Silent Movie Bookshelf: Silent Murders by Mary Miley

silent murders

I have always said that silent Hollywood is an absolute treasure trove for mystery writers. In addition to the actual murders (William Desmond Taylor), there were also quite a few accidents, shady deaths and disappearances. The Hollywood mystery has become a popular sub-genre and the latest entry is entitled Silent Murders.

Availability

Available in hardcover, ebook and audiobook.

While I am a dabbler in mystery, mostly classic hard-boiled, I am hardly an expert on the genre. So, I decided to call in a guest reviewer who is. Namely, my mom.

First, a few basics.

The Plot: Our heroine is named Jessie Carr (well, not really but this book is the second in a series so bear with me) and she is a silent movie actress. Naturally, murder is afoot and before you can say “Action!” we have a few dead bodies littering the place. What’s our heroine to do? If you give any answer other than “start her own investigation,” you may as well turn in your mystery fan card.

Availability: Silent Murders will be available in hardcover, e-book and audio editions on September 23, 2014.

Style: This is a lighthearted historical mystery. It definitely is more on the “cozy” side of the genre with minimal sex and violence (other than the murders, of course) and does include a fair amount of humor. (While this is the second in a series, Miley provides enough background to make it easy to follow the story even if you have not read the first one.)

History: The book did a very good job of capturing the feel of the times with the historical details woven into the plot seamlessly. In short, there is not a huge exposition dump, which can be a fatal flaw for historical novels. Instead, we get background and events in manageable and enjoyable bite-size pieces. While it incorporates the personal lives of silent personalities (such as Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin) it is not gossipy or mean-spirited.

Mystery: The story tightly-paced and moves along nicely.

Concluding thoughts: This is a fast, fun mystery with plenty of humor and historical detail. It is an ideal way to spend a snowy winter day or an afternoon on the beach. Mary Miley is a skillful writer and puts together an excellent mystery. This one gets a high recommendation and 4 out of 5 stars.

Note: To get an idea of taste, my mom’s favorite mystery writers include Robin Paige and Kate Ross for modern and Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers for classics.

Thanks to Minotaur for the advance reading copy. Thanks, mom, for being a guest reviewer.

***

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this film for free for the purpose of reviewing it on my blog. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Silent Movie Bookshelf: Behind the Screen by Kenneth MacGowan

behind-the-screen

Well, the full title is certainly enticing. Behind the Screen: The History and Techniques of the Motion Picture. The author, Kenneth MacGowan, was a respected producer behind such films as Lifeboat, Man Hunt and Lloyd’s of London.

It may come as a surprise, then, when I tell you that I wanted to hurl both this book and Mr. MacGowan across the room. What provoked this violent reaction?

In a word, everything. Everything about this book made me very, very angry.

Availability

Available in paperback & hardcover.

You see, this book was published in 1965. Silent films had been ridiculed and scorned for decades after their demise and the tide did not really begin to turn until the late 1960s. It’s still turning (and taking its sweet time about it) but MacGowan’s opinions and writings about the silent era were actually quite typical for his time.

The book is out of print (good!) but, as of this writing, it can be obtained for as little as a penny, plus shipping.

So, on to the review. (A friendly warning: The book sections quoted below will make you very, very angry if you are a silent film fan.)

On silent film acting:

“Almost anyone could be made reasonably effective in silent pantomime. Acting with the voice was another matter.”

This ridiculous notion is easily put down. All one has to do is track down “silent movies” re-enacted by later stars to see that pantomime merely looks easy. In practice, it is anything but.

On silent film stars:

“Most of its actors and many of its stars were pantomimists with untrained voices and questionable ability to convey emotion through words.”

Hey, thanks for helping to spread the “silent stars had funny voices” myth, Kenny. Really appreciate it.

tempest-john-barrymore-louis-wolheim-camilla-horn-silent-movie-animated-gif-get-a-room

And then there’s this gem:

“…the plots of most Hollywood films ran the gamut of emotion, as Dorothy Parker said of a certain actress, from A to B. And so, of course, did the emotions of their audience.”

Clara Bow fans, prepare to be angered:

“…a picture called It— the term for sex appeal invented by Miss Glyn– starred the “It Girl,” Clara Bow, and marked the climax (if, unfortunately, not quite the end) of Hollywood’s own jazz age.”

Finally, Mr. MacGowan enlightens us as to why silent films are simply not entertaining to sophisticated modern viewers such as, oh I don’t know, him.

“What makes almost all films of the nineteen-twenties so hard to enjoy today? I think it is because in most of the pictures, the realism of the photography was thwarted by the absurdly unreal stories and characters, which we were supposed to take seriously.”

Yes, we want realism from our silents! You know, the stuff talkies introduced when they had random people burst into elaborate song and dance numbers.

MacGowan was involved with the stage before the coming of sound. There is something petty and infantile about the gleeful way he sets about smashing down the silent idols. They were not real actors, the phonies. Sounds like maybe someone couldn’t get hired in the silents and is just a little bitter.

Mr. MacGowan, I join Mae Murray in giving you the cheer that you deserve.

merry-widow-mae-murray-tongue

The pity of it is that when he is not indulging in some bizarre grudge, MacGowan has some intelligent insights. For example, he correctly predicts that the rise of cable television or “Pay-TV” as he calls it. However, these lucid moments are more than buried under a wave of unwarranted scorn.

I also found it interesting that the book is an anti-silents screed but the cover is a collage of vintage advertisements for… silent films. In this case, do not judge a book by its cover.

Behind the Screen is almost a total loss as a work of film scholarship. MacGowan’s self-absorbed narration and willfully ignorant conclusions actually make it dangerous reading. However, I do recommend that silent film fans pick up a copy (MacGowan is dead and cannot benefit from the royalties) to understand exactly how horribly the film industry treated the men and women who had pioneered the art of the motion picture.

Here is one more reaction GIF for the road. Ivan Mosjoukine and I know just how to deal with Kenneth MacGowan’s opinions on silent film.

burning-crucible-go-away

Silent Movie Bookshelf: JUDEX novelization by Louis Feuillade and Arthur Bernede

We are used to tie-in novels as part of the inevitable marketing campaigns that accompany films and movies nowadays. However, silent films had their own tie-ins and we are going to look at a special one.

Judex is called a serial but don’t let that put you off. The series is quirky, dark, funny, tragic and an absolute joy to watch. It captures everything that makes silent film wonderful in one thoroughly French package.

Availability

Available as both a physical and an ebook.

Like the film, the novelization of Judex was serialized. It has been translated into English for the first time by Rick Lai.

The book is a trade paperback with a print retail price of $24.95. I have seen it used for as low as $15 and a Kindle edition is available for $5.99 at the time of this writing.

The Plot: For those of you who are unfamiliar with the serial, here is a very brief description: Favraux is a despicable banker with a good and beautiful daughter, Jacqueline (villainy seems to be the one way to guarantee well-behaved offspring). He begins to receive threatening letters from a mysterious caped man who calls himself Judex. Judex says he will kill Favraux if he does not repent of his crimes and make amends. Favraux refuses and promptly dies exactly when Judex said he would.

Buffoonish detective Cocantin, Jacqueline, and fortune hunter Diana Monti all want to know what has happened. But Judex is in no mood to be found out.

Did I mention his wonderful cape? And his eclectic pack of trained dogs? And his cavern hideout? Keep in mind, this was made in 1916-17!

Sample page
Sample page

My favorite part: Like most film novelizations, the best part of Judex is the added detail about the characters and story. There is, for example, considerably more detail about the athletic Daisy, who famously saves the day late in the serial. The novel has a slightly darker flavor than the serial but they generally match one another quite well.

My least favorite part: Like most genre fiction of the period, Judex is quite melodramatic. Scenes and dialogue that worked fine in the silent film medium are a bit much on the printed page. I mean, I like people being dubbed “murderous scum” as much as the next serial watcher but it got to be a bit much at times.

Sample page
Sample page

Notes on the translation: In his afterword, Rick Lai notes that the original text was full of contradictions. That is understandable as the serialized story was doubtlessly rushed. Lai took the opportunity to correct some of the inconsistencies in the story.

Conclusion: Judex is a fun read for fans of the serial but non-fans may want to skip it. I enjoyed it greatly but I pretty much think the series is the best thing since instant black bean noodles (which are a very good thing indeed).

Silent Movie Bookshelf: Hollywood of the Rockies by Michael J. Spencer

hollywood-of-the-rockies-book-cover

Where were classic movies made? Most people will say “California!” while few will answer that the industry started in New York and New Jersey. But did you know that Colorado was the setting for dozens of films during the early silent era?

Hollywood of the Rockies:Colorado, the West & America’s Film Pioneers seeks to shed light on this forgotten legacy. As usual, let’s start with some particulars about the book itself.

This book is a 2013 release and is available in both print and digital formats. The physical book is a perfect bound paperback and retails for $19.99 and is available from most major online retailers. The Kindle edition of the book retails for $9.99. I personally like the print edition as I prefer to browse through books, flipping back and forth. However, I must admit that the digital version is quite a bargain.

Back cover of my copy
Back cover of my copy

What is it? This book tells the forgotten story of motion picture pioneers in Colorado. The cast of characters includes early cinema luminaries like Broncho Billy Anderson and William Selig, as well as colorful figures like Harry “Buck” Buckwalter. While this may seem like a rather narrow focus, the story of the movies in Colorado turns out to be a microcosm of the early film industry as a whole. In fact, I dare say that this is one of the most readable breakdowns of how the movies came to be.

The readers are treated to a gossipy take on the formation of the earliest motion picture companies and the interpersonal and legal battles that almost crippled the industry. Reading about patents, partnerships and profit sharing is not usually this fun. In addition, we are given details of the movie-going public’s love affair with westerns, quotes from vintage articles describing this new entertainment and some very interesting behind the scenes interviews.

Sample page
Sample page

Pictures: The book is filled with pictures from the Colorado film industry, as well as portraits of the major players in the story.

Writing style: The book is a light and entertaining read. Michael J. Spencer also makes an effort to make the early film industry relevant by comparing the short films to something familiar: YouTube videos. This is greatly appreciated, considering how difficult it is to get people to even look at a silent film.

All in all, a fun book about a forgotten topic. I enthusiastically recommend it.

You can read a sample of the book on its official website. (Thank you, Mr. Spencer for the review copy.)

***

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this film for free for the purpose of reviewing it on my blog. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Silent Movie Bookshelf: The Bad Guys, A Pictorial History of the Movie Villain by William K. Everson

Cover of my copy
Cover of my copy

A book after my own heart!

This book covers movie villains from the silent era through the 1960’s. Best of all, it is written by William K. Everson, a respected film historian and one of the most assertive defenders of silent movies.

This 1964 book is an oversized hardcover (though paperback versions are available). It is completely out of print and the prices are all over the place. I paid $14 for my copy, purchased from a Cinecon vendor. The dust jacket is battered but the contents are in perfect shape. I have seen other copies priced as low as $2 and as high as $120.

I think you can probably get a pretty good copy if you aim for the $8-15 price range. I highly recommend seeking out hardcover as oversized paperbacks tend to pull themselves apart.

What is it?: A book dedicated to movie villains. Rather than organizing it by era or by star, Everson chose to sort it by villain type. So we have a chapter on Master Criminals, one for Psychos, another for Western Outlaws, etc. It is a clever way of sorting the information and makes it easy to read about the type of villain you are interested in.

Sample page
Sample chapter header

Unlike many books of this type, the silent era villains are given equal attention. Everson even goes one better by explaining why some villains were more popular in sound and others reigned in silence.

My to-watch list is bursting at the seams thanks to this book!

Sample page
Sample page

Pictures: Tons of movie stills included, from both silent films and talkies. Each picture is carefully captioned with both the film title and the actors pictured.

Sample page
Sample page

Writing Style: Everson’s opinionated, persnickety prose is another selling point for this book. He takes occasional swipes at 1960’s whippersnappers and their aggressive, unladylike heroines. It’s grand fun to read, especially since his opinions are backed up by an enormous amount of film knowledge.

This book is perfect for reading or browsing. I consider it an essential title on any movie fan’s bookshelf.

Silent Movie Bookshelf: Star Quality by Aurthur F. McClure and Ken D. Jones

I do so love my biographical collections! This one focuses on the stars of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s but since a lot of those talented folks started in the silents, it is a great addition to my bookshelf. I highly recommend it for golden age film buffs as well. Actually, not just buffs. This book would be ideal for a newcomer to classic movie watching.

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Silent Movie Bookshelf: Oh, Doctor! by Harry Leon Wilson

Harry Leon Wilson is not a household name nowadays but back in the ‘teens and twenties he was a popular novelist and many of his books were adapted into movies. His books often featured prissy, emotionally immature heroes who were saved from their plights by spunky young ladies. (You can read my review of Wilson’s most famous novel, Merton of the Movies, here.) Oh, Doctor! was adapted in 1925 by Universal. The film starred Reginald Denny and Mary Astor.

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Silent Movie Bookshelf: The Keystone Kid by Coy Watson, Jr.

If you are a fan of classic films, you have probably seen one of the Watsons in a movie. Mother, father and all nine children were involved in the motion picture industry from the moment it came to California. Coy Watson Jr. was the oldest of the Watson siblings and he made his acting debut in a Keystone comedy at the tender age of nine months! His siblings were (in birth order) Vivian, Gloria, Louise, Harry, Billy, Delmar, Garry and Bobs. Between them, the children appeared in over 1,000 films!

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Silent Movie Bookshelf: The Films of Mary Pickford by Raymond Lee

Anytime you are dealing with an actor from the pre-feature era, a filmography book is essential. Assuming you are a fuddy-duddy who likes dead tree editions. Which I do. I like silent movies, for heaven’s sake!

Anyway, when short films were the rule, it was possible for a performer to star in dozens and dozens of films in a single year, thus the need for the filmography. Mary Pickford made her film debut in 1909 under the direction of D.W. Griffith. She starred in over 125 short films and over 50 features.

What is it?: While it is about the films of Mary Pickford, it is really more of a picture book than anything. I greatly enjoyed my copies of Conrad Veidt On Screen and The Films of William S. Hart (which listed detailed information about the filming conditions, budget, co-stars and provided anecdotes) and was hoping that this book would be the same. This book merely lists the director, cameraman and the main cast with no added details or historical tidbits.

films of mary pickford (4)

Pictures: This is what saves the book from being a total wash-out: the pictures! There are portraits, stills, behind-the -scenes shots. Every page has at least one beautiful photo. Also included are pictures of Pickford later in life, as late as 1961.

films of mary pickford (3)

Writing style: What little writing there is (a brief introduction) is warm and affectionate. The book was published in 1970 and the author had been a Pickford fan since his youth.

films of mary pickford (2)

The book is light on scholarship but heavy on photos. It is a feast for the eyes and worth getting if you can snag a cheap copy.

Silent Movie Bookshelf: Merton of the Movies by Harry Leon Wilson

There’s a pretty good chance that you have never heard of Harry Leon Wilson.  He specialized in light comedic fiction with eccentric characters overwhelmed by everyday life in the early twentieth century. I really hate to make comparisons like this but I have to do it this time because it is the only way to describe Wilson’s style. He is an American P.G. Wodehouse.

Merton of the Movies was published in 1919. It was subsequently adapted into a play and then a film in 1924. The film is unfortunately lost. (Other Wilson books turned into silent movies include Ruggles of Red Gap and Oh, Doctor!)

My copy is a 1923 printing. You can find 1920s editions for fairly low prices. However, since it was published in 1919, it is in the public domain and may be downloaded for free. The version I found is illustrated with scenes from the play. It is also available as a free audio-book courtesy of Librivox.

My copy
My copy

What is it?: Merton Gill is a romantic young man who decides that the movies are the only place for him. Being a complete bumpkin, he stumbles around Hollywood and would probably have starved if he hadn’t run into Flips Montague, a comedienne and stuntwoman. Flips shows Merton the ropes and helps him secure a job in a film. Merton gives his all in a dramatic performance. What he doesn’t know is that his acting is so bad he is unintentionally making an uproarious comedy– and Flips is in on the conspiracy. Will his relationship with Flips survive once he finds out? And will he be able to get that dramatic acting gig that he dreams of? Read the book to see.

merton of the movies book image (3)

Favorite part: I loved the prissy hero who has no idea he is funny. How he views the heroine:

Merton Gill passed on. He confessed now to a reluctant admiration for the Montague girl. She could surely throw a knife. He must practise that himself sometime. He might have stayed to see more of this drama but he was afraid the girl would break out into more of her nonsense. He was aware that she swept him with her eyes as he turned away but he evaded her glance. She was not a person, he thought, that one ought to encourage.

And the marvelous slang that Flips (aka the Montague girl) employs. Here she is complaining about her role:

“Yes, one must suffer for one’s art. Here I got to be a baby-vamp when I’d rather be simple little Madelon, beloved by all in the village.”

But the best part of all is the fun that can be had by a silent film fan. The book is chock full of film references, naturally, and a knowledge of silent movies increases the reader’s enjoyment enormously. It is still a good book if you have never seen a silent movie but you will not get the full experience.

Least favorite part: Can’t think of one.

Merton of the Movies is fun, cheap and easy to get. What are you waiting for?

Silent Movie Bookshelf: Daddy Danced the Charleston by Ruth Corbett

This is not just a book for silent film enthusiasts. Any fan of classic film is going to find a lot to like. But I am getting ahead of myself. Daddy Danced the Charleston is “a nostalgic remembrance of our yesterdays.” In this case, “our” means people who came of age between 1920 and 1950. So this book encompasses the silent era, the pre-Code era and much of the Golden Age as well.

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Silent Movie Bookshelf: The Mark of Zorro by Johnston McCulley

Zorro. The character is almost 100 years old and yet he needs no introduction. California’s very own masked superhero. Righter of wrongs and fan of the basic black ensemble. Zorro’s clothing and trademarks can be described even by people who have never read a Zorro book, seen a Zorro film or watched a Zorro television show.

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Silent Movie Bookshelf: Amateur Movie Making by Herbert McKay

Today I am going to review yet another volume from the New York Institute of Photography’s silent movie how-to series. This book is a little different from the other works reviewed. While the previous books in the series focused on a specific skill (acting, writing, directing, photography), this book teaches the reader how to make an entire silent movie for their own amusement.

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Silent Movie Bookshelf: Motion Picture Photography by Carl Louis Gregory

By now we have covered acting, screenwriting and directing of the silent motion picture. What’s left? The shooting, of course! How were motion pictures photographed during the silent era? This book answers all your questions. In fact, it is by far the most technical (and thickest!) volume in the series.

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Silent Movie Bookshelf: Motion Picture Directing by Peter Milne

So far the 1922 motion picture correspondence course has covered acting and screenwriting. But what about that man (or woman!) with the megaphone? Directing movies also has its own volume in the series and it by far my favorite. The writing is smart and flippant, just the sort of prose to make you feel very 1920-ish indeed.

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