Below is a real find. It's a mere sliver of a mammoth documentary by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill called "Hollywood" --a comprehensive history of the silent film era which, if I'm not mistaken, I recall seeing on public television in the early 1980's, before it seemingly vanished from sight forever. Some lovely individual, the puzzlinglly named Quallgin, seems to have a copy of it (it doesn't appear to have ever made it to DVD) and has sliced up some highly digestible ten minute bits for your delectation on youtube. I've posted two parts of a one hour episode on silent film directors--"The Man With The Megaphone". (The series was presented in thirteen one-hour installments--totalling a whopping 676 minutes).

Silent film--aside from silent comedy--has long been a blind spot of mine. Rather than finding the films themselves interesting, I tend to become more fascinated with the meta-film occurring alongside the movie--the making of the film. How did they achieve the effects they did with the limited means available? What was it like shooting with all that background noise? Did they really use mood music? How did the form and language of filmmaking come together so quickly so as to create a set of film "rules" that, for the most part, are still in effect today? We credit Griffith with the close-up, but I wonder. So many silent films were churned out in the first fifteen years of the 20th century--most of them lost to us--that I can't help but think the language was being developed and shared by multiple film companies working alongside each other. And what of the earliest mistakes made in simple basic film grammer--such as "crossing the line" (having characters in close ups looking the wrong way), or figuring out proper screen direction for entrances and exits? These things are still important and vexing--to this day the continuity person and DP are often at each other's throats about which way to cover something--yet these problems must have begun as early as the teens. When somebody cut the film and noticed they'd staged and/or shot it incorrectly--or figured out how to correct the error--did they share the information with other companies?

The film director of the silent era was, of course, largely a re-invention and re-combining of a couple of different job and personality types: the stage director--or more accurately the "actor-manager" type--was one, a kind of swashbuckling, theatrical wizard who whipped his company of actors into shape, got the show up and running and got everyone the hell out of town before the bills they'd run up had to be paid. But the early film directors also owed a good deal of their mystique to their impersonations of mad military figures--unstoppable, physcially rugged and mentally cruel leaders whose troops must be dedicated to following them into the jaws of hell. (Indeed, deaths were common during the making of silents--so few effects existed at that time that every stunt was done practically). And a healthy dose of bullshit-artist--still a required trait for all directors--was an important part of the overall effect. In the following clips, you'll here one of the first directors ever--the venerable Allan Dwan--talk frankly about how he made up what a director was and how he looked as he went along. Also on view in these clips are directors Henry King and Byron Haskin--King, of course, had a long career in both silents and sound and wound up becoming one of the most prestigious "house directors" at Twentieth Century Fox. Haskin was a jack of all trades--mostly a cameraman in the silent days, later a director of some very peculiar b-movies--memorably "Robinson Crusoe On Mars", but also importantly Burt Lancaster's first film, the still powerful "I Walk Alone". King Vidor also appears--I met him briefly and memorably in the mid 1970's at critic/historian Arthur Knight's house. Imagine! Shaking the hand of King Vidor put me one handshake away from John Gilbert and Marion Davies--to say nothing of Griffith himself. As Orson Welles put it, "It's not that life is long, but that history is so short". Meanwhile, I'll post more of this marvelous series over the next few days...

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