Welcome to part two of my series on silent movie research and the various pitfalls. Last time, we took a look at the movie stars. This time we are going to be talking about professionals who really should know better: film historians and professional biographers. People who get paid to get things right.
It’s one thing for the stars and directors to play fast and loose with the facts. When film historians blindly believe them, though, we are really in a pickle. You see, building theories around questionable narratives is a recipe for disaster. And some historians get me so riled up that… well, I am tempted to make use of my ukulele.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
First of all, here are just a few of the more common types of silent film books:
Conversations: Usually a collection of interviews with the subject. While some may have introductory remarks about their subjects, many do not. These are just raw reminisces. May or may not be edited for content, grammar or other concerns.
Biographies: Just that.
Biographical Collections: Sometimes, very little information is available about a silent film personality. Or, perhaps, they are not big enough stars to carry an entire book. Biographical collections contain mini-bios on numerous stars. Quite valuable.
Filmographies: My personal favorite! These books focus on the films of their subject and everything is filtered through that lens.
Histories: Less about people, more about events.
Pictorials: Light on words, heavy on pictures.
Get a life: Books that promise scandal and sizzling details. I hate these things with a passion because, given the choice between the truth and a juicy lie, these sort of books take the lie every single time. Silent fans are still doing damage control for Hollywood Babylon.
Obviously, the last type is unworthy of our notice. We will be focusing on respectable books, which can actually be more dangerous to the historical narrative.
So, you have a silent movie book and you want to know if it is a keeper.
Here are some important questions to ask as you read:
Does the author appear to hate their subject? Does the author appear to be blinded by love for their subject? (Either case makes for a slanted book.)
Does the author present new details but neglects to share their sources for these details? Were they granted or denied access to their subject’s papers? Were they granted or denied interviews with the subject’s close friends or family?
Does the author feel the need to constantly bring up a female subject’s weight? Are there other signs of sexism? Is there too much focus on alleged love affairs? Do the accounts of love affairs smack of wish fulfillment or fan fiction? Is the promise of salacious details prominently featured on the cover?
Does the author take quotes out of context? Do their sources actually back up what they say? It is shockingly common to look up a cited source and then discover that it either does not support the author at all or it seems to have been deliberately twisted to fit the narrative.
Who are the author’s sources? Are they reliable? For example, I am always deeply suspicious of books that unquestioningly quote choreographer Agnes de Mille on the subject of her Uncle Cecil. She is witty, clever, charming but we must also remember that her uncle fired her from one of his pictures when she was a young woman (they were simply too much alike) and it was a mortifying experience. That colors the narrative a bit.
Does the author impute motives without supporting evidence? What words does the author use to describe their subject? Do they shade their terminology to make their subject look better or worse? Do their choices of words affect the narrative?
For example, William S. Hart: Projecting the American West by Ronald L. Davis discusses Hart’s war with United Artists. The author describes Hart as “whining” about the mishandling of his final film, Tumbleweeds. That word is significant as it shows considerable antipathy on the part of the author toward his subject. A sympathetic figure will complain, be embittered, protest or even grumble. But whine? The word choice says more about the author’s attitude toward Mr. Hart than Mr. Hart himself. Pay attention to the wording.
And remember, blindly believing a first-hand account can lead to all sorts of trouble. Last time we talked about Eleanor Boardman’s almost-certainly fictional account of John Gilbert slugging Louis B. Mayer and Mayer vowing revenge. (While donning the One Ring or building a Death Star, no doubt. So many historians like to cast Mayer as a melodramatic villain.) We have already shown that this account is suspect. But what if a historian based a theory on it? Too late. Some already have.
But now that the supposed catalyst for Mayer’s hostility toward Gilbert has evaporated, where does that leave the elaborate narrative of MGM exec’s grudge? It’s true that Mayer did not like Gilbert at all but the reasons were considerably more complex than this cartoonish narrative would suggest. Back to the drawing board. (Once again, I encourage everyone to read Scott Eyman’s Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer.)
Another objectionable attitude is the sense of entitlement that some historians have toward their subjects. They ask for an interview, are granted one and then expect their subject to spill their guts. The stars and directors have a right to share as much or as little as they choose. Would it be easier for future historians if their subjects told all? Of course. But the interviewers have no right to sneer or look down on people who refuse to kiss and tell. No one owes anyone else complete access to their life.
The author has enormous power over their narrative, never forget that. Anthony Slide’s book, Silent Players: A Biographical and Autobiographical Study of 100 Silent Film Actors and Actresses, is one example of this power, don’t let the bland title fool you. While Slide deserved props for tracking down and interviewing numerous forgotten stars, his asides are colored by his personal interactions. He spends considerable time praising minor starlet Mary Brian while aiming barbs Lillian Gish, Viola Dana, Mary Philbin and other popular players.
Slide’s basic philosophy for the book seems to have been “if you can’t say anything nice, come right here and sit by me.” Gish and Philbin declined to do so and are deemed “irritating” and “dull” respectively. Dana told all but is still damned by faint praise. Her tears for her long-dead lover, stunt pilot Ormer Locklear, are labeled a “great performance”.
While there were some rare interviews and interesting details, I came out of the book feeling like I had just witnessed a cruel joke being played on a room full of senior citizens. Calling out performers on fibs is fine but it should be handled with tact. Unnecessary spite is never tasteful.
The problem with all of this is that once a book is in print, it is used as a source for other books, as well as online resources. This problem has cropped up with Marion Meade’s biography, Buster Keaton: Cut To The Chase. Without going into too much detail (there isn’t time) just let me say that Meade’s bizarre theories and suspect “facts” are still causing damage to Keaton’s reputation as her work is sourced by numerous other authors. I spent untold hours and thousands of words cleaning up the nonsense she spread about The Frozen North—and that represented just a few paragraphs from her book!
In conclusion, if a book sets off your warning bells, there’s probably a reason. If something seems fishy, try to track down the original sources and see if they are reliable and if they support the narrative. Sadly, a good number of books on the silent era and its stars simply cannot be trusted.