A Year in Books/Day 226: The Decline of Sentiment

  • Title: The Decline of Sentiment American Film in the 1920s
  • Author: Lea Jacobs
  • Year Published: 2008 (University of California Press)
  • Year Purchased: 2011
  • Source: Half Price Books
  • About: I like film criticism that comes with a healthy side of broader cultural and intellectual analysis. It is, admittedly, how I approach the subject, and view the world in general. Before proceeding, know that this review comes with a Warning. Lea Jacobs’ writing is from the crumbling cracker school: dry and without any excess flavour. If you cannot reconcile yourself to the mere thought of reading 313 pages of humourless but acutely insightful commentary, or this review about it, then move on with your bad self. No, really. I won’t be offended. As long as you promise to come back for #227. We’re still cool, right? For the 3 of you left, where were we? Ah, yes. Her writing. If you’re passionate or curious about silent cinema, The Decline of Sentiment is worth your time. Your head will eventually fall into rhythm with her writing style, and by the end of the book you will have a more comprehensive view of the subject even if, like me, you have studied and written about it for years. Jacobs follows the transformation and modernization of American literature and, with it, the Hollywood genre films of the day. It is fascinating to follow the trajectory she traces, her subjects maturing from naiveté to sophistication, with firm intellectual intent, moving seamlessly and deliberately across disciplinary boundaries. She discusses at great length the blossoming of four film genres that were major players of the era: the sophisticated comedy; the male adventure story; the seduction plot; and the romantic drama. She expands her already solid methodology by showing us how films were marketed to, and received by, trade papers, various types of theatres, distinct neighborhoods, and different classes of moviegoers. In her thoroughly well-researched and beautifully argued book, Jacobs proves that it is possible to create an original, reasonable, and highly potent critical theory on a subject that has been studied and picked at for nearly a hundred years.
  • Motivation: Since I write about silent cinema and (largely forgotten) literature of the 1920s, this book has my name written all over it. The ink is invisible but, trust me, it’s there.
  • Times Read: 1
  • Random Excerpt/Page 30: “Despite the claims of Exhibitor’s Trade Review that the plot abjures “thrills,” A Romance of Happy Valley actually combines a bucolic, semicomic romance with a murder mystery that comes to the fore at the film’s end. Part of the interest of this example lies in the fact that almost all of the critics preferred the romance, which they regarded as realistic, to what they perceived as the “melodrama” of the ending.”
  • Happiness Scale: 9
    Actress Lillian Gish

    Actress Lillian Gish (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Star of A Romance of Happy Valley (1919).


2 thoughts on “A Year in Books/Day 226: The Decline of Sentiment

  1. I am one of the three, maedez. I admittedly do not follow the silent film genre but do remember with hair-raising detail Bella Lugosi in “Dracula”. Nothing has been scarier. That being said, I would be interested in reading about what makes movies “American” aside from language. I know that is simplistic but in watching foreign films, there is a maturity to them that I enjoy in my dotage. Now, for the real question: I noticed you used “flavour” and “humour” in your writing, which is so excellent by the way. Are you writing from the great Canadian Northland?


    • Although I have spent a lot of time in their wonderful country, I am not Canadian.

      The cultural impact of the film and literature of the first few decades of the 20th century is incalculable. Since the various disciplines fed off of each other, everything is intertwined in a complicated and fascinating way. Silent cinema is absolutely amazing, and is full of wonders that would surprise most people.


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