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Unthinkable now, a series on Hollywood 40 years ago recaptured the magic of the silent movie era

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A sword fight from the 1920 version of The Mask of Zorro, starring Douglas Fairbanks, one of the biggest stars of the silents

A sword fight from the 1920 version of The Mask of Zorro, starring Douglas Fairbanks, one of the biggest stars of the silents

A sword fight from the 1920 version of The Mask of Zorro, starring Douglas Fairbanks, one of the biggest stars of the silents

THIS IS THE LATEST IN AN OCCASIONAL SERIES LOOKING BACK ON NOTABLE WORKS AND PROGRAMMES FROM YESTERYEAR

THE notion of a mainstream commercial broadcaster handing over a weekly prime time slot to a 13-part documentary series about silent movies is inconceivable today.

In the crowded and ultra-competitive television landscape of 2021, it would simply never happen.

It happened 40 years ago, though. What’s even more extraordinary is that it happened on none other than ITV, historically regarded as inferior of the supposedly more noble and cultured BBC.

These days ITV is synonymous with an interminable stream of crime dramas, lurid documentaries about serial killers, I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! and the vapid trash that is Love Island.

The ITV of four decades ago, however, was a very different entity from the one we know today: a network made up of more than a dozen regional broadcasters, each with its own distinctive style.

On a Tuesday night in January, 1980, ITV showed the first episode of Hollywood, an epic celebration of the silent era, written, produced and directed by film historians, preservationists and documentarians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill.

Financed by Thames Television, which seven years earlier had made an even larger-scale documentary series, the 26-part The World at War, it was a landmark television event.

Viewers (including this one) were captivated. So were the Bafta voters who named Hollywood the best factual series of the year.

Narrated by the velvet-voiced James Mason and boasting a beautiful full orchestral score by Carl Davis, it covered every imaginable aspect of the silent era.

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There were episodes about the rough-and-ready pioneering filmmakers, the glittering swashbucklers of Douglas Fairbanks, the early westerns, the slapstick comedies of Mack Sennett, the romantic melodramas, the Biblical epics, the socially conscious dramas, the films that pushed the boundaries of what was considered moral, and the hair-raising feats of the early stuntmen and women.

One episode told the sad story of comedy star Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, whose life and career were ruined by a rape and manslaughter accusation of which he was proven, over the course of three trials, to be entirely innocent.

The silent era faced the beginning of the end with the release of the world’s first “talkie” feature, The Jazz Singer, in 1927. In reality, the film was primarily silent, with barely two minutes of synchronised talking alongside its six songs.

No matter. The writing was on the wall for the silent era. But it was glorious while it lasted, and the series brings that glory to vivid life.

Brownlow, who’s still with us, and Gill, who sadly died in 1997 at the age of 69, sourced excerpts from more than 150 films to illustrate the story.

The clips were an eye-opener for people who associated silent movies with the grainy, jerky, sped-up antics of The Keystone Kops.

Cleaned up and projected at the correct frame rate, they gave a dazzling glimpse of how these films looked to the millions of cinemagoers who flocked to the luxuriously decorated picture palaces of the 1920s.

Even more significant than the clips, however, were the dozens of interviews with stars, directors, writers and producers whose careers had begun (and in some cases ended, too) in the silent era, including Louise Brooks, Viola Dana, Lilian Gish, Colleen Moore, Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers, Gloria Swanson, Dorothy Arzner, Frank Capra, Allan Dwan, Lewis Milestone and Laurel and Hardy’s producer Hal Roach.

The interviews were deeply poignant, even in 1980. You knew these elderly people were the last surviving links to a vanished golden age of cinema and wouldn’t be around much longer.

Hollywood received a single home video release on VHS many years ago, but it’s never been officially available on DVD or Blu-Ray, probably because of the complexity and cost of reacquiring the rights to the many clips.

But it’s available on YouTube, thanks to someone who had the foresight to record it from TV. It’s a treasure trove of delights.


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