The Louise Brooks Legacy?

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James Bazen

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The Louise Brooks Legacy?

PostMon Jan 28, 2008 12:39 pm

Okay, since I was encouraged to get the ball rolling here goes. Since this has become a rather contentious issue amongst film fans, I guess one of the most obvious questions to ask everyone about Louise Brooks is do you genuinely feel Brooks made any notable contributions to the screen or is her latter-day reputation largely due to biased and revisionist film historians? Given the fact that so many other actresses of the silent era, who arguably made more notable contributions and had more prolific careers, are largely ignored do you feel the praise, attention and video release activities, etc. bestowed upon Brooks are deserved or has her place in motion pictures been largely inflated at the expense of others?
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Mike Gebert

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PostMon Jan 28, 2008 1:49 pm

Brooks was a time capsule, buried in the early 30s, that popped up in the 70s or 80s. (Yes, I know others knew about her before then, but that's when her widespread fame came.) Suddenly her affectless, minimalist acting (compared to frenetic sorts like Clara Bow, or often Mary Pickford or Colleen Moore, who sometimes work a role so hard it's frightening), and the sexual frankness of her European films (and, for that matter, Beggars of Life, which is plenty raw), jumped and grabbed us precisely because it wasn't quaint and typical of the 20s. It was, in fact, closer to the blank stare and bored anomie of 60s actresses like Julie Christie or Monica Vitti. All this makes her accessible to people who would have trouble with Garbo's endless punishment for wanting love, or Mary Pickford's little girl act, etc.

So she's an anomaly, and if you're going to become a true silent film fan, you have to get past her modern-ness and embrace the actresses who were popular in the period because they embodied the period, and love the movies that don't escape their period. But that doesn't mean her major films aren't especially fine films of the period, or that her presence-- which is her performance-- isn't hypnotic in its own way. So sure, I wish more attention was paid to Viola Dana, but it doesn't have to be at Brooks' expense-- because I know perfectly well that The Cossack Whip isn't going to attract a non-buff audience the way Pandora's Box understandably appeals to such people.
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PostMon Jan 28, 2008 2:03 pm

While there were certainly actresses from the silent era that made more important films than Louise, or wrote their own films or even produced them, I think that Louise deserves the attention that she gets. Some of her popularity is certainly just from her haunting looks that are not traditional to her time.

For one thing, she is important for her battles with studio heads over poor material, battles that would continue with Bette Davis and others in the 1930s. And Brooks did something unfathomable to Hollywood -- she left the USA and make films in Germany. Normally, Hollywood raided the best talent from around the world.

After reading Barry Paris' excellent biography of Louise, I'd have to say that she is probably one of the few people from the silent era that I would not want to meet. She certainly suffered from low self-esteem, and quite frequently was not a very nice person. She was frequently attracted to men who treated her even worse than she treated them. And she really sabotaged her career because she didn't seem to know which battles were worth fighting and which ones were not that important.

For me, her appearance in a film like The Show Off can almost lift it above the programmer status. And she was outstanding in Beggars of Life and Diary of a Lost Girl. I have not had a chance to see Pandora's Box or Prix de Beaute yet.

Another reason for her latter-day popularity was her re-emergence has a Hollywood author, and the retrospectives that the Eastman House did for her late in life.
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PostMon Jan 28, 2008 2:43 pm

After reading Barry Paris' excellent biography of Louise, I'd have to say that she is probably one of the few people from the silent era that I would not want to meet. She certainly suffered from low self-esteem, and quite frequently was not a very nice person. She was frequently attracted to men who treated her even worse than she treated them. And she really sabotaged her career because she didn't seem to know which battles were worth fighting and which ones were not that important.


I agree with you there, she was her own worst enemy. Frankly I think she was a paranoiac and I don't mean that figuratively. There are several stars from the past whom I think I might well heartily dislike (despite the best efforts of their biographers!); Garbo is one and Brooks is very much another. There are a few others, can't think of them now.

For me, her appearance in a film like The Show Off can almost lift it above the programmer status. And she was outstanding in Beggars of Life and Diary of a Lost Girl. I have not had a chance to see Pandora's Box or Prix de Beaute yet.


Another reason for her latter-day popularity was her re-emergence has a Hollywood author, and the retrospectives that the Eastman House did for her late in life


It's been a while since I've seen any of her films. I remember the German films especially as being great films, but I can't remember if that was her performance or if the films would have been just as good with some other actress. I didn't think she was bad, at any rate! I probably need to watch them again paying a little more critical attention...but life is short and my netflix queue is lengthy.

I have the unhappy suspicion that much of her iconic status may be due to her hairstyle. When I see photos of her without the bangs I usually don't recognize or notice her, which doesn't really say much for her star quality.

I suspect that much of her status today derives from her writing. She wrote very well and what she wrote resonated with contemporary film scholarship, especially with the "art vs. commerce" viewpoint so prevalent then. It was a view I cheerfully subscribed to then and which I find quite tiresome now. Maybe when you're younger you don't notice her continuous adolescent whining, either.

If all that sounds dismissive...well, I guess it is. I don't mean it to be completely dismissive, though; she did too many good films to be completed forgotten even if the attention paid to her overshadows people who were better known and probably better craftsmen. That she doesn't work for me doesn't mean she can't work for other people. She clearly does work for other people.

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Rodney

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PostMon Jan 28, 2008 3:11 pm

I have the unhappy suspicion that much of her iconic status may be due to her hairstyle. When I see photos of her without the bangs I usually don't recognize or notice her, which doesn't really say much for her star quality.


While I'd agree that her hairstyle is important, it can't be everything -- you don't get the same effect from actresses with near-identical hairstyles (Colleen Moore, or Arbuckle's love interest in Leap Year) though the hat-check girl in Seven Chances comes close. Louise can sometimes be a blank slate, other times--particularly when her character is upset--I think she acts extremely naturally and convincingly. In "It's the Old Army Game" she's the only one in the entire cast who takes the film the least bit seriously.

Perhaps it's the combination of the hair with something about her eyes and the set of her mouth.
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PostMon Jan 28, 2008 4:22 pm

It's been a while since I've seen any of her films. I remember the German films especially as being great films, but I can't remember if that was her performance or if the films would have been just as good with some other actress.


Well, not if some other actress had been trying a lot harder to act. In an age of emphatic gestures (I don't call it overacting, but it's certainly bigger acting than we have now), she was a minimalist, and that's part of what draws us in-- trying to see what's going on behind those big eyes and the often blank look (or, at its most emphatic, a sort of quietly desperate look). None of those films would be the same with someone acting in a different style. In a real sense, she's The Great Stone Face of ingenues, and thus fascinating for what she withholds, as Keaton is.

One thing about the haircut and so on-- for all that she is a sex symbol to us now, I don't think she was to the 20s. Certainly if she was modeled on Colleen Moore, Moore was considered cute rather than sexy or beautiful (and her roles stayed within the cute-good-girl-next-door range, no grand passions). There's also a level of androgyny to Brooks that sets her apart from hotsy-totsies (Bow) or golden-locked maidens (Pickford)-- after all, before it was Colleen Moore's haircut it was Jackie Coogan's in The Kid, and Beggars of Life in particular is built around the idea that she can pass as a boy. I think it took decades of fashion eroding the barriers between men and women (so firm in the Victorian era), it took Audrey Hepburn and David Bowie and Helmut Newton photographs and Chanel's little black dress before the simple lines of her look became conventionally attractive.
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PostMon Jan 28, 2008 4:31 pm

I'm a fairly new convert to Brooks. Up until a couple of years ago I had not seen any of her films, and I wasn't that much "up" on the hype, so I really didn't know what to expect.

Then I got to see Pandora's Box on a big screen and I was completely bowled over by her. She practically lept off the screen. And the picture was great too.

Since then I've only seen Diary where she's still very good. I saw the "sound' version of Prix (KINO) which didn't do much for me, but I still enjoyed it.

I'm sure a lot of her mystique comes from her modernism combined with her battles with the studios. I haven't seen any of her American work so I can't judge performances away from Pabst, but based on those films all I can say "Wow"! (BTW my wife agreed)
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PostMon Jan 28, 2008 6:39 pm

Let me clarify my previous post. Because she is so electric I do think she deserves most the attention. I do wonder if she had been easier to get along with how she would have faired as an actress through the years. Do you think her personal feistyness added to her on screen charisma? Or is a lot of the charisma her being open to Pabst?
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PostTue Jan 29, 2008 7:59 am

Frederica wrote:I agree with you there, she was her own worst enemy. Frankly I think she was a paranoiac and I don't mean that figuratively. There are several stars from the past whom I think I might well heartily dislike (despite the best efforts of their biographers!); Garbo is one and Brooks is very much another. There are a few others, can't think of them now.


Minta!


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PostTue Jan 29, 2008 8:48 am

Speaking of Louise Brooks, I was catching up on movies last night, and read the notes on REDSKIN from "Treasures from the Archives III."

According to the notes, Louise Brooks was signed to star as "Corn Blossom" in the film, but left for Europe (and Pandora's Box) instead; leaving Paramount to come up with someone else. She was on the payroll for three weeks anyway, though she never appeared on the set. It's a little tough to imagine her in the role -- especially the part that requires her to be an ego booster to Wing Foot -- but I'm not sure we can tell what it would have been like from any of her other roles, which rarely ask her to be supportive, to put it mildly.

Her almost-appearance survives in the haircut of the very cute toddler who plays Corn Blossom as a child, who was given a helmet haircut. When Corn Blossom first appears as an adult, she is "Americanized" in an up-to-date 1920s dress and cloche, so I think the non-Pueblo haircut could have been explained in the context that she has outwardly assimilated as a mainstream American. The rest of her features are another story...
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PostTue Jan 29, 2008 8:52 am

Jim Roots wrote:
Frederica wrote:I agree with you there, she was her own worst enemy. Frankly I think she was a paranoiac and I don't mean that figuratively. There are several stars from the past whom I think I might well heartily dislike (despite the best efforts of their biographers!); Garbo is one and Brooks is very much another. There are a few others, can't think of them now.


Minta!

Jim


Don't get me started.

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PostTue Jan 29, 2008 9:41 am

I have the unhappy suspicion that much of her iconic status may be due to her hairstyle. When I see photos of her without the bangs I usually don't recognize or notice her, which doesn't really say much for her star quality.


Well, don't undersell such things. John Wayne in a business suit isn't much either; Audrey Hepburn with long hair is Jean Simmons. She may have had a very limited range, but done up just right, she leaps off the screen.

I do wonder if she had been easier to get along with how she would have faired as an actress through the years.


In a similar discussion on AMS a couple of years ago Lloyd Fonvielle, I think, argued that she was already losing that doe-eyed, somewhat androgynous quality in her early 30s roles. With better management of her career and attention to her craft, she might have evolved her persona in a way that would have lasted, but innocent-carnal Lulu only worked for a brief time.
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PostTue Jan 29, 2008 5:25 pm

Very interesting answers. I should note that my initial post on this thread didn't necessarily reflect my views on the subject. I was simply throwing out there the jist of what I generally hear espoused by the opposing factions.

Personally, I like Louise Brooks. Yes, there are certainly more accomplished actresses who made more films and were much bigger stars that I would love to see given more attention(Norma Talmadge, Florence Vidor, Corinne Griffith anyone?), but there is a certain indescribable allure and radiance that Brooks possesses that makes it impossible to keep your eyes off of her whenever she's in the frame. Even if she's merely standing there as a passive observer to whatever situations are going on. I imagine it is that real element of modernity that fascinates many new silent film buffs who probably initially envision actresses of the era as hyperactive hand-clasping becurled young things running through fields of daisies and fainting at the mere sight of a dark, mustachioed villain.

If someone devised a way to digitally transplat Brooks' image from an old film into a newer film, her look is so contemporary, so transcendant of any particular time and place that she could fit right into most modern films and not seem glaringly out of place. The same couldn't be said of most other actresses of the period. Not that that's a bad thing in my opinion.

I really like Brooks in the European films, and many of her American film appearances, although at this point I must admit I'm not as enamoured with Beggars of Life as everyone else seems to be. I've seen it three times and have found it a bore with the exception of some very good cinematography. But, I have a suspicion that that's a film that really needs to be seen on the big screen with a live accompaniment and in a better print than the VHS I have. So, I reserve judgement. I liked her in The Show-Off which was an all-around fine comedy. And I found her enchanting in Love 'Em and Leave 'Em where she all but steals the film and is far more convincing and entertaining in the part of the man-stealing sister than Jean Arthur was a few years later in the remake The Saturday Night Kid
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PostTue Jan 29, 2008 5:32 pm

I have seen Beggars of Life on a big screen in a better print.

It's a very well-directed, tawdry, improbable melodrama.

A few years later Wellman just about remade it, minus the sex and with actual boys instead of a girl disguised as one. Wild Boys of the Road is a near masterpiece (in a hurried, raw Warner Bros. kind of way). Beggars of Life is not.

But if you ever get a chance to see Beggars on a big screen, it's plenty of fun, and Brooks shows exactly what it was that interested Pabst in her.
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PostWed Jan 30, 2008 6:16 am

I have seen Beggars of Life on a big screen in a better print.

It's a very well-directed, tawdry, improbable melodrama.

A few years later Wellman just about remade it, minus the sex and with actual boys instead of a girl disguised as one. Wild Boys of the Road is a near masterpiece (in a hurried, raw Warner Bros. kind of way). Beggars of Life is not.

But if you ever get a chance to see Beggars on a big screen, it's plenty of fun, and Brooks shows exactly what it was that interested Pabst in her.


I'll stand up for BEGGARS. I think it's mostly a masterpiece, with the exception of some ill-considered humorous bits in the middle. We played for this at the Castro in San Francisco last summer, and it received a standing ovation. That opening scene, with the description of the murder told in flashback, is one of the best openings to any silent film, and Louise Brooks' enigmatic face is used to great effect. Several people told me they thought it was the best film of the weekend the year we showed it at the Kansas Silent FIlm Festival, and that was from a typical murky 16mm, with some stiff competition from well-known classics like THE GOLD RUSH and FLESH AND THE DEVIL.

We are planning to perform for BEGGARS OF LIFE at the Walter Reade Theater in NYC on April 25th, so if you're in the area that day, you can judge for yourself.

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PostWed Jan 30, 2008 8:07 am

I'll agree with Rodney. Beggars has one of the best opening sequences of any silent dramatic film. It almost belongs in a film noir from the 1940s. It's a great audience hook that gets you involved in the story quickly.

Wallace Beery does get a bit hammy in the middle of the film.

Blue Washington's character is also a surprise. Here's a black character in a 1920's Hollywood film that is not stereotyped. I'm sure that Jim Tully wrote him that way, but I give Wellman credit for letting Washington act like a normal person.
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PostWed Jan 30, 2008 8:32 am

I give Wellman credit for letting Washington act like a normal person.


Apparently the same thing happened on Wellman's Safe in Hell-- the parts played by Nina Mae McKinney and Clarence Muse were written in stereotypical dialect, but they simply chose not to play them that way-- and there's a real warmth between the two of them that kind of walks off with the picture.

I think all of your comments on Beggars of Life are valid, though I still found a lot of it (the sentimentalization of Beery's good bad king of the hoboes in particular) a little tough to buy into. Nonetheless, as I said, with good music it goes over very well; it's a tight, slick and extremely well-staged 80 minutes or so, and yes, the opening is a jawdropper.
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PostSat Apr 03, 2010 8:28 pm

silentfilm wrote:I have not had a chance to see Pandora's Box or Prix de Beaute yet.


If you have haven't had a chance yet, the Criterion Collection release of "Pandora's Box" is magnificent. The supplements included in the release will definitely satisfy fans of Louise Brooks.

Pandora’s Box” comes with the following special features:

Disc 1:

* Audio Commentary - Audio commentary by film scholars Thomas Elsaesser and Mary Ann Doane. These two have studied this film for a long time and both give their interpretation of what they got out of the film. Very intriguing, in-depth and informative commentary.

Disc 2:

* Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu – (59:44) A wonderful documentary made by Hugh Munro Neely for Turner Classic Movies from 1998 which goes in-depth of her life as a child to her latest years in seclusion. Interviews with family members, friends and talent who appreciate her work.
* Lulu in Berlin – (48:05) Verite documentarian Richard Leacock interviews Louise Brooks in 1971. Louise Brooks talks about her experiences working with Pabst and the other talent in the film.
* Richard Leacock on Louise Brooks – (5:08) A 2006 interview in which Richard Leacock talks about what happened before and after his interview with Louise Brooks back in 1971.
* Michael Pabst on his father, G.W. Pabst – (34:25) In this 2006 featurette, Michael Pabst talks about his scholarly interest in his father’s films including interviewing his father but not publishing the interview. Also, about his father and the challenges he faced in his later years.
* Stills Gallery – Stills from “Pandora’s Box”

Also, included with this release is a 98-page book featuring Kenneth Tynan’s 1979 essay “The Girl in the Black Helmet” which appeared in The New Yorker featuring one of last interviews with Louise Brooks, an article titled “Pabst and Lulu” written in 1965 for Sight and Sound by Louise Brooks on her relationship with Pabst, and a new essay “Opening Pandora’s Box” by critic J. Hoberman.
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PostSun Apr 04, 2010 1:53 pm

silentfilm wrote:While there were certainly actresses from the silent era that made more important films than Louise, or wrote their own films or even produced them, I think that Louise deserves the attention that she gets. Some of her popularity is certainly just from her haunting looks that are not traditional to her time.


I have to completely disagree on this point, Brooks's "haunting looks" are absolutely of their time--think Clara Bow, Alice White, Colleen Moore, and espeialy Rosalind Byrne (the hat check girl in Keaton's "Seven Chances")

Brooks would have been a footnote in film history for her work in "Pandora's Box," which has been in the Janus foreign film pantheon at least since the early 1960s--but she finally got lucky late in life. Her affair with James Card led to a modest restoration of her previously modest fame--his encouragement of her writing led to acceptance among the literati in New York, which led to her compilation book, "Lulu in Hollywood" and Barry Paris's biography (a truly wonderful book). The Paris book completed the rehab of Brooks's lost career and reputation, and her candid observations about herself and her contemporaries had the ring of truth missing in many other star bios--so to a certain extent she has become THE silent star of our time. But he fight against Hollywood was rather silly--are "Pandora's Box" and "The Diary of a Lost Girl" realy better than "Beggars of Life"?
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PostSun Apr 04, 2010 2:13 pm

My two cents. Brooks was a pretty starlet building a decent career at Paramount but her personality got in the way. It also cut short her dance career with Denishawn and her Broadway career.

Aside from the Pabst films, I'm not sure Brooks made any really memorable film appearances. Yes she was pretty, but she was also petty and not very likable. The various biographies I've read make her seem quite nasty, eventually even turning on James Card and her own brother Ted.
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PostSun Apr 04, 2010 2:21 pm

Bob Birchard wrote:are "Pandora's Box" and "The Diary of a Lost Girl" realy better than "Beggars of Life"?


Emphatically yes. BEGGARS is a good film, don't get me wrong, but the two Pabst films are in a different league as far as I am concerned.
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PostSun Apr 04, 2010 2:48 pm

Beggars of Life is Brooks' best US film.
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PostSun Apr 04, 2010 2:52 pm

drednm wrote:Beggars of Life is Brooks' best US film.


Another good U.S. film for Brooks might have been "The Public Enemy," but she was replaced well into shooting.
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PostSun Apr 04, 2010 3:08 pm

Bob Birchard wrote:
drednm wrote:Beggars of Life is Brooks' best US film.


Another good U.S. film for Brooks might have been "The Public Enemy," but she was replaced well into shooting.


============

This would suggest she actually went before the cameras. According to the excellent Barry Paris bio, she was offered the part by Wellman but turned it down. She never worked in the film at all.
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PostSun Apr 04, 2010 3:23 pm

Brooks hated William Wellman
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PostSun Apr 04, 2010 4:14 pm

drednm wrote:Brooks hated William Wellman


=========

I don't know that she hated Wellman. Her reason for turning down PUBLIC ENEMY was that she wanted to take a trip with boyfriend George (not the film director) Marshall.
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PostSun Apr 04, 2010 4:51 pm

I mentioned this on another board some months ago but it may be worth repeating here. Back in the 1970s I met a lady who was a librarian in the Rochester NY Public Library. When she realized my interest in silent films she asked me if I ever heard of Louise Brooks. She said that LB lived in Rochester and frequently phoned the library for help with reference questions. This lady spoke with LB quite often. I said that this must be great but she said no, Brooks was rude and obnoxious to the point that library staff took turns having to deal with her. A typical call from her would go like this: "Louise Brooks is on the phone. Look, I talked to her last time so now it's your turn."

Sort of funny, but mainly sad.
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PostSun Apr 04, 2010 8:39 pm

:? I might be in the minority, but I did not see anything to like about PANDORA'S BOX at all. I really wanted to like this film, kept waiting for it to get better. but it didn't. Personally, I hated the movie. Everyone in it, including Louise character. It's hard for me to see the greatness of this film when all the characters were so utterly loathsome. I couldn't bring myself to care about any of them. I do like BEGGARS OF LIFE though and hope to see the restored version sometime.
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PostSun Apr 04, 2010 9:00 pm

Brooks said about Wellman that he practiced "quiet sadism" behind the camera.
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PostMon Apr 05, 2010 4:42 am

I'm sorry; I'm with gagman. I had read the published script and all of the relevant criticism on Pandora's Box and was prepared to be wowed when I entered the theater, but instead I was bored and struggling to stay awake. I might well like her other films, and I have seen clips that look promising. I still love the tone of her letters and her protracted nastiness. I don't denigrate Louise in any way, and I have known women who modeled their looks after her even in the 80s. But to me, Louise Brooks is kind of an abstraction; I don't feel the same kind of connection with her as I do some other actresses of the silent period.

Some of the writers of the Everson-Weinberg era set certain things out of the silent period as absolutes, and when the actual film turns out to be a bore you question their integrity. But I think by doing so they were trying to keep interest in the genre alive -- and THEY genuinely appreciated such things -- so no harm, no foul.

spadeneal
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