A good read or two

Having expressed disappointment at the Silent Cinema book by Brian Robb, what should the person new to silents read as an introduction to the subject? There’s not much among new publications (please somebody let me know if you have opinions otherwise), but I’ve come up with a top ten that I would recommend.

1. Karl Brown, Adventures with D.W. Griffith (1973)

Out of print, but easy to find second hand, this a memoir by the assistant cameraman to Billy Bitzer, who was D.W. Griffith’s cinematographer. It is an eye-witness account of the making of Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, written with immense charm, wit and memorable observation. There is no other book like it for conjuring up the excitement and creativity of early filmmaking. It’s a terrific read, funny and informative, making you wish that you had been there too.

2. Ivan Butler, Silent Magic: Rediscovering the Silent Film Era (1987)

Another book from someone who was there. Ivan Butler saw his first film in 1915 and went on to become a film historian. This is a marvellously evocative account of the films he saw in the silent era, year-by-year, with sharp observations not only on the notable films and stars of the period but also many names and titles now forgotten. You get a real sense of what it was like to be a regular filmgoer in the 1920s (in Britain). It’s out of print, but well worth tracking down.

3. Edward Wagenknecht, The Movies in the Age of Innocence (1962)

A classic survey of the silent screen from the early one-reelers to the 1920s, concentrating on American silent cinema. It is literate and enthusiastic in equal measure, mixing personal recollection with wise observation. And it’s still in print.

4. David Robinson, Chaplin (1985)

Charlie Chaplin’s own Autobiography is a candidate for this list, but my vote goes for this exhaustive, amazing biography, 792 pages and yet you may want to read it all at single setting. It makes best use of unprecentend access to the Chaplin archives, and it is just such an amazing, Twentieth Century story.

5. Brian Coe, The History of Movie Photography (1981)

If you have to have one book on motion picture technology (and it’s worth having one), this is it. It doesn’t just cover the silent era, but for that period alone (and the ‘pre-cinema’ of the nineteenth century and before) it is the best, clearest and most helpfully illustrated publication yet produced. All good film archivists swear by it. Of course it’s out of print, but not hard to find.

6. George Pearson, Flashback: The Autobiography of a British Film Maker (1957)

Pearson was a schoolteacher, aged thirty-seven, when in 1912 he gave up his steady career to become a film director and writer with the Pathe company in Britain. This is a touching, thoughtful and often inspiring memoir from someone who toiled during the difficult years of British filmmaking. His hopes for film as an art and as a source of instruction are inspiring, even if his personal achievements were relatively humble. It’s also just a very readable and observant account of the British film industry over three decades.

7. Charles Musser, Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company (1992)

OK, this scholarly and very detailed work isn’t every beginners idea of where to begin, but if your interest is in the scholarly excitement generated by early cinema, and how the field of film before 1914 can be a source of ideas, debate and theory, this is the book for you. It uses the carer of Edwin S. Porter (director of The Great Train Robbery) as a way into a deep understanding of how the motion picture industry emerged, ably situated within a broader socio-cultural framework. It has inspired many other such studies, but hasn’t really been beaten yet.

8. Kevin Brownlow, The War The West and The Wilderness (1978)

Most would put Brownlow’s famous The Parade’s Gone By in such a list, but this is my favourite of his books, which shows us that there was much more to the silent cinema than the conventional fiction feature film. This is about the pioneers who went out and filmed wars and revolutions, went exploring with the camera, and recorded the wild West in the first years of cinema. It’s particularly good on the actuality filming of the First World War, and films of polar exploration. It’s a book about discovery which has discoveries itself on every page. There’s such enthusiasm and admiration on every page. It’s out of print of course, and copies tend to be a bit costly – but, go on, treat yourself.

9. Walter Kerr, The Silent Clowns (1975)

Another classic. No book conjures up better the skill and immense fun of the great silent comedians. It has definitive observations on Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, Langdon and a host of other, it is richly illustrated, and it has wise things to say on what we laugh at and why.

10. Garth Jowett, Film: The Democratic Art (1976)

This is a social history of American film. There have been far too few such histories, as though film existed solely on the screen, without any wider social significance. This book does what any sensible history of such a phenomenon should do: it looks at the social, political, cultural and economic forces which drove cinema, with the focus on audiences and institutions. It goes beyond the silent cinema period, but if you want to see how film in the silent era interacted with society (and you should), this is a very good place to start.

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