I have great respect for Charles Epting – one of the most knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and certainly energetic young silent film enthusiasts around. He is at the helm of The Silent Film Quarterly magazine, and has today made a post on the publication’s blog claiming that the 90% or so of silent films that no longer survive are, basically, no big loss (I admit I paraphrase). My respect for Mr. Epting notwithstanding, on this occasion he has missed the mark by a long way. Before reading my response, take yourself over to the original article (and check out some of the other great blog posts while you’re there):
The problem with Epting’s view is clear from the start, where he writes: “If all we have is 10% of the silent films ever made, what brilliant, ground-breaking, revolutionary pieces of art are we missing out on?” This would suggest that the only important films are the ones that were brilliant, ground-breaking, revolutionary, or even works of art. But is this really true? Are the films that have shaped our cultural history really all brilliant movies? Of course they’re not.
He goes on to try to tell us that everything is actually OK because most of the works of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Griffith, von Stroheim, and DeMille still survive, as do most of the movies nominated at the first Oscar ceremony. And they do mostly exist, that is true. But let’s take a step away from thinking that film is all about big name stars and directors and Oscar-nominations, and look at it from another point of view. To do this, I shall take you into a niche area of silent movies.
My PhD and subsequent book (still available if you don’t mind remortgaging your house to buy it thanks to the wonders of academic publishing) was about “male-male intimacy” in early film. In other words, it looked at gay characters, homosocial environments, homoeroticism, sissies, fops, romantic friendships, and the like. The films give us an insight into how homosexuality and homoeroticism were viewed in the first three decades of the 20th Century. These primary sources help us to piece together an important part of our cultural history. Now, you might be thinking that you haven’t seen many such characters or narratives in silent film – and that’s because they rarely occurred in the films made by the major directors and stars listed by Epting, and in many cases we only know about these movies at all because comments on them exist in old copies of Variety, Film Daily, Motion Picture World, and other such publications, which we are able to access thanks to the wonders of the Media History Digital Library.
Let me take you back to the early 1910s, when there was a whole flurry of films made in Hollywood containing the stock character of the “sissy” – and yet probably the only film anyone will have seen from the period with this stock character is Algie the Miner from 1912. Why? Because most of the others have been lost. But can we actually presume that Algie is representative of all of the films containing the sissy character from the pre-war period? Of course not. For that we would need to see the likes of A Cave Man Wooing (presumed lost), Just a Boy (presumed lost), Hilda Wakes (presumed lost), Sissybelle (presumed lost), The Pay-as-You-Enter Man (presumed lost), and He Became a Regular Fellow (presumed lost). What the trade publications tell us through their reviews is that the character of the sissy changed drastically from Algie in 1912 through to Keep Moving in 1915. In 1912, he is treated as a sympathetic character, by 1913 he is, according to Moving Picture World, an “abomination,” and by 1916, Musty Suffer is so disgusted at the sissy that he puts a lighted firecracker in a package and then gives it to him.
Charles Epting, in his piece this morning, would argue that these films are not important, and that their loss is no big deal. They would not have been great films, and they would not have had great direction or acting, and so why spill tears over them? But the reality is far from that, as these four years of short, probably not very good, comedies would demonstrate to us just how Hollywood and the public at large changed its view of gay/effeminate/queer (we don’t know which, as we can’t see them) men during the years directly prior and during the First World War, and we can only presume that the advent of WWI caused a shift in how masculinity (or lack of) was treated in film.
Let’s also think about the issue of genre, as well. It is well-documented that “horror” was not used as a genre description before 1931 (there is evidence to counter that now, but by-and-large this is true). So, how were what we now call the horror films of the 1910s and 1920s described or viewed by audiences? How did their content change in the run up to Dracula in 1931? Sure, we can view Lon Chaney films, The Cat and the Canary and Caligari and presume that we can judge from those movies if we want, but we would be foolish to do so.
Today the majority of horror films we watch are not big productions and, instead, medium-budget films with lesser (often unknown) actors. In fact, the majority of horror films made today are straight-to-DVD/streaming affairs. According to the scenario laid out by Epting’s piece, as long as It and The Conjuring survive in a hundred year’s time, everything will be fine because the horror genre in the 2010s can be judged from those big productions. But that clearly isn’t true. There are hundreds of horror films that aren’t big productions, but they are as much part of the genre as It and The Conjuring, and tell us just as much about film-viewing in 2018 (not to mention how they might comment on the political situation).
The idea that only films that received positive reviews and praise at the time of release are worth worrying about when it comes to lost films is flawed, and always has been flawed. What if we applied this idea to classical music? We would assume that a great deal of music written by Wagner, Brahms, and Beethoven was bloody awful. “I believe that I could write tomorrow something similar inspired by my cat walking down the keyboard of the piano” wrote a critic – of Tannhauser! What if THAT was a lost work?According to Epting’s premise, it would be no great loss. In the world of film, we can learn just as much about cinematic and/or cultural history from Ben Model’s release of Whispering Shadows on DVD as we can from Phantom of the Opera.
Every lost film and TV programme is a gap in our cultural history. It doesn’t matter whether the item in question was great art or a trashy horror movie – unless we can see what we are missing, we are not in a position to judge its cultural worth.