Silents are Golden: 8 Great Silent Film Books for Your Library
Maybe it’s because of those title cards, but a love of silent films and a love of reading about silent films seem to go hand in hand. If you’re new to books on early cinema and would love to know where to start, I have some handy suggestions–and believe me, paring down the list to just eight choices was quite a challenge!
The Parade’s Gone By by Kevin Brownlow
Every list should naturally start with Brownlow’s milestone book, the gold standard for everything that’s been published since. Based on numerous interviews he conducted in the ‘60s and ‘70s with every former silent film star, director, editor, writer, etc. he could track down, The Parade’s Gone By is a compilation of countless priceless reminisces about the silent days and contains an abundance of detail about every aspect of early film making. It’s woven through with Brownlow’s passionate research and thoughtful observations about an era he was determined to keep from being forgotten–and I’d say he succeeded.
A Million and One Nights by Terry Ramsaye
Written in 1925, this was one of the earliest books to tackle the story of film–starting, ambitiously, with musings on mankind’s advancements in creation and communication throughout history. (A sample chapter title: “From Aristotle to Philadelphia, PA.”) Since cinema was still evolving and maturing as Ramsaye wrote, it’s a fascinating time capsule. While today’s research shows that not all of his facts turned out to be accurate, it’s an enthusiastic, wonderfully written book. How often do you read a sentence like, “The crab-apple of Eden and the orange of Hollywood are undoubtedly of the same tree,” in regards to love stories in art?
The Silent Clowns by Walter Kerr
Another milestone of great writing on early cinema, Kerr’s passionate, deeply analytical approach to the work of the great silent clowns just about glows with love and admiration for their work. Covering a wide range of talents from Buster Keaton to lesser known figures like Lloyd Hamilton, he examines their unique gifts and makes a thoughtful case for why some comedians stand out above the rest. A remarkable tome that’s been called a love letter to silent comedy more than once.
The Transformation of Cinema: 1907-1915 by Eileen Bowser
If you really want to explore some details of early filmmaking, I can think of few works better than Bowser’s deep dive into every aspect of American cinema from the nickelodeon period until 1915. Highly readable and highly fascinating, it covers a gamut of topics from nickelodeon theater interiors to early film advertisements to censorship to styles of acting. Bowser was the former Curator of Film at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art and her wealth of knowledge and meticulous research is practically unparalleled. Whether you’re a hardcore silent film fans and or someone new to the genre, you’ll be glad to have this book.
An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928 by RichardKoszarski
Picking up where Bowser left off, this volume is equally detailed and equally fascinating.
The number of topics covered is astounding, and its breezy focus on the technical and business sides of filmmaking never gets too dry or academic. Searching for descriptions of film showings in the ‘20s? Looking for some early box office stats or info on theater admissions? Hoping to find overviews of some key directors? Interested in the ins and outs of poster designs? You will find all of this and much, much more in a book that I consider downright indispensable.
The many fans of classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922) can’t go wrong with the great German-French historian’s most acclaimed book. It thoroughly covers the genre of German Expressionism, from its roots in modern art and Expressionist theater to the familiar 1920s masterpieces by F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. It also covers a number of minor German Expressionist films that you probably haven’t heard of. All this, combined with Eisner’s incisive analysis and a number of great stills, make it a very useful reference tool on this unique niche of film history.
American Silent Film by William K. Everson
This classic survey of early American cinema is on many silent film fan’s shelves. Taking the reader on a comprehensive journey from film’s earliest days all the way through to the early talkies, Everson’s book concentrates a bit more on the artistic side of filmmaking and also gives credit to the influence of European filmmaking. It was also one of the first books to thoroughly cover pre-1920 films. It’s a work I’ve referenced many times, and no doubt you’ll find it fascinating too.
The Keystone Kid: Tales of Early Hollywood by Coy Watson Jr.
And now for something a little different! Comprehensive surveys and detailed analyses are all well and good, but sometimes it’s nice to see a more personal side of “the industry.” Coy Watson Jr. grew up quite literally down the street from Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio, and his father was one of the first official special effects experts in Hollywood. Coy and his eight siblings would all act in the movies alongside numerous great stars, both silents and talkies. In 2001 he decided to share his family’s memories and release this charming memoir. It’s both a priceless, up-close-and-personal account of early Hollywood and an affectionate portrait of a very close and hardworking family. It’s a beautiful book that more people could stand to know about.
Obviously this is a very brief starting point for building your very own silent film library, but I hope it helps! Much like the films themselves, these are books that can be enjoyed and pondered for many years to come.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.