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Thomas Gladysz

Thomas Gladysz

Posted: June 14, 2010 03:34 PM

There's been a good deal of buzz lately about Fritz Lang's sci-fi masterpiece, Metropolis. The 1927 silent film was recently restored to something like the way the legendary German director had originally envisioned it. That's because nearly 25 minutes of missing footage was found a few years ago in an archive in Argentina. And now, "The Complete Metropolis" has been shown to great acclaim in Berlin, New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere. (It plays at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival on July 16, with the archivists who discovered it in attendance.)

Another project which Lang had a hand in has also recently been "restored," but has gotten little attention. It's a book titled Famous Library Films by Henry Arthur Vaughan Bulleid.

H.A.V. Bulleid, as he was known, was an English writer who died a little more than a year ago at age 95. He is best remembered for his specialized books on musical boxes as well as British locomotive history (He was a trained locomotive engineer and the son and grandson of notable figures in the field).

His pioneering work of film criticism, Famous Library Films, includes a previously unpublished preface by Lang. The book was written in the early 1940s and was almost published in 1947. But then, with the English economy still reeling from the Second World War, the book was shelved. Its manuscript, along with Lang's preface, was filed away and largely forgotten like the subject Bulleid wrote about - silent film.

Famous Library Films is important because it is an early appreciation of a major 20th century art form. And, it was written at a time when there were few books about film. Its history as a book which almost never came to be is also fascinating.

Bulleid's book, with a new introduction by the world renowned silent film historian and author Kevin Brownlow, has now been published on the internet. Perhaps there is some slight irony here -- that the internet, this newest of publishing platforms, is helping keep silent film, that seemingly old fashioned art form, before the public.

Famous Library Films is a notable work. As Brownlow states in his introduction, "I was most impressed by Bulleid's knowledge and perception and feel that now silent films are being taught in film courses, these articles deserve revival." What Famous Library Films also offers contemporary readers is an uncommon perspective: one can read about silent film through the eyes of someone who came of age during the silent era.

In his preface, Lang put it this way. "The roots of all aspects of our life, especially our cultural life, are in the past. The motion picture of today rests firmly on the foundations created by the motion pictures of yesterday. The modern motion picture did not spring full-grown from the brain of any current genius. Only with complete understanding of what has been can the sincere student of motion pictures hope to understand what is and what can be. And since it is regrettably true that some of the great motion pictures of the past are no longer available for viewing, we are fortunate to have this book as a guide and source book. The great value of this book lies in the opportunity it affords the reader to understand the beginning of the art of motion pictures as a living process and as the art of our century."

Like many of his generation, Bulleid (born 1912) was enamored of the movies. He had been so since his youth, when he learned to project films while still a schoolboy. Later, while at Cambridge in the early 1930's, Bulleid made amateur movies. At the time, he had hoped to enter a career in film, but was deterred by his Father, who directed him into that more practical field of railway engineering.

All along, Bulleid had been writing articles for a magazine for enthusiasts, Amateur Cine World. During World War II, when film stock dried up due to shortages, amateurs like Bulleid settled for projecting movies instead of making them. Bulleid also switched from writing about filmmaking to reviewing "library films" (movies which could be borrowed). His column turned to a subject he was passionate about -- the silent cinema.

As Brownlow notes in his introduction, not all were as enthused with the change. "'I feel I must draw your attention to a matter which makes me boil,' said a correspondent from Surrey. 'Why devote so much of your very excellent magazine to a commentary on a film that is l6 years old and in such detail that I don't need to see the film?'" Fortunately, Bulleid's editor was not swayed, and eventually his work became much admired.

Bulleid was industrious, and his articles are filled with detail. Remarkably, some of the information found in his essays was obtained through correspondence with film directors and other individuals connected with the movies he wrote about! He even wrote to Fritz Lang, and that's how he obtained the preface to his unpublished book.

It should be noted that when Bullied was writing for Amateur Cine World, there were few books about film. Information on particular movies was scarce. And of course, there was no home VHS or DVD, let alone the IMDb. Bulleid's factual and insightful articles were groundbreaking. In 1947, there were plans to publish his articles in book form, but the publisher folded and as Brownlow mentions in the introduction, there was also a "severe winter."

Fast forward to 2008.

The credit for bringing this pioneering appreciation of silent film to publication goes to Brownlow, a longtime friend of the Bulleid. "I was in touch with him as a correspondent but finally met him when a collector friend took me to meet him. From then on, we met regularly, and he always took me to an ancient pub near his Sussex home and he always insisted on paying!" recalled the film historian in a recent email.

Brownlow, who had long been aware of Bulleid's articles, then wrote to Eugene, Oregon film biographer Lon Davis asking him to recommend a website that would be willing to post his then 95 year-old friend's collected articles. Davis, himself the author of a handful of books on silent film, suggested www.silentsaregolden.com. It's a site operated by Tim Lussier, of Carthage, North Carolina.

For the past year and a half, Brownlow and Davis have been editing the articles, and Lussier has been doing the layout. And on the first of each month, Lussier posted one of Bulleid's now 60 year old pieces. In all, twenty-two films are covered, including classics like Easy Street (1917), The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), The Covered Wagon (1923), Cinderella (1923), The Battleship Potemkin (1925), The Lost World (1925), Faust (1926), An Italian Straw Hat (1928), The White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929), Picadilly (1929), and others. There is also a piece on Lang's Metropolis (1927).

Bulleid's collected articles have been published under the title Famous Library Films. The book's final chapter, fittingly on Stan Laurel's Old Soldier's Never Die (1924), was posted on May 1st. One last article was posted at the beginning of this month. Unlike the others, this final piece - on The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) - was written not in the Forties, but more recently.

Brownlow, Davis and Lussier are calling their now completed self-publishing project an e-book. It may not be that, as it's unlikely you'll ever find these pioneering critiques of silent film on an Amazon Kindle or Sony Reader. Nevertheless, the internet provided Bulleid with what had long eluded him. He lived to see the first few articles published on-line and was "thrilled," according to Brownlow. It was something Bulleid had dreamed of for more than sixty years.

Famous Library Films can be found here.

Thomas Gladysz is an arts journalist and author. His interview with Allen Ginsberg was included in Sarah Greenough's "Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg" (National Gallery of Art, 2010). And recently, he wrote the introduction to the Louise Brooks edition of Margarete Bohme's classic novel, The Diary of a Lost Girl (PandorasBox Press, 2010). More at www.thomasgladysz.com.

 
 
 

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