By Kevin Brownlow

Knopf. $50. 579 pp.

"SHE HAD a fixed determination to regard the world as a place of brightness," Henry James wrote of Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, though he might have been describing -- in fact he was describing -- Americans generally. However deep we may have sunk into the slough of despair, in our historical imaginations at least we still cling to the fiction of our lost innocence, and we seem to regard our history as a long pastorale which kept getting disrupted by the rowdy noise of corruptors. Once upon a time, our values were truer, our men better, our nation simpler. Once upon a time . . . before we grew up.

That nostalgia may have accounted for the wistful pang in The Parade's Gone By . . ., British film historian Kevin Brownlow's lovely panegyric for a lost age of innocence in American movies. Writing in 1968 when America seemed to be coming apart at the seams, Brownlow examined the silent film period, interviewing numerous survivors, exhuming long-forgotten pictures, retelling anecdotes, and signalling the foreboding "talkies" on the horizon. "The silent era is celebrated for its innocence," Brownlow writes in the introduction to his new book, Behind the Mask of Innocence. "The charming picture it presents of America in the early years of the century has led people to assume life was quieter then, gentler and more civilized."

But this time around, as his book's title makes plain, Brownlow is playing revisionist to his own history and attempting to "set the record straight." Despite our halcyon visions of the past, there was a surprising number of silent films, he claims, that did place a glass over reality rather than a gloss on it. White slavery, prohibition, venereal disease, crime, labor tensions, political corruption -- these issues and many more found their way onto the screen, until the so-called "social problem" film was gradually driven out by the Hays Office, the industry's own internal censor, in the '20s.

Though his approach doesn't exactly make for zippy reading, Brownlow adduces film after film -- "The Road to Ruin," "The Inside of the White Slave Traffic," "Every Woman's Problem" -- synopsis after synopsis, as evidence that the movies were certainly cognizant of the turbulence of the times even if they didn't always confront it. Most of these films are lost now, casualties of carelessness and time, but Brownlow lovingly reconstructs them from old reviews, from the memories of those who saw them, and from photographs. (The book is lavishly and beautifully illustrated.) He also digs up some fascinating shards of arcana: the drug addiction of movie star Wallace Reid and his subsequent death; the screen career of Evelyn Nesbitt, the beauty who gained immortality when her millionaire husband Harry Thaw killed her seducer, architect Stanford White; the Hollywood adventures of a Russian religious poseur named Iliodor, who was once a sidekick of Rasputin.

But, regardless of how interesting these tidbits are, this is less the stuff of breathtaking revelation than of historical curiosity. Even the very notion on which the book is predicated -- that Americans believe the silent period was one of innocence, seems pretty dubious these days, despite our nostalgia. Anyone having a nodding acquaintance with American culture would certainly know that the silent period in movies was hardly a silent period in the larger society; this was after all the epoch of the muckrakers, the Red Scare, the I.W.W., World War I and Theodore Dreiser. And anyone having only slightly more than a nodding acquaintance with film history would also know that the movies were never hermetically sealed from the upheavals affecting the larger society, even though there were plenty of reformers who wished they had been.

Brownlow's failure is that he lists movies, rather than theorizes about them, except in the broadest and least provocative strokes. The movies, in fact, were not only engaged with society, they were spoils in a larger war being waged -- a war over who would finally set the nation's cultural and moral agenda. For decades, that agenda had been established from the top down: by church leaders, editors, educators, politicians and other professionals, all of whom constituted a social elite. Not surprisingly, their rock-ribbed values had been absorbed by middle-class America, and that was now their redoubt. But immigration, urbanization and mass communication, including the movies, had empowered a new group of Americans with a revised set of values and a different agenda. By the late Teens, the issue was joined.

One reason reformers decried "social problem" films as sordid and unholy was that they realized these films directly challenged the reformers' own social control. "The cinema was a populist medium," Brownlow writes. "It favored the ordinary man, and it was surprisingly hard to make a right-wing film which denigrated him." Yet, having said that, Brownlow contradictorily cites one film after another that ridiculed immigrants, excoriated Bolsheviks, and attributed labor strife to union agitators, and he claims that the motion picture industry "followed the popular line" without his saying for whom the line was popular.

So whose line was it? Were "social problem" films agitprop for the emerging masses or were they instruments of the conservatives for defusing grievances and scolding behavior? The answer is probably both. On the one hand, the movies had made their primary appeal to the lower classes. On the other hand, postwar prosperity had made the middle class an especially attractive audience even as middle-class values were under siege. As America moved into the '20s, Hollywood increasingly found itself mediating between the middle class it was wooing and the rising lower classes who had been the movies' earliest adherents. That helps explain why the films Brownlow discusses so often seem contorted -- graphically displaying sin only to damn it. Indeed, the censorious Hays Office, which Brownlow regards as Hollywood's self-imposed party pooper, may have actually been a product of the movies' own desire for respectability rather than a capitulation to the conservatives.

By the mid-'20s, Hollywood had turned to escapism, and Brownlow alludes to the movies' new mission to bring "Americans back together again after years of severe -- and by 1919, hysterical -- divisiveness." He calls it his own happy ending, like the improbably happy endings impasted on so many of the films he documents. Yet one may question whether Brownlow earns his happy ending any more than the movies earned theirs. If the "social problem" films skated over issues, Behind the Mask of Innocence whips through synopses, cataloging tensions without examining them or placing them in a complex social context. It is a painstaking and remarkable achievement of movie archeology. In the end, its artifacts just don't add up to a satisfying work of historiography as well.

Neal Gabler, the author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood," is working on a biography of Walter Winchell.