Maybe I am just out of touch but lately there seems to be an upswing in tribalism among silent film fans. What do I mean by this? You’re bopping along, minding your own business, savoring some love for a particular silent era talent when suddenly, the conversation shifts to bashing a perceived rival.
“Alice Guy was a wonderful pioneer… But why are people talking about that Lois Weber person?” or “Harry Langdon? Ha! He was just a Chaplin imitator and neither were anything compared to Buster Keaton.”
I understand the impulse to build up favorites but does it always have to come at the expense of tearing somebody else down or raining on another fan’s parade? Greta Garbo isn’t my favorite but I don’t feel the impulse to invade her fan club headquarters with pro-Marlene Dietrich signs.
Obviously, I am not saying that discussing real conflicts is off limits (for example, William S. Hart’s long legal battles with United Artists) or that we can’t call out genuinely toxic people (D.W. Griffith) or that we have to be Pollyannas all the time. But treating similar silent talents like rival sports teams is immature and exhausting.
I have discussed this topic before and it’s why I still have a Buster Keaton embargo in place. A bit of perspective: very few silent era talents are recognized by name or by photograph these days and so these bizarre attacks are most hurtful to fellow fans. That’s not very nice.
If somebody loves a silent era talent more than I do, I am genuinely delighted that they found an angle for research and viewing. Those Garbo fans are having the time of their lives when a nice edition of one of her films is released and good for them. It would be incredibly boring if we all liked the same stars, directors, studios, films.
I consider myself a reasonably tough critic but when I am wearing my fan hat or my researcher hat, I have pretty much no interest in creating phony rivalries. If someone prefers Ramon Novarro to Rudolph Valentino, that’s fine. And don’t ask me to take sides in the Clara Bow vs. Louise Brooks kerfuffle because I won’t do it. I prefer Bow myself but people who like Brooks better aren’t wrong, they’re just different.
And, again, this problem is extremely limited. It’s fine to compare and contrast talents, it’s fine to review movies with a more severe perspective. I just don’t enjoy all-out attacks on rival factions for daring to state that they enjoy Nazimova’s filmography or something.
Love for one talent is not something that was stolen from another talent and positive education is always better when mistakes have been made. People like to proclaim that Anna May Wong was the first Asian woman movie star in American films, which ignores the earlier contributions and star power of Tsuru Aoki, but bashing the talented Miss Wong isn’t the answer. Instead, sharing love for Aoki, explaining her contributions and talking about her career overlapping with Wong’s is the way to go. Everyone learns, everyone is happy and two wonderful women are given their due.
I am intentionally not naming names or linking or anything like that but if a fan sees praise for a silent era talent and their first impulse is to proclaim that the talent was horrible and so-and-so was better, that’s a bit toxic.