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Last month I re-read Leonard Maltin’s Behind the Camera, interviews with five famous directors of photography, and it got me interested in re-reading Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By, a longtime favorite. Camera was published in 1970 when Maltin was only 21; Parade was published in 1968, based heavily on interviews that Brownlow did during a 1964 trip to America, when he was 26. Both men are to be commended for knowing about and seeking out some of the then-forgotten filmmakers of the silent and early sound eras, many of whom were still around and delighted to have a chance to tell their stories. Now it’s a half-century later.
Brownlow’s was the more influential, though both books were coming to attention at the historical moment when film scholarship was really taking off. Brownlow’s thesis is simply that modern people look down on silent films because they’ve never seen a good one, and never seen one properly shown. In fact, he claims they’re the height of cinema, better than sound films once you properly see and understand them. He builds a good case but oversells it some. Still, there are so many great anecdotes, interviews, and learned explanations. Chapters on the making of Ben Hur and Robin Hood would be classic articles all by themselves.
There’s a whole pre-cinema, proto-cinema world of forgotten history in the fairground and nickelodeon days, roughly 1896-1911. Brownlow gives a clear and interesting account of those pre-Hollywood days, but his real interest begins when the movies started to mean something, sometime between about 1912 and 1915, the year of The Birth of a Nation, pretty much the agreed-on beginning of film’s claim to being an art form. That window closes in 1928, though a lagging handful of silent films came out in ’29 (and of course City Lights was 1931, but Chaplin was a special case). So this vanished, maybe golden age of the silver screen lasted little more than 13 years.