If you have an interest in silent film, Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s thirteen-part documentary series Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film is essential viewing. This series truly is a treat for silent film fans. It’s very insightful, has a great narration by James Mason, and is chock full of interviews with actors and actresses, directors, producers, writers, cameramen, stuntmen, and journalists who were all part of the film industry during that era.
Quite a few big names were still alive at the time and were able to be interviewed for this documentary including Gloria Swanson, Janet Gaynor, Anita Loos, King Vidor, Hal Roach, Bessie Love, Mary Astor, Lillian Gish, Jackie Coogan, Colleen Moore, Louise Brooks, Frank Capra, and Charles “Buddy” Rogers, just to name a few. Interviews with some of these people were quite rare, which makes this documentary an extremely important resource for anyone wanting to learn more about the silent film era.
Although the series was released on VHS and Laserdisc, due to copyright issues, it has yet to make its way to DVD. Copies of the complete series on VHS are for sale on Amazon, but the asking prices are pretty ridiculous ($989 for a set? Get out of here.) I really hope the copyright issues can be worked out someday and it can be released on DVD, because it absolutely deserves to be seen. In the meantime, the whole series is currently up on YouTube. Each episode is just under an hour long, so it will take you a while to make your way through the series, but the time investment is absolutely worth it. I’ve included a link to each episode along with my episode summaries.
Episode 1 – Pioneers: The primary focus of this episode was on the influence of D.W. Griffith, but there was also some discussion of The Great Train Robbery.
Episode 2 – In the Beginning: This episode details the film industry’s exodus from the east coast to sunny California. It’s got lots of stories about the rivalries between independent productions and studios and how they’d have gangsters trying to sabotage each other’s films. The influences of Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Colleen Moore, and D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance are discussed.
Episode 3 – Single Beds and Double Standards: After prohibition, the Fatty Arbuckle scandal, and the death of William Desmond Taylor, the morality of people working in the film industry comes under intense scrutiny. In response to concerns from the public, Will Hays is brought in to create a production code and clean up Hollywood’s image. This episode goes into great detail about the Arbuckle scandal; how the press would try to spin the case, and how even though Arbuckle was acquitted, it still destroyed his career.
Episode 4 – Hollywood Goes to War: After the onset of World War I, Hollywood begins turning out movies such as Intolerance and Civilization to help promote peace. However, after the U.S. gets involved in the war, stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin help the effort by selling war bonds. Propaganda films come into play. Eventually, the public grew tired of movies about the war. Most of the definitive WWI films weren’t made until several years after the war had ended (The Big Parade, What Price Glory, Wings and All Quiet on the Western Front).
Episode 5 – Hazard of the Game: This episode is all about the unsung heroes of the silent film era: stuntmen. It’s a pretty fascinating look at how some of those stunts were done and it’s told by some of the people actually did them and lived to tell about it. One of the stuntmen interviewed doubled for Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! and John Barrymore in The Beloved Rogue. It also mentions how although many stars liked to take credit for doing their own stunts, they almost always had doubles, but Douglas Fairbanks was mostly an exception to the rule. Remarkably, Buster Keaton isn’t mentioned once in this episode.
Episode 6 – Swanson and Valentino: As the title suggests, it’s all about Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino. It has lots of good information about Valentino’s funeral.
Episode 7 – The Autocrats: The focus is all about two directors notorious for their extravagance: Cecil B. DeMille and Erich von Stroheim. While DeMille managed to flourish in the silent era and the sound era, von Stroheim’s career essentially collapsed under its own weight. Much is said about the battles between von Stroheim and studio heads for shooting excessive amounts of film on Foolish Wives, for his unmarketably long version of Greed, and his fiasco of making Queen Kelly with Gloria Swanson.
Episode 8 – Comedy – A Serious Business: All the key silent film comedians get their due here — Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, even Harry Langdon is included. Keaton gets the recognition he deserves for his stunt work in this episode. One of the stuntmen interviewed said doubling for Keaton would have been impossible.
Episode 9 – Out West: A look at silent-era westerns and the first on-screen cowboys such as Tom Mix, William S. Hart, and Harry Carey. I love that they interviewed John Wayne for this episode. He talks about the influence Tom Mix and Harry Carey had on him and the way he paid tribute to Carey in The Searchers. Some of John Ford’s silent films are discussed.
Episode 10 – The Man With the Megaphone: Directors are put in the spotlight in this episode. Some often overlooked directors such as John Collins, Marshall Neilan, and Rex Ingram are discussed. More well-known directors like Allan Dwan, F.W. Murnau, and King Vidor are also mentioned. The real highlights are King Vidor and Eleanor Boardman talking about The Crowd and Janet Gaynor discussing the production of Sunrise. (Note: The user who uploaded the series was unable to upload this episode, so she included links to download the episode instead.)
Episode 11 – Trick of the Light: This episode is all about cameramen, cameras, developments in lighting techniques, and trick photography. The information on how they pulled off some of those trick photography shots is incredible.
Episode 12 – Star Treatment: Two of the greatest stars of the silent era who didn’t really transition to sound are discussed: Clara Bow and John Gilbert. Louise Brooks talks quite extensively about Clara Bow and it is very interesting to hear one of the great flappers of the silent era talking about another great silent era flapper. Near the end of the John Gilbert segment, footage from a color screen test commissioned by Marlene Dietrich is shown, which I had never seen before.
Episode 13 – End of an Era: Although The Jazz Singer is regarded as the first sound film, this episode also covers earlier efforts to produce films with sound. The process of filming for sound changed the film making process in every way, even studio lights had to be redeveloped because the ones used in silent films made too much noise when they were on. Colleen Moore has some very funny stories about having to take voice lessons.