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The Parade's Gone By

THE PARADE'S GONE BY by Kevin Brownlow

Best History of Early Film Industry, 1968, 1976 - 5-Stars Masterpiece

I Fell in Love with Silent Pictures from This Book

When I first read the hardback version of this book back in the 1970's in film school, I fell in love with silent pictures. Kevin Brownlow's writing enabled me to visualize films I had never seen, and feel like I was there when American cinema was being birthed. His descriptions of films like Douglas Fairbanks' Robin Hood (1921) caused me to search for decades for copies of these films, just so I could glimpse the breathtaking beauty he describes. I wished I had been born during that era so I could have been a part of that "parade."

Unfortunately, as happens with most things that are overly romanticized, one day I really was able to see Robin Hood when it finally came out on DVD. It had been fully restored and was a perfect representation of the original. I was gravely disappointed by what I saw.

When I read Brownlow's descriptions of "tinting," I had visualized the kind of tinting that is done in still photography, which looks delicate and subtle. I thought of DW Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919) in those tones, and could only imagine how beautiful it was. Unfortunately, in the silent era, what they called tinting is what we today would call adding a color filter. When they wanted a night scene, they cast it in blue; when it was dawn, they made it yellow; when it was sunset, they made it orange; etc. I'm not talking about a subtle hint of color - I'm talking about one strong color that covered the whole screen. I was shocked by this technique, because I thought it destroyed the photography.

His description of the music of the era was that it was something wonderful. I found the music in Robin Hood to be repetitive and never-ending. Fairbanks' acting is certainly athletic, but he carries it to the extreme of seeming almost like a circus performer. Other aspects were equally disappointing.

I know that the silent era laid the foundation upon which our entire modern movie industry - art and science alike - was built. I fully appreciate the contributions of all the talented people who came before. But it was, after all, only a beginning, and not the parade - certainly not the golden era - that those who lived then would have us believe. I think that Sunset Boulevard adequately depicts the delusions with which many of the tarnished stars of that era lived.

Inspite of my disappointments with Robin Hood, there are some genuine masterpieces among silent films, one of the best being FW Murnau's Sunrise (1927), which is unquestionably one of the most creative films ever made. There are also some action films, like John Ford's The Iron Horse (1924), that still stand up well as far as their action. The comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton have probably fared best, and may very well be as funny today as they were when first released. The melodramas have probably suffered most. Melodrama just doesn't work today the way it did in that earlier era because we are so in love with realism. But at one time, it was a respected art form.

Mr. Brownlow's writing, and especially his story-telling, is always entertaining and interesting. There is no question that the photographs in his book are some of the finest ever taken - not just of the film industry, but of any subject at any time - and many are better than the films they depict. There is also no question that the era he describes was astounding, as these men and women were creating a new art form. But he does present the period in a very romanticized light, and it does cause one to long for something that probably never existed, at least not in that idyllic form.

Regardless of his romanticizing, Kevin Brownlow's The Parade's Gone By is the most definitive work on the silent era ever written, and a book that should be on every serious film-lover's must read list.

Update: With the release of The Artist, a current silent film, and winner of Best Picture at both the Oscars and the Golden Globes in 2011, audiences and students of film will certainly be taking a closer look at silent film and its history, which means this book should gain an even wider readership. For my review of The Artist, go to


Waitsel Smith, October 10, 2005

Text © 2005 Waitsel Smith. Photo of silent film stars Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor. All Rights Reserved.

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