Since This is Clearly a Problem, Introducing the “Should I Watch It?” Silent Movie Flowchart

You have to excuse my annoyance. Another week, another silent film that people (including academics) have written about without watching. This is a pet peeve of mine so I made a handy chart. Feel free to share, distribute, etc.

I was minding my own business, researching a silent movie when I noticed that every single piece a read got major plot details wrong. Details that could only be incorrect if the author had either never seen the film or had seen it so long ago that they may as well have never seen it at all. (There’s a reason why I avoid commenting on films I haven’t rewatched in a while.)

This annoys me not just because it’s laziness but because this is how myths get started and repeated. (Click on the titles below to read my debunkings.)

It happened with Buster Keaton’s The Frozen North.

It happened with Charlie Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen.

Now it’s happening with A Kiss from Mary Pickford (coming Sunday!) and I am peeved. While silent movie access is not all we might like, it is a darn sight better than it has been in a long time and, in any case, if you are a published author (especially writing for an academic press) you have a certain amount of baked-in credibility. Be worthy of it.

The Chart

Click to enlarge

Sorry for the rant. I promise to be more fun later.

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12 Replies to “Since This is Clearly a Problem, Introducing the “Should I Watch It?” Silent Movie Flowchart”

  1. No apologies necessary. It is a problem as old as film criticism and theory. One of the most blatant examples i can think of, not surprisingly, pertains to the films of D. W. Griffith. The respected early film historian Edward Wagenecht had read for years about the many inventions and innovations of Griffith, specifically in the early short films at Biograph.

    In the early 1960s he finally had the opportunity to screen many of them and was shocked when he didn’t see a pyrotechnical display of editing techniques and mesmerizing close-ups that had been described by others over the years. The films were important and groundbreaking in many ways, but not as expected. He had based his expectations on the descriptions of previous writers, historians, critics and theoreticians who had written about but had never seen the films themselves, or had seen them so long ago that memories were unreliable.

    Another example is the works of Mary Pickford. Her films were mostly unavailable for viewing for decades, but that didn’t stop many critics and sociologists writing from ignorance, or not bothering to at least do the research before repeating the same tired narrative of “the little girl with the golden curls” nonsense or treating her as a symbol of a retrograde anti-feminism, when the truth was the precisely the opposite.

  2. There seem to be a couple of minor glitches in Kevin Brownlow’s notes on ‘The Red Kimona’ in his 1990 ‘Behind the Mask of Innocence’ when comparing the restored version of the film on the recent KL set. Perhaps the copy available 28 years ago was in bad shape, he does mention missing footage and scenes.

    1. It’s true. There is a new restoration available and that makes a difference.

      P.S. Also, many silent films were only available as 9.5mm condensations in many cases, which would of course make a considerable difference.

  3. Enjoyed this piece (it’s not a rant, IMO), and loved the flowchart.

    As you say, authors published in the academic press enjoy a certain “baked-in credibility” of which they may not always be worthy.

    In the process of getting a PhD (in another field), my former awe of professors and their publications vanished. Other people may be wise enough to not be awed in the first place.

    Academic peer review being imperfect, it’s very good that today non-academics have means to call out cases of academics’ errors and questionable judgment.

    1. Yes, I think we have only to look at Ben Urwand’s The Collaboration (I think Harvard published it) to see that academic presses can produce just as much nonsense as anyone else.

      Alas, they are still far more accepted sources than firsthand experience or online content. I had a student who asked me about my experiences with silent stars in talkies as his professor was going on and on about how many silent stars had funny voices. She wanted academic citations and my source was, um, watching the stars in talkies. This was completely unacceptable.

      I love academic research, I love nerdy discussions but that’s an example of how cartoonish the process can be.

      1. This discussion is so timely after spending a whole day of writing science fiction…well a funding application for research project that will revolutionize…everything?

        It’s great that there’s some corner in the internet where facts are still respected.

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