Welcome to part three of my series on silent movie research. Previously, we discussed movies stars and film historians. This time, we will be discussing bloggers and user-edited sites like IMDB and Wikipedia.
Yep, we’re part of the problem.
See, the great advantage of the internet is that anyone can start up a blog. The great disadvantage is that anyone can start up a blog. Add to that the well-known content and reliability issues with Wikipedia and the not-so-well-known reliability issues with IMDB and we have a mess of misinformation about silent and classic Hollywood. (IMDB is mostly comprised of user-generated content, just like Wikipedia. Really, truly.)
IMDB: Not so good if you’re dead
You see, if we read interviews or history books with an uncritical eye and then use dubious knowledge to add to sites like IMDB and Wikipedia, we can do enormous damage. Even worse is when someone jumps to a crazy conclusion and then spreads it all over the internet.
IMDB has been responsible for quite a few of these messes. Basically, they really only seem to vet birth and death dates (I had to produce a sworn affidavit from Elliott Dexter’s aunt before they corrected his date of birth. They had been off by nine years.)
See, living actors usually keep an eye on their IMDB profile (or should) and so there is a much lower chance of weird or nasty stuff gaining traction. Dead performers, especially obscure ones, are much more vulnerable to bad information being added. Please note that this information is not always malicious. Sometimes, people I assume to be overzealous descendants take it upon themselves to gild their grandma or grandpa’s IMDB profile. However, well intended or not, this still is spreading false information.
Would you like a cautionary tale? Let’s use the example of Jetta Goudal. A fiery and difficult performer, the pronunciation of her name has stymied some and so a helpful pronunciation key was introduced: ZHETT-ə. It means that the ZH is pronounced like the s in treasure and the last vowel is pronounced as an E as in red. Just say the car name with a softer J sound and you’re good. (This is per the Library of Congress, which is a pretty darn good source. They even provide a pronunciation key in plain English.)
I know, I know, you knew that already. Well, someone clearly did not. They apparently saw the ZH and, realizing that the letter combination is unusual, decided that it had two syllables. Someone then changed Miss Goudal’s IMDB profile to say that her name is pronounced ZAH-HETTA. Before you could say “d’oh!” the pronunciation spread across the interwebs. ZAH-HETTA? For zah-heaven’s sake!
(I changed the IMDB profile back, don’t worry.)
So, be extremely cautious of claims that are not backed up, especially if they seem shady. (Name a single language that pronounces the letter “J” as ZAH-HE with two syllables and I will eat my hat. The one with the giant bow on it.)
Check the sources and then check the sources of the sources
Sometimes, people cite sources that are unreliable or that do not actually back them up. If meant maliciously, they are fairly safe in doing this because not many people bother tracking them down. If meant innocently, it causes the same amount of damage. For more outrageous claims, fact checking is essential.
For example, I have run across some truly strange conspiracy theories claiming that Woodrow Wilson murdered Florence La Badie by having the brakes of her car tampered with. Wikipedia has edited La Badie’s page to remove all mention of the Wilson affair but it still cites Stardust and Shadows by Charles Foster, which is the primary source of this theory. This book does not have a bibliography, list of citations or other basic elements one would expect in a work of film history.
Basically, the accusations of murder are based on the facts (or “facts”). Fact! La Badie was said to be recovering but then died from her injuries. This is hardly surprising. Politicians and celebrities often refuse to disclose their health status and downplay serious injuries or illnesses. Plus, this was the pre-antibiotic era. Secondary infections were more to be feared than the initial injury. Fact! Mary Pickford did not wish to speak of the death of her friend. Again, no shock there. Fact! La Badie’s car was missing from the garage. But how do we know it was missing? Her family never reported the loss. Or perhaps the garage workers sold it for scrap. In any case, no sources are provided.
Much is made of the “mystery man” who was riding with La Badie and who was thrown (or jumped) from the car when the accident occurred. But I always understood that the man’s identity was no mystery. He was her fiancé, Daniel Carson Goodman. Keep in mind, the car almost certainly had no seatbelts. It would have been surprising if Goodman hadn’t been thrown. La Badie certainly was.
The smoking gun of the tale, though, is the testimony of James Baird, a reporter who was seventeen at the time of the accident but who only shared his recollections at the age of ninety-three. He claimed to see the cut brake lines but that his story was spiked.
That’s the evidence? A teenager (who was not an auto mechanic) thought he saw tampering on a vehicle? Who was annoyed that his big story was killed and then went on a research campaign to prove La Badie had Wilson’s secret love child? A campaign, by his reckoning, that lasted over a decade. Because he heard it from La Badie’s maid that she had a baby? After pestering her for weeks and weeks?
Just to remind everyone, we now have three levels of hearsay. Foster quoting Baird quoting an unnamed maid. The baby’s birth supposedly occurred in September of 1915 but, what’s this, here is a very unpregnant La Badie in a film released in late June of that year. Again, I must emphasize that no footnotes or endnotes are provided. That’s pretty gutsy if someone is implying that a nation’s president put out a hit on an actress. Constance Talmadge, for one, is horrified:
(I must also note that this theory is not so much as mentioned in the Wilson biographies that I have looked at. Wilson is, along with both Roosevelts, one of the most recognized, controversial and influential presidents of the first half of the twentieth century. Evidence of murder would be kind of a big deal.)
Until someone can come up with better sourcing than Stardust and Shadows, I am calling baloney on the whole thing. Especially since Foster also manages to get La Badie’s birth date wrong. Nope, nope. Not having it.
Update: I found this absolutely smashing takedown of Foster’s theory. Give it a read. Lots of details. It clarified a lot of details and I have amended the article to reflect these changes. Also, in light of the fact that this theory has gained some currency online (though, thankfully, not on IMDB or Wikipedia) I am working on an epic post aimed at ruthlessly debunking this nonsense.
For pity’s sake, open a book once in a while. Open two!
There are entirely too many blogs that write actor bios in the following manner: Read the Wikipedia entry! Read the IMDB entry! Google search for images! Write the bio! Done! Or, worse, the blogger relies on just one written source. It is a rare book that tells the whole story on anything.
Obviously, we all make mistakes and there are times when we all have failed to trace a source or relied on dubious material. I have certainly been guilty before and I shall doubtless be guilty again. However, there is a big difference between an occasional mistake (which we all commit) and irredeemably sloppy research practices. If a blog makes a clear habit of intellectual shoddiness, you would be better off getting your information elsewhere.
And don’t believe picture captions either.
We have had Hobart Bosworth mistaken for Paul Leni (for a while on Google’s bio capsule!)
Update: It seems that the confusion started because this photo is from The Chinese Parrot, which was directed by Paul Leni and featured Bosworth. Please people, read the whole caption! Bosworth is no more Paul Leni than Anna May Wong is.
We have had Bebe Daniels labeled as Mary Pickford. (Mary has sure grown! Those vitamins are doing wonders)
And here is another picture, purported to be Mary on her wedding day, which was listed as such by Getty Images. (They have since corrected the caption.) The photo was used in a Buzzfeed article on vintage weddings. Hoo boy. If you know who this actress is, please let me know.
Not even going to bother.
Then there are the bloggers who just do not care. For example, I ran across a gem in which the author admits that they did not actually watch the film that closely. (For the sake of argument, let’s pretend it was Pandora’s Box. It was not Pandora’s Box. Circumstances have been changed to protect the woefully ignorant.) In fact, they put on the film and did other things as it played. Not having actually seen the film, however, did not stop them from having an opinion and that opinion is not positive and it was so boring and Louise Brooks has no personality and who, like, watches silent movies anyway. Ah. Okay. Got it.
Then, they complained about silent movies being silent. Yes, they were watching a mute bootleg copy of Pandora’s Box.
Hint for people who want to write about silent films for the first time: you might want to see an actual video release and not a pirated copy posted to the internet. Seeing a silent movie of shady pedigree and complaining about the lack of music just reveals that you have no idea what you are talking about. It would be like me watching a, shaky, faded bootleg copy of, say, The Dark Knight that was dubbed in a foreign language and declaring it is a terrible movie because I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying.
But let us move on to more pressing matters.
Lost or not?
We have unintentional misinformation and intellectual slovenliness. But what about the other kind? Intentional spread of misinformation. That happens? I’m afraid so.
There have been infamous cases of IMDB reviewers apparently pretending to have seen lost films and writing “reviews” of them. It has caused no end of headache, believe you me.
F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre, as he called himself, is probably the most famous of these lost film reviewers. A science fiction author and movie lover, MacIntyre killed himself by setting fire to his New York apartment in 2010.
At the time of his death, MacIntyre had already earned a reputation within the silent film community for reviewing lost films on IMDB and then coyly refusing to state specifics as to who held the prints. In the aftermath of his suicide, there was something of an edit war on Wikipedia, with the pro-MacIntyre forces claiming there was “no evidence” that his IMDB reviews were spurious. The fight was on.
I usually prefer to deal with abstract arguments rather than calling out authors and bloggers by name, especially when they are not alive to defend themselves. In this case, though, it is unavoidable. I have been dealing with the fallout of his reviews for quite some time and I know I am not alone. Readers keep asking for details on lost films that he claimed were not lost at all. While I do not wish to speak ill of the dead, I do feel that the record must be fixed.
I treat MacIntyre’s reviews with skepticism. I base this on my own experience viewing films that were released on DVD well after he reviewed them, in most cases after his death. MacIntyre has over 1,000 reviews posted on IMDB and not all are for lost films. Some are for newer movies, while others concern silent films that were known to survive but had not received home media release. This latter type is what I will be discussing. For the purpose of brevity, I will limit myself to two of them.
MacIntyre reviewed Reginald Denny’s 1925 vehicle Oh Doctor! but mangled the plot badly. He claimed that Denny’s character had made a deal with corrupt money lenders who then try to arrange for his death, in spite of being promised a generous payout if he lives out the year. MacIntyre is quick to jump on this plot hole. Actually, the central story relies on one joke: Denny becomes a daredevil and the money lenders are terrified he will die as he means to sign his future inheritance over to them. At no point do they try to kill him or get him to kill himself. Quite the opposite. This is the key to the film’s plot and I highly doubt that anyone who had really seen the picture would fail to remember this important fact. (It was released on DVD in 2011.)
Second, MacIntyre reviewed Edward S. Sloman’s melodrama, Surrender. This one is even more glaring as our reviewer claims that the heroine is strangled by her father in the end. While that was the climax of the stage play upon which the film was based, the movie was given a Hollywood happy ending and an egregious one at that. MacIntyre remembers details like how Mary Philbin’s irises looked in close-up and exactly what brand of romance novel the intertitles resembled. He also is rather specific on how frail the father looked to be strangling his daughter. So many details but he forgot that no strangulation actually took place? Hmm. Also odd is his focus on Mary Philbin but no mention of leading man Ivan Mosjoukine, who is featured prominently in every other legitimate review of the film. (It was released on DVD in 2012.)
Case rested. No more Miss Nice Blogger.
After examining the evidence for this pair of films, as well as several others, I feel it is highly probable that MacIntyre’s reviews were written by someone who had never seen the films in question but had cobbled together the reviews from contemporary accounts and advertisements. There are just too many unexplainable mistakes even for films viewed years before. Of course, it is impossible to prove a negative. My opinion is based on my personal viewing experiences.
Again, I would not get worked up about MacIntyre’s hobby if it did not cause so much damage. Newcomers to silent film are invariably confused when they see detailed reviews of films purported to be lost. Authors and researchers may repeat his errors. It has caused something of a headache for the rest of us.
So, basically, trust no one?
In conclusion, it is important to apply the same fact-finding questions to blogs that you do to history books and interview subjects. The most important questions to ask:
Does the blog’s author have an agenda? What is it? (Not all agendas are bad. If a blog’s agenda is to increase awareness of, say, Chinese cinema of the 1930s, I would call that a worthy cause.)
How does the blog’s author describe stars and directors? Does their choice of words give away a bias that may render their research unusable? (It’s okay to have an opinion, that’s the point of a blog, that’s what makes for good reading. However, if an author seems to be obsessed with proving that Mary Astor was a KGB spy and starts every review with “Mary Astor, noted KGB spy…” that is a red flag.)
How do they discuss authors whose work they disagree with? Do they explain their objections? Do they seem to enjoy creating drama or starting fights? Does the author claim to have information that “they” don’t want you to know about? (“They” being the all-powerful cabal of movie critics and film historians. Gotta watch out for them.)
Do they rely heavily on debunked claims or user-edited online content? Contrariwise, do they aim to debunk popular wisdom about the silent era but do not offer their sources? Is their evidence weak or based on wishful thinking? Do they present their theories as fact?
Using unsourced blogs, Wikipedia or IMDB as your research library is a recipe for disaster. Please, please, please, research before you hit the publish button.
In conclusion, you as a blogger have a decision to make. You can be a historian or you can be a Yenta. If you choose to be a Yenta, don’t whine if you are treated like one.