Before I get started, I think a little background is in order. Hopalong Cassidy holds a special place in my family. You see, as a kid, my mom had this:
Hobart Bosworth plays an old lighthouse keeper who has adopted the castaway, Baby Peggy. Local do-gooders are annoyed at his unorthodox parenting but he and little Peggy love one another. However, what will happen when Peggy’s real family comes to claim her? Sweet but never simpering. Heart-warming but never trite. This is family entertainment that the grown-ups can enjoy too. Highly recommended.
Ronald Colman is trying to beat a retreat in Her Night of Romance but a “fainting” Constance Talmadge has a grip on his jacket and she is not letting go!
I have had a few fellow bloggers ask some technical questions of me so I thought it would be fun to do a post all about my movie review method, such as it is.
Are the films that I review new to me or not? About 25% of the time they are. The rest of the time, they are films that I have seen before and filed away as to-be-reviewed. There are a few films that I have seen but do not plan to review for various reasons. However, generally speaking, if I watch it, I will eventually review it.
I always re-watch a film before I write a review. Memories are slippery things and there are always nuances and details that I had forgotten.
I am most likely to review American films of the silent feature period (1915-1929) but I like to step out of my comfort zone for variety. I try to balance my reviews between the famous and the lesser-known.
I usually take notes as I watch (or re-watch) the movie I am reviewing. Silent films take a lot of concentration, though, so most of my notes are 3-5 word reminders to bring out a particular element or to research a topic. For example, while I was reviewing The Bells, my notes were something like this:
Exact shot in Caligari
Research mesmerist role in play
Blood on snow, understated
And so forth.
If the film is based on a novel or play, I like to read the original source material, if it is available. One huge advantage is that most of the books that inspired silent films are in the public domain and are easy to access. Reading the original material gives me insight on what the scenario author was thinking and why they made the decisions that they did. I find that what they leave out is just as interesting as what they keep in. Plus, I have an excuse to read!
I also try to track down information on the making of the film. My best sources for this are autobiographies and interviews. I also look through my collection of scholarly works to see if film historians have insight on how the film was made. I try not to read other reviews of the film until after I have written mine because I don’t want to color my views.
I use WinDVD to capture sample images from films. I consider screen captures to be essential when reviewing silent movies. Silent cinema was such a visual medium and the pictures help the reader enjoy some of the beauties that these films have to offer. Naturally, these images are for the purpose of criticism and commentary.
I also use WinDVD to capture my GIFs and then I edit them in Photoshop. I try to find little moments that really capture the flavor of the film I am reviewing.
Read it out loud
This trick is often overlooked but incredibly valuable. I like to read whatever I write out loud. It helps me to get rid of awkward sentences and typos. It also helps me catch repeated words. Do I still make mistakes? Of course! But reading out loud helps me catch the major ones before I hit the “Publish” button.
Let it rest
I like to let my reviews rest for at least a week before I publish them. I am one of those people who does best with time to sort out thoughts and opinions. The extra rest time allows me to consider my review and to look at it with fresh eyes. Sometimes what seemed like a clever quip was actually a little mean. Sometimes a theme from the film that was not obvious at first becomes clear. Whatever the reason, I think that my reviews benefit from the resting period.
I generally have one month of posts written ahead of time. However, if a sudden whim overtakes me, I revise my schedule to accommodate it.
Status: Missing and presumed lost
Jack Pickford (little brother of Mary) stars with Olive Borden in this gangster film, his final motion picture appearance. With the success of Underworld, all things gangland were popular and profitable. The demand for the genre would, of course, only increase with the coming of sound and the introduction of Cagney, Robinson and Raft, among others.
I am very excited to announce a new feature for the site: After the Silents.
What is it? It will involve brief reviews covering sound movies that feature silent era performers and directors.
I got the idea for this feature in two parts. First, I noticed as I was doing research using sites like IMDB and Wikipedia that one phrase kept cropping up: “One of the few silent era performers to make it into talkies.” I read the phrase in dozens of articles in a row! Now anyone familiar with silent movies and early talkies knows that lots of silent era performers made the jump, albeit sometimes with diminished prestige. This “one of the few” talk may seem like a small issue but it bugged me all the same.
The second part of the idea came when Joey over at The Last Drive In asked me to join her William Castle Blogathon. William Castle, of course, made no silent films but I noticed that he had made quite a few films with actors who had been active in the silents.
Eureka! Why not talk a bit about films that featured former silent actors?
Here are my goals for this new feature:
- Introduce readers to a silent actor whose sound work has been forgotten
- Reacquaint readers with a famous sound-era actor whose silent work has been forgotten
- Help viewers dive into the silents. I think it is much easier for newer viewers of silents to enjoy them if they see one of their favorite sound-era performers.
I plan to keep reviews short and, after a brief review of the overall film, focus on the work of the former silent stars and director. I intend to review films that are either representative of the performer’s sound career or are the most famous sound films that they acted in.
My first after the silents review? Here’s hint:
Actually, this gives the whole game away but enjoy anyway! I will be posting it soon.
Oh, and if you blog, do be sure to sign up for that William Castle blogathon!
Gloria Swanson has a problem. Her husband, Thomas Meighan, has purchased her a negligee! The degenerate! And he listens to fox trot music, if you please! Thomas is soon driven into the waiting arms of Bebe Daniels. Realizing her mistake, Gloria dons designer duds in a bid to win him back. Cecil B. DeMille’s best marital comedy, it is spunky and fast-paced. Excellent performances by all the leads make the film memorable. Worth seeing for Bebe and Gloria’s costumes alone.
Lionel Barrymore is Mathias, a kindly Alsatian innkeeper who is being crushed by debt. Unable to deny his friends loans or his loving daughter small luxuries, Mathias is on the edge of destitution. When a rich man stops briefly at the inn (with a fortune in gold on his person), Mathias drunkenly robs and murders him. All his problems are solved. Except for that little thing called a conscience…
Continue reading “The Bells (1926) A Silent Movie Review”
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!
An author takes a job writing tales for the figures in a wax museum. What could possibly go wrong? Other than being dragged into his own nightmare world, of course.
Norma Talmadge: single girl in the big city. Her bosses think that her duties include… well, let’s just say she has to slap a few of them. An idea! She disguises herself as a frump for her next job.
Status: Held by the Mary Pickford Institute. Most of the sound discs are missing and presumed lost. The film was shown at the 2009 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, to name just one event, but has not been received a legitimate release to the general public.
Murder most foul! This is one movie I think Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Marjorie Allingham would all approve of.
One of Cecil B. DeMille’s famous bedroom comedies. Elliott Dexter is a boor who drives away his wife, Gloria Swanson, by smoking cigars and munching onions.
John Barrymore takes on the double role of the kindly doctor and his horrible alter ego. This adaptation is Stevenson with a pinch of Wilde thrown in for good measure. This was the film that finally made Barrymore a movie star to match his acclaim on the stage. And the makeup! The makeup!
Continue reading “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) A Silent Film Review”
You know when you are going along minding your own business, thinking of cake or butterflies or something, and someone tells you this: It takes more muscles to frown than to smile. This annoys me. I’m sorry but I don’t like my emotions and facial expressions dictated by strangers. And, secondly, I was not frowning. Just thinking about cake or butterflies or something.
I think I will adopt Boris Karloff’s approach. This is from The Bells, in which he plays a combination mesmerist-private detective. Small part but marvelously creepy.
Availability: Released on DVD.
This is an overview of the box set itself. I will be reviewing the films in the set individually at a later date.
What is it?: A box set of five film created by talented Russians who fled the revolution and settled in France. It features three films that star Ivan Mosjoukine, who was enormously popular in Europe and whose French work has never before been widely available to US audiences. (Mosjoukine’s first and only American film, Surrender, was not really the best showcase for his talents.)
Who released it? Flicker Alley
Le Brasier Ardent (The Burning Crucible), 1923
Feu Mathias Pascal (The Late Mathias Pascal), 1925
Les Nouveaux Messieurs, 1928
Packaging: The discs are held in a plastic multi-disc case inside a cardboard slipcover. The set also includes a 28-page color booklet detailing the films and featuring vintage stills and marketing materials. I should note that the discs were loose in their case when they arrived but they were not scratched.
Navigation: Each disc has a simple, easy-to-navigate menu. Nothing fancy (thank goodness!) just functionality.
Music: Each film is scored by a different accompanist. The Burning Crucible by Neil Brand, Kean by Robert Israel, The Late Mathias Pascal by Timothy Brock, Gribiche by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and The New Gentlemen by Antonio Coppola.
Notes: The films are presented with original French intertitles and optional English subtitles.
This box set contains films that have been on the wishlists of movie buffs for some time. I am looking forward to reviewing them.
Availability: Currently available on DVD.
Frank Capra’s first film of many for Columbia Pictures and his trademark optimism-amongst-poverty is already in place. Viola Dana is a tenement beauty determined to marry money. Ralph Graves is a rich wastrel who meets Viola, falls for her and marries her the same night. Everything would be fine except that Ralph’s father disinherits him and Viola is back at square one. What to do? Start a business, of course! Capra’s offering delights with charming script and a brisk pace and the leads are engaging.
Raoul Walsh. You may know him as the director of gangster classics White Heat, The Roaring Twenties and High Sierra. What you may not know is that Walsh’s career had been linked with crime pictures since the very beginning. He directed Regeneration, considered by many to be the first true gangster feature, in 1915. He had only been directing pictures for three years at that point.
Me, Gangster was released during the sound transition and was offered with a synchronized score. The reviews were quite positive. It was based on a book by Charles Francis Coe and it presented itself as the diary of a gangster. The intertitles were even hand-written. I am not usually a fan of diary picture since the narration is often intrusive but I think that the silent format would make this narrative device work quite well.
Leading man Don Terry would find fame in cliffhanger serials, most famously Don Winslow of the Navy. Pre-stardom Carole Lombard has a supporting part as Blonde Rosie.
Photoplay loved the picture:
Here is a picture as sentimental, as melodramatic, as pointedly moral as any picture ever made, yet it is completely absorbing. Raoul Walsh has the knack, possessed by Griffith in his heyday, of making the characters of a sticky story pulse with life.
The picture is outstanding for another and a more important reason. It brings a new player, a very fine, very compelling actor to the screen, one Don Terry, a young college man discovered by the author of the piece, Charles Francis Coe, in the Montmartre Cafe. Terry’s performance stands out as one of the unusual and moving gestures of the cinema. He is not handsome, he is definitely a type, yet there is a rugged charm about him that gives him a niche higher than your sleek haired, amorous puppets.
The story is related in a novel form. It is “The Diary of Me, Gangster” and the subtitles are shown in handwriting, written in the first person. It is the boy’s story, of course, yet there are splendid performances given by June Collyer, who makes the most of a weak role; by Anders Randolf and by Gustav von Seyffertitz. It is an injustice to relate the plot, since it is an ordinary one of the son of a wardheeler who finds that crime doesn’t pay. Such trite phrases as “the straight and narrow path,” “going straight,” etc., are plentiful. But it is the absorbing interest of the prison scenes, the fascinating development of the situations and the absolutely perfect characterization of Terry that make it a splendid contribution to the art of the cinema. It may not touch your heart, except in one prison scene, but it will hold you spellbound.
The New York Times was also lavish in its praise:
Raoul Walsh, producer of the film version of “What Price Glory,” directed “Me, Gangster.” His scenes move compellingly and naturally, but toward the end there are pardonable periods of gun-play and general excitement. It is, however, a chronicle that stresses the futility of a lawless existence and Mr. Walsh points out the desperate chances the gangster takes and stresses that there is precious little honor among thieves.
Motion Picture News was less excited about the film, though it admitted that is was powerful:
Carrying a decorative title which fairly shouts its meaning:, this crook drama gets under way with realistic touches and maintains them through a series of punchy scenes to the very finish. The idea is built up from a sort of diary exploiting the criminal life of a convict from his first days of crookedness until he seeks and finds redemption through the aid of a girl who believes in him.
Not so new, is it ? But it is forcefully presented and sticks to its pattern without trespassing over into sentimental pastures, aside from the necessary romantic interest. The hero is a bad chip of a bad old block and after a series of shady crimes he wins an election to prison. But the girl who loves him exercises her charm and understanding. And the youth’s redemption is effected.
The piece is strongest in its atmosphere, the scenes comprising prison shots, police court sequences, and some tenement tidbits. The story is well told, punctuated with adequate incident and acted competently enough even if the players are not always convincing.
This movie sounds like a pip to me. Plus, you know, Carole Lombard! Check those attics, basements, etc.
Hobart Bosworth is (and this may shock you) a sadistic ship captain. Bessie Love is the little castaway who warms his heart and awakens fatherly feelings. But when the captain discovers that poor Bessie just may be the daughter of his enemy, things start to get mean. Love and Bosworth are delightful in their father-daughter relationship and the seafaring scenes are swell but predictable plot prevents this film from being a classic.
One of the most analyzed silent films. One of the most watched silent films. One of the most famous silent films. What else is there to be said about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? Well, I’m giving it a shot. We’re going to see if we can unravel the mystery of the film’s meaning. A daunting task? Only slightly.
Director D.W. Griffith took a creaky melodrama and… kept it creaky! Lillian Gish is used and tossed aside by a rich creep. She stumbles onto Richard Barthelmess’s farm, where the whole family embraces her with open arms. Then said rich creep shows up. Works surprisingly well thanks to great work from Gish and Barthelmess, as well as one of Griffth’s very best Races to the Rescue™… On Ice! (On tour this winter!)
Status: Complete reconstructed print held by the George Eastman House. There are also prints held by the Library of Congress and the National Archives of Canada.
I first heard of this film in Kevin Brownlow’s marvelous Behind the Mask of Innocence. It is one of the films of director John Collins, a talented artist whose early death from Spanish Influenza deprived the fledgling motion picture industry of one of its potential greats. Collins directed his wife, Viola Dana, in this anti-czarist film, a reasonably common genre at the time.
Brownlow praised Collins for his rapid cross-cutting and sophisticated style. Star Viola Dana recalled the difficulty she had in handling the whip of the title. Tiny, delicate and just nineteen, Dana was universally praised for her performance. The popularity had a downside: she was mobbed by enthusiastic fans during a personal appearance promoting the film.
Moving Picture World provided this synopsis:
A long line of prisoners winds over the snow-covered Russian steppes toward the train which is to carry the unfortunates to Siberia. A band of revolutionists, bent on freeing their brothers from the living death, attack the Cossack guard and in the excitement several prisoners escape. Turov, Prefect of Police, learns of the attack and orders the whole district raided that he may punish the perpetrators of the attack.
In their crude home live Sasha and his daughters, Darya and Katerina. Suddenly the still air is shattered with the blood-curdling yells of the raiding Cossacks. Little Darya is quickly hidden, hut Sasha and Katerina are led before Turov. The father is sent to Siberia. Soon afterward Katerina. robbed of life and honor, creeps back to the little settlement to die, carrying with her the Cossack knout with which she has been flogged.
Over her sister’s body, Darya swears revenge and keeps the Cossack’s whip as a reminder of her vow. Then follows a story of action and power, telling how Darya becomes the favorite dancer of the Imperial Ballet; how she brings the bloodthirsty Turov to her feet and finally accomplishes her revenge; how, at last, she listens to the pleadings of Sergius, a revolutionist and master of the ballet, and how the two of them make their way out of Russia and across the ocean to the great land of liberty and opportunity.
And the review from the same magazine was very positive:
It is not often that a motion picture visually telling of Russian revolutionists and of oppression by the Russian police diverges from a rather tiresome sameness, but this Is done to a considerable extent in “The Cossack Whip,” a five-reel picture produced by Thomas A. Edison, Inc.. for release through K-E-S-E. Good entertainment is furnished by the five reels of this production, and the work of Viola Dana in the leading role is flawless. She plays the part of the youngest member of a Russian household, which is crashed by the police, with a finesse of understanding and sympathy. As the plot develops. Miss Dana’s screen characterization develops with it, but so gradually and so subtly does she change from a simple lass into a revengeful woman that the spectator is forced to feel for her.
The story has been superbly screened, and no little amount of credit is due Director John Collins. Many unusual and novel settings are seen in the film — especially the ballet scenes. Photographically, the production is excellent, and it is evident from a showing of the finished product that director and company worked in harmony.
The players appearing in support of Miss Dana make the story convincing. Richard Tucker pleases in the leading male role. Frank Farrington does commendable work as the superintendent of police, and Sally Crute makes a lovable Mme. Pojeska. Grace Williams, as the sister of the girl, and Bob Walker, as Alexis, both do good work.
Darya, the girl, keeps the scourge with which her sister has been flogged to death. She swears to avenge her sister and her father, and becomes a ballet dancer. She becomes famous in London and, returning to Russia, is entertained by the chief of police. By a clever ruse she gets him to put his hands in the handcuffs which held her sister. She flogs him with the whip used on her sister. The despot is killed by a brother-revolutionist.
Photoplay was happy:
A corking Russian story evidently made some time ago by Edison, but released only a few weeks since. It has vigor, action, speed, suspense and fine heart interest. Viola Dana plays the chief role.
John Collins has a high reputation among film scholars but most of his films are not made available to the general public. It is high time that we be given a peek at his work.
Raised as a boy aboard ship, Leatrice Joy feels it is high time to get a fella. Armed with magazine relationship advice, she goes ashore and sets her cap at the first man she sees, William Boyd. He is annoyed by the over-eager Leatrice and rebuffs her. Leatrice shanghais him and soon he is beginning to think this kidnapping thing is not so bad. Boyd and Joy are a delight in this breezy adventure-comedy.
Pastor Lionel Barrymore receives a strange mission from a parishioner (the wife of the town miser) who has recently passed away: He is to take the money she has left and buy her daughter, Mary Pickford, little luxuries that she has been denied. The Pastor starts by buying Mary a pricey hat from New York. Little does he know that this kindness will start a frenzy of gossip.
The number of lost films from the silent era is enough to make a film fan weep. If you have been reading my Lost Film Files series, you will see that the missing films are not just small, obscure productions. No, the missing films include works from top stars, directors and studios. These were big hits, some of them considered the best films of the year.
Some movies were lost through neglect and decay, others were purposely destroyed. Nitrate film is flammable and a great many films have been lost to fire.
Let’s consider a few questions that commonly crop up when discussing lost films.
How many silent films are lost?
The definitive answer is we don’t know. Some sources put the amount as high as 90%. However, it is impossible to prove that something doesn’t exist. If no archive or collector claims ownership of a film print, then we can assume that no copies of the film exist. However, archive catalogs are not perfect and not every private collector shares their treasures.
Further muddying the waters is the misinformation spread about silent films. Two movies with similar names can be confused. Historians may misremember a viewing experience. There have even been instances of IMDB reviewers allegedly pretending have seen lost films (using information culled from contemporary reviews) and of elaborate hoaxes claiming that long-lost films have been found.
Big name films are hard enough to find information about. Smaller, more obscure films can be well nigh impossible to track down. So, in short, it is quite possible that a “lost film” is actually in existence somewhere waiting to be rediscovered.
Here are some common questions that crop up around lost films.
What is nitrate film?
It’s a word that keeps getting thrown around whenever the subject of lost films is discussed. Nitrocellulose film was first produced by Kodak in 1889 and was used for movies until the early 50’s. What is it about nitrate film that makes it so significant?
It’s flammable: As you can see from the video above, nitrate film is extremely dangerous. Nitrate fires are responsible for many lost films and, in some tragic cases, lost lives. Fires were often caused by candles, matches, cigarettes and electrical shorts but nitrate film can also spontaneously combust.
It decays: Nitrate film is chemically unstable and, in extreme cases of decay, films can be reduced to dust.
It’s difficult to store: Theda Bara and Hobart Bosworth, among others, kept personal collections of their films. In both cases, incorrect storage conditions meant the irreplaceable collections were lost to decay.
Kodak has a very detailed article on nitrate film storage. A sample:
“Never store any nitrate base materials in sealed containers or without ventilation. Such dead storage simply increases the rate of decomposition. Pack the reels loosely in ventilated metal boxes or cabinets, and store them in a room apart from all other photographic materials. Do not let the storage area temperature exceed 21°C (70°F). If you achieve a lower temperature without increasing relative humidity above 45 percent, that s even better. Relative humidity below 40 percent retards decomposition even more, but makes the film more brittle.”
Why would studios purposely destroy their own films?
Seems strange, doesn’t it? The best way I can explain it is the story I hear again and again. I’m sure you’ve heard it too:
“I had a complete collection of (Superman comics/Original Star Wars action figures/Barbie dolls in their packaging/name your collectible) in the basement but my mom threw them away when I went to college. Do you know how much they would be worth now?”
The movie studios are mom. Nitrate film is flammable and expensive to store. Plus, a small amount of money could be made from recovering the silver out of film. Talkies were the wave of the future and surely no one would want to see those creaky old silents. Why not make room in the vaults and recycle the old stuff? Film preservationist Robert A. Harris stated that while nitrate decay was responsible for some lost films, “most of the early films did not survive because of wholesale junking by the studios.”
However, as Kevin Brownlow brings out in his introduction to the book Silent Movies, these same studios are more than willing to claim any and all copyrights and royalties on the very films they tried to destroy.
How are lost films rediscovered?
Quite a few lost films have been found, I am happy to say! I am just going to share four case studies that illustrate the different ways a film can be rediscovered.
Oh, that’s where they were
Sometimes archives have copies of films and either have not cataloged them, or have not shared their catalogs. In this case, ten American silent films were in the collection of Gosfilmofond, the Russian state film archive. The Russians graciously presented copies of the films to the Library of Congress.
In the case of archives, it is usually lack of budget, unintentional oversight or political climate that prevents their contents from being publicized. What about private collectors? I am speculating here but perhaps private collectors conceal their films in order to keep their treasures to themselves or to bask in the knowledge that they own the only copy of something. Or they may simply not be interested in cataloging their collections.
And maybe grandma just really needs to clean her attic and consult an expert before selling that old film can on eBay.
Eureka! Beyond the Rocks
For years, Beyond the Rocks was a tantalizing mystery to film fans. The one and only screen collaboration of Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino? Who wouldn’t want to see that? Sadly, it was missing and presumed lost.
When a private collector died and left his large collection to Nederlands Filmmuseum, the museum staff began to go through the films hoping to find lost Dutch movies. They stumbled on one reel of Beyond the Rocks but did not know what the had until they researched the name of the heroine.
This is the kind of story silent film fans daydream about. Getting a stack of nitrate and discovering those intriguing titles that had been out of reach for too long.
Piece by piece, The Sea Hawk
There was no eureka! moment for The Sea Hawk, just lots of hard work. The Library of Congress had a partial print of the film but pieces, including the justly famous battle scenes, were missing. The missing footage had to be tracked down (in Russia, the Czech Republic and from a private collector) and the entire film restored. TCM provided the money and UCLA provided the know-how. The result was absolutely worth it. However, think of how many fragmented films just waiting for the same treatment. This work does not come cheap and tough decisions have to be made.
The last few feet, Metropolis
Metropolis has been a bit lost since it was released. Oh, most of the film existed but not the director-approved version that Fritz Lang released in 1927, which was hacked down almost immediately after the movie premiered. There were restorations (which filled the gaps with stills and title cards) but that last bit of footage seemed to elude historians.
We owe a large debt of gratitude to Fernando Peña, who heard rumors that the missing footage was being held in Argentinian archives and did not give up until he found it.
Gloria Swanson’s film Sadie Thompson is also famously incomplete, missing its final reel. Here’s hoping that there is another intrepid historian on the verge of discovery.
The good news is that mass communication and revival of interest in pre-sound films has meant more attention toward film preservation. Some are even taking matters into their own hands.
For example, silent film accompanist Ben Model launched a successful Kickstarter fundraiser for a project he is calling Accidentally Preserved. He raised funds to transfer and score 16mm prints of rare and presumed-lost silent films from his personal collection. He has made several films available on Youtube.
I especially love that this project focuses on rarer films that may never have gotten any attention otherwise.
So, the story of lost films is sad but there is a hint of a happy ending. Keep searching those vaults, buying those old film cans on eBay and using the power of the internet to share films that are lost and found.
Lillian Gish was one of the staunchest defenders of silent films in general and D.W. Griffith in particular. Her interviews and recollections are woven into almost every book and documentary that covers the early American motion picture industry. However, she was a fiercely private person who carefully curated her public image. Charles Affron proposes to go where no biographer has gone before: to find the woman behind the legend.
At least that was the idea. For me, mixed results.
What is it? An attempt to get under the skin of Lillian Gish. Affron uses Gish’s personal papers, as well as autobiographies of fellow actors, contemporary interviews, fan magazines, scholarly works and Gish’s films.
What works: There is no doubt that the book is well-researched. Affron is able to bring out nuances of Gish’s personality from forgotten information, redacted sections of letters and long-buried interviews.
For example, Lillian Gish was stuck playing a wire-flying fairy in a Belasco stage production in New York. Her sister, Dorothy, was in California making films. A stage accident resulting in Gish being dropped six feet and scaring her out of her wits. Considering what happened to the cast of Spiderman, I think that is understandable. Meanwhile, she had been offered a handsome salary to make motion pictures in California.
Let’s see, stay in New York to be lifted around on dangerous rigging for a bit part or go to California for more money and be able to join her beloved mother and sister… Hmm…
Gish wrote to her best friend with a description of the events:
“But as I am offered more money with the Biograph and the three of us can be together I think it is better for me to play sick here and go out there, now don’t you think so?”
Gish later redacted this part of the letter when it was published in a biographical series. I enjoyed this glimpse at a young Lillian Gish, more than a little sheepish at her subterfuge.
What doesn’t work: This is where things get a little sticky for me. I understand the desire to debunk the legends and self-aggrandization that, frankly, crop up around most major stars. However, Affron takes this to extremes. Every tiny misremebered detail, every exaggeration, every small inconstancy is dragged out and paraded. Should biographies be honest? Of course. Should biographers try their best to get to the truth? Naturally. Was Lillian Gish perfect? No, not at all. However, I felt that Affron’s approach was ham-fisted. Let me give you an example of what I mean:
At the start of chapter 8, Affron describes a car accident in which Dorothy Gish was struck by a car, dragged 40 feet and had to have one of her toes amputated. He then goes on (in the same paragraph) to debunk Lillian Gish’s claim that this accident prevented Dorothy from being in Birth of a Nation. And I was still thinking “Dorothy was dragged 40 feet and lost her toe? Dorothy was dragged 40 feet and lost her toe?!” What was Lillian’s reaction to her little sister’s accident? What did their mother say? Who nursed her? No information? None at all? Just more debunking? Sheesh.
Let me be clear, I am all for setting the record straight in historical matters but this just seems a little mean.
I also noticed Affron’s tendency to accentuate negative comments about Gish and bury more positive words. For example, he quotes liberally from Miriam Cooper’s bitter autobiography, Dark Lady of the Silents, which I had recently read. All of Cooper’s negative words about Gish are quoted verbatim. Her positive recollections, on the other hand, are paraphrased and placed at the very end of the chapter. Is this the truth? Technically. Is it really very honest to the reader? I don’t think so.
Tanner Colby, biographer of the late John Belushi, had an interesting observation about Bob Woodward’s book on Belushi, Wired.
“I say it’s like someone wrote a biography of Michael Jordan in which all the stats and scores are correct, but you come away with the impression that Michael Jordan wasn’t very good at playing basketball.”
I think that applies very well in this case.
Is this a bad book? Not really. Is it a fair book? Again, not really. I read it. It had some enjoyable passages. And Gish’s blind defense of D.W. Griffith’s obvious racism needed a bit of debunking. However, there is a mean-spiritedness to this biography that prevents it from being an entirely pleasant reading experience.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lillian Gish is a Virginia belle who moves to Texas and slowly begins to lose her mind due to, you guessed it, the wind.