As everyone seemed to enjoy my Beginner’s Bookshelf of silent film books, I have decided to follow it up with a collection of my favorite biographies and autobiographies of silent film folks.
The market for these titles is fairly glutted and I can’t claim to have read everything but these are the books that I find to be either the most reliable or the most entertaining. I will be sure to tell you which is which.
This list is, of course, a matter of opinion. I tend to prefer books that focus on films rather than sex and I give extra points for books with unique claims that stand up to scrutiny.
I do not claim that this list is complete and will likely write a follow-up if there is a demand for it.
I Was There: The Best Silent Movie Memoirs
To me, the most important aspect of a memoir is capturing the essence of the subject’s personality. These are the books that I feel did just that.
Gloria Swanson may be famous as Norma Desmond, a silent star who never quite realizes that she is no longer top of the heap. In real life, Swanson could not be more her opposite. Witty, intelligent and disarmingly frank, Swanson’s remarkable personality comes through loud and clear. She dishes dirt but the person she is most ruthless with is herself. This is not self-loathing but rather a dissection of her own legendary life and career. A pleasure to read, Swanson on Swanson is the gold standard for silent star memoirs.
Flapper and fashion icon, Colleen Moore’s memoirs are brimming with humor and amusing anecdotes. She shares her methods for combating upstagers (Milton Sills was apparently shameless) and her way of getting rid of lusty producers. Like Swanson, Colleen Moore led a rich and fulfilled life outside of Hollywood and my favorite section of the book is her description of her famous dollhouse and how it became her passion. You’ll come away with fresh respect for this remarkable woman.
Onscreen and off, Marion Davies was all about personality and her sparkling wit is on display here. Assembled out of tapes that Davies recorded in her last decade, this memoir is humorous, touching and an intriguing look into the mind of a much maligned woman. While unreliable as far as facts are concerned, the book succeeds in demonstrating the charm that made Davies so irresistible. Smashing read.
Buster Keaton’s distinct voice is on display in this collection of interviews the famous comedian granted between 1921 and 1965. Keaton was a natural storyteller and his rough-around-the-edges style is extremely enjoyable. Good natured and a little gossipy, the stories may not always get the little details right but Buster is always Buster. A must-read.
Reconstructing History: The Best Silent Movie Biographies
The ideal biography must be written by someone with an eye for detail and affection for (but not worship of) their subject.
Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman
I cannot emphasize enough how good this book is. It’s probably the title that I recommend the most. Eyman took one of the most reviled men in Hollywood history and humanized him. This is not a fawning work, rather, it is a unique look at a remarkable life. Eyman cuts through the myths and gossip and emerges with a nuanced and sensitive portrait of the famous MGM mogul. Highly readable, this book will likely turn everything you thought you knew about classic and silent Hollywood on its head.
Now this is my kind of book! As one of the few living people who has seen every one of Cecil B. DeMille’s surviving films, Birchard is uniquely positioned to give his opinion of DeMille’s entire body of work. This biography covers DeMille through the lens of his individual films with budgets, box office, production woes and personal correspondence all figuring into the tale. Endlessly valuable and one of my very favorite silent film books.
Who was John Gilbert? A martyr? A victim? Golden cuts through the mythology and misinformation and presents us with a human being. Her affection for her subject is tempered by solid research and a desire to understand what made Gilbert tick. The result is a breathtaking biography that humanizes its subject like never before.
Mary Pickford was one of the most famous and beloved women in the world. In this brilliant biography, Whitfield explains why. Pickford’s personality, fierce ambition and business acumen are all displayed and put into the context of the era in which she lived. This book often shows up in lists of the best silent movie biographies and with good reason. As Golden did for Gilbert, Eileen Whitfield turns a legend into a human being and makes her all the more intriguing.
I hope you have enjoyed this list. Now I am going to write a bit about a subject that has been simmering away on the back burner for a while.
Who needs a new biography the most?
That’s the million dollar question. There are major stars who have never had any biography published. Others have only been covered in the briefest manner. Some have been smeared. For example, the tiny section on Florence La Badie in the horrid book Stardust and Shadows has caused more than a few headaches to serious students of silent film.
My nominee? Lillian Gish.
Silent film autobiographies come in many flavors. Louise Brooks and Marion Davies are wildly unreliable but a blast to read. Gloria Swanson is the mistress of the memoir with her searing frankness that spares no one, especially herself. Charlie Chaplin and Miriam Cooper are unpleasantly bitter and settle entirely too many scores. Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish both went in for prim legend building with Sunshine and Shadows and The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me respectively.
As brought up above, Pickford has had some excellent biographies published, books that deflate the legend and build up the real woman. Eileen Whitfield’s Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood is a lovely read that gets to the heart of what made Mary Pickford tick. (Though I would have preferred it if the author had not relied quite so heavily on Agnes de Mille and her rather dubious pronouncements on Uncle Cecil.)
Lillian Gish deserved equally careful treatment. What she got was Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life by Charles Affron. While very well researched and factually correct, one gets the impression that the author had grown to dislike his subject. Lillian Gish inflated her own legend and that of D.W. Griffith, true, but we never get to the core of why she did this.
The scariest fandom in silent film.
The sad truth is that while most silent film fans are reasonable and a delight to talk to, there is a fringe element that is a bit… well… scary. Often attached to a particular star or film, these people do a lot to frighten off newcomers.
Different fandoms have different eccentricities, some of them delightful, others not. I generally find the Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Louise Brooks and Clara Bow devotees to be pretty chill. The Buster Keaton fans used to be annoying with their constant cries of “Buster is better than Chaplin!” and “Let’s kill Natalie Talmadge!” but the saner majority seems to be prevailing.
Ramon Novarro fans like to use him as a cudgel to bash Rudolph Valentino. Valentino fans… Oh good lord. There are a few frightening ones there and they will relentlessly attack anyone who challenges their chosen view of Valentino’s love life.
Valentino’s fringe fans can be terrifying but the devotees who deliver the most outright abuse? Lillian Gish’s fan club.
You see, Lillian Gish was one of the great actresses of the silent era and she lived to tell the tale. Her reminisces are everywhere, no silent film documentary is complete without them. She passed halfway to her 100th birthday in 1993, a respected and beloved fixture of the silent film scholarship scene.
Gish was a skillful actress and her tales of early film are convincing and moving. The problem is that she was not a reliable narrator. She embroidered on some tales and outright invented others.
And this is where the Gish fans get their dander up. Fans of Marion Davies and Louise Brooks know that they played fast and loose with the facts. They were having fun. Pola Negri’s memoir’s have been described as a work of fiction. “That’s Pola for you!” her fans chuckle. But Gish? Gish is different. Her more obsessed fans are invested in her legend, her status as the all-knowing patron saint of silent films.
(And I want to emphasize here that overboard Gish fans are in the minority. Most folks have been lovely.)
The problem is that Gish’s tales have been told and retold and people have taken them and run with them, creating bizarre theories and conclusions out of them. I got so sick of starry-eyed people asking me where to find the “real” ending for The Wind that I ended up writing a debunking post. To date, it is the only post I have ever published that has lost me subscribers. (Not that I particularly want subscribers who cannot take a bit of debunking. It’s kind of my thing. Still, interesting.)
Even more problematic was Gish’s tendency to proclaim herself spokesperson for all minorities and assure viewers that minorities viewed racist humor as just a jolly bit of fun. Her flippant dismissal of any criticism of D.W. Griffith’s pervasive racism allowed his pictures a free ride for entirely too long.
But things often go like this:
“Upon closer examination, Lillian Gish’s account of XYZ does not hold up to scrutiny.”
“But, but, but she was a great actress!!!!”
And then they turn into butter or something. These are the more polite conversations. I will not repeat the more unpleasant ones.
No one is denying that Gish was a great actress. No one. But great actress or not, talented or not, she is going to be fact-checked and corrected the same way every other silent film source is fact-checked and corrected. Mary Philbin was a terrible actress but her reminisces are accurate and refreshingly free of any agenda. Being a reliable source and being a great performer are not the same thing. However, some viewers are invested in Lillian Gish as the perfect silent film historian and have tied this into her legendary performances. Let’s unbundle these two aspects of her life, shall we?
Please note that I have never run into this kind of rage when debunking claims from any other performer. In fact, I can declare Charlie Chaplin, Louise Brooks, Ben Lyon, Eleanor Boardman and Miriam Cooper to be utter fibbers with impunity. The only reaction that comes close is when I dismiss that nutty tale about John Gilbert slugging Louis B. Mayer in the men’s room. I usually get asked for more details (reasonable request) but only a few people have gotten outright angry at their favorite anecdote being proven to be so much bunk.
What the more fanatic Gish devotee does not seem to understand is that he (and it is almost always a he) is free to worship Gish the actress, Gish the woman. However, someone trying to piece together what really happened during a film’s production or the aftermath of a racist film’s release has to weigh the evidence carefully and cannot allow the deification of an illusion to get in the way.
You know what I want? I want the real Lillian Gish. I don’t want an illusion. I have a feeling that the person behind the legend is fascinating and nuanced and intriguing. Gish spent a lifetime building that legend up but what made her tick? What drove her to make the decisions she did? How do they tie in with the brilliant films she made at MGM before the coming of sound?
Lillian Gish’s half-truths, fibs and legend-building were no worse than, say, those of Charlie Chaplin. Yet it is only Gish who is left suspended in a glass case of her own making. Any attempt to break her out is met with resistance and outright hostility.
After a few skirmishes, one begins to sympathize with Affron.
My dream biography
Lillian Gish was a complicated woman, too nuanced for a pedestal and certainly not deserving of a hit piece. What she does deserve is a biography that will slice through the wisps of legend in which she is enshrouded and reveal the living, breathing woman. I want to read about her, warts and all, but I don’t want those warts to take over the book. I don’t want a saint, I don’t want a devil and I don’t want a legend. I want a human being.
I want the sort of work that Whitfield did for Mary Pickford, Scott Eyman did for Cecil B. DeMille and what Lon and Debra Davis did for Francis X. Bushman.
Here are my wishes for a biography of Gish:
Lots and lots of background detail on her creative process, particularly the films she made after leaving Griffith. Show how deeply she was involved in every stage of a Lillian Gish vehicle’s creation.
More detail on her relationship with Dorothy. It’s been romanticized and criticized but I want to read about the real complexities of a sibling relationship. In addition, details on the Gish parents and how the absence of her father may have affected Lillian’s outlook and opinions.
Plenty of material on her devotion to the silent screen and why she felt it was important. Not the rehearsed speeches that she later gave but insight into her thoughts and feelings during the sound revolution.
A sober and serious discussion on Gish’s views of race, how they related to the society in which she was raised, how they did and did not change with the times and how they influenced a generation of silent film historians.
The motivations for Gish intense desire for intellectually upwardly mobility and her need to project these desires onto others.
A balanced look at why Gish was so driven to take control of D.W. Griffith’s narrative after his death. A level-headed look at their personal and professional relationships.
On top of all this, the biography should be a fun read. Well-researched but not too dense. It should also be respectful of Gish but not fawning. No hagiographies need apply.
Who do you think needs a new biography? Conversely, is there a biography that you think is the cat’s meow? Do tell!