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SILENT WITNESSES : BEHIND THE MASK OF INNOCENCE; Films of Social Conscience in the Silent Era By Kevin Brownlow (Alfred A. Knopf: $50; 511 pp., illustrated)

December 23, 1990|John Powers | Powers is a film critic for the L.A. Weekly. and

From the pilgrims' dream of a glorious City on the Hill to the Reagan era's nostalgia for an Edenic small-town past, America has always been in love with the idea of its own innocence. Which may be why it's equally fascinated by tales of its own corruption, be they the Civil War's bloody-minded excesses or the goofy iniquities of "Twin Peaks."

It's this latter fascination that energizes "Behind the Mask of Innocence," the superb new book by Kevin Brownlow, whose earlier volumes--"The Parades Gone By . . ." (1968) and "The War, the West and the Wilderness" (1979)--have established him as the master chronicler of the silent cinema. "Behind the Mask of Innocence" dispels the illusion that the silent movies were born of an America fresh from Norman Rockwell's easel. Brownlow uncovers, and celebrates, a forgotten tradition of our film history: the countless silents that confronted the social problems rampant in the rapidly urbanizing America of 1900 to 1925.

Brownlow comes upon this abandoned gold mine the old-fashioned way: He just keeps digging and digging. For nearly three decades he's been conducting interviews, reading old newspapers, spelunking through archives, scrutinizing cobwebbed titles on warehouse shelves. Along the way, he's unearthed dozens of the lost or neglected films that this book describes and annotates with a lover's caressing devotion.

Although it may sound dull to read about films you'll never see, let me assure you: Brownlow is one obsessive who knows how to share his enthusiasms. "Behind the Mask of Innocence" takes you on his personal journey through the cinematic past, re-creating terrific-sounding movies about streetwalkers and junkies, socialist labor organizers and corrupt party bosses--movies that I, for one, would now dearly love to see.

Who wouldn't be intrigued by "Eighty Million Women Want" (1913), a suffragist mystery story scripted by B. P. Schulberg and featuring the famed British feminist Emmeline Pankhurst? And who could resist "Traffic in Souls" (1913), a lurid tale of white slavery involving an innocent girl in love with a cop, her lazy sister who's being eyed by white slavers, two immigrant Swedish girls shanghaied on Ellis Island, a prominent socialite who owns a brothel complete with cells, not to mention bondage, whipping, society weddings, lunatic rescues, run-amok crowds and suicide--the plot's so delirious that it takes more than two pages just to summarize it. (Brownlow claims you need to see the film several times just to make sense of all the action.)

As Brownlow wanders engagingly through dozens of movies about dope fiends and VD, Red agitation and the disenfranchised poor, every page seems to offer something wonderful: here a still photo of Douglas Fairbanks playing "Coke Ennyday," a coked-out parody of Sherlock Holmes; there a sketch of Lois Weber, the most socially conscious director of her day, whose works included "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" (1917), a tribute to Margaret Sanger and her ideas of birth control. (Women seemed to fare better in the film industry 75 years ago than they do today.)

Brownlow studs the whole text with memorable snippets of social history. He notes, for example, that early film audiences were so tuned-in that when a female character put foot powder in her shoes they immediately knew this meant she was a streetwalker.

"Behind the Mask of Innocence" gives us the early American cinema in all its vitality, complexity and fidelity to life as it was actually lived--before the movies became exclusively a dream factory. Many pictures spoke to a reality in which millions were desperately poor; immigrants and people of color were treated like animals; workers were exploited and organized for their rights. Put simply, the movies were the medium of the dispossessed.

Not surprisingly, the prosperous white Protestant leaders of American society feared the rollicking, subversive power of this new medium and were bent on taming it. If Brownlow's book has any villains, they are the guardians of social order: the state of Pennsylvania's permanently aghast censors, who hacked up hundreds of films, including those by D. W. Griffith; the implausibly named Major Metellus Lucullus Cicero Funkhouser, a deputy police superintendent who never tired of slicing and banning movies in the city of Chicago. These local watchdogs felt it their duty to protect the public from its tastes, just as their police counterparts felt justified in shooting down strikers or deporting people with "subversive" European opinions.

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