Anthony Slide has been a serious student of film for over 30 years, authoring or editing more than sixty books on the history of popular entertainment and distinguishing himself, according to Lillian Gish, as the "preeminent historian of silent film." Even so, with his new book, Silent Players: A Biographical and Autobiographical Study of 100 Silent Film Actors and Actresses, Slide is still breaking new ground in film studies and his own career.
"This is the first time I have ingratiated myself into one of my books," Slide said. "As I wrote Silent Players, I came to acknowledge more and more how lucky I was to be around during the final years of so many silent actors and actresses." But Slide wasn't just around them he shared close, intimate relationships with many of them, and it is these experiences that distinguish this work from other studies of the genre.
"An interview is very much a structured, semi-formal affair with carefully considered answers from the subjects," Slide said. "I quickly discovered that what those 'subjects' had to say over dinner, after a glass or two of wine, might be radically different and certainly far more entertaining."
Getting to know his subjects this way, Slide was subject to all kinds of surprises, good and bad. Blanche Sweet, his favorite silent star and a close friend, could also be temperamental and difficult. "Meeting with her was often like crossing a minefield," he said. "You had to be very careful what you said and ready to deal with any crisis that she might create." Alice Terry, the wife of Rex Ingram, "was more of a great beauty," Slide said. "She tended to stand around a lot and look regal. But in private life, she was incredibly down-to-earth, wandering around in a pair of slippers and comfortable clothing." Widely considered a recluse, she nonetheless welcomed Slide into her home for Sunday afternoons of food and champagne. "She was fun, outrageously entertaining, and you never had to worry about offending her," he remembered.
Slide's personal approach to writing Silent Players comes in part from his wish to convey the genius and artistry of the form and, of course, its players to modern audiences. "Today's audiences are used to the heavy-handed, special effects approach to filmmaking, to loud noise, violence, and well sign-posted storylines," he said. "Silent films require attention; if you blink you may miss an important plot development."
Slide believes that it is the viewers' investment in what they're watching that makes the silent film experience so rewarding, Slide said. That personal investment also made the 100 silent film actors and actresses featured in this book much more talented, intriguing, and complex. "The old cliché is that, 'They had faces then,'" Slide said. "But they had more than faces they had the ability to let the audience read their minds."
Anthony Slide is the author or editor of more than sixty pioneering works on film and entertainment, including Early American Cinema, The Silent Feminists, The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, and The New Historical Dictionary of the Film Industry. He lives in Los Angeles, California.
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