Silents are Golden: 8 Great Silent Movie Books for Your Library
Maybe it’s because of those title cards, but it’s because of a love of silent movies and a love of reading around
Silent films seem to go hand in hand. If you’re new to early cinema books and would like to know where to start, I have some handy suggestions – and believe me, narrowing the list down to just eight choices was quite a challenge!
The parade is over by Kevin Brownlow
Any list should, of course, begin with Brownlow’s milestone book, the gold standard for everything 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 is over is a compilation of countless priceless memories of the silent film era and contains a wealth of detail on all aspects of early filmmaking. It is interwoven with Brownlow’s passionate research and thoughtful observations about an era he was desperate to save from oblivion – and I would say he succeeded.
A million and one night by Terry Ramsaye
Written in 1925, this was one of the earliest books to explore the history of film – beginning, ambitious, with reflections on mankind’s advances in creation and communication throughout history. (An exemplary chapter title: “From Aristotle to Philadelphia, PA.”) Because, as Ramsaye wrote, cinema was still evolving and maturing, it is a fascinating time capsule. While today’s research shows that not all of its facts have been proven correct, it is an enthusiastic, beautifully written book. When it comes to love stories in art, how often do you read a phrase like “The crab apple of Eden and the orange of Hollywood are undoubtedly from the same tree”?
The silent clowns by Walter Kerr
Kerr’s passionate, deeply analytical approach to the work of The Great Silent Clowns is yet another milestone in the great writing of early cinema and glows with love and admiration for her work. Covering a wide spectrum of talent from Buster Keaton to lesser-known personalities like Lloyd Hamilton, he examines their unique gifts and thoughtfully argues why some comedians stand out from the rest. A remarkable tome that has been called a love letter to the silent comedy on more than one occasion.
The Transformation of Cinema: 1907-1915 by Eileen Bowser
If you Yes, really In examining some of the details of early filmmaking, few works can do me better than Bowser’s in-depth look at every aspect of American cinema from the Nickelodeon era through 1915. Highly readable and utterly fascinating, it covers a spectrum of Topics range from Nickelodeon theater interiors to early film promotions to censorship of acting styles. Bowser was the former curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and her wealth of knowledge and meticulous research is virtually unparalleled. Whether you’re a hardcore silent film fan or someone new to the genre, you’ll be lucky to have this book.
An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Film, 1915-1928 by Richard Koszarski
Picking up where Bowser left off, this volume is equally detailed and intriguing.
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. Are you looking for descriptions of film screenings in the 1920s? Looking for early box office stats or theater entry information? Are you hoping to find reviews of some important directors? Interested in the ins and outs of poster design? All of this and much, much more can be found in a book that I find absolutely indispensable.
The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt by Lotte H Eisner
This is what many fans of classics like The cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922) can’t go wrong with the most acclaimed book by the great Franco-German historian. It comprehensively covers the genre of German Expressionism, from its roots in modern art and expressionist theater to the well-known masterpieces of the 1920s by FW Murnau and Fritz Lang. It also includes a number of smaller German Expressionist films that you probably haven’t heard of. All of this, combined with Eisner’s succinct analysis and a set of great stills, make it a very useful reference work in this unique niche of film history.
American silent film by William K Everson
This classic overview of early American cinema is on the shelves of many silent film fans. Everson’s book takes the reader on a comprehensive journey from the beginnings of film to early talkies, focusing a little more on the artistic side of filmmaking and also recognizing the influence of European filmmaking. It was also one of the first books to cover pre-1920 films in detail. It is a work that I have referred to many times and you will no doubt find it fascinating as well.
The Keystone Kid: Tales from Early Hollywood by Coy Watson Jr.
And now for something else! Comprehensive surveys and in-depth analysis are all well and good, but sometimes it’s nice to see “the industry” from a more personal perspective. Coy Watson Jr. grew up literally near Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio, and his father was one of Hollywood’s first official special effects experts. Coy and his eight siblings all starred in the films alongside numerous big stars, both silent and talkie. In 2001, he decided to share his family’s memories and publish these enchanting memoirs. It’s both a priceless, up-close, and personal account of early Hollywood, and a loving portrait of a very close-knit, hard-working family. It is a beautiful book that more people could know.
Obviously this is one very brief starting point for building your own silent film library, but I hope it helps! Much like the films themselves, these are books to be enjoyed and pondered for many years to come.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
You can read all Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.
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 credits to Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion on her website, Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.