After hearing the news of Anita Page's death on Saturday at the age of 98, I started reading up on her in my old movie books. One of the first books I went to was Classics of the Silent Screen, published in 1959 and written by Joe Franklin, yes, that Joe Franklin. According to his Wikipedia entry, "Franklin has an encyclopedic knowledge of the music, musicians and singers, the Broadway stage shows, the films and entertainment stars of the first half of the 20th Century... he is an acknowledged authority on silent film..." I believe it, and Classics of the Silent Film is one of the most enjoyable movie anthology books out there. I picked it up from a used book store one day long ago and have returned to it for entertainment and information time and again.
But one of the striking things about reading a movie book written in the fifties and before (I've got a few older ones too) is how apparent it is that the movies being written about were not readily available for viewing. Sure we've all told stories of how we'd stay up late to watch a classic movie on the late show in the days before cable and video hit the scene but that's nothing compared to the fifties and before when, in many cases, if one didn't see the movie in the theater, one didn't see the movie, period.
This struck me again reading Franklin's entry on Our Dancing Daughters from 1928, which starred Joan Crawford, John Mack Brown, Dorothy Sebastian and of course, Anita Page. Franklin writes a brief couple of paragraphs on the "Jazz Age" films of the twenties acknowledging It with Clara Bow as the most famous but declaring Our Dancing Daughters to be "the best of the lot." Yes, the best of the "Jazz Age" films of the twenties! Easily. And then this: "Quite frankly, I can't recall too much of the plot of Our Dancing Daughters."
Like I said, it's a very entertaining book.
I suspect Franklin may have wished to jog his memory on the plot of Our Dancing Daughters but simply couldn't without writing MGM and requesting a print for rental at a steep price (and this is before even dealing with renting or acquiring the proper projection equipment). For just a two page entry (and most of those two pages are filled with pictures; the ones you see here, scanned from the book) it probably didn't seem worth it. And Franklin being Franklin, he decided to be forthright and admit most of it was now lost in the fog of time.
How much of early movie history was written this way with critics and historians recalling a movie from years ago with no opportunity to see it again except by replaying it in their head? How many movies were overstated because the memory was too strong while others fell down the memory hole because they were lost in the shuffle of the critics everyday life? I'm thankful to the Joe Franklin's of the world for taking it upon themselves to be the story tellers and torch bearers of early film history. The ones who remembered the greats of the silent period, wrote it down and retold the stories until technology finally made it possible for all of us to enjoy them. But I'm a little wary as well. How much of the praise heaped upon little known or lost films from the twenties and thirties is accurate? Lord knows, I've had many a movie I thought was great only to revisit it ten years later and be bowled over by my newfound indifference. If I was to write a book now about the movies I saw in my teens without the opportunity to see them again before writing, I can't imagine how uninformed the results would be. At the same time it's certainly possible to view a film, forget many details, yet still recall the general greatness of the film. The overall experience isn't lost, even if some of the details are.
Still, I'm glad we have such a treasure of older films at our fingertips now especially since there aren't many Joe Franklins left in the world to be our experts on silent film. I'm happy that we don't have to rely on memory if we don't want to. But sometimes it's nice, with a certain treasured childhood or adolescent favorite, to let it linger in the head rather than bespoil the nostalgia with a fresh viewing complete with world-weary cynical eyes. To close out on that point I go back to Franklin who finishes up his short piece on Our Dancing Daughters with this passage:
I can remember Joan's Charleston - more than one, in fact - champagne glasses flowing, wild, frenzied parties in huge mansions the like of which, probably never existed outside of M-G-M's stages, scores of balloons floating heaven-wards, and endless short skirts swaying in fast-paced rhythm to the jazz bands. And that, after all, is how most of us remember the 20's - or like to think we do.