Silent film fiction: Pearl White, Bert Williams, and Missing Reels

It’s been some time since I’ve done a book review post. Here I’ll talk about my recent fiction reads dealing with silent films or film performers: one novel about a lost film search, and two fictional biographies, tracing the lives of silent movie stunt queen Pearl White and groundbreaking Black vaudeville star Bert Williams.

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Pearl White: The Peerless, Fearless Girl by Manuel Weltman & Raymond Lee. South Brunswick & New York: A. S. Barnes and Company, 1969.

Paris, 1918: bombs are falling from the sky. Amidst the chaos, Vicente Blasco Ibáñez—he of Blood and Sand and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse fame—stumbles through the darkness in search of an air-raid shelter. A sigh of relief as he follows a line of people into a cellar, only to see … a film? How can people be absorbed in watching films when war is being waged outside? “Monsieur,” a woman tells him, “It’s the last chapter of a Pearl White serial. We are most fortunate to see it, no matter what the Boche are trying to do.”

Such is the anecdote that forms the prologue of Pearl White: The Peerless, Fearless Girl. It has more than a whiff of the apocryphal, but on the other hand, such a story is really too good not to be true, isn’t it? Certainly it’s a strong start to a book that is similarly full of drama: within the first few pages, Pearl has escaped a water tank full of rodents, thrown a rat at her producer, shouted “Take your paw off my tit!”, flung her wig on the ground, engaged in melancholic mirror-facing contemplation about who the real Pearl was, knocked back some whiskey, and relived the genesis of her soon-to-be-legally-ended marriage. Boom! It’s a thrill a minute in the life of Ms. White.

Pearl White was, of course, one of the major American stars of the teens, famous for adventure film serials such as The Perils of Pauline (1914), The Exploits of Elaine (1915), Pearl of the Army (1916), The Fatal Ring (1917), and The House of Hate (1918). White gained particular attention for reputedly doing many of her own stunts, something that was covered breathlessly in the media—a key part of her public persona was her bravery in the face of the danger she regularly experienced in the line of filmic duty. I actually haven’t seen much of White’s work—I tried to watch one of her serials a few years back and was put off by the fact that it was a bit more damsel-in-distress than I anticipated—but I will have to seek to change this in the next while.

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The jacket copy explains the purpose of Pearl White: The Peerless, Fearless Girl: to write the first factual account of Pearl’s dramatic life. “Even Pearl’s autobiography is largely a product of her own imagination”, we are informed. The writers’ hook is to write her life story in “a most unusual format […] presenting the essential facts of Pearl’s life as if the book were a scenario for one of her exciting serials”. This means that much of the story is told in dialogue, intrigue is high, and every chapter ends with ‘To be continued’.

We read about such antics as Pearl taking a ride in a hot-air balloon, getting caught in a flash storm, and being set down inside the Philadelphia State Penitentiary; sneaking into a gentlemen’s club and persuading the members to front up some cash for war bonds; garnering the admiration of Mistinguett in Paris; taking part in an Italian Countess’s mystical moon ritual. The authors paint a picture of a woman who is savvy, down-to-earth, fun-loving, and capable of plenty of off-screen hijinks, yet who also is prone to fits of angst about her film persona vis à vis her real self: “Was the wig only for make-believe? Was everything in her life make-believe?”, “How could anyone love a movie star?”, etc.

A critical analysis, this is not—everything is absurdly dramatic, and while I assume the main events of White’s life presented here are not actually fabricated, it’s obviously an incredibly fanciful approach. Essentially, Pearl White: The Peerless, Fearless Girl is a goofy fan-fiction account of her life by two authors (one a former child actor, the other noted on the back cover to be a bachelor) who quite clearly adore her, even in her rougher moments.

This book may be lightweight, but it’s also a hoot and a half; check your thoughts about historiography at the door and go along for the ride.

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Missing Reels by Farran Smith Nehme. New York & London: Overlook Duckworth, 2014.

This is the kind of book that sounded right up my alley: a lost film treasure hunt, a paean to the silent film era, and a setting of 1980s New York. The author is Farran Smith Nehme, who blogs as The Self-Styled Siren; I must confess that I haven’t read her blog regularly, but her writing has a very good reputation (although it may depend on your tolerance for third-person author references).

Expectations, therefore, were high—but for me at least, this book didn’t totally deliver. Centred on protagonist Ceinwen Reilly, Missing Reels contains two major plot strands: the search for a lost silent film, and the love story between Ceinwen and Matthew. Ceinwen (pronounced ‘Kine-wen’) discovers that her standoffish downstairs neighbour Miriam appeared in a film adaptation of Ann Radcliffe’s gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and sets out not just to find out more about the film, but to rediscover it—in the face of Miriam’s frosty indifference, it must be noted. The love interest Matthew is a British mathematics post-doc, who first enters the story as a customer at the vintage clothing store at which Ceinwen works. The two story-strands link together as Matthew provides Ceinwen with help and support for her film quest, as well as introducing her to several of his NYU colleagues, whose presence helps drive the film-hunt plot.

Not surprisingly, Smith Nehme seems most comfortable when in film territory, and the search for The Mysteries of Udolpho is the strong point of the book. It takes too long for the film treasure hunt to really launch, but once it’s underway, this part of the story is engaging and fun, with a bunch of side characters that are vividly (and sometimes hilariously) drawn. Miriam’s recollections about the production and style of the Murnau-esque film was one of my favourite passages in the book.

Unfortunately, for me things fell down with the love story part of Missing Reels, and indeed to some extent with the character of Ceinwen herself. We have a twenty-two year old university dropout who is extremely well-read, beautiful à la Vilma Bánky, notably thin (Matthew comes off as very paternalistic in his repeated attempts to feed her), feels like an outsider because she stylishly dresses in vintage clothing and doesn’t like parties or the Replacements, has an exotic name that no one can pronounce, etc. Ceinwen may be a bit of a mess, but she is also the kind of character that comes across as having a tinge of wish-fulfillment. Her story arc put me in mind of the archetypal ‘shop girl makes good’ narratives from silent films (Clara Bow in It perhaps being the classic example), but if it’s a deliberate homage, I don’t think it’s a successful one, because Ceinwen isn’t winsome enough for that kind of narrative. In fact, Ceinwen is relatively irritating, which is not inherently a bad thing for a character, and realistic enough for someone in her early twenties. But it becomes a problem when you realize that the narrative seems to be trying to portray her as more of a captivatingly flawed type, a designation that her actions don’t always earn.

The relationship with Matthew is the real mess, though. He has a long-term partner called Ana whose academic career is in Italy, and therefore they have an arrangement about seeing other people; he is totally upfront with Ceinwen about his situation, as he should be. But of course the reader can see that this is going to go downhill fast, given Ceinwen’s lack of adult communication skills, jealousy and uncertainty, and romantic-comedy desire to be ‘The One’. I didn’t find Ceinwein and Matthew’s interactions to be characterized by the screwball-style wit that the back cover copy promised, and so for me their relationship push-and-pull quickly became tiresome. Honestly, at a certain point I started to feel sorry for Ana: despite being positioned as the villain of the piece, it seemed like her main sins were wearing a leopard-print dress when she came into the vintage clothing shop (“a sure sign of a mean disposition”, Ceinwen snidely observes), and buying some earrings that Ceinwen really wanted for herself. Can one really blame Ana for being a bit frosty to the desperado who shows up to her restaurant date to try to break up her engagement? Rather than vindicating Ceinwen, for me all this mainly served to undermine Matthew’s integrity, since he clearly isn’t being totally honest with Ana. All in all, I wasn’t convinced by Matthew and Ceinwen’s relationship and therefore couldn’t buy in to the big dramatic romantic climax that Smith Nehme sets up. Since Ceinwen and Matthew’s relationship arc was arguably the A-plot of the novel, it really detracted from my overall enjoyment.

Missing Reels is of course packed full of film references, which is neat for the hardcore nerd, but I wonder if they would be alienating/distracting to the casual reader; for example, there are quite a few sentence constructions of the nature ‘[book character] felt like [movie star] in [film], doing [scene description]’. In terms of prose style, the opening section was offputtingly clunky, although things improve once the exposition is dispensed with.

Overall, I’d call Missing Reels a quick and reasonably fun read, but with some quite big flaws. Come for the film story, speed-read the relationship parts.

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Dancing in the Dark by Caryl Phillips. 2005. London: Vintage Books, 2006.

“The funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew,” was W. C. Fields’ description of Bert Williams, a major vaudeville and Broadway star who was the most famous and highest-paid Black performer of early twentieth century America. Caribbean-British author Caryl Phillips’ ambitious novel examines this essential contradiction of Williams, characterizing Williams as an immense talent, yet also a hesitant, introspective and tremendously sorrowful man struggling against the constrictions of a white-supremacist society.

Early in his career, the light-skinned Williams performed au naturel, but he eventually adopted blackface makeup, and this Faustian bargain is something that Williams wrestles with throughout the Dancing in the Dark: the use of blackface, necessary to win over white audiences, exerts a huge psychic toll on him. Post-performance, the removal of his makeup is a ritual to which Williams permits no observers. He tells himself that in blackface, he is just a character—surely the audience understands that this is not him, but a person he has discovered? The content, too, of his performance troubles him. He wonders, “Is the coloured performer to be forever condemned to pleasing a white audience with farce, and then attempting to conquer these same people with music and dance?” Is Williams changing hearts and minds through his performance, promoting the talent of Black people, or simply perpetuating damaging racial stereotypes? Does a rising tide lift all boats, or is an entirely different vessel needed? These difficult questions are at the centre of the book, and Phillips engages with them with depth and nuance, understanding that the answer lies in both and neither interpretations. However, these issues lead to a deep sense of alienation and estrangement within Williams, all but paralysing him emotionally.

It is only when I move that the problems begin. […] Until I move I might be pitiable. It is only when I move that they recognize me. I enjoy the beginning, with my white gloved hands, and the small spotlight, and edging my way through the curtains and standing still. But they require both the cork and the movement, the broad nigger shuffle, and only then do they know me. Only then am I welcome in their house.

Dancing in the Dark traces the life and career of Williams: his childhood in the Caribbean and disillusioning move to America, the land of opportunity; his early days “playing the coon” in a medicine show; the development of his vaudeville career; his distant, unconsummated marriage to Lottie; his ascendancy to Broadway; his work in the Ziegfeld follies. Intertwined with his story is that of his longtime performing partner George Walker: together, the two built their careers in vaudeville and produced the pioneering show In Dahomey (1903), a musical comedy set in a historical African kingdom (present-day Benin), which broke the colour line on Broadway.

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Bert Williams (left) and George Walker

In their acts, Bert Williams played the slow-witted, shuffling ‘Jonah man’ character to Walker’s sharp dandy, a characterisation that, as Phillips writes it, eventually caused a severe, mostly unspoken tension between the duo. Walker may also have profited from Williams’ “shambling, pathetic dupe”, but as portrayed in Dancing in the Dark, he is the W. E. B. Du Bois to Williams’ Booker T. Washington – much more radical than Williams, agitating vocally for the Black American cause as Williams bears his pain internally and urges caution. Eventually, Williams’ passivity, his lack of ability to outwardly express his thoughts, his private sorrow—which Walker perceives as submission and complacency—drives a wedge between the two men. Again, the central question that this novel grapples with: Is Williams promoting his race or selling it out, and in this kind of no-win situation, where is the line between realism and defeat? Two passages told from the perspective of each character illustrate this friction:

Bert Williams: “The audience may think that they are watching a powerless man but they are, in fact, watching art. We must understand how to make them feel safe, George. We must see the line. […] In time an alternate to the counterfeit coloured culture that besmirches our stage will emerge, but only in time. Right now nobody wil pay to see the coloured man be himself, so we must tread carefully.”

George Walker: “Time to put the cork to one side, Bert. White people are laughing at you, and coloured folks in the audience are only laughing to keep from crying. Who is this darky that you give them, Bert? This fool who is easily duped into idiotic schemes, with his gross stories, and jokes on himself? […] This pork-eating, chicken-loving, fat-lipped, big-bellied lover of food who wants to hear music that’s either melancholy, or something that he can jig to with big-foot, clumsy dancing. I already told you, not now, Bert. Not in the twentieth century. […] I’m telling you, please cut that coloured fool loose.”

Phillips is a beautiful writer who is not afraid to take risks with narrative. Though following a loose chronology, Dancing in the Dark freely shifts perspective, tenses, and time period. The novel also incorporates excerpts and quotations from (presumably authentic) historical material: reviews, interviews, newspaper items, song lyrics, scripts. This narrative shifting underlines the fact that historical truth cannot really be known, and that we build up a picture of the past through a bricolage of fragments, layers of interpretation. The voices of George Walker, his wife A(i)da Overton Walker, and Bert Williams’ wife Lottie add to the texture of the novel, and there are deliberate discontinuities between their perspectives. The relationships of Williams to each of these three characters form major subplots; another key subplot concerns George Walker’s intense affair with the baudy, rambunctious vaudeville star Eva Tanguay, a character who leaps off the page, rendered with some of Phillips’ most energetic writing. (Side note: I’m fascinated with Tanguay, and hope to one day see her surviving film title The Wild Girl, 1917).

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While Phillips is proficient at conveying the death-by-a-thousand-cuts dull agony of performing as a Black man in a racist society, he isn’t as adept at conveying Williams’ passions. One assumes that despite his divided conscience, Williams took joy and pride in performing—or if not, what drove him to continue in that work? Was it all just about the money? This is something that needed further elaboration, because as written by Phillips, Williams comes across as someone whose apprehension and deep heartache leads to resignation and virtual paralysis. Yet this doesn’t tally with the fact that Williams had a long and very successful career in showbiz, something that doesn’t happen without a high degree of ambition and personal vision. Certainly Walker was the driver and business brains behind the duo, but Williams continued to perform after Walker’s death, and opened several solo shows. He was also a prolific and extremely popular recording artist. In trying to emphasize the distance experienced by Williams—a double outsider, being not only Black, but West Indian rather than African-African—Phillips moves a little bit too far away from him in some respects. The overall effect of the book is curiously muted.

BertWilliams_LimeKilnFieldDayBert Williams and Odessa Warren Grey in Lime Kiln Field Day (1913/2014)

Williams also made several movies, and one of the big film preservation stories of last year was the rediscovery and première of footage from his film project Lime Kiln Club Field Day. The film material—unedited daily rushes—had been held by the Museum of Modern Art since 1939, but were unidentified until recently; identification was no doubt hindered by the fact that the film was never commercially released. The exact reason that the Lime Kiln Club Field Day was shelved is unclear, but it is thought that D. W. Griffith’s racist blockbuster Birth of a Nation, which was in production around the same time, discouraged Biograph from editing and releasing the film—although I don’t think this timeline really adds up. Aside from the works of Oscar Micheaux, early Black American filmmaking has received little attention, in part because of the lack of surviving material; Lime Kiln Club Field Day is said to be the earliest surviving footage for a feature film with a black cast. MOMA produced an exhibition of the material, 100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History – detailed information and several film clips are available at the link.

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Bert Williams and Odessa Warren Grey in Lime Kiln Field Day (1913/2014)

Bert Williams’ work in films forms only a small part of the narrative of Dancing in the Dark. Watching the footage of his work, for the first time he sees himself perform, and is both moved and proud. That is, until he realizes that not everyone feels the same way; he is advised not to attend the screening of Darktown Jubilee (1914), at which a riot breaks out, such is the outrage felt by the white audience at seeing his bare face. Cut to a contemporary film review: “Gone was the familiar ‘darky humour’ heavily laden with pathos, and in its place he gave to us an uncorked coloured person of cunning and resourcefulness that left a sour taste in the mouth of all who had paid money to attend this presentation.” Burn Hollywood Burn indeed.

Florenz Ziegfeld, who opposed the wishes of some of his performers when he included Williams in his Follies, said of Bert Williams: “He was a consummate artist in a sea of banality; technically perfect, timing immaculate, his portrayal of his people the only flaw on his otherwise perfect diamond.” Phillips’ novel imagines the great personal cost that this portrayal exerted on Williams. I can’t comment on the accuracy of the details of the novel, and no one knows the mind of Williams himself, but it is a beautifully rendered and largely convincing work. Phillips has not written a hagiography of Williams nor a denunciation, but something more difficult, subtle, and rewarding.

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2 Responses to Silent film fiction: Pearl White, Bert Williams, and Missing Reels

  1. Lea S. says:

    These are excellent, very fair reviews. The Bert Williams novel sounds intriguing, and also a bit frustrating. It’s too bad that the author sounds like he was speaking his own opinions through his characters a little too much. Williams did experience depression and had a very rough time with prejudice, but certainly wasn’t a resigned sad sack of a man! I like your comments here: “While Phillips is proficient at conveying the death-by-a-thousand-cuts dull agony of performing as a Black man in a racist society, he isn’t as adept at conveying Williams’ passions. One assumes that despite his divided conscience, Williams took joy and pride in performing—or if not, what drove him to continue in that work?” Right on–Williams was a performer for something like 3 decades, and reached the top of his field. Of course he loved to perform, and of course he must’ve had a lot of pride in what he accomplished.

    Like

    • Thanks for the comment. :) Yes, Dancing in the Dark really is a beautiful book, and I appreciate that it didn’t sugar-coat the realities of racism, but I think it could have used a little more balance. Williams must have been quite some performer.

      Like

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