Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film (Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, 1980)

Eclipse is a selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics in simple affordable editions. Each series is a brief cinematheque retrospective for the adventurous home viewer.

The award-winning team of David Gill and Kenneth Brownlow present a definitive and unparalleled look at the history of silent film in America with Hollywood: A Celebration of American Silent Film. Narrated by actor and silent film enthusiast James Mason, this 13-part series celebrates the birth of an industry and the town and people who made it happen. From the arrival of the filmmaking pioneers early at the dawn of a new century, through the outbreak of the First World War; from the rise of romance to the demise of the Old West; from when comedy was king until the advent of sound, this stunning television program surveys the enormous range of spectacular, innovative, and exciting films created by a business still inventing itself. Brilliantly edited and featuring a multitude of invaluable interviews by stars, directors, and below-line personnel, Hollywood is an irreplaceable document on cinema history and a loving tribute to those that made a legend out of a modest California town.

With notes by Kevin Brownlow.

Developed for Thames Television by British film historians David Gill and Kevin Brownlow (and likely complimenting Brownlow’s restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927) which also debuted in London in 1980), Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film (1980) stands as one of the great documents of film history. The 13-episode series explores the establishment of Hollywood, California as the centre of American filmmaking and surveys the many facets of that industry, supported by Carl Davis’ wonderful score and narration by actor James Mason, a silent film enthusiast himself. Brownlow and Gill’s passion for silent cinema is apparent throughout the series, correcting the poor presentation of silent film typical to television by sourcing the best available material and presenting Hollywood‘s film clips with corrected running speeds and orchestral scores, thereby showing these films in the best form likely seen in decades.

Part of what makes Hollywood so fascinating is its attention to both above- and below-line contributions to filmmaking. Hollywood is no mere catalogue of film releases, box office returns, and press clippings. The series explores how directors and stars were treated, marketed, lavished upon, and occasionally mistreated and the program devotes entire episodes to the contributions of specific film personnel, to particular genres, and to key historical moments in the life of American silent cinema. Most invaluably, Gill and Brownlow load Hollywood with insightful and entertaining interviews by those who lived through the era – major stars, supporting actors, directors, cinematographers, set designers, stuntmen, agents, writers, choreographers, effects artists, editors, producers, property men, reporters, and even an organist and a fan magazine editor. And with the series spread across 13 solid episodes and almost 11 hours of always essential viewing, it’s difficult not to be in awe of Gill and Brownlow’s project. The pair even manage to improve upon their material, converting medium shots to close-ups for added comedic effect, finding shots omitted from otherwise authoritative prints, and condensing scenes from films like Noah’s Ark (Michael Curtiz, 1928) and The Black Pirate (Albert Parker, 1926) for additional impact. With such a tour de force documentary waiting to be rediscovered, we should spend a little time considering each of Hollywood‘s wonderful episodes.

Episode 1: “The Pioneers”

Hollywood kicks off with a consideration of film’s evolution from penny arcade novelty to feature-length art form and from East Coast industry to West Coast phenomena. The episode surveys early narrative efforts like The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter, 1903), influential titles like The Musketeers of Pig Alley (D. W. Griffith, 1912), cinematic spectacles like The Fire Brigade (William Nigh, 1926) and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (Fred Niblo, 1925), agreed masterpieces like The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1928), and controversial milestones like The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915). Actresses Lillian Gish and Dolores Costello, actors Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Jackie Coogan, and directors King Vidor and Hal Roach appear among those offering insights and anecdotes.

Episode 2: “In the Beginning”

Hollywood‘s second episode traces the transformation of Hollywood from a fruit orchard bought by the Wilcox family to the always sunny industrial centre of a global sensation. Silent film epics like Intolerance (D. W. Griffith, 1916) and The Thief of Bagdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924) rub shoulders in the episode with memorably titled adventure-comedies like Teddy at the Throttle (Clarence G. Badger, 1917) and The Extra Man and the Milk-Fed Lion (William Bertram, 1916), while director Allan Dwan, dancer Agnes de Mille, and journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns join Hollywood‘s impressive array of interviewees.

Episode 3: “Single Beds and Double Standards”

Scandal and censorship take centre-stage as Hollywood reviews the perceived debauchery that the brought Bill Hays and the Production Code into being. Consideration is given to the unsolved death of director William Desmond Taylor, Wallace Reid’s demise due to drug addition, and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s manslaughter trial and the ruination of his career notwithstanding his eventual acquittal. Footage of Arbuckle’s films nicely compliment the accounts from Fatty’s colleagues attesting to his innocence, his character, and the tragedy of his persecution.

Episode 4: “Hollywood Goes to War”

Hollywood examines the influence of World War I on the American film industry, considering war bond drives supported by stars like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, the introduction of Erich von Stroheim to American screens, popular war movies like The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925) and Wings (1927), and the sound-synced experiment of All Quiet on the West Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930). Directors Lewis Milestone, William Wellman, and Raoul Walsh, actress Blanche Sweet, screenwriters Anita Loos and Jesse Lasky Jr., and cameraman Karl Brown provide firsthand accounts of a young industry responding to challenging times.

Episode 5: “Hazards of the Game”

The first of Hollywood‘s episodes on a specific technical aspect of filmmaking, “Hazards of the Game” highlights the cowboys, comedians, and pilots who produced some of silent cinema’s funniest gags and most astonishing spectacles. Stuntmen like Harvey Parry, Yakima Canutt, Bob Rose, and Paul Malvern, along with comedian Harold Lloyd and director Al Rogell, provide hilarious, informative, and tragic accounts of the daring acts done in near anonymity all in the name of entertainment, while actress Viola Dana’s account of Ormer Locklear’s death in a plane stunt gone wrong is heartrending.

Episode 6: “Swanson and Valentino”

Hollywood profiles two of cinema’s greatest romantic icons with Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson, revealing the personal life that contrasted so strongly with Valentino’s silver screen image and Swanson’s spectacular rise and fall. Rudolph’s brother Alberto, cinematographer Paul Ivano, actor Ben Lyon, actress Lois Wilson, and Swanson herself provide a candid view on the life of movie idols, punctuated with clips from The Pullman Bride (Clarence G. Badger, 1917), Stage Struck (Allan Dwan, 1925), Queen Kelly (Erich von Stroheim, 1932), The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rex Ingram, 1921), The Sheik (George Melford, 1921), and even Rudolph Valentino’s home movies.

Episode 7: “Autocrats”

Another episode pairing two of Hollywood’s iconic figure, “Autocrats” attends to Cecil B. DeMille and Erich von Stroheim, each a titanic directorial talent yet diametrically opposed in their relationship with the Hollywood system. Clips from Demille’s The Cheat (1915), Male and Female (1919), Manslaughter (1922), and The Ten Commandments (1923) and von Stroheim’s The Heart of Humanity (1918), Blind Husbands (1919), Foolish Wives (1922), Merry-Go-Round (1923), and Greed (1924) describe how one director’s lavishness was embraced while the other’s excess resulted mistrust and interference. Director Henry King, actress Leatrice Joy, director Byron Haskin, Anita Loos, Al Rogell, Karl Brown, Paul Ivano, and Valerie von Stroheim provide colour and insight on two legendary careers.

Episode 8: “Comedy: A Serious Business”

Silent cinema audiences loved to laugh and Hollywood was quick to make comedy king. Gill and Brownlow’s eighth episode examines the careers of its four greatest funnymen – Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon. Along with droves of hilarious and jaw-dropping clips, this installment of the series features interviews with actor George Harris, actress Marion Mack, editor William Hornbeck, director Frank Capra, Harold Lloyd, Jackie Coogan, Hal Roach, and Harvey Parry.

Episode 9: “Out West”

Popular enthusiasm for the Western only grew with the introduction of silent cinema, however “the Old West” actually still existed in the era of silent film and cowboys and outlaws quickly flocked to Hollywood to become leading men or at least make some easy money as film extras. Stars like Tom Mix, William S. Hart, and Harry Carey share the spotlight in “Out West,” along with moments from The Lady of the Dugout (W.S. Van Dyke, 1918), The Return of Draw Egan (William S. Hart, 1916), Hell’s Hinges (Charles Swickard, 1916), The Covered Wagon (James Cruze, 1923), The Iron Horse (John Ford, 1924), and The Winning of Barbara Worth (Henry King, 1926). Actors Iron Eyes Cody, John Wayne, Col. Tim McCoy, and Al Hoxie, actresses Blanche Sweet and Colleen Moore, director Henry King, screenwriter Jesse Lasky Jr., cameraman Karl Brown, and property master Lefty Hough all bring their insights to the genre.

Episode 10: “The Man with the Megaphone”

Directing had its own specific challenges in the silent era, with interior scenes filmed outdoors and exposed to the elements and with actors performing amid endless distractions, deafening noise, and even roaring lions. Still, talented directors created masterpieces out of Hollywood’s confusion, films such as Rex Ingram’s Mare Nostrum (1926), F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), and King Vidor’s Show People (1928) and The Crowd (1928). Directors Allan Dwan, Henry King, Bryon Haskin, and King Vidor appear to discuss their trade, along with actors, actresses, stuntmen, editors, and journalists.

Episode 11: “Trick of the Light”

Hollywood considers the evolution of cinematography from its primitive beginnings into a true art form. The most technologically focused installment of the series, “Trick of the Light” explores the roles of cameramen and art directors to create screen goddesses like Greta Garbo in The Mysterious Lady (Fred Niblo, 1928), work in harsh conditions like the open oceans in Down to the Sea in Ships (Elmer Clifton, 1922), produce dramatic images under harsh arc lights as in John S. Robertson’s The Enchanted Cottage (1924), and explore the possibilities of trick photography as in Alfred E. Green’s Ella Cinders (1926). Gill and Brownlow conclude the episode with a consideration of Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (Fred Niblo, 1925), with assistant director William Wyler and special-effects artist A. Arnold Gillespie discussing the film’s use of colour, a hanging set of miniature moveable people, and still other little-known details.

Episode 12: “Star Treatment”

Hollywood quickly discovered the value of “star power” and Brownlow and Gill approach the nearing conclusion of the series with the rise and fall of two of Hollywood’s greatest superstars – the “It” girl, Clara Bow, and Valentino’s successor, John Gilbert. Hypocritical attitudes on sexuality, studio politics, and the advent of sounds all conspired to Bow and Gilbert being discarded by the industry they helped succeed. In addition to the usual coterie of brilliant interviews typical to Hollywood, “Star Treatment” hinges on the sympathetic and generous accounts from Bow’s cinematic rival, Louise Brooks, and Gilbert’s ex-wife, actress Leatrice Joy.

Episode 13: “End of an Era”

Although Hollywood concludes with the demise of silent cinema with the advent of sounds, “End of an Era” emphasizes the importance of sound throughout the period by early technologies continually experimented with and the place of live accompaniment to most screenings. Gill and Brownlow specifically attend to the industry’s obstruction of sound innovations and the leaders at Fox and Warner that broke ranks to forever alter the landscape of cinema. Hollywood ends with its most impressive array of interviewees, including directors Frank Capra, Henry King, George Cukor, Allan Dwan, and Al Rogell, actors Ben Lyon and Charles “Buddy” Rogers, actresses Lillian Gish, Viola Dana, Bessie Love, Mary Astor, Colleen Moore, and Janet Gaynor, publicist Irving Asher, cameraman Byron Haskin, producer Paul Kohner, journalist Cedric Belfrage, and theatre musician Chauncey Gaines.

Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film is essential viewing for armchair historians and professional scholars alike and it’s terrible to think that this stunning document languishes in old VHS and LaserDisc editions. Rights issues are often cited as a bar to Hollywood‘s release but with titles like Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) making their way to commercial Blu-ray, MMC! is hopeful that a re-release of Brownlow and Gill’s excellent series is also possible. Assuming that a restoration of the Thames Television program is unlikely or that subsequent high definition transfers of sourced films doesn’t lead to a reconstruction of the series, Criterion’s Eclipse label seems like a easy home for this vital document of the silent era. We’ll suggest a red, white, and black packaging scheme to compliment the series’ title screen.

Credits: This imagined Eclipse set proposes the inclusion Kevin Brownlow’s liner notes included with the LaserDisc edition, and fans of Hollywood should also check out Gill and Brownlow’s Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood (1995). While not quite on the same level as Hollywood, Cinema Europe is an enjoyably entertaining survey of Europe’s silent film industry over six episodes and features narration by Kenneth Branagh.

This post owed debts to the Cinephilia & Beyond review of the series, FlickeringWindow’s Reconstruction Demo at NitrateVille, and the various reviewers providing summaries and comments on the IMDB.

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