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Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture    by Peter Kobel Amazon.com order for
Silent Movies
by Peter Kobel
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2007 (2007)
Hardcover
* * *   Reviewed by Peter Wentworth

Peter Kobel's Silent Movies fills an important gap for movie buffs in need of a guide to help them with their Netflix or AMC choices. Partnering with the considerable resources of the Library of Congress, this coffee table book is a great introduction to the early and enduring masterpieces which, because of recent attention and technological advances, are becoming increasingly available to audiences everywhere.

Reading this primer - written in lucid non-academic jargon - is akin to spending an afternoon with a great tour guide. Kobel fuses a journalist's organization, a curator's appreciative focus, and a raconteur's passionate commentary to make this volume entertaining, and educational.

Silent Movies resurrects titles long overlooked and long overdue for exploration as family entertainment. I offer my own experience of bringing my three sons, ranging from ages eleven to seventeen, to a revival of Fritz Lang's science-fiction masterpiece Metropolis. All were captivated. The jumpy projection, scratched images and muddy orchestral tracks had been painstakingly resolved for this revival, as well as have many of the films mentioned here. One is reminded that motion pictures, before synchronized sound, and dialogue, were the Tower of Babel for popular entertainment bridging boundaries of class, education, nationality, language and in many cases, age. For those who have never experienced the joy of watching a film with both parents and children and experiencing a multi-generational belly laugh, let me recommend Charlie Chaplin as an experience that still transcends the ages, and all ages.

Kobel has incorporated a treasure of newly restored images, including stills, posters, fan magazine covers, and promotional pictures. Photos of the epic sets and technical achievements utilized for the original Ben Hur, Napoleon, and Intolerance are breathtaking even today. In an art form where we assume much is done with sleight of hand, the ambitions of pioneering directors such as D.W. Griffith, Abel Gance, and Cecil B Demille are here reminding us of the days before computer generated effects when movies indeed delivered their claims of having 'A cast of thousands!'

The collaboration of the Library of Congress has contributed much to this splendid volume. Unfortunately, as many titles are copyright by companies unwilling to foot the bill for the considerable costs of stabilizing early films: most pre 1920's motion pictures were shot using a nitrate stock that is highly combustible, and subject to deterioration, let alone restoration. Yet, these same copyright owners insist on payment of licensing fees often for inferior prints circulated for home entertainment and libraries. Introductions by both Martin Scorsese and noted historian Kevin Brownlow, point out this tragic side of what has been an otherwise, amicable marriage of culture and commerce.

Silent Movies combines enough scholarship, enough nostalgia, and enough appreciation, to capture the imagination of any film buff. This is a great introduction to an entertainment form that, with recent preservation efforts and availability from Amazon and Netflix, is worthy of rediscovery by readers and viewers of all ages, especially with a companion such as this!

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