On Zero Sum Games: Silent Film Favorites and Cults of Personality

Maybe I am just out of touch but lately there seems to be an upswing in tribalism among silent film fans. What do I mean by this? You’re bopping along, minding your own business, savoring some love for a particular silent era talent when suddenly, the conversation shifts to bashing a perceived rival.

“Alice Guy was a wonderful pioneer… But why are people talking about that Lois Weber person?” or “Harry Langdon? Ha! He was just a Chaplin imitator and neither were anything compared to Buster Keaton.”

I understand the impulse to build up favorites but does it always have to come at the expense of tearing somebody else down or raining on another fan’s parade? Greta Garbo isn’t my favorite but I don’t feel the impulse to invade her fan club headquarters with pro-Marlene Dietrich signs.

Obviously, I am not saying that discussing real conflicts is off limits (for example, William S. Hart’s long legal battles with United Artists) or that we can’t call out genuinely toxic people (D.W. Griffith) or that we have to be Pollyannas all the time. But treating similar silent talents like rival sports teams is immature and exhausting.

I have discussed this topic before and it’s why I still have a Buster Keaton embargo in place. A bit of perspective: very few silent era talents are recognized by name or by photograph these days and so these bizarre attacks are most hurtful to fellow fans. That’s not very nice.

If somebody loves a silent era talent more than I do, I am genuinely delighted that they found an angle for research and viewing. Those Garbo fans are having the time of their lives when a nice edition of one of her films is released and good for them. It would be incredibly boring if we all liked the same stars, directors, studios, films.

I consider myself a reasonably tough critic but when I am wearing my fan hat or my researcher hat, I have pretty much no interest in creating phony rivalries. If someone prefers Ramon Novarro to Rudolph Valentino, that’s fine. And don’t ask me to take sides in the Clara Bow vs. Louise Brooks kerfuffle because I won’t do it. I prefer Bow myself but people who like Brooks better aren’t wrong, they’re just different.

And, again, this problem is extremely limited. It’s fine to compare and contrast talents, it’s fine to review movies with a more severe perspective. I just don’t enjoy all-out attacks on rival factions for daring to state that they enjoy Nazimova’s filmography or something.

Love for one talent is not something that was stolen from another talent and positive education is always better when mistakes have been made. People like to proclaim that Anna May Wong was the first Asian woman movie star in American films, which ignores the earlier contributions and star power of Tsuru Aoki, but bashing the talented Miss Wong isn’t the answer. Instead, sharing love for Aoki, explaining her contributions and talking about her career overlapping with Wong’s is the way to go. Everyone learns, everyone is happy and two wonderful women are given their due.

I am intentionally not naming names or linking or anything like that but if a fan sees praise for a silent era talent and their first impulse is to proclaim that the talent was horrible and so-and-so was better, that’s a bit toxic.

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20 Replies to “On Zero Sum Games: Silent Film Favorites and Cults of Personality”

  1. Fritzy,

    I totally agree with what you are saying but disagree with embargoes like the one you placed on discussions of Keaton. I too am perplexed by the idolatry of fans. I think it’s because a lot of fans have the attitude: “I love silent films, but …” They’ve found somebody they love, who may have introduced them to silents, but they don’t find much else appealing in silent pictures. They don’t embrace the art form. Their idol is the only reason for their interest in any silents, whether it’s Keaton or Chaplin or Lloyd, whoever. I know there are folks who love silent comedy but think all silent dramas are hokey and overacted.

    Tribalism is an inescapable fact of modern cultural and political life. You can either withdraw, react to everything, or you can take the attitude I’ve adopted whenever I’m berated for my position on an issue: don’t give a damn about what other people think. If you “embargo” an issue, you’re ceding the ground to the idolaters. When you say you don’t like the “general movement toward balkanization in pop culture. Warring tribes, etc.” and “will not be pulled into it,” that’s exactly what you’re doing by shutting down. You’ve let the bastards win. You’re showing them you care a lot about what they think. To hell with what they think; stick to what you think.

    In my case, if I don’t like what you say, I will state (and have stated) my disagreement, but I’ll always give reasons, and I’ll never get acrimonious.

    1. My article on the topic stated clearly that my Keaton embargo applied to my reviewing his films, not an edict that he will not be named on this site ever again or that nobody can mention him in the comments or something. And in the case of Keaton’s more fanatic followers, they view any attention paid to other comedians as an affront to their idol, so my taking a break from reviewing his pictures is a very real consequence for them and an effective way for me to swat their fat little paws. They behaved badly so they’re not getting what they demanded. That’s the way to deal with spoiled brats of all kinds. All the non-weird Keaton fans have had to deal with these over-the-top oddballs and they have more horror stories than I ever will.

      Frankly, it comes off as more than a little sanctimonious for you to demand that I participate in the mud wrestling nonsense when it interests me none at all. This isn’t a debate about abolition or prohibition or suffrage. It’s old movies. Some people are behaving politely, others are not. I do not need to entertain bizarre fanatics any more than I would need to entertain the thoughts of people who think the earth is flat. You might have had a point if the Keaton fanatics forced me to stop reviewing ALL silent comedies but I think I have kept up a pretty steady stream of reviews over the years. Do as you like but don’t presume that it works for everyone or that I am required to expend emotional labor in engaging with unhinged stans.

      1. My point is that you shouldn’t mud wrestle with them. A better answer to the haters isn’t silence; it’s indifference to their silly arguments. Don’t acknowledge them at all. An embargo – even a temporary one – shows you care about what they think and gives them power.

  2. Warning, “you kids” rant coming…

    I grew up in such a world where my taste for silent films, old movies, silent comedians, whatever was a rarity like butterfly collecting. I have a few friends who were also into it– hey, I married one of ’em– but we all very much knew that we were a subset of a subset of a niche.

    When the internets came along it was great to be able to be part of a larger subset of a subset with people all across the country. But it also facilitated something that just wasn’t possible before, which was high school behavior, in crowds and out crowds, and whatnot. (Maybe critics in NYC had the population density to behave that way before, but nobody else did.)

    My advice is, to just ignore it and like what you like. If someone thinks your opinion means you are canceled, or that terrible star Rod Handsomely who was so bad to Gloria Gorgeous in 1924 is canceled, or whatever, thank them politely, put them on mute on Twooter, and move on. There is no need for us all to be in lockstep groupthink, and we are poorer for it, individually and collectively, if we are. Let a thousand fandoms bloom, work to make new fans rather than discourage existing ones with petty personal stuff, and relax, everyone who is really involved in it is dead already, except Baby Peggy.

    1. Ha! And oh good lordy, I remember a kerfuffle around Baby Peggy a few years back. (None of her making, those aforementioned fanatics.) Unfortunately, this behavior is not confined to fans and Twitter, I have seen it in professional contexts. Sigh.

    1. Quite so! Prefer one over the other or love them equally or have a hierarchy but everyone has a different funnybone, so let’s just be happy that these people made delightful films we can still enjoy today.

  3. Reading this post, I thought of another approach to the problem: banning the comments of particular hostile persons.

    I found myself wondering why you don’t take that approach, and for a moment I thought of asking you…but then I stopped and realized:
    the option has surely occurred to you already; on reflection, you’ve chosen not to rely on it alone, for your own reasons. So I’m not asking!

    After all, MS is a personal blog, i.e., it belongs to you, and it is whatever you want it to be. (It’s nice that you sometimes take time out to explain some of your choices to your readers, but doing so is not an obligation.)

    1. I actually HAVE banned some of these fanatics (my Camille review inciting many a ban-worthy remark, I assure you) but this issue is on social media and even in documentaries and books.

  4. There are too many genuine two-sided issues in the world and I refuse to bash anyone simply because they prefer one talent to another. You know that I’m a Chaplin fanatic, but I’ve discovered that my heart has a place for Keaton as well. I don’t like The General, but I do like Steamboat Bill, Jr. I enjoy his shorts as well. I’d like to think most silent film fans are like me 🙂

  5. Thanks Fritzi – I think it is a great pity so much energy and emotion are wasted on issues of taste/ preference/ ideology/ belief, in silent movie discussions and in many other domains.

    I happen to think that Mozart was a better musician than Justin Bieber, but I can’t prove that he was – people are free to disagree if they choose to. I’ll happily discuss why my opinion may differ from someone else’s, but I won’t argue about it. There are no independent normative standards for these matters and no way of proving them scientifically.

    It seems to me that, at a time when so many people will not accept proven facts that challenge their preconceived ideas, wasting energy on arguments about taste is not only pointless, but counterproductive in that it creates even more divisions between “us” and “them”.

    1. Yes, it’s ridiculous to go around fighting over what other people find funny or delightful. I happen to think that Charley Chase is the funniest guy who ever made movies but not everyone will agree and that’s fine. So much is personal taste and experience, it’s bizarre to start fights.

  6. I, for one, would love to read your reviews of Keaton’s films (all of which I’ve seen, and love, but not to the exclusion of other comedians’ work) – and the fanatics be damned!

  7. What a delightful post! You stole so many of my positive quips: “good for them”, “we all learn”, “how boring it would be”, “we learn from our differences”, on and on. You made me smile today, thank you.

  8. Your post reads like conversations I have when I start off with “I’m not really a fan of Chaplin” I don’t deny his accomplishments, and I think City Lights is a great movie, but over all he doesn’t appeal to my tastes, that’s all. It would be pretty boring if every person like the exact same thing.
    I’m with you on Charley Chase.

  9. I too don’t understand while people have to start quarrels, but they do, and it’s not limited to Buster Keaton buffs. Buster Keaton is my favorite as a solo act because he fascinates me. Laurel & Hardy are my all-time favorites because they are Laurel & Hardy and they are just the best. Charlie Chaplin also fascinates me, but I think Harry Langdon’s baby face is just as symbolic of silent comedy. Harold Lloyd doesn’t fascinate me as much, but he wins my sympathy, and he and his gag writers came up with some of the best gags in films. There’s room for everyone.

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