A Year in Books/Day 181: Legends of the Silent Screen

  • Title: Legends of the Silent Screen A Collection of U.S. Postage Stamps
  • Authors: Charles Champlin and Linda Klinger (for the United States Postal Service)
  • Year Published: 1994 (U.S. Postal Service)
  • Year Purchased: 1994
  • Source: This was a gift from my mom, received after some pleading on my part.
  • About: In 1994, the U.S. Postal Service released a set of stamps commemorating ten of the silent screen’s greatest stars (which was, itself, part of a larger series dedicated to entertainers). This book was published as a companion piece, but is good enough to stand on its own merits. The detailed individual biographies are underpinned by amazing photographs and a time-line of the first 100 years of American film history. It’s a handsome volume, and the Al Hirschfeld caricatures commissioned for the stamps render the subjects instantly recognizable. The stars covered in this volume are: Rudolph Valentino; Clara Bow; Charlie Chaplin; Lon Chaney; John Gilbert; ZaSu Pitts; Theda Bara; the Keystone Cops; Harold Lloyd; and Buster Keaton.
  • Motivation: I was already totally captivated with silent films, even at a relatively young age.
  • Times Read: A few
  • Random Excerpt/Page 39: “Film historians note that (Theda) Bara’s producer actually cast her in quite a few sympathetic-not evil-roles, knowing that after her vamp image had been accepted, the public would continue to read treachery into all her characters, regardless of their motivations.”
  • Happiness Scale: 10

    Bara in the title role as Cleopatra (1917)

    Bara in the title role as Cleopatra (1917) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Year in Books/Day 150: Classics of the Silent Screen

  • Title: Classics of the Silent Screen A Pictorial Treasury
  • Author: Joe Franklin
  • Year Published: 1959 (Cadillac Publishing Co., Inc.)
  • Year Purchased: 1990s
  • Source: Antique Barn at the Ohio State Fair
  • About: When this book was published in 1959, silent movies could still be glimpsed in the cultural rear view mirror. The childhood memories of those over 35 would likely have included going to the movies before talkies existed, when the only noise in the theatre came from the accompanying orchestra or fellow patrons’ coughing and munching. Classics of the Silent Screen is split into two parts, with the first half devoted to Fifty Great Films and the second to Seventy-Five Great Stars. The variety of  films and performers is more interesting than the standard roll call usually found in contemporary studies, as the fame of silent movies and their stars has dropped considerably in the last five decades. Franklin is  both a solid film scholar and an unabashedly passionate fan-the ideal combination for a movie writer. The stills that adorn the text are priceless, and add greatly to the book’s appeal. It is well worth the effort to track this one down.

    Betty Bronson

    Betty Bronson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Motivation: When I bought this book, I hadn’t started writing about silent movies. I was just a young old movie fan turned theatre student, still in the early stages of learning everything I could on the subject. This was one of the first volumes on silent cinema I owned.
  • Times Read: 4 or 5
  • Random Excerpt/Page 72: “Even Peter Pan seemed almost ordinary by comparison when, the following year, director Brenon and star Bronson teamed again to make this second adaptation from Barrie. One of the loveliest and most poignant films ever screened, it was, sad to relate, a flop at the box office-putting an immediate end to further follow-ups.”
  • Happiness Scale: 10

A Year in Books/Day 141: Silent Players

  • Title: Silent Players A Biographical and Autobiographical Study of 100 Silent Film Actors and Actresses
  • Author: Anthony Slide
  • Year Published: 2002 (The University Press of Kentucky)
  • Year Purchased: 2010
  • Source: Half Price Books
  • About: Most of the stars profiled in this book were forgotten within a few years of the end of the silent era; the rest-the lucky few- are mere by-words for Old Hollywood, names disconnected from faces. Leftovers from our great-Grandparents’ childhoods. Anthony Slide, over the course of a couple of decades, had the pleasure or the privilege to have met the majority of entertainers featured in this volume. Thus, Silent Players is not dry biography or weak conjecture, nor is it pure scholarship (although it has a foundation of extensive research); it is alive with personal experiences and revealing reminiscences. His passion for his subjects shines through his clear, yet keen writing. A must-have for anyone interested in silent cinema and those who graced it with their magic.

    Publicity photo of Mae Marsh from Stars of the...

    Publicity photo of Mae Marsh from Stars of the Photoplay (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Motivation: Many of my favourite film performers appeared in silent movies. I write on the subject. A lot. In fact, silent movies are one of my biggest passions!
  • Times Read: 1
  • Random Excerpt/Page 127: “The number of Hollywood extras is probably in the hundreds of thousands. As early as November 1934, Photoplay reported some 17, 541 individuals registered as extras with Central Casting. Among the number of small part and bit players available at that time were former stars, including Monte Blue, Betty Blythe, Mae Marsh, and Dorothy Phillips, and silent directors, including Francis Ford, Frank Reicher and George Melford. One-time stars might become extras, but the only extra to ever be accorded the celebrity and fame of stardom is Bess Flowers.”
  • Happiness Scale: 10+++

Art is the Signature of Civilizations: Why this (Silent Movie Stars) Mural is so Important

I’m a niche writer. I don’t see eye-to-eye with the mainstream media, and that’s okay: I’m happy to go my own quirky way, even in a professional capacity. I’m fortunate to write about subjects that I truly love: dead writers, literary culture, weird short fiction and, of course, classic movies. I’ve been writing about the latter for a decade but, over those years, my focus has narrowed: I now write mostly on silent cinema. Oh, my beloved!

My home city has many amazing, memorable murals (hello, half-upside-down American Gothic!). My favourite-which I discovered a year ago as my mom was scouting out new apartments in this downtown neighborhood-is in the parking lot of a law school. It was so unexpected that I sucked in my breath before letting out a loud squeal. I may have jumped up and down but this is where the memory becomes foggy. Behold: Continue reading

A Year in Books/Day 115: James Williamson Studies and Documents of a Pioneer of the Film Narrative

  • Title: James Williamson Studies and Documents of a Pioneer of the Film Narrative
  • Author: Martin Sopocy
  • Year Published: 1998 (Associated University Presses, Inc.)
  • Year Purchased: 2002
  • Source: Unknown
  • About: Be warned: This book is so dry and bland that you could crumble it up and toss it in a bowl of soup. It’s so slow-paced that I had to put it away and pick it up again a few months later. Twice. That was a new experience for me, as I relish slogging through even the most dry-toast academic volumes. To have that happen with a book on silent film was almost unbearably disappointing. Yet, it is significant in its way: it’s a book about English filmmaker James Williamson; it offers painstakingly detailed breakdowns of films long since lost; the photographs and images of slides are of critical importance to film history.
  • Motivation: I have a sizable library of books on silent cinema. Since I write extensively on the subject, I’m always eager and excited to add a new volume (this book is possibly the only time I have been disappointed) to my collection.
  • Times Read: 1 (barely)
  • Random Excerpt/Page 61: “An overall view of the history of the film narrative could tempt us to suppose that motion photography, that cinema itself, has an inherent affinity with realism. Yet in actual practice such an affinity exists only to the extent that the filmmaker rejects the camera’s capacity for illusion and uses it instead with the conscious purpose of recording the world around him as he sees it, and the incidents within that world that have actually happened or could plausibly happen.”
  • Happiness Scale: 5

A Year in Books/Day 70: Vamp The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara

  • Title: Vamp The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara
  • Author: Eve Golden
  • Year Published: 1996 (Emprise Publishing, Inc.)
  • Year Published: 1996/1997
  • Source: A book club (I cannot remember which one)
  • About: Written forty years after Bara’s death, ‘Vamp’ was the first biography of film’s original bad girl superstar (who, incidentally, played her fair share of classic and/or good girl roles). It’s a well-balanced account of how publicity turned the comfortably middle class Ohioan into a seething, exotic sexpot. The manufactured stories about Goodman are truly a hoot! It also gives substance to the fact that Theda was actually a talented actress, something that has largely been lost to time and under the weight of her outlandish get-ups and the often naive or contrived plots of her films. Although her career proper lasted barely five years, it is rather melodramatic to call the natural slowing down of her fame a ‘fall’; considering the truly tragic fates that ensnared many of her contemporaries, her slide into prosperous and happy anonymity comes off as a blessing.
  • Motivation: I’m a silent movie junkie, as you well know by now. I’ve always had a fondness for the big-eyed Buckeye Vamp (psst, here’s a little secret: if we have a daughter, we plan on naming her Theda). Like Theda, I’m an Ohioan (albeit one from two hours North). I bought this book a full ten years before moving South to her hometown. Oddly enough, I live just a few minutes from the neighborhood she called home for her first twenty years!
  • Times Read: 2
  • Random Excerpt/Page 47: “At least her ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ reviews provided some good news: it was a big hit, mostly due to curiosity about Theda. “Startling and remarkable,” according to one reviewer; another said of Theda and O’Neil, “their acting is splendidly realistic and emotionally powerful.” Being favorably compared to a stage diva like Nance O’Neil must have given Theda strength to continue filming.”
  • Happiness Scale: 10
    A photograph of Theda Bara.

    Ohio's Theda Bara-Image via Wikipedia