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There at the Creation

Film lovers have reason to rejoice as Turner Classic Movies revives the classic 13-partdocumentary 'Hollywood' and two out-of-print American Film Institute catalogs are reissued.

June 01, 1997|Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

Movies have always been a disposable commodity, a throw-away art form. Often as not nobody thought to save anything, up to and including the films themselves, unceremoniously dumped in the Pacific to save space.

That same indifference about preservation extends to modern books and documentaries that deal with motion pictures. Classic volumes on film fall out of print and stay that way, and docs, difficult to see under the best of circumstances, are even harder to catch up with when television decides the thrill is gone.

There are signs, however, that this attitude is changing. "Picture," Lillian Ross' unequaled account of the filming of John Huston's version of "The Red Badge of Courage," has recently returned to hard covers, courtesy of the Modern Library. And now, in a coincidence that's little short of miraculous, a pair of the glories of film commentary and scholarship have almost simultaneously been put back into circulation.

On the print side, two of the American Film Institute's legendary, one-of-a-kind catalogs, out of print for decades, have just been reissued by the University of California Press. These massive volumes, on the 1920s and 1960s, so avidly sought by knowledgeable film folk that they became all but unobtainable on the used-book market, turn out to be every bit as vital and exciting as anticipated.

The same is true for "Hollywood," an exceptional 13-part documentary look at the world of American silent film written, produced and directed by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill.

Brownlow and Gill have no peers as makers of documentaries on the silents, and many PBS viewers are familiar with their studies of the great masters, including "Unknown Chaplin," "Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow," "Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius" and "D.W. Griffith: Father of Film."

But many fewer people have seen "Hollywood," Brownlow and Gill's first work and arguably the most important and entertaining documentary on the movies ever made. Completed in 1979, this thorough and compelling series, an instant university on the silent era, has been shown on U.S. television before, but only in a sporadic, scattershot fashion.

But now Turner Classic Movies, which showcased Brownlow and Gill's latest series, "Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood" last year, is doing once-a-week broadcasts of all 13 60-minute episodes of "Hollywood," starting on Saturday at 4 p.m. The hour may be awkward, but the rewards are almost uncountable.

As with all great ventures, fortunate timing played a part in Brownlow and Gill's success. When they arrived in Hollywood in the late 1970s, many veterans of the silent era were alive but ignored by American journalists and critics. Willing to talk to these knowledgeable and enthusiastic Englishmen, the pioneers left a glowing record of Hollywood in the 1920s, a record that has become increasingly irreplaceable as the years have passed. Even the series' urbane narrator, sound film star James Mason, has been dead for more than a decade.

All told, Brownlow and Gill interviewed more than 70 survivors of Hollywood's silent era. Of course there were stars like Gloria Swanson, Mary Astor, Lillian Gish, Louise Brooks, Bessie Love and Blanche Sweet. And a pantheon of directors including Frank Capra, George Cukor, Allan Dwan, Henry Hathaway, Howard Hawks, Henry King, Mervyn LeRoy, Lewis Milestone, King Vidor and William Wyler.

But what makes "Hollywood" special is the range of people it talks to, from legendary stuntmen Yakima Canutt and Harvey Parry to wry writer Adela Rogers St. Johns and Karl Brown, who assisted D.W. Griffith's cameraman Billy Bitzer and makes the hair rise on the back of your neck with his eyewitness description of how Bitzer lit "Intolerance." It is just this "you are there" immediacy, combined with Brownlow and Gill's superb selection of vintage clips, that gives "Hollywood" its enduring power.

To hear, for instance, Viola Dana, one of the silent era's great beauties, describe watching the love of her life, celebrated stunt pilot Ormer Locklear, plunge to his death before her eyes, is a privileged moment of a type that will never come again. Ditto for Olive Carey's moving description of how John Wayne came to pay tribute to her husband, western star Harry Carey, with his left-hand-on-right-arm stance at the close of "The Searchers."

What "Hollywood" finally accomplishes sounds close to impossible. It creates an irresistible excitement about those long-gone silent films, allowing us to feel the emotion they were made with and the impact they had. It shows why people cared about them so deeply then, and why we can and should now as well. When Douglas Fairbanks Sr. walked onto a sound stage and said, a friend recalled, "the romance of motion picture making ends here," no viewer of this remarkable series will be tempted to disagree.

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