Before the talkies; Hollywood: The Pioneers, by Kevin Brownlow and John Kobal. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $20
Nostalgia? Fun? Sociology? I suppose how one views this pictorial and textual account of the springtide period of the movie industry depends upon one's interests and, ahem, years.
For those over 60 this book will be a nostalgic reminder of that naive and very, very different era of public entertainment before the coming of talking pictures. For younger readers it should be a source of both pure enjoyment and not a little wonder at how conditions and outlook have changed in America during the past half-century. And for the social historians this is further helpful documentation of an epoch, a society, an existence, and a viewpoint on life which changed radically with the coming of the Great Depression.
While the serious student of the motion-picture industry will appreciate this volume of some 300 photographs and considerable text for what it adds to the history of the development of that industry, to most of us its greatest value lies in its illustration of how deeply public sentiment and vision today has changed from that of, say, 1910 to 1930.
Here is a romantic, sentimental yet rigidly structured and stylized concept of life. Heroes, villains, maidens, and clowns acted in well-prescribed grooves. Those not of the dominant white, northern European class were either buffons (blacks), knaves (Indians), sinister (Orientals) alternatively threatening or ridiculous (Italians), or worthless (Mexicans). D. W. Griffith's anti-black "The Birth of a Nation," if it did not create the Ku Klux Klan, gave great impetus to that organization's post-World War I revival and flourishment. Thus the pictures of those days reflected, yet failed to reflect, the realities of an earlier America.
Nonetheless, movies of this pioneer period elicited an enthusiasm and an enjoyment which have since largely vanished. Such stars as Rudolph Valentino, John Gilbert, Greta Garbo, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks wafted audiences out of humdrum lives and received unequaled adoration. The silent movie roles of comedians Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton have never been surpassed. The shivering horror of the 1925 "Phantom of the Opera" is still the criterion against which other such movies have been measured.
It was a fabulous (in both senses of the word) era. Its motion pictures gave far more pleasure than movies do today, but, it can be argued, they also did more harm. There was less violence; obscenity and pornography were absent; patriotism was more fervent; recognition of moral qualities more open and unshamed. But there was little acknoledgement of social or economic problems; those on the outside of accepted society were callously wounded; ideals which were often either impossible or unrealistic were touted. It was an exciting, yet intellectually adolescent, period of movie entertainment. This book shows it well.