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.

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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.

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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.

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11 Comments

  1. Michael Kuzmanovski

    So many silent stars were still alive when this book was published. I wonder what they would’ve thought of Mr. MacGowan’s dismissal of their work? There were directors still working too. Can you imagine a pissed off John Ford punching the author’s lights out?

    The sad thing is, a lot of people would’ve agreed with this book. I imagine that most silents that people saw back then were clips of Chaplin and the Keystone Cops run at the wrong speed. Maybe Douglas Fairbanks’ Zorro jumping from a balcony and Valentino as The Sheik.

    We’re very lucky to have all the silent movies and better film scholarship that we do today.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Yes, silents really got a raw deal with bad music and the wrong speed.

      One of the saddest parts of The Parade’s Gone By is where Kevin Brownlow arranges a screening for Reginald Denny’s silent comedies and Denny is actually shocked at how good they still were. Years of people snickering at silents made him doubt his own films, poor man. Fortunately, the enthusiastic reception brightened his spirits.

  2. Emily

    Ugh, his smugness reminds me of Debbie Reynolds’ character in Singin in the Rain who asserts that real actors use their voices as she proceeds to mock pantomime. What a waste of paper!

  3. MIB

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

    These would be the same silent film actors who cut their teeth on the stage where they are required to….um….use their voices to “convey emotion through words” perhaps?

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Yes, because clearly Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Conrad Veidt and Francis X Bushman never set foot on the stage. And actors like Gary Cooper, Greta Garbo and Myrna Loy all managed to do just fine with their “untrained” voices.

      The author deserves to be smacked.

      1. MIB

        I believe there were also a couple of sisters who trod the boards before making their mark on cinema you may have overlooked there…. 😉

  4. Leah

    The bit about how silent film acting was always pantomime just confuses me. I understand that silent films weren’t as available as they are now, but if he took a look at some of the performances of Conrad Veidt, Lillian Gish, or even Sessue Hayakawa his claim would be stomped to the ground.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Indeed, the silent era was jam-packed with brilliant performances. Plus, as studio executive, MacGowan would have had access to nearly any silent film from the archives. In fact, he would have been able to view films that were subsequently lost in vault fires. His ignorance is unforgivable.

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