. I will have to get that one.

    Do you know of/have thoughts on “Silent Movies” by Neil Sinyard? Something of a coffee table book, and one of this first books I got when I first got interested in silents (ah, the early 90s!)

    Something in the shape of a “Silent Movies for Dummies” would be nice to see exist though. Not likely, but someone should write it.

    Having mentioned Brownlow, why not also put together documentary recommendations (or have I not been paying attention)? First of course would be his Hollywood series.

    1. Yes, I have the Sinyard book. I found it a bit light but I was already well into my second or third year of silent film watching when I saw it.

      I probably will eventually do a documentary piece. The Hollywood series is fab but it’s also 35-years-old. It used the best material available at the time but so much more is known now. For example, Ben Lyon and Eleanor Boardman have a lot to say in the documentary but have recently been exposed as big old fibbers.

  2. Excellent recommendations. For the full story of the complete development of motion pictures from concept to reality, a beginner should also read A MILLION AND ONE NIGHTS by Terry Ramsaye (1925), which was drawn from first-hand accounts by the people that were involved in the roots of cinema and were still alive to tell the details.

    1. Glad you like them! Ramsaye’s book is an invaluable reference but I hesitate to wholeheartedly recommend it to newcomers. It’s so packed with technical information that it can be daunting. (Though some people like info-packed volumes. It’s all a matter of taste)

  3. Thank you for this information! This is a great resource. I’ve bought several books on silents that I thought weren’t particularly interesting, and then some that were—so I appreciate your suggestions. I’ve read the Brownlow book, which is excellent, but the only one of these I own now is the Blum book, which I wouldn’t take anything for. Just this morning I was thinking about buying a copy of The Silent Clowns by Kerr. Have you read that one?

    1. Glad to help! Yes, I have read Kerr’s book. It’s very good but readers should keep in mind that sometimes he is going from childhood memories of films. For example, his section on the Larry Semon “Wizard of Oz” states that the film bankrupted its studio when nothing of the sort actually occurred. He also dismisses female comics in general, which is ridiculous as the silent era was packed with funny ladies. It’s an intriguing book and essential reading but a lot of the claims have to be double-checked.

  4. Thanks for the new additions to my reading list!
    I’m currently reading (not to say “suffering through”) Everson’s “American Silent Cinema.” He claims historians to that point (1977) had ignored and unfairly lambasted Griffith, though I have yet to find any example of this. He is to be credited for saying that silent film is its own art form, separate from talkies, which I think few others believed at the time. He’s super-opinionated, quite apart from his Griffith-love, and throws out the most shocking criticisms all the time (even throws in a nasty dig at John Waters, who has nothing to do with silent film), then every once in a while he says something brilliant, like “Harold Lloyd’s movies really can’t be appreciated when watched alone.” So true! Lloyd is my favorite silent comedian precisely because I had the chance to see them all at the Film Forum in 1999.

    1. Yes, Everson definitely had some (shall we say interesting?) dislikes. He never missed a chance to bash Glenn Ford or Marlon Brando and he was definitely a hardcore Griffith apologist. I do think the tide was turning slightly against Griffith circa 1977, though Lillian Gish was still doing her best to convince everyone that he was the bestest thing ever. I know the Hollywood miniseries (not his but his influence shows) got criticism for giving so much voice to Griffith’s more out-of-touch defenders and none to African-Americans. Sad to say it but I think the death of Gish in 1993 is really what opened the floodgates of criticism. For example, the DGA only dropped Griffith’s name from their lifetime achievement award in 1999.

      I really think you would enjoy James Card’s book. He really goes for blood regarding Griffith.

  5. Oh, I came across The Speed of Sound myself, wandering around the university library stacks, and loved it. It’s a great read. I keep going back to it for reference.

  6. Great list! Just about anything Brownlow does is awesome, and I enjoyed the Everson/Franklin book as well. What are your favorite documentaries on silents? Mine are Brownlow’s HOLLYWOOD and CINEMA EUROPE series, as well as Matthew Sweet’s SILENT BRITAIN.

    1. I like Hollywood very much, though I would love to see it updated to reflect all the new information that has surfaced in the last 35 years. Cinema Europe is fabulous and I am glad that some of the films featured in it are finally getting released to the general public. Didn’t care much for Silent Britain at all, to be honest. It uses too much innuendo, puts forth theories as facts (and ridiculous ones at that) and is just plain jingoistic in tone.

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