April 3, 2024

Book review: Stumbling into Film History, by Lon Davis

Last week, I mentioned Ernie Kovac's1961 series Silents Please, and how it paralleled the resurgence in silent movies that was taking place in the late 1950s and early 1960s, thanks in large part to the movies being shown on local television. Silents Please was a labor of love for Kovacs, a true aficionado of early film history, and a good number of viewers were surprised at the absence of oddball humor that they had come to expect from a Kovacs program; for Ernie, it was all about the movies and the people behind them.

Which leads to a question that many people have wondered about, namely: how and why do historians become interested in the topics that they study? For some, it's a reflection of the environment in which they grew up; others discover their interest by accident while researching tangential topics. For me, television history has combined my interest in cultural and social history with an attempt to understand, and in some way relive, those early, pre-comprehending years of my life. In the wrong hands, trying to explain these passions can leave the reader feeling like someone being forced to look at their next-door neighbors' vacation pictures. Fortuantely, that's not always the case, and if you need any proof of that, look no further than film historian Lon Davis and his latest book, Stumbling into Film History

Stumbling into Film History

by Lon Davis
BearManor Media, 240 pages, $29.00

My rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Davis has authored or co-authored several books on early film history (including Silent Lives and Silent Vignettes) which focused on the personalities and acts that personified those first groundbreaking decades of the industry, from Francis X. Bushman (Ben-Hur) to the Three Stooges and the Keystone Cops. But in Stumbling into Film History, Davis focuses on his own story, in a delightful and affectionate recounting of his journey through the "golden age" of cinema, and the various people he meets along the way.

Now, I know what you're thinking. Why, you wonder, is Hadley reviewing a book about classic film history on a classic television blog? Well, besides the fact that (full disclosure) I know and like the author, the truth is that television has had a lot to do with keeping this history alive. As recently as 1958, the major studios "conspired" to keep any movie made after 1948 from appearing on television, and it wasn't until NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies in 1961 that post-1950 movies became prominent. That, combined with an increasing demand from viewers for more and more movies, meant that early movies, both silent and sound, enjoyed a visibility they wouldn't again have until the heydays of AMC and TCM. For many, it was the repeated showings of these movies that would spur a lifelong interest in the industry, and keep alive the history of their times. Once again, credit television for documenting times that might otherwise be forgotten.

As is so often the case, it was an unlikely combination of circumstances that gave birth to Davis's love of early movies—a display of boxes of 8mm films bearing the images of Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, and the Universal monsters, that the author ran across while waiting for his father at a camera store; a PBS series on silent movies hosted by Orson Welles that Davis and his father watched weekly; a great-uncle who lived in the Motion Picture Country Home in Los Angeles, home to many of the stars of the early era; and a young teenager's initiative to learn more about the now-forgotten stars that he'd met through these films. The result is a fascinating look at the lives and times of the people who made the movies. But more than that, it's the author's personal journey, a fond recollection of his friendships and interactions with these figures; and just as they shared their stories and perceptions with him, he now shares the same with us.

And while any (good) historian can write a history of early film, only a very few are privileged to have, in a way, become a part of this history; certainly, Lon Davis is one of those who can make that claim, for Stumbling into Film History is his story as well as theirs, offering a personal perspective that comes from firsthand knowledge of the people he writes about. There are, for example, his stories of spending time at the Motion Picture Home with Three Stooges member Larry Fine; again, there are many interviews with various Stooges (I just read one in an old TV Guide), but they won't give you the personal insight that Davis can, including his unfortunate attempt to set up a movie projector in Fine's room which, predictably, included a clash of heads that could have come right out of a Stooge short. While Davis couldn't help but be amused by the irony, Fine wasn't quiet as sanguine; "At least I got paid to make an ass of myself," he said.

Often, the teenage Davis would form connections with these old stars simply by looking up their numbers in the phone book and calling them; many of them were delighted to talk about the past, so pleased that someone as young as Davis would take an interest in their work. In doing so, Davis provides a lesson from which we could all learn: don't be afraid to take a chance; the worst thing that can happen is for someone to say "no." That's a lesson that it took me a long time to learn, and there's something bittersweet for me in reading about how Davis's enthusiasm propelled him to reach out and make these contacts. He well knew that these people wouldn't be with us for long, and that once gone, their stories would die with them. Of course, you can't invest in retrospect; even had I had as much nerve as Davis had at that age, I hadn't yet determined on my future course as a television historian. Still, it's hard not to wonder about how many opportunities were lost, how much insight went missing, how many questions were left unanswered. The truth is that, even though times have forever changed, many of these figures are still more approachable than we might imagine. Again, what's the worst that can happen? You probably have a better chance of success than you do winning that $1.3 billion lottery jackpot. 

Davis saves the best chapter for last, as he writes of how a mutual love of old movies led to what would become a lifelong friendship with a fellow college student, and how that friendship would eventually result in marriage. Not only is it charming (and surely any scriptwriter from the Golden Age would be pleased to pen such a happy ending), it shows how important a shared interest is in forming the bonds that lead to a successful relationship. (And you thought messages like that only came from MST3K shorts!)

Of course, that's the message that runs through the various essays that make up Stumbling into Film History. It's that personal perspective that lifts this book above the typical film book; reading it, I was reminded of a similar feeling I got from Andrew Lee Fielding's The Lucky Strike Papers, which I reviewed several years ago. Part memoir, part history lesson, books like this share one important quality: a passion for the subject that becomes contagious, that urges the reader forward into a world that they may not have previously been interested in; or, if they had, it turns that interest into something more, something that can enrich your life. (Note: there's no guarantee that you'll meet your future spouse, but it's almost a certainty that you'll make lifelong friends while you're at it.)

(By the way, some of you might notice that this is the third consecutive book review in which I've given a five-star review. That doesn't mean I'm free with my stars; it does mean that I've been fortunate to have encountered some excellent books recently. And at my age, when it comes to books on TV and movies, it becomes harder and harder to spend my reading time otherwise.)

Lon Davis has been called a "Champion of the Silent Cinema," but more than that, he also tells quite a story, one you'll want to read—whether you realize it now or not. TV  

1 comment:

  1. My introduction to silent movies was on our local PBS station back in the early 70s. It was the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Being a kid and fan of monster movies, I wanted to see it. Of course, when I grew up, I realized the Hunchback of Notre Dame was not horror film. But nevertheless, it introduced me to silent cinema. The same series showed the Thief of Bagdad, the Phantom of the Opera and lots of Laural and Hardy shorts.
    On a sidenote, that same PBS station showed Matinee at the Bijou, which showed old newsreels, serials, comedy shorts and westerns. I never missed it.
    I was a weird kid.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!