Monday, July 22, 2013

Books in 2013: #18 The Silent Clowns by Walter Kerr

As I've mentioned recently on this blog, I've always been a huge fan of silent movies. As a very young child, I watched Charlie Chaplin movies all the time. When I was slightly older, probably eight or nine, my dad started showing me Mary Pickford and Harold Lloyd. When I was 14, PBS did a fantastic documentary on Buster Keaton called A Hard Act to Follow, and suddenly my dear Charlie Chaplin had found a rival for my affections. I went out as Chaplin on Halloween, complete with the weird walk and little cane, and developed a huge crush on Buster Keaton in my teens.

Every time a silent movie is on TV, I pause, watch it for a bit, and realize an hour later I still haven't turned the channel. And yet I feel like I know very little about the lives of these men and women. Years ago I read a gorgeous biography of (Canadian-born) Mary Pickford, called Mary Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood, by Eileen Whitfield, and it was amazing. But I'd never read a really solid book on the era. For years I've tried to figure out, what's the definitive Chaplin bio? Keaton bio? Look on websites and of course, as with all fandom, the true fans nitpick every single book on either subject... with the exception of one book: The Silent Clowns by Walter Kerr. Despite the fact this book came out in 1975, it's still considered by many to be THE definitive book on the silent comics. I looked it up in my local library, and lo and behold, they had a copy. So I took it out. (I can't actually link to it on Amazon, because it's no longer available. However, there are copies at abebooks.)

This book is HUGE. It's large, probably an 8x10 format, with 350 pages of thick, glossy paper, which makes it really heavy (working in publishing like I do, I was trying to imagine the costs of shipping this thing out for review). The print is small, in two columns, like a textbook. But I heaved it up onto the table, opened it, and started reading. And I was hooked.

First, it's fascinating to read a book written in 1975 about popular culture. It doesn't seem that long ago, and yet Kerr, the theatre critic for the New York Times when he wrote this, was in his early 60s at the time, and referred to going to the theatre to watch silent films as a kid in the early 1920s. The age of anyone writing about the same topic in that way these days is almost gone; the writer would have to be at least 100 years old. At one point he talks about all the films that had been lost and may never be seen again, yet a few of them were ones I've actually seen, and with the advent of YouTube — where you can watch just about any silent film you'd ever want to, in its feature length — many long-forgotten films are popping up there, being found in all sorts of places. Part of me longed to be able to go back in time and reassure Kerr that many of his lost favourites would, indeed, be found.

His three favourites are Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. We get the backgrounds of each one of them, largely culled through their own autobiographies (Chaplin's is still in print, but the other two are not, sadly), interviews they'd conducted, and other book-length analyses written on them, and while I knew a lot about Chaplin and Keaton, Lloyd's story was mostly knew to me. I had no idea, for example, that during an early film Lloyd had a bomb "prop" detonate while he was holding it, resulting in the loss of his thumb and index finger, and that he wore a prosthetic glove on that hand to try to hide it (those in the know say it's obvious when you see it, but when you're not looking for it, it's not obvious!) That makes all those high-suspense action sequences he revelled in, where he's scaling buildings and scaffolding, even more impressive. Kerr pauses to relate the main plots and little things you may or may not have noticed in various films, which in some cases jogged my memory to films I'd seen in the past, and in other cases served to stand in for the films I haven't seen, allowing me to understand the context for his analysis to follow.

He also devotes a few chapters to the lesser-known Harry Langdon, the baby-faced clown of several pictures, and talks about the rise and fall of Langdon. Moving into territory that, for me, had largely been covered by films such as Singin' in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard, he then talks about the shift to the talkies, and why some careers ended, while others continued. The shift happens rather abruptly in 1929, with almost everything before then being silent, and everything after that moment being a talkie, and while we tend to think of Chaplin as a silent movie actor, he certainly did a lot of films after that (think of The Great Dictator for one). I'd always thought of Keaton as having been one of the ones who didn't make it, although Kerr makes a case for Keaton having done better than many others in the talkies, and the fault wasn't of his voice, which is what I'd heard was his downfall, but a bad deal where he was moved to a different studio that simply shelved him, so to speak, like he was no longer important. And he collected dust on that shelf for a while before quietly going away.

What is most extraordinary about all of these men is how much they shouldered at the time. They had the ideas for the films, often acting as lead actor, director, writer, and producer. It was up to them to find the rest of the cast, and the studios just sat back and watched the big money roll in. Compared to today, where George Clooney is lauded for producing so many films, or Brad Pitt is put on a pedestal for having the wherewithal to option World War Z and produce and star in it, Chaplin and Keaton make both of them look like slackers.

He doesn't devote a lot of time to Mary Pickford, which I thought was a bit of a shame, considering she was both a successful silent film actor and a comic one, but the book is very male-centric (you'd think the only females in Hollywood during the silent film era were the difficult wives of the male clowns or the women who acted as their love interests in the pictures). Ditto for Clara Bow, the It Girl for whom I've always had a soft spot, but he barely mentions.

So perhaps the lack of mention of women is a downfall of the book, but knowing that his major focus would be on Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, I wasn't expecting much in that department anyway. For what it is, this is an extraordinary look at a time gone by, and made me even more determined to find an excellent biography on each of the three men featured in the book. I've just picked up Chaplin's autobiography, which I've heard is excellent, and I look forward to reading more in my continuing search for more information on this vibrant and wonderful era in American cinema.

1 comment:

Graeme said...

I have a similar interest in silent film (and saw the same documentary on Keaton as a teenager on PBS!) and have been buying Chaplin's complete oeuvre on DVD and Blu-Ray (I'm going to switch over to Keaton and Lloyd now that I'm nearly complete on his features). It's a fascinating era. The comedies are obviously the ones that hold up best now, but Douglas Fairbanks' films are remarkably good (particularly The Mark of Zorro, which I think is the best version of the character). Curiously my favourite silent film is City Lights, which Chaplin made well after talkies appeared!

There's a lot of wonderful actors to look at: Marion Davies is a stunning comic actress, and Louise Brooks is really natural. I'm fascinated by Fatty Arbuckle and have been dying to find a decent book about him and his scandal.

Chaplin's autobiography is kind of like William Shatner's only more erudite (ie. he whitewashes his life while trying to sound plummy) but it is a great chronicle of the era.