The Iowan

The Sounds of Silence

Collectors and enthusiasts sound off about their veneration of the silent-film era.

By Stephanie Finnegan

Amid the 3-D special effects and the highly touted Dolby/Lucas THX/IMAX theater experiences, there was a film that stealthily emerged and captured the movie-going public’s attention by virtue of its quiet dignity. The feel-good/look-good spectacle was The Artist, and its clean, crisp, black-and-white cinematography, grandiose set designs, and spot-on costuming and makeup captured the Hollywood of a bygone era. In a brazen twist of turning its back on all the advancements in technology and industrial magic, the movie was a salute to silent pictures — with only two words spoken at the film’s conclusion — and the audience and award committees swooned. Racking up five Oscars and a treasure chest of Golden Globes, BAFTAs, César Awards, and other international trophies, the film spoke loudly, even without any dialogue.

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The newly minted affinity for silent movies might have swept over the American filmgoer in 2011 and early 2012, but there has been a groundswell of support for this “lost” art form for decades now. 

Fascinatingly, one of the places where collectors of silent-era memorabilia and fans of the films congregate is online. The new social media and internet networking sites host gatherings of like-minded fans who rejoice in being able to share their impressions of the stars of the past, the directors who paved the way, and the scriptwriters who hammered out “boy meets girl, boy loses girl” stories before they became commonplace clichés. 

One of the most interactive and illuminating cyber spots for learning about these Golden Age pictures and the era that surrounded it is “The Silent Film Lounge,” founded by Stacey Palmer. Palmer, who goes by the screen handle of “Stacey Lynn,” is articulate and eloquent about her respect for these often overlooked early classics.

“I created the page due to the numerous websites I saw that had people interested in silent film, but they didn’t seem to be all in one place and the pages were not very active. So, the idea hit me to create my own page and it took off. My interest in silent film began when I was 18 and saw the Son of the Sheik,” Palmer reminisces. However, her connection to the bygone screen efforts went beyond an admiration for Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Bánky. The passion for these pictures flows in her veins.

“My grandfather’s cousin Lorna Moon was an early Hollywood scriptwriter,” shares Palmer. “Check out the book My Secret Mother by Richard de Mille — that’s her. A movie was in the works about her life, but I never heard any more about it. It’s a shame that no one knows her name these days. In Scotland, there are several plays based on Moon’s works, so they are discovering her. To have been involved in writing so many classic silents, plus working with the greatest actors ever, like Lon Chaney, I find it’s almost unbelievable that not many know the name of Lorna Moon.”

In “The Silent Film Lounge,” which unspools on Facebook®, there is daily banter among the 350-plus members. Devotees post reviews of silent films that they have always idolized or have just discovered; recognition of important days in silent-movie history are updated by the participants, and there is a general feeling of camaraderie and shared enthusiasm.

“During my childhood, local television often broadcast silent comedies, including Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin, and Charlie Chase. A number of silent stars were still alive and often made guest appearances, regaling audiences with their wonderful stories,” member Francesca Elizabeth Miller reveals. “Later, I studied cinema and had the privilege of visiting every major studio. On a trek to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, I saw a relic from the silent era, a stage with a ceiling of leaded glass to allow the sunlight to bathe the set as they filmed silent dramas. Silent cinema remains a fascination, and though my collection of films and books is limited, compared to others, they give me hours of pleasure.”

On the site, fans share photos and testaments about their favorite thespians — John Gilbert, Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Douglas Fairbanks, Baby Peggy, Charlie Chaplin, and scores of others — and discuss why these long-ago superstars were the equivalents (and beyond) of this decade’s Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep, Gwyneth Paltrow, and George Clooney.

Lon Chaney Sr. — the original “man of a thousand faces” — is often discussed on the “Silent Film Lounge” board. And one of his most ardent supporters is collector Tammy Burger Baldwin.

“He is a very difficult person to collect. Not just because Chaney died at a young age, but he just didn’t sign anything and didn’t leave anything to be picked over, and that’s the way he wanted it. Even to this day, his resting place is still unmarked, as per his request. However, I collect Lon in my own special, close-to-my-heart way,” Baldwin attests. “I have Lon Chaney tattooed on my person! I have plenty of Phantom of the Opera dolls and photos in my collection, but my tattoos mean the most to me! Everywhere I go, I’m representing Old Hollywood, and I get the opportunity to explain what a wonderful actor Lon was to those who don’t know who he is.”

Another enthusiast who fell under the spell of Chaney was Mary Ann Cade, who, at age 13, discovered the 1925 version of Phantom when it aired on her local Illinois PBS station. Over the next three decades, Cade amassed a scholar’s understanding of the behind-the-scenes activities of silent films, as well as hundreds of props, costumes, jewelry, and other mementoes. “My husband and I have a large collection of silents, from well-known ones to obscure ones. I even have several titles that are from archives such as the DFI archive, the BFI archive, and Screensound Australia. I love finding presumed lost titles in archives or in private collections. It is like locating the Holy Grail to find something that was considered lost for almost a century,” Cade confides.

“I have a few silent film props, including three from the 1918 lost film Cleopatra, starring Theda Bara (a slave bracelet, a chain of office, and a belt). The individual I purchased them from was a prop seller from England. He had acquired them from a neighbor of Ms. Bara’s, who had lived next door to her in the late 1940s and early 1950s,” the collector details. “I also have some spears and a lady’s crown from some silent-film epics. I was told they were purchased from the Western Costume Company and had been used in The Ten Commandments (1923), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), and Ben-Hur (1925).”

Another stellar collector in the lounge is Kevin John Charbeneau, who delights in his role as leading man of “coming-attraction” slides. “I became aware of silent films at college, while doing film classes. I had seen a few, but it was with a project on films that I became intrigued with Metropolis. Then, in 1984, the restoration of the film hit the cinemas and I was hooked,” Charbeneau explains.

While living in Hollywood and visiting bookstores that sold movie memorabilia, the cinephile became exposed to the next reel of his life. “An actor friend who worked in one of the shops introduced me to some old ‘coming attraction’ slides, about 75 of them. I purchased them and started researching the films/slides. I began to make a catalog of the same. As each image was held up to the light, I grew more intrigued,” he declares. 

While working at a shop in Burbank on weekends, the aficionado also stumbled upon a treasure-trove of Film Daily Yearbooks. The more he learned, the more he became intrigued and proactive.

“Living in Hollywood, I found seeing silent films was easy,” shares Charbeneau. “Stores sold them on 8mm home-movie reels, then VHS came out. Of course, early cable TV would show them as fillers. There is also a silent-movie theater in West Hollywood (a unique history all of its own), so every week you could see great silent films with an organist (sometimes Gaylord Carter, an original silent-film organist) and you occasionally got to meet the silent stars.”

Fully immersed in the flickering pageantry, Charbeneau continued to study, investigate, write, chronicle, and collect: “I have tons (literally) of memorabilia. I’ve acquired autographs, books, magazines, lobby cards, posters, and, of course, my ‘coming attraction’ slide collection.” From the initial purchase of 75, the collection has grown to over a thousand of these fragile curiosities “For those who are unfamiliar with these oddities, they are as varied as the films themselves. These slides, which are a forerunner of what we know today as ‘coming attraction’ trailers, are a type of magic lantern slide. The original slides were hand-painted images and later transfers (like decals) mass-produced for the lecture slides. The ‘coming attraction’ slides have a narrow space at the bottom, for the projectionist or theater manager to write on with India ink, stating the date or day the film was coming to the local venue.”

This assemblage of knowledgeable and helpful silent-film fans gathers together to “talk” with one another in a fitting, silent way. No sounds are exchanged, but their devotion and reverence to the art form is heard clearly by all. Like the fictional Norma Desmond said in Sunset Boulevard — the Billy Wilder meditation on silent films — “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” In 2012, the “Silent Film Lounge” lovingly follows that dictum, but with Facebook.

The Silent Film Lounge, Open Group, 

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