"THEY WERE great days," a former Hollywood stuntman tells Kevin Brownlow. "There were no unions. . . . You worked Sundays and holidays -- no extra pay. But it was a family. . . . Everybody would help each other. . . . Everybody worked. And it was fun, it was real fun."
Those "days" were, of course, the era of silent motion pictures, the very special province of Kevin Brownlow, whose two previous studies of silent film (The Parade's Gon By and The War, the West, and the Wilderness) have set a standard for readable and informative film history. His latest volume, a collaboration with stills collector John Kobal, is a complement of sorts to the Thames Television series on early Hollywood which Brownlow co-produced, wrote and directed.
As Brownlow states, the book's aim is to make available some of the most evocation photographs of the period. And the 300 pictures of Hollywood: The Pioneers are truly a remarkable collection. This is not your tired gallery of portraits of Pickford and Valentino, or still from The Birth of a Nation and Greed. Many of these rare photographs of crude early studios, movie companies talking to the hills and lavish sets under construction evoke Hollywood as a physical, palpable place rather than a state of mind. There are unusual pictures of the stars -- Chaplin and Fairbanks mugging at a Liberty Bond drive, Keaton perched solemnly between two railroad cars, Garbo and Gilbert playfully embracing in front of a cardboard train -- and of directors -- D. W. Griffith instructing an actress while Erich von Stroheim lurks in the background, adjusting an extra's hat. DeMille about to shout "Action!" in such a self-conscious pose you'd think the movie camera was on him. There are stills from films long forgotten and, in some cases, long lost; there are views of Hollywood Boulevard as a sleepy country lane; there are chapters on the scandals, the cameramen, the art directors and, sadly, the arrival of talkies.
Brownlow's text is hardly secondary to these extraordinary photographs, although it may seem that way at first glance. Aware that the silent days is rapidly dwindling, he has recorded the memories of the survivors in their own words. These invaluable recollections buttress Brownlow's fresh perspectives on a number of Hollywood's groundbreakers, including Edwin S. Porter, Rudolph Valentino and John Gilbert.
The result of Brownlow and Kobal's efforts is a lively look at the birth and shaping of an industry and entertainment medium whose effects on our lives are almost incalculable. Although Hollywood: The Pioneers is hardly a comprehensive history, it conveys more feelings for the sheer fun of making silent films than any book I know.