History of silent movies is a love story

August 18, 1994|By George Grella | George Grella,Special to The Sun

In "Seductive Cinema," James Card reveals that whatever his professional eminence in the world of cinema as historian and archivist, he remains an amateur in the original and most appealing sense of the term: a lover.

As the title implies, Mr. Card regards the subject of his book not only as a manufactured product, a technological achievement and an artistic creation, but also as a living presence that arouses a great and enduring passion. In addition to its study of the history and development of silent film, his book recounts the story of a lifelong love affair.

Above all else that has motivated his career, the author has always been a collector, persistently tracking down and acquiring important, rare and "lost" films from some obscure cornes of the world.

Unlike many collectors, Mr. Card has always wanted to share what he himself calls an obsession for film with the rest of the world.As a result of the passion for his subject, anyone who knows or cares about the cinema owes him a great debt, above all for his role in establishing and presiding over the world-famous film archive at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.

Part memoir, part history and part analysis, "Seductive Cinema" recounts some of the important intersections of its author's life .. with film -- his first enchantment in those great movie palaces of the past, the magic of acquiring his very own projector and film, the series of lucky accidents that brought him in contact with other people involved with the art and led, eventually, to the archive he developed.

His Army service, his employment with Eastman Kodak, his encounters with other collectors seem in retrospect almost fated -- his whole life seems to have been governed by a love for the movies. Mr. Card also discusses the history of silent cinema, the careers of a great many actors and directors, and mentions innumerable individual films.

Along the way, Mr. Card takes pains to set the record straight on a number of matters. He raises the genius of such inventors and innovators as Muybridge, Lumiere and Melies, but denigrates the contributions of Thomas Edison and George Eastman, who seem to him something like thieves of other men's efforts. A revisionist throughout, he believes that such directors as D. W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim have been overpraised; others, such as Cecil B. DeMille and King Vidor, underrated by film audiences and historians.

Most of all, Mr. Card wants to tell his readers about the people, the great stars of the silent cinema, especially the great leading ladies -- the seduction of his title, after all, implies a sexual element in the film experience that critics seldom confront. He devotes a great many pages and photographs to the beauty, skill and power of some of the most famous women in film -- some for their accomplishments as performers, others for their profoundsex appeal. Much of the book deals with the careers of such great stars as Theda Bara, Pola Negri, Gloria Swanson, Norma Shearer, Louis Brooks, Greta Garbo, Viola Dana and Joan Crawford.

Perhaps inevitably, the depth of his feelings and the personal and anecdotal nature of much of his study tempt Mr. Card to settle a few scores along the way.

He recalls a historic conflict with the curator of the Museum of Modern Art film archive, which certainly vindicates his own attitude toward collecting. He suggests that the George Eastman House itself, like many other museums, has betrayed its artistic dedication in order to please some affluent and powerful Philistines. Along with the smell of the nitrate film that so thrills the author, the reader can sometimes catch the odor of burning bridges.

From the earliest pages, he directs his most withering scorn, some of it justified, some of it wildly inaccurate, to the academic students of films -- for some odd reason, he thinks most professors of film, all of whom he incorrectly calls semiologists, come to their subject by means of reading screenplays. He attacks a serious historian like Siegfried Kracauer, who wrote "From Caligari to Hitler," but praises an embarrassingly imperceptive newspaper reviewer such as Bosley Crowther of the New York Times.

The faults of "Seductive Cinema," however, grow from its genuine passion, so any devotee of the art can both understand and forgive -- we all share a love for the shimmering magic of the movies.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Seductive Cinema: The Art of Silent Film"

Author: James Card

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 319 pages, $35

Dr. Grella teaches English at the University of Rochester. He writes frequently about film.

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