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Now available: 'Visual History of Silent Movies' book

Now available! "Visual History of Silent Movies: A reissue of the 1927 pictorial survey 'Masters and Masterpieces of the Screen'" — order your paperback at Amazon 

How do you write history when it’s still going on? That dilemma has plagued historians for generations, but Cora Taylor tackled the then-still developing history of the nascent medium of movies at just the right time. When she published “Masters and Masterpieces of the Screen” in 1927, the movie industry was at a pivotal moment. 

The silent movie era was closing, and sound, color and other technical, business and creative innovations were about to fundamentally change the industry.

That industry sprung up in a few short years. Thomas Edison, the Lumiere brothers and others invented, experimented and produced short novelty “moving pictures” in the 1890s. Just a generation later, by the mid-1920s, an estimated 15-20,000 movie theaters were screening an average of 800 feature-length films each year to entertain anywhere from 50-90 million movie-goers in the United States each week. 

In those early formative 30 years, movies evolved into “almost a living, breathing thing, with immeasurable influence upon the ideas and ideals, the customs and costumes, the hopes and the ambitions of countless millions of people,” as Will Hays writes in the original introduction to “Masters and Masterpieces.”

Like any artistic and technological disruptive innovation, the early stories are sometimes lost in the frenetic and sometimes careless march of progress. 

But Taylor was able to document what came before 1927 through photos, articles and contemporary insights of the actors, the movies, the technology, the business of motion pictures.

The book is both a survey of what lay in the past as well as a snapshot in time. Modern readers and movie fans looking at this work through both of those lenses can find a valuable history.

Topics covered include:

  • Short biographical sketches of the earliest Hollywood stars, from those modern audiences might find familiar — such as Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Lon Chaney, Colleen Moore, Ramon Novarro, John Barrymore, Dolores Costello, Harold Lloyd, Tom Mix, Rudolph Valentino, Theda Bara, Buster Keaton, Gloria Swanson and many more — to those not as well-known today — such as Alla Nazimova, “Baby Peggy,” Tsuru Aoki, Mildred Davis, Anna Q. Nilsson, Wallace Beery, Bessie Love and many more.
  • Rarely seen promotional and behind-the-scene photos such as Gloria Swanson performing the “Apache Dance” in 1924’s “The Humming Bird,” Norma Shearer in 1926’s “The Waning Sex,” 1925’s cast photo for “The Big Parade,” Lillian Gish and cast in 1925’s “Clothes Make the Pirate,” the dinosaur creations in 1925’s “The Lost World,” Charlie Chaplin and lion in 1928’s “The Circus” and many more.
  • Inside looks at the technology of movies, including a “glossary of moving picture terms”

By the mid to late 1920s, several high-profile celebrity scandals and dubious business deals had beset the industry. To “clean up” movies’ reputation and prevent possible outside censorship, studios agreed to self-regulate through a set of recommendations formulated by a group headed by former Postmaster General Will H. Hays. Informally known later as “The Hays Code,” the first guidelines were listed in 1927 and would go on to shape films for decades after. 

Hays wrote the original introduction to “Masters and Masterpieces,” so a modern reader can infer part of the reason for the book is to create a sanitized version of Hollywood history up to that moment as part PR for the industry at large. No mention of scandals or anything that would put Tinseltown in a bad light is shown. Indeed, Fatty Arbuckle, one of the most popular and highest-paid stars by 1920, is not even mentioned in the book! In the early 1920s, he was acquitted after multiple trials for the rape and manslaughter of actress Virginia Rappe in one of the most publicized and sensationalized cases of the early 20th century. Sometimes history can be illuminating on what it leaves out as much as what it includes. 

Regardless, whether it’s pictorial history or a bit of propaganda, the wealth of images and curation in “Masters and Masterpieces” provides “a striking panorama of this dominant influence in modern life.”

Order your copy of "Visual History of Silent Movies: A reissue of the 1927 pictorial survey 'Masters and Masterpieces of the Screen'" —  available as paperback at Amazon.


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