Silent Stars Still Mesmerize

At the recent San Francisco Silent Film Festival I acquired several recently-published books I hadn’t seen before. Now that I’ve spent time with them I feel duty-bound to spread the word.

Rudolph Valentino, The Silent Idol: His Life in Photographs by Donna L. Hill is a beautiful paperbound book, all the more impressive because it was self-published. Hill, who runs the website, has spent the past thirty years researching her subject and gathering rare and revealing pictures. As Emily W. Leider, author of Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino, points out in her foreword, “The pictures tell us that long before he appeared in films, Valentino displayed a love of finery, a propensity for posing before the camera, and a preoccupation with his own image. An actor in life before he became one professionally, as an underemployed immigrant he would don a tuxedo and—

—spend money he didn’t have on a New York studio photographer in order to be able to send home a likeness of himself that looked prosperous, upper class, and elegant.”

The photographs reveal much more, as we follow the trajectory of the Italian-born screen star’s thirty-one years of life. We see his natural, friendly smile—an interesting contrast to the poses he would strike for Hollywood cameramen. We observe him at work, at play, with friends, family, pets, costars, and lovers. Hill’s straightforward text places each picture into a time frame, and her book reminds us just how much a single photograph can convey, especially if we understand its context. This chronological gallery is akin to a visual biography, and it’s clearly been assembled with love and care. It is available on the Valentino website or at

The same may be said of The Sea Gull: The Chaplin Studio’s Lost Film Starring Edna Purviance, now in its third edition (since 2008) and written by Linda Wada, who presides over The Internet era has seen many enthusiasts develop sites for their favorite performers, but some, like Wada and Donna L. Hill, aren’t so much fans as scholars. They have put the ‘net, and its incredible reach, to work for them and done research that would have been physically impossible to earlier generations. In Wada’s case, her interest in Charlie Chaplin’s charming and beautiful leading lady (from 1915 to 1923) eventually yielded an e-mail from her surviving great-niece; this in turn opened doors to first-hand knowledge and memorabilia. Wada tells us this story in her opening chapter, which serves as an appetizer for the main course: a reconstruction, in photos and surviving title card text, of the film Chaplin produced in 1926, only to burn its negative seven years later! The director was a rising talent on the Hollywood scene named Josef von Sternberg.

It’s impossible to judge the merits of The Sea Gull (also known as Woman of the Sea) from the photos and text. It seems like a murky soap opera with literary pretensions. But one can also discern that Purviance, who was such a radiant presence in Chaplin’s films, had a warmth and natural screen presence even in this tortured drama. Compare her expressive face with that of costar Raymond Bloomer, whose facial contortions and histrionics (even in still photos!) reveal a very different approach to acting for the camera.

As with so many cinematic discoveries, the behind-the-scenes story of Purviance, Chaplin, and von Sternberg is much more interesting than the evidence of the finished film. Charlie and Edna were lovers early on, but remained true friends for the rest of her life; she also was on Charlie’s payroll until the day she died in 1958. Wada makes a strong case for Edna as a steadying influence on her mentor in his formative years as a filmmaker. Once again, the love and dedication that went into this project is evident on every page, and as with the Valentino book, the design and printing of this home-grown volume are first-rate. To purchase a copy and learn more about Edna, go to

Finally, the founder of the Louise Brooks Society, Thomas Gladysz, has published a special movie edition of The Diary of a Lost Girl by Margarete Böhme. Having just watched G.W. Pabst’s remarkable 1929 film, and been greatly moved by it, I’m curious to know more about its genesis. Gladysz provides an authoritative series of essays that tell us about the author, the notoriety of her work (which was first published in 1905), and its translation to the screen. Production stills, advertisements, and other ephemera illustrate these introductory chapters. In today’s parlance this would be called a “movie tie-in edition,” but that seems a rather glib way to describe yet another privately published work that reveals an enormous amount of research—and passion. To learn more about the book and Louise Brooks in general, go to or you can find the book at

I sometimes decry the decline of professionalism in various disciplines—including publishing—but I can’t think of a better argument for breaking down the barriers of traditional publishing than these three exceptional books, which I doubt any commercial house would have taken on. They may be labors of love but they also convey a commitment to both scholarship and the esthetics of the printed page.

(Click HERE to see images of the village of Niles, California where Edna worked under Charlie's guidance in 1915.)

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July 2024