BBC4 recently repeated its series on early Hollywood which was curated and presented by Paul Merton, a comedian who leapt up my admiration chart when I first heard about his absolute love and devotion to early cinema. Being the BBC it is an entertaining and vaguely informative dissertation on the first three decades of American cinema, but three hours of covering the visible peaks of the Hollywood iceberg – Edison & Biograph, DW Griffith, Edwin S. Porter and The Great Train Robbery, the establishment of the big studios, Mack Sennett and the early comedies, the emerging star system including Mary Pickford, Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle and others – well it’s a fine overview but kinda Film Studies 101 for us cinema snobs, and all it left me with was an appetite to delve under the waters and get deeper into the murky depths of the early twentieth century. So, after putting it off for many years I finally launched a full inquiry into Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood, a 13 hour exhaustive documentary series on the birth of the movies, I’ve had this bookmarked for a few years since stumbling across it on youtube, and finally over this long Easter weekend I satisfied my celluloid fix with some prime vintage cineaste wallowing. The series is considered one of the most exhaustive and brilliantly executed enquiries into the period, and Brownlow is considered one of he most informed scholars of the ‘flickers’ currently drawing breath, I have to say this was simply fantastic if you just overcome your prejudices of silents being those boring, badly cranked, wheezing, primitive efforts of cinema persuasion then there are bounties to be devoured, for the real connoisseur it’s not just the films themselves which are terrifically illuminated in this series but the execution and evolution of an entire industry and art form, a new way of regulating and regurgitating our myths and legends,dreams and desires which have been shared around campfires since the dawn of Homo sapiens – it is really that simple.
As a cinephile it’s just hypnotic to see the likes of Henry King, Byron Haskin, Allan Dwan, Lillian Gish, Gloria Swanson, Agnes De Mille, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Henry Hathaway, King Vidor and many, many others offer their recollections and anecdotes unfiltered through the lens of a textbook or dry academic dissertation, this was produced by Thames Television back in the midst of time when ITV actually produced anything of merit (or 1980 as its more commonly known) and crucially Hollywood is quite the historical document in its own right as a repository of footage of many figures of that era for the final time on camera, even by then a half century since the silent period closed. It skillfully intersperses lengthy sequences of the movies with talking heads and stock footage, this might be standard issue documentary technique but its the sheer scale and time they have to lavish on every facet of the phenomenon, plus James Mason’s loquacious narration is also a joy to behold, he himself was an inodorous cinema aficionado and in fact found some abandoned old Buster Keaton two reelers when he purchased Keaton’s old mansion in the 1950’s, like any decent sort he paid to have them restored before donating them to the US National Archive. I’ll admit I wasn’t fully contingent of the likes of Colleen Moore or Wallace Reed so the series does serve as an educational tool as well, and given that I only got around half through the series in between other leisure time (including making a start on this* which is also stunning after just a few chapters), I’m positive there are more informative nuggets to extract with the determined with the grizzled dedication of a hungry, gold crazed turn of the century pick-axe wielding prospector.
You can see how film grammar was built step by step like teaching a petulant and unruly child to walk, every week a movie would pioneer a new form of cutting, of lighting or set design, a new death-defying stunt, a risqué gag or a close-up, a series of innovations begetting an evolution. Over a few years in that astonishingly creative fulcrum of the West Coast the form moved from those static, mid-shot, one-take photographing of stage plays to embroidering sequences together to build character and emotion, with meaning and awe constructed through images yes sound, as many of the of the pioneers elucidate these movies were never ‘silent’ but played to live action accompaniment which was critical to their seduction and security. I love how from its very conception just how self-reflective cinema was, sixty, seventy years before the phrase post modernism’ was even uttered the ‘flickers’ were riffing on their own existence in their own hermetic universe, being playful and subversive and ever so slightly political, drawing on a mélange of influences and techniques to mould a new cultural instrument – theatre, literature, music, painting, comedy, poetry, and of course photography.
It’s not just the moves and the pioneers themselves which are fascinating, it’s also the culture and wider society of the time which the series takes the time to contextualize. The fact that people attracted to the burgeoning industry were loathed by the indigenous populace at the time and adverts for apartments and houses would state ‘no movies’ alongside traditional bigotry such as ‘no coloureds’ or no jews’ was eyebrow raising, they really were seen as a sacrilegious celebration of decadent society by the tedious moral majority, isn’t is amazing how their complaints have changed over a hundred years? Then again they were kinda correct in their assumptions, as in this era of prohibition and more strict moral structures you suddenly had these twentysomethings becoming literal overnight millionaires, throwing lavish three-day parties and snorting and sucking, drinking and fucking everything in sight, whilst the more sober moguls established financial empires in full service to Mammon, holding their vassals in virtual slavery and populating the screen with violence and titillation before the MPAA was formed in the Twenties following the Fatty Arbuckle scandal – plus ça la change?
Although it is widely acknowledged that European cinema of 1895 – 1915 was more innovative , more creative and more revolutionary than the aligned American product of the era with Europe devastated by the First World War the stage was set for a Hollywood holocaust across global theatres, with their production line techniques, their financial muscle and the birth of the ubiquitous advertising and marketing infrastructure combining into an unholy trinity, a cultural stranglehold which remains to this day. I also loved the series emphasis on how during this crucial adolescence the three distinct phases of the industry – production, distribution and exhibition – were intrinsically linked in a monopolistic manner, and how particularly the later transformed in a mere couple of decades from being absorbed by uncomfortably standing up and inserting a dime into a rattling Nickelodeon for a thirty-second clip had transmogrified to the ornate and gaudy picture palaces of days gone by – the 6,200 seater Roxy Theatre in New York was purchased by William Fox, as in 20th century Fox, for a mind-blowing $15 million in the late twenties.
However you cut it the scale of ambition and the blockbusters themselves remains unsurpassed to this day, move over Lean or Spielberg as it is astounding to think that everyone in the popular biblical films of time was clothed, fed and watered for months on end, how those vast sets were built brick by brick and beam by beam, although yes there was naturally some trick photography you actually had thousands of people at the beck and call of the Jodhpur and eyeglass sporting tyrants , So that’s that, I have to say that the series has been quite an elixir and primed me for a challenging movie schedule on the way with three movies over the next three consecutive days, and the now we’re in April blockbuster season is swiftly approaching…..
* The most striking sentence so far, in reference to Stroheim’s Greed – ‘ remorse is a recurrent emotion in silent cinema, as if the system felt guilty over its liberation of fantasy’)