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I was strangely moved to see the references in SILENT LIVES to Joe Franklin's CLASSICS OF THE SILENT SCREEN, a book that is typically ignored by silent film historians. Franklin's book, ghosted by the great William K. Everson, appeared in 1959, the year that Lon Davis was born. CLASSICS may seem a little dusty by now, if only because Everson, lacking instant access to the silent-film library that we now take for granted with DVD, had to rely on his memory, his own and others' collections, and whatever screenings of rare films he was able to arrange. CLASSICS OF THE SILENT SCREEN introduced a new generation to the silent era; SILENT LIVES furnishes a beginner's guide to that era from the very different vantage point of 2008.
Think how much has changed! Where, in 1959, did one go to see Betty Bronson in PETER PAN, filmed only 35 years earlier? Today, 84 years after the movie's release, we can watch it at our convenience on DVD (or, if we're blessed, on a big screen), restored to its original tinted magnificence from an endangered nitrate print. We are mindful now that only 20% of all silent films survive, yet more effort is being expended today to preserve that 20% than was ever put forth to save the lost 80%. We live in an age of new hope for silent film.
To confirm this, open SILENT LIVES at the back, page 402. The appendix in Joe Franklin's book was limited to an FAQ section and cast lists for fifty films. In contrast, Davis provides a short bibliography, important works by Everson, Kevin Brownlow, Walter Kerr, Jeanine Basinger, Anthony Slide, and earlier enthusiasts like Kalton C. Lahue; inventories two multi-episode television documentaries by Photoplay Productions; lists a dozen specialized outlets (by mailing address and URL) for the purchase of silent era DVDs, and furnishes the web addresses of 56 web sites dedicated to the study and enjoyment of silent films.
The body of the book offers one hundred brief, unpretentious, cross-referenced biographies of film people--actors, primarily, but also writers, directors, moguls, even Felix the Cat and Rin-Tin-Tin. It is far from exhaustive, but it provides the silent-film novice with multiple springboards to further reading and watching.
The book's photos are surprisingly diverse. I didn't imagine I would ever see a Mary Pickford still that I hadn't seen before, but Davis came up with one (Mary literally draped with puppies). She graces the cover of the book, too--a shot from COQUETTE (1929), her first talkie. In the photo she is holding her finger to her lips. It's a cautionary gesture, frozen in time, from the very end of the silent era.