McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers 2009
299 pages, Paperback
Photos, Appendices, Notes and Index
Silent Film Stars on the Stages of Seattle is a credit to both its author, Eric Flom, and to early arts promoter and journalist J. Willis Sayre (1877-1963) whose theater programs and promotional photos -- collected in Seattle for more than five decades -- was an important resource for this work. Flom spent many enjoyable hours poring over the Sayre collection housed at the Seattle Public Library and in the Introduction to this book, he tells Sayre’s story.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Seattle was an excellent theater town, offering stage and variety vaudeville at various venues and acting companies performed their way up and down the West Coast, from California to Vancouver, B.C. and points in between. The advent of silent film took place in the early 1900s and many performers began to work both on stage and in film. Silent film created instant stars who seemed larger than life -- why not, they were now screensize -- and for the first time, performers were seen simultaneously in towns and cities across the country. Seemingly overnight sensations, these film stars had more than likely developed their craft and paid their dues on stage for many years.
Silent Film Stars... follows the Seattle stage appearances of many performers who became silent screen stars and structurally each chapter is the name of a silent film. The book will appeal especially to those who want to learn more about the careers of specific performers, and those who love theater history in general or specifically Seattle theater. It will also appeal to those who want to learn more about what life was like in early 1900s Seattle.
We owe much to journalists like Sayre who passionately followed and wrote about the stage acts of the day. These early critics noted when a performance clicked or did not, when traveling companies went bust and had to make the most of it, and left us a good glimpse of popular entertainment of the day.
Through newspaper accounts and theater programs, Flom follows the Seattle appearances of the Drews and the Barrymores, William S. Hart, Douglas Fairbanks, Lon Chaney (touring with the Max Dill Company), Douglas Fairbanks, Theda Bara, Marguerite Clark, D. W. Griffith (as an actor), Tom Mix, Buster Keaton, and dozens more whose names were not as well known. The author’s section on Charles Chaplin is delightful and engaging and sheds new light on the actor’s development from his first rough comedic work with Karno’s American touring company to his masterful show-stealing performances that he developed in front of live audiences. But Chaplin found an easier, more lucrative life in the movies and summed up his years on the road by saying, “These cheap vaudeville circuits were bleak and depressing” (p. 140). Ah, life in the arts!
Flom is an excellent writer and researcher who clearly loves and understands his topic. And you can’t ask for more. Silent Film Stars... is also a substantial and scholarly work (no apologies needed) and is one you can keep on hand for future reference.
The only drawback with this book is its price: at nearly $60, readers will think twice -- maybe even three times -- before buying it. Hopefully cost won’t keep theater buffs away; that would be a shame. But library copies are available too and now, a year past its debut, used and discounted copies are turning up. We hope this fine book will reach the audience it deserves.
By Margaret Riddle, September 3, 2010