Thursday, September 5, 2013

Review: the Parade's Gone By

Kevin Brownlow's 1968 book the Parade's Gone By looks back on the days of silent cinema, yet today is as much a historical artifact as its own subject matter.

I learned of Brownlow through his 1980s TV mini-series Hollywood; if you haven't seen it, please make the effort. This series was a fantastic history of how Hollywood became the film capital of the world, the pioneering techniques developed during the early days of cinema and the business was transformed by the introduction of "talkies." Heading into the 580-page the Parade's Gone By I expected something similar, but what I found was a strange match.

The Parade's Gone By features extensive quotes from silent-era actors, directors, producers, cameramen, stuntmen and what-have-yous, each interviewed by Brownlow prior to 1968; often, Brownlow turns the narrative over to his interviewee and they proceed to describe how they got into the film industry or relate some colourful anecdotes about what the business had been like.

However, unlike Hollywood, the Parade's Gone By fails to deliver a comprehensive look at the silent business; those people whom Brownlow contacted are given space, as is D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. (albeit, neither extensively so). And yet, so many names are missing from this book. Brownlow dotes upon Josef von Sternberg, Gloria Swanson and Reginald Denny, but where are King Vidor, Laurel & Hardy or Lon Chaney? So many books could be written about the days of silent film and Brownlow clearly had access to impressive research, but it isn't clear why he chose for inclusion the personalities he did and omitted the rest.

Easily the worst thing about the book - and what dates it the most - is Brownlow's frequent editorializing about the state of cinema in 1968. Throughout the text he makes jabs at then-contemporary films such as It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Worldand includes weasel words such as dubbing Intolerance "still the biggest picture ever made." Personally, I don't like the former picture and I do quite like the latter, but I don't like film criticism mixed with film history, even when I agree with the critic.

It is amusing to read von Sternberg's reactions to Brownlow's "parenthetical observations" as Brownlow seems unable to place a simple question before his subject without citations and disclaimers. "You have the most amazing paranthetical approach with everything you say that I have ever heard in my life," Sternberg says while the 30 minutes he allotted for Brownlow's interview quietly ticks away.

Frequently through the book, Brownlow complains about the state of film preservation and presentation circa 1968, fuming at how cinemas ran silent pictures at the incorrect film rate. These diatribes really belong in a separate manifesto, rather than dating his history lesson. In his epilogue, Brownlow goes so far as to claim filmmakers of his time were "generally less imaginative, less daring, and less skillful than their silent-era counterparts." To this, we must apply Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crap and I believe it applies as much to silent cinema as it did 1968 cinema (or 2013 cinema).

For all of these complaints, the Parade's Gone By is a fantastic book, if only for the interviews with people like Joseph Henabery (who worked with Griffith), von Sternberg, Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford. There's also a fantastic history of Ben-Hur and how it became a terrible fiasco and some attention is given to the silent films of Europe.

I can't recommend the Parade's Gone By to a casual fan of books on cinema - I think you should really watch Hollywood first in order to better understand silent films; having seen it and doubtlessly wanting more, that's when you should pull up a copy of the Parade's Gone By.

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