The Last Silent Picture Show: Silent Films on American Screens in the 1930s Paperback – 27 Aug 2010
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Best Film Book of 2012 The received wisdom is this: with the coming of sound, silent film was dead. But was it? The Last Silent Picture Show looks at the little known history of silent movies in the decade after their reported demise. Though talkies overtook the industry and public arena, the silent cinema survived the onslaught of sound through continued exhibition in diverse venues including tent shows, political meetings, universities, ethnic theaters, and art houses. This work rewrites film history. The Huffington Post People tend to regard cinema's silent and talkie eras as wholly distinct, but there was a time when the two overlapped-and awkwardly so. As William Drew explains in his account of this monumental crossover period, the protracted gestation of the sound era meant a slow death for the silent generation. Hanging in the balance was no less than the public's conception of what exactly constituted a proper movie. Drew's history ranges far-from the silent apex of Chaplin and Murnau to the almost comical waffling on the part of theater owners, and on to what might be termed the first revival era. For the silent stars unable to make the transition to talkies, the theaters not wired for sound were a boon-or, from another perspective, a haven for the cinematic embalming of essentially dead careers. Film Comment Drew does deliver exhaustive and rather unique surveys of the American press...Drew brings together a number of previously isolated phenomena and the little discussed points of view from small-town America. Screening The Past The Last Silent Picture Show: Silent Films on American Screens in the 1930s examines the dynamic period as Hollywood made the transition from silent to sound movies and into the 1930s when sound became the industry standard and what audiences expected when they attended movie theaters. Communication Booknotes Quarterly
About the Author
William M. Drew is a writer, film historian, researcher, and college lecturer. He is the author of Speaking of Silents: First Ladies of the Screen (1990) and At the Center of the Frame: Leading Ladies of the Twenties and Thirties (1999).
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
While that may be the conventional wisdom, author William Drew has explored silent films in the 1930s, and this book is a fascinating read for film buffs. There was one producer/star who bucked conventional wisdom. Charlie Chaplin was considered a maverick when he released CITY LIGHTS as a silent film in 1931. By 1936 when he released MODERN TIMES, he was an anachronism, but both films were wildly successful. Drew starts the story of silent film revivals in the 1920s, where theaters presented "old time movie shows" that presented early nickelodeon films in contrast to slick Hollywood productions. Sometimes they were presented as examples of how far movies had come from their "primitive" beginnings. Other times audiences were actually nostalgic for these early films.
Author Drew has written on D.W. Griffith's films and foreign films before, and these two topics directly relate to this book. The author discusses Griffith's films THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) and WAY DOWN EAST (1920), which were successfully revived with synchronized music tracks in the 1930s. This prompted M-G-M to re-release THE BIG PARADE (1925) and BEN HUR (1925) with music and sound effects. Cecil B DeMille's KING OF KINGS (1927) was still popular with religious audiences in the 1930s.
The sound revolution did not come so quickly in other parts of the world. Russian silents like POTEMKIN (1925) were already well known in the USA during the silent era. Russia continued to produce silent features, and they were screened in America. However, film societies, college groups or labor groups usually sponsored these screenings. Japan and China continued producing silent films until about 1935, and these were screened in theaters in ethnic neighborhoods.
In 1938, Rudolph Valentino's THE SHEIK (1921), THE SON OF THE SHEIK (1926) and THE EAGLE (1925) were all reissued for theaters. Drew tells an interesting story in that the first one was wildly popular, but mocked as a stereotypical silent film. However, Valentino fans really loved THE SON OF THE SHEIK, whether they were re-visiting him or seeing him for the first time.
One complaint I have with the book is that the author skims over the Van Beuren reissues of the twelve Charlie Chaplin Mutual two-reel comedies. These were also very popular with audiences and were released to theaters over and over. (You can read about these in Michael Hayde's book "Chaplin's Vintage Year".) He also ignored a couple dozen silent B-westerns that were filmed in the early 1930s for rural theaters that had not converted to sound yet. These are minor quibbles though, as I found the entire book fascinating.
The book also covers the establishment of the first film archive, the New York Museum of Modern Art. The archive was important, because it did rescue many, many important silent films. However, the original director Iris Barry, was a snob, so she only saved films that she felt were important. She was instrumental in the establishment of the "pantheon" of great films and directors in the critical world. So for decades film history was all about Griffith and Von Stroheim. Average works like cartoons, newsreels, serials, and westerns were overlooked by the MOMA because they did not fit in with her view of film history. Luckily, there were others like John Hampton of the Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles that kept presenting silent films to the public for a long time.
This book is a must-read for anyone interest in silent films or the early sound-film era. This books covers film history topics that have been neglected for a long time.
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