Ok, I admit it: I am a bit of a film nut, preferably classic Hollywood fare from the 1930s and 1940s. I have a weakness for well-dressed men such as William Powell and glamorous women like Myrna Loy and daily bemoan the fact that hardly any man wears a nice suit anymore. Recently, though, I have gotten more into the silent era of Hollywood again, reading biographies of Louise Brooks, Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, Fatty Arbuckle and Mary Pickford in quick succession and I have been astonished to find out that more than 80% of all silent movies are lost. As a kid I used to watch the silent short comedies that were shown on German TV every Friday night – I remember it clearly because it was the only time we were ever allowed to watch TV at dinner time. We always had a takeaway which was a treat in itself but also moved the table so that we could all watch the likes of Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Fatty Arbuckle et al in comfort. This may make me sound ancient but is really not all that long ago!
Except for a handful of mainly comedy stars, the names of many of the biggest stars Hollywood has ever seen, usually elicit a “who?” from many of my friends but I am encouraged by the fact that at least the portraits grant a “Ah, him/her..” sort of response. While not many people may be able to name any films Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, or even an early talkies’ star such as Jean Harlow acted in, their faces are mostly unforgotten, partly through the large catalogue of glamorous portrait photography that exists from that time. My cooing over a particularly nice portrait of Rudolph Valentino may make many of my colleagues laugh but in the early 1920s it would not even have caused a raised eyebrow. The biggest stars of early Hollywood films received more fan letters and sold out more screenings of their films for months on end than any contemporary star of today’s Hollywood could ever imagine.
Silent movies deserve to be watched again and again in the way they were meant to be shown: in film palaces with full orchestra – anyone who has ever seen a silent film like that will want to go again! I saw my first silent movie with live piano on an InterRail trip where one of our stops was Aberdeen and the youth hostel had a flyer advertising the showing of Buster Keaton’s “Our Hospitality” and “Sherlock Jr.” We went and I was transfixed by the magic of it! Over the years I have always tried to catch any silent movie showing on the big screen, most of them in London where I lived for a long time. Every year would bring a new show with full orchestra and in this way I saw “Intolerance”, “The General”, “Sunrise”, “The Chess Player” (with a rare original score) and many other gems that made a big impression on me. The showings were always sold out and I do believe there is an audience for them today, an opinion borne out by the recent Cannes success of “The Artist”. Together with our Spanish partner agency album we have images of pretty every silent star.
Here is a big hurrah for the Silents!