Five Decades Later, “The Parade’s Gone By…” Is Still the Most Important Book on Silent Film

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2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Kevin Brownlow‘s The Parade’s Gone By…, the first of many books he would write on his way to becoming the preeminent name in silent films. With Brownlow’s 80th birthday celebration at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival just a few days away, I felt it was worth revisiting a book which, in my opinion, has done more to advance the study of silent film than any other.

Some personal background: The Parade’s Gone By… was not the first book that got me hooked on silent film; somewhat embarrassingly it was Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon that convinced me of the allure of early cinema (but I’ll save my defense of that book for another day). Parade’s was not even the first book written by Kevin Brownlow that I read; that distinction goes to 1979’s Hollywood: The Pioneers, a companion to his invaluable television series of the same name. But looking back, it is Parade’s that stands out as Brownlow’s magnum opus, even against a bibliography of indispensable film histories.

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Part of this was sheer luck. The author came of age at a time when many of Hollywood’s early movers and shakers were still alive and lucid. Being able to conduct as many interviews as he did is a luxury that anyone writing post-ca. 1990 simply did not have. The firsthand accounts from Karl Brown (the right-hand man of D.W. Griffith’s right-hand man, Billy Bitzer), Lillian Gish, Viola Dana, Colleen More, and dozens of others are undoubtedly the main attraction. It is disheartening to think of the knowledge, the stories that would have been lost had Brownlow not undertaken this crusade.

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But it is not just the interviews that make Parade’s Gone By so significant. Brownlow’s own insight, sometimes critiqued by contemporary reviewers, has proven to be remarkably prescient. His assessments of scandals and controversies have held up well despite new evidence that has come to light in the intervening decades. It is important to remember that we are further removed today from Parade’s Gone By than Brownlow was from the silent era when he wrote it; the fact that he was able to provide such insightful commentary only 40 years after sound invaded Hollywood is no small miracle.

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Plenty of books have had a profound influence on the study of silent film. Daniel Blum’s Pictorial History of the Silent Screen, replete with photographs and using words ever so sparingly, was a perfect introductory text for many children. William K. Everson’s American Silent Film followed Parade’s Gone By by a decade, is a somewhat-dry-but-still-priceless book whose scholarship has rarely been matched since. But few other books have attempted to cover the entirety of the silent era of cinema. (Peter Kobel’s Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture [with an introduction by Brownlow] is worth mentioning as a more modern foray into the genre.)

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Since the release of The Parade’s Gone By, Kevin Brownlow’s achievements have been countless. The restoration and release of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, documentaries on everyone from Griffith and Garbo to Chaney and Chaplin, and an honorary Oscar in 2010 are but a few of the highlights of a remarkable career in film preservation and research. As silent film buffs gather in San Francisco to wish him a happy 80th birthday, let us not forget Kevin Brownlow’s first—and perhaps most significant—contribution to the world of silent film. Half a century later, The Parade’s Gone By… is still as essential and invaluable as the day it was released.

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