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Best Silent Film Books of 2013

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It has been a great year for books about the movies—and in particular books on the silent film era. There have been many worthwhile biographies, critical studies, and pictorials—so much so it's hard to choose the dozen or so best books of the year.

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One defining characteristic of many of the year' best books is their sense of revisionism, or historical reevaluation. Whether it's the role women played in the early years of Hollywood, or the way certain actors or directors have been maligned or neglected over the years is up for reconsideration.

The movies are about story-telling. And if you have an interest in early film, there is something about the life story of an actor or director that makes for rewarding reading—especially if the story is well told or groundbreaking in some way.

Looking over the many books about the movies released in 2013, it's striking how many of the best of them—or at least the most compelling and interesting works—are biographies, memoirs, or the hybrid biographical-career study.

Recommended among biographies and biographical studies are John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars, by Eve Golden (University Press of Kentucky), Chaplin's Vintage Year: The History of the Mutual-Chaplin Specials, by Michael J. Hayde (BearManor Media), and Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood, by Greg Merritt (Chicago Review Press). Each are good reads.

Also worthwhile are Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios, by Frederic Lombardi (McFarland), Buster Keaton's Silent Shorts: 1920-1923, by James L. Neibaur and Terri Niemi (Scarecrow Press), and For Art's Sake: The Biography & Filmography of Ben Turpin, by Steve Rydzewski (BearManor Media).

Two other individuals—each of whose careers started in the silent era and lasted well into the sound era, were also the subject of two new books apiece. They are Gloria Swanson, the subject of Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star, by Stephen Michael Shearer (St. Martins) and Gloria Swanson: Ready for Her Close-Up, by Tricia Welsch (University Press of Mississippi) and William Wyler, the subject of William Wyler: The Life and Films of Hollywood's Most Celebrated Director, by Gabriel Miller (University Press of Kentucky) and A Wonderful Heart: The Films of William Wyler, by Neil Sinyard (McFarland).

There are also some excellent thematic titles. They include Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography, by David S. Shields (University of Chicago Press), Sirens & Sinners: A Visual History of Weimar Film 1918-1933, by Hans Helmut Prinzler (Thames & Hudson), Making Personas: Transnational Film Stardom in Modern Japan, by Hideaki Fujiki (Harvard University Asia Center), and Go West, Young Women!: The Rise of Early Hollywood, by Hilary Hallett (University of California Press).

Also interesting are Extras of Early Hollywood: A History of the Crowd, 1913-1945, by Kerry Segrave (McFarland), Hollywood Before Glamour: Fashion in American Silent Film, by Michelle Finamore (Palgrave Macmillan), and George Hurrell's Hollywood: Glamour Portraits 1925-1992, by Mark A. Vieira (Running Press).

Thomas Gladysz is an arts journalist, early film enthusiast, and the founding director of the Louise Brooks Society, an online archive and international fan club devoted to the film star. Gladysz has curated exhibits, contributed to books, appeared on television, and introduced the actress's films around the world.


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