One Fan's Story

". . . or How Chaplin Turned Me On"

by Mike Smith


The title of this article is appropriate because that's what I am, a fan. I admit up front that I am not a writer, film historian, or any other kind of expert on the subject of silent film.

This is merely the story of how I became interested in silent films, and the enjoyment I have gotten from then in the years since.

The earliest memory I have of seeing a silent film was when I was in my mid to late teens. The film was "The Gold Rush," and it was on a public TV station (before we had cable). The picture quality was not very good, but for some reason I stopped and watched. I had no previous knowledge or interest in silent movies. After the movie, I believe there was some kind of narrated information about Chaplin. I had heard of Charlie Chaplin before, but didn't really know what he did. I didn't really pursue it after that day, and didn't see another silent movie until I was in the Air Force many years later.

I was stationed in Stuttgart, Germany, and while searching for something interesting in the video store, I spotted a boxcover for "Modern Times." This store had several Chaplin films, and I soon starting renting them. Soon after this, I ordered "The Birth of a Nation" from some mail-order company. This copy ran only 93 minutes, I think, but it led to my next obsession, D. W. Griffith.

Since that year in Stuttgart, I have been searching out books, videos, or anything else related to silent movies. I soon learned that D.W. Griffith holds a special place in the history of film. One of early film's pioneers, Griffith inspires passion not only for the artistry of his work, but also for his controversial portrayal of the races in his films. I am not going to pretend that I have any new insights into this controversy, but it's learning about his work that really deepened my appreciation for the genre.

Griffith's work also exposed me to my favorite actress of silent film, Lillian Gish. Miss Gish fascinated me the moment I saw her. Her beauty and her acting complemented each other perfectly. I doggedly searched out her films, her books, whatever I could find about her. Luckily, she lived a long life and contributed much to the preservation and promotion of silent film. She was interviewed for Kevin Brownlow's documentaries "D.W. Griffith: Father of Film" and "Hollywood: A Celebration of Silent Film". Both of these documentaries are required viewing for any student or fan of silent movies. There have also been documentaries on Miss Gish, as well. One of them, "An Actor's Life For Me," is available on video. The French actress Jeanne Moreau has also done one on her.

Lillian Gish has also graced us with books. She did a lovely picture book called "Dorothy and Lillian Gish" and an autobiography called "The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me." Notice how she refers to herself last in both books. Modesty was one of her best traits. I have yet to read any unkind remarks about her. She has also done a book for children, but I can't remember the name of it. She died in 1993 at the age of 99, and I still remember hearing of her death on CNN. The news shocked me despite her age. I just figured she would outlive us all. Rest in Peace, Lillian.

My thirst for the study of silent films couldn't be extinguished. I have collected scores of books, videos, laserdiscs, magazines, anything at all. My study has been helped out immensely by periodicals such as "Classic Images," "The Silent Film Monthly," "The Silent Picture," "Griffithiana," etc. I don't think one can really appreciate the films by merely watching them. Learning the historical context in which the films were produced helps one to understand them better. It also exposes one to many different perspectives. I recommend people search out as much information as possible. Go to libraries, surf the Internet, go to film screenings if you are lucky enough to have one in your area. Don't rely on the sporadic showings on cable TV.

I was lucky enough to live close to Washington. D.C., which has the American Film Institute and the Library of Congress. One day, I went down the AFI to see two films on the same day. They were "Annie Laurie" and "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." Before the first film, I was talking to an elderly woman who told me about seeing the film when it first came out in the 20's. Then came "Four Horsemen" which included a score by the marvelous Carl Davis. If you haven't seen a film scored by Mr. Davis, you are missing a treat. His collaborations with Kevin Brownlow and David Gill of Photoplay Productions are amazing.

I could go on and on about this wonderful British team. Besides "Hollywood" and "Father of Film," they have also done a series on European silent cinema called "Cinema Europe" and a trilogy of documentaries on the big three comedians: Chaplin; Keaton; and Lloyd. They are, respectively, "Unknown Chaplin," "A Hard Act to Follow," and "The Third Genius." Masterpieces each one, they are also required viewing.

About two years ago I got a laserdisc player, and I have amassed quite a collection of silent films on laserdiscs. This is the best way to see them, after a live showing of course. Now, with DVD starting to release silent titles, maybe more people will see them. I hope there continues to be interest in silent films by each successive generation. Contrary to popular belief, these films can be enjoyed today by people of all ages.

This is the first time I have written anything on this subject, but I hope to do more. I wasn't sure what to write about, and this may not be as polished as it could be, but I hope to improve. By the way, I am 35 and stationed in Texas. If anyone out there knows of any screenings in Texas, or anything else to recommend, just email me at Thank you.


Copyright 1998 by Mike Smith. All rights reserved.

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