The Silent Screen: Essays in Honor of American Executives, Directors, Stars, Comedians and Films, 1896 – 1926

Iowa University professor emeritus and respected film historian Richard Dyer MacCann has published the final volume of a series of books about the silent film era. This series, called American Movies: The First Thirty Years (Scarecrow), includes the following volumes:

The First Tycoons (1987, currently out of print)
The First Filmmakers (1989), 335 pp
The Stars Appear (1992), 339 pp
The Silent Comedians (1993), 257 pp
Films of the 1920s (1996), 144 pp
The Silent Screen: Essays in Honor of American Executives, Directors, Stars, Comedians and Films, 1896 – 1926, the final installment in this series, is gleaned from the five previous volumes.

Analyzing thirty years of film history is a daunting task to say the least, but the charm and the challenge of doing so is that once one starts out on that rich road there are many interesting side streets to explore. So, despite the size of the tome, approach to the subject and its delivery can make all the difference. Professor MacCann gives us more than a dry recitation. His well-researched writings are infused with a love and fascination for his subject. Selected essays provide an overview of the notable personalities and genres that evolved from the silent era. In “Author’s Note on History,” reprinted from The First Tycoons, MacCann explains his philosophy on conveying history in a way to turn readers on to the subject and draw them in:

Do I have a theory of history? Some historiographers insist that every writer-observer must be applying some sort of theory, whether consciously or not…. A theoretical formulation is like a straitjacket combined with blinders: it keeps the writer from moving in interesting directions and it keeps the researcher from taking in those impressions which may reveal unexpected truths….

Determinist theories of history will claim that all this could have happened the same way with other names attached. But it is difficult to take seriously a view of history which ignores personality. Without these very particular people, the first thirty years of American movies would have been strikingly different. Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, Jesse Lasky, Thomas Ince, D.W. Griffith, Erich von Stroheim, Cecil B. DeMille, King Vidor, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd were the “great men and women” of the silent screen.

The silent film industry was an incredible swirl of events. So, the layout of The Silent Screen is not necessarily a chronological one. Reading the book is more like approaching an interesting house with many windows. Peering in each window reveals its own secrets. Featured personalities in The Silent Screen include Griffith, Ince, Hart, von Stroheim, Swanson, Valentino, Pickford, Fairbanks, Sennett, Chaplin, Langdon and Lloyd. A selected bibliography and general index round out this installment. Unfortunately, there is only a token smattering of illustrations.

There have been scores of books that have covered the same ground written by giants in the field. Among them are Terry Ramsaye’s groundbreaking A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture Through 1925 (Simon and Schuster, 1926) [currently enjoying a reprint], Edward Wagenknecht’s The Movies and the Age of Innocence (University of Oklahoma Press, 1962) [currently enjoying a reprint], George C. Pratt’s Spellbound in Darkness: A History of Silent Film (New York Graphic Society, 1966), Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By… (University of California Press, 1968), Alexander Walker’s Stardom: The Hollywood Phenomenon (Stein and Day, 1970), William K. Everson’s American Silent Film (Oxford University Press, 1978), Koszarski’s An Evenings Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915 – 1928 (University of California Press, 1990) and James Card’s Seductive Cinema (Knopf, 1994). Due to the renewed interest in the era, there is hope that many of the out-of-print classics will be reissued.

For large publishing houses, books on the silent era, be they bios or general histories, have a short shelf life. Occasionally, some may warrant a second printing, but it is all too rare. Several of the smaller specialty publishing houses, like Scarecrow, have made a commitment to keep much of their previously published material available for purchase whether a release has sold 100 copies or 1,000. It is sad and frustrating to know that the excellent books from historians like Everson or Walker, along with insightful biographies of Lillian Gish (Gish and Pinchot, 1969), Marion Davies (Guiles, 1972), John Gilbert (Gilbert-Fountain, 1985), Clara Bow (Stenn, 1988) and Mary Pickford (Eyman, 1990), to name a few, are out of print. It is important to encourage the publishing industry to provide new books, like Professor MacCann’s, and reprint the classics while they’re at it. Such a commitment is vital to the understanding and appreciation of this amazing era.

Madison Morrison