Five Star Books on the Silent Era

"Highly Recommended Favorites for the Novice or the Knowledgeable"

by Donna L. Wilks

(Note: Donna is a former book buyer for a small chain of book stores. That's where she was first introduced to books on the silent era and got "hooked.")


Silent film was born in an Age of Innocence---Queen Victoria was still alive, the "Titanic" had yet to make her fateful maiden voyage, we had yet to be involved in a World War, the horrors of atomic bombs were still decades away. Communism and Fascism did not hold sway over the world. Cowboys still ruled the West, and Kings and Queens still ruled the majority of the world.

And during this incredible era the movie camera was there filming events, places and people in a permanent moving record. Movie cameras were there to capture for all time Queen Victoria's Jubilee and her funeral procession, the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the horrors of child labor and other social injustices, the last gathering of thirty something heads of state for King Edward VII's funeral procession, the first New York subway opening, immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, images of everyday life, sporting events and so much more.

Therefore, not only was the silent movie camera used as entertainment, it also provided an important and irreplaceable record of life in a fascinating bygone era.

These reels beckon to us from the past. An art form frequently thought of as "jerky" and amusing by the uninitiated who have only experienced silent film through poor prints shown at the wrong speed to either tinny piano music or, worse yet, no music at all. Films that had once mesmerized their audiences in darkened theatres were now being laughed at by modern viewers.

And yet, once one of the properly restored silent film masterpieces can be experienced, those condescending views disappear as the magic of this art form reaches out to us from the past and envelopes us once again. Happily this is happening more and more as film historians, preservationists and archivists seek to restore the Golden Age of Silent Film.

Oddly, one of the major reasons for this growing interest in silent film can be found in the auspices of another media: BOOKS. Many people, myself included, first had their interest in silent film sparked by the printed word. This is not meant to be a series of book reviews, but a chance to share a small listing of some of these marvelous volumes.

I have chosen five of my favorite books to mention here. This was, obviously, a very difficult task with so many wonderful volumes available on the subject. They range in subject from autobiography to thoughtful histories and yes, even to scandal broth. If you have not yet sampled any of these, my hope is that you might find the opportunity to give one or two a try and let your interest develop from there.

The Books


The Parade's Gone By

by Kevin Brownlow

copyright 1968

Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York

Kevin Brownlow's pioneering work captures interest from the beginning, whether you are a novice or an expert on silent film. He gives the reader a feel for, not only the films, directors and stars, but also the frequently unsung cameramen, film editors and a moving portrait of the social life of those times. A great deal of the book is presented through the words of the silent film veterans themselves which only helps to bring the era to life.

It is a pleasure to dip into individual chapters that specifically interest one or to immerse oneself in the entire volume. And I am happy to say, in the case of this enjoyable and authoritative book, the Parade has NOT passed by!

American Silent Film

by William K. Everson

copyright 1978

Published by Oxford University Press, Inc., New York

Everson's book is a very important general history of mainly American silent film, although he does delve into European masterpieces and their influences. This book covers silent film history and how the silent film developed from the beginning when it was used mainly as a vehicle to record "real" events or as a novelty for audiences all the way through its growth and development into a true art form, completely separate in itself, rather than as a crude precursor of sound film. Being scholarly in tone, it might best be enjoyed after perusing a few other books first and also after having an opportunity to view some of the films discussed.

Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me

by Lillian Gish with Ann Pinchot

copyright 1969

Published by Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

Choosing one favorite autobiography to list here was simplicity itself. Yes, there are dozens and dozens of wonderful autobiographies and biographies, but a book written by such an important and matchless actress as Lillian Gish that also centers around that innovator of silent film, the great director, D.W. Griffith, just demanded to be represented here. It reads as easily as a novel and enlightens us on so many things. Besides all the insider details about filming in the early days, we are able to experience very personal insights into the lives of the Gish family, the making of the Griffith masterpieces, and a fascinating portrait of D.W. Griffith, himself.

Hollywood: The Pioneers

by Kevin Brownlow

Photographs: John Kobal

copyright 1979

Published by William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd., London

This book is a companion volume to the thirteen episode Thames Television series narrated by James Mason. If you were fortunate enough to see the series, you will be very pleased with this book.

The series focused on the beginnings of silent cinema through the advent of sound and is replete with film clips, live interviews and excellent narration. Every aspect of the era from the people in front of and behind the camera, major stars, how those camera tricks were created and developed, scandals and censorship, the comedians and so much more are explored in the series. The book is able to go into even more depth and provides the reader with a vivid picture of the silent era leaving one with a desire to view all those wonderful films in their entirety!

Frame-Up! The Untold Story of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle

by Andy Edmonds

copyright 1991

Published by William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York

So many people are fascinated by the real and invented scandals of the silent era, I felt I should include at least one book on an infamous scandal. For a look into both the zany and dark side of the silent era, I particularly enjoyed Andy Edmonds' Frame-Up! Ms. Edmonds had several interviews with Minta Durfee, Roscoe Arbuckle's ex-wife. Durfee gave the hitherto unpublished story of Roscoe Arbuckle's version of what happened. Most of the population to this day still thinks of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle as a foul murderer and rapist, even though he was acquitted and completely exonerated after the third trial. My request is to read this book with an open mind.

Also, this book gives a detailed description of the excesses of the era. It is a fascinating account of those times and an enjoyable read.

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copyright 1998 by Donna L. Wilks. All rights reserved.

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