Review of "Behind the Mask of Innocence," by Kevin Brownlow

Kevin Brownlow describes Behind the Mask of Innocence as the final volume of a trilogy of books on American silent films, the others being The Parade's Gone By and The War, The West, and the Wilderness. It's not a very cohesive trilogy, and Behind the Mask of Innocence is perhaps the weakest of the three books, but it still has points of interest for those who care about silent film.

The Parade's Gone By is perhaps the best introduction to the world of silent films ever written. Brownlow composed the book of short entertaining chapters covering a wide variety of subjects, and made the volume extremely readable. The War, the West, and the Wilderness focussed on silent films concerning WWI, the American West, and wild, undeveloped places all around the Earth. It lacked a certain cohesion, but was full of interesting material. Brownlow structured it in three sections, each section looking at one of the subjects in detail by examining film after film. This approach became rather tedious by the end of the book.

Behind the Mask of Innocence uses the organization of The War, the West, and the Wilderness, rather than that of The Parade's Gone By, and suffers from the same flaws as its model. This new volume deals with social films of the silent era. Those familiar with silent films may react with the comment, "What social films?" Brownlow himself did, initially, but further research showed that social films did indeed exist, and were sometimes even influential over both American society and the development of film art.

After a brief introduction, Brownlow settles down to business, dividing his book into several sections dealing with different sorts of films - films about sex, drugs, crime, poverty, immigrants, and labor. In that order. The reason for the order is clear, as the subjects are more or less in decreasing order of general interest in the topics. How many readers would be willing to continue if they were initially confronted with a detailed discussion of a semi-documentary film about a forgotten strike in the 1910's? Brownlow clearly hopes to sucker us in with salacious stuff about white slavery, sensational divorces, wild flappers, opium dens, and vicious gangsters, then, while our guard is down, slip us our medicine in the form of extended sections on slums, labor relations, and discrimination against various immigrant groups.

The problem with the strategy is that the salacious stuff isn't that salacious, and the medicine tastes nearly as bad as you might expect. (Not quite, but nearly.) Behind the Mask of Innocence is not a book that many people will finish, I expect. It's fairly slow going throughout, with the writing definitely not up to Brownlow's highest standards.

But it's not without its points of interest. Brownlow is a fine scholar, and has uncovered a number of fascinating stories and facts, and can present them rather well, when he tries. For instance, Brownlow covers the trend in early silent films for well known public figures to appear in films. In The War, the West, and the Wilderness, he introduced me to the films of Buffalo Bill - the real Buffalo Bill Cody. In this book, we discover that Margaret Sanger (the mother of American family planning) appeared in films, as did any number of other social reformers and politicians. One governor of New York who was thrown out in disgrace after trying to buck Tammany Hall went on to make films to justify his position, starring himself. A modern equivalent would be if Michael Dukakis appeared in a theatrical movie telling his side of the story about his stint as governor of Massachusetts. In the early days of film, no one had yet decided that it was necessarily a frivolous medium for entertainment, so social reformers would attempt to use films to further their causes, and would promote the films by appearing in them themselves. The principle figures in great scandals also tended to make film careers for themselves rather more readily than they do today.

(On the other hand, Brownlow pretty thoroughly discounts the claim that Leon Trotsky appeared in a walk-on role in a Jewish-themed film made in New York City. It does look rather like him, but the dates for making the film are not quite right, and Trotsky pretty decisively stated that he didn't get involved in such shenanigans during his stay in New York.)

The book contains many other interesting tidbits, such as information on the making of The Crowd, one of the masterpieces of the late silent era; the identity of Adolf Hitler's favorite American actress (he sent her a fan letter in the mid-1920's); a good candidate for the highest gross-to-cost film ever made (1000-to-1); and a very fine description of censorship in America through the 1920's.

For the average reader, even one with a moderate interest in silent film, it isn't enough, though. Most readers will bail out somewhere around the section on crime, and only the most dedicated will persevere through to the discussion on the film made during Passaic Textile Workers strike. Those who do stick it out are likely to feel that their major reward is the nice warm feeling that they haven't given up. Behind the Mask of Innocence makes a fine book for film researchers (it's fully footnoted), but isn't much of a read.

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Last modified: Fri Sep 16 1994