On October 6, 1927, international cinema changed forever with the Warner Bros. release of "The Jazz Singer." With rare exceptions, the silent movie was finished as an art form by the year 1930. If you ask your elderly relatives what being an audience member was like in the days of Rudolph Valentino, you probably won't get a first-hand reply. The Great Lover was history well before the arrival of Jazz Age babies born on August 23, 1926 and beyond. What we've had instead of first-hand accounts over the last 3/4 of a century is oral histories collected by film scholars, too young for the silent era to be anything other than an intensely magnetic attraction.
I know of many film buffs, usually males, who've been avid fans since infancy of the long ago past. Time stops for some of these guys after 1929 or 1939 or 1949 or 1959 or 1969 and no one of any importance has achieved prominence after the end of their favorite decades. For many years, Anthony Slide has been a sensitive and perceptive scholar of silent movies and the many film pioneers who made them. Even though, like most of us, Mr. Slide was born well after the silent era, he described them with enthusiasm and skill, trying to see all the surviving film fragments before their inevitable decomposition.
The other day I welcomed the arrival of Mr. Slide's 2002 volume, "Silent Players," hoping to learn something new about the actors who have given me such pleasure in revival theatres and on videotape. The carefully chosen photographs are exquisitely reproduced by one of my favorite publishers, the University Press of Kentucky. I've been known to spend hours with a magnifying glass studying Daniel Blum's "Pictorial History of the Silent Screen," trying to dive into the film stills and time travel like a character out of Jack Finney's novels. But in years to come when I return to THIS book, and I will, I won't be able to be kind to THIS text by Mr. Slide. Why, for example, is it necessary for me to know ALL the actors who began suffering with the illness of alcoholism long before A.A. was established in 1935? (And if they still drank after their careers were over, who cares except their own families and personal friends?) A stray bit of repeated gossip from a deceased director about a silent child star, also deceased, leads to the author's shocking conclusion that the kid had been sexually molested by ANOTHER deceased director: Imagine sexual molestation behind-the scenes in the twenties! There are so few films of this little actor available and he retired so many years ago, why do we need this salacious scrap of information stored in our brains whenever we watch the idyllic childhood of this kid on celluloid? Then there is the actress who worked hard on a novel about her marriage to a gay man and published it herself in 1952, 28 years after her retirement from the screen. Slide dismisses her work as "lurid" and "unconvincing", but at a time when so few books emerged on the subject, "The Twisted Heart" at least deserves the credit of being a pioneering effort on a vastly unknown subject. At any rate, "The Twisted Heart" is impossible to find: Once, when I tried to borrow the book through interlibrary loan, the Library of Congress sent me their holding copy. In "Silent Stars," we hear about bigoted former stars, snobbish former stars, celibate former stars, gay and/or bisexual former stars, cat-loving former stars, messy former stars, sarcastic former stars, substance-abusing former stars, the list goes on and on WITH NAMES and GUESS WHAT? If they didn't die young, they all got OLD and WRINKLED! Since many of these people are dead and many of their films are disintegrated, all they had left was their magical names and now they're gone, too.
These talented, imperfect folks trusted Anthony Slide with their secrets and, in this silent admirer's opinion, he abused their trust. Kind commentary is littered here and there throughout 439 pages, but in this sorry context, charitable remarks seem condescending at best. An actor who was good enough to be hired by Ernst Lubitsch and many other directors over the course of forty years, is, in Mr. Slide's opinion, "insipid". Another who was onscreen for forty years never made a "classic" movie. Yeh, but Bette Davis had a big crush on Conrad Nagel when she was young, so what does Mr. Slide know about it? Lillian Gish said the exact same lovely thing to someone else AFTER she said it to Mr. Slide FIRST. Oh, the agony! I went as far back as John Bunny, who died in 1915, to see if he had escaped the nasty sting of Slide's pen, but, alas, the people who knew Bunny told Slide they didn't like him. Slide goes on to say that he doesn't think Bunny is funny. Who cares? THE GUY IS DEAD. Oh, yeah, and forget "The Merry Widow," Mae Murray had no talent and wound up like Norma Desmond. If she did lose her mind in Hollywood, she deserves our sympathy, not our scorn, but her own remark on "Sunset Boulevard," quoted in Joe Hamilton's evergreen "Classic Of The Silent Screen," lives after her: "None of us floozies were THAT nuts!" If you want to stare into 100 treasured faces, "Silent Stars" will give you a feast. But: And a writer hates to say this about another greatly admired writer, skip the text of this one!
© 2002 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 10/2/02
Anthony Slide - University Press Of Kentucky