The Parades Gone By | Reader's Digest

The Parade’s Gone By…

RD Recommends "The Parade's Gone By..." by Kevin Brownlow, a history of the silent film era by a pioneer of film restoration.

By Jim Menick

Let’s try something new here as we get the bugs out of the system. Let’s try a pure recommendation. We’ll call it RD Recommends, which makes sense, given who we are and what we do.

The Parade’s Gone By… by Kevin Brownlow is, for my money, the best book extant on the silent film era. Somehow Brownlow managed to interview what seems to be everybody involved in the business, and the book brings us back to what is now (and seemed even at the time of writing, 1968) a lost world. Many of these movies are indeed lost, although people like Brownlow have worked hard to find and restore them. What is worse, many of these movies are forgotten. And worst of all, so few people care.

I try to imagine any art form—and film is definitely an art form—that manages to forget its roots. Imagine painting if we all agreed not to bother with anything that wasn’t the newest and the latest. Fra Angelico, for instance, did not have at his disposal the tools and techniques of a Rembrandt, much less a modern painter. But the beauty of his work is indisputable. Should we abandon it because he didn’t know how to add the photorealistic tricks available today? By the same token, should we abandon Charlie Chaplin or King Vidor or Lillian Gish because their films aren’t in 3-D, supported by the latest CGI?

It was a piece in the Guardian by Philip Home that got me thinking about this. He talks about Brownlow, who recently received an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement, and he too wonders why Brownlow remains so relatively unknown. Perhaps it’s because his interest is not in building himself, but in saving an art:

“While Brownlow’s achievements – as a historian of film, in preserving and restoring silent-era classics, and as a director in his own right – have commanded respect, he has never played the career-building game. His Oscar acceptance speech began: ‘If you ever wondered what reflected glory looks like, this is it!’ And it went on to remind the Academy of Hollywood’s wretched record, destroying 73% of pre-sound films: ‘By God, your predecessors did a terrible job of preserving the silent era!’ Silent films have always been a cause that needed defending, he told me: ‘The reason I was doing it was because nobody else was.’ ”

Read more about Brownlow in Kevin Brownlow: a life in the movies. And check out our recommendation of Brownlow’s book, The Parade’s Gone By…

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