- The Truth at Twenty-Four Frames per Second: An Anthology of Writings on Film History: Author Anthony Slide answers questions about his new anthology book and his six-decade career as a film historian.
- Among the topics included in The Truth at Twenty-Four Frames per Second are actors Lillian Gish, Betty White, and Kirk Douglas; Sunset Blvd. co-screenwriter D.M. Marshman Jr.; and the first three-color Technicolor feature, Rouben Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp.
Film historian Anthony Slide discusses his new anthology book The Truth at Twenty-Four Frames per Second and the people he met along the way
Birmingham-born author Anthony Slide began documenting the history of cinema in the early 1960s: While he was still an adolescent, his first film essay came out in Cinema Studies, a periodical published by the London-based Society for Film History Research.
The recently released The Truth at Twenty-Four Frames per Second: An Anthology of Writings on Film History (BearManor Media website) goes as far back as that particular piece, while also including nearly 40 articles written over the course of several decades for publications like the aforementioned Cinema Studies, in addition to Films in Review, Emmy Magazine, and the gay periodical Stallion.
Topics include TV actress Betty White (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Golden Girls), who took umbrage with Slide’s use of the label “Golden Age of Television”; silent era superstar Mae Murray’s work in the 1917 social critique A Mormon Maid, directed by her soon-to-be-husband Robert Z. Leonard; and actor John Stuart, whose nearly six-decade movie career went from low-budget British silent features – among them Alfred Hitchcock’s The Pleasure Garden – to a small supporting role in the first mega-budget superhero flick, Richard Donner’s Superman, starring Christopher Reeve.
From iconic film pioneer Lillian Gish to ‘Mama’s Boys’
Also in The Truth at Twenty-Four Frames per Second, readers will find a look at the careers of two-time Best Supporting Actress nominee Beulah Bondi (The Gorgeous Hussy, 1936; Of Human Hearts, 1938), best remembered for playing moms, aunties, and grannies in countless Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s; crooner and sometime actor Russ Columbo (Broadway Thru a Keyhole, Wake Up and Dream), who died at age 26 in 1934 from a – seemingly accidental – gunshot wound (photographer Lansing Brown was to blame); and Lillian Gish, one of the most well-regarded stars of the silent era and in recent decades a controversial name in some quarters as a result of her association with the Father of American Cinema, D.W. Griffith, and his seminal but racist 1915 Civil War epic The Birth of a Nation.
There’s more, much more: For someone who isn’t a fan (see further below), a generous overview of the screen work of 1950s superstar Kirk Douglas (The Bad and the Beautiful, Lust for Life); a glimpse into D.W. Griffth’s “other (male) actors,” among them largely forgotten – but historically relevant – names like Arthur Johnson, Walter Long, and George Fawcett; and the essay “Mama’s Boys,” which focuses on (gay) actors – e.g., early silent era superstar J. Warren Kerrigan (The Covered Wagon, Captain Blood), unusually effete 20th Century Fox contract star Clifton Webb (Laura, Sitting Pretty) – who publicly extolled their close relationships with their doting moms.
Formerly an associate researcher/archivist at the American Film Institute and resident film historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Anthony Slide (website) – once hailed by Lillian Gish as “our preeminent historian of the silent film” – has agreed to answer (via email) several questions about The Truth at Twenty-Four Frames per Second, his nearly six-decade career as a writer/researcher, and his multifarious interview subjects. See below.
Author Anthony Slide q&a: The Truth at Twenty-Four Frames per Second
First of all, what made you decide to publish this collection of essays covering more than half a century?
I am afraid my decision to gather together this anthology was born out of boredom.
During the pandemic of 2020 I had little to do and I was both bored and depressed. I came across a box of “old” articles and essays that I had not looked at in recent years. Some of the pieces seemed quite original and had something “new” to say despite their age.
And so I suggested to Ben Ohmart at BearManor Media that I put together a collection of articles that I had not used or reprinted in any of my books. He was amenable, and so The Truth at Twenty-Four Frames per Second is the result.
I don’t expect it to sell. In fact, I am not hopeful that anyone will buy it. But at least it is out there and makes some of these fairly obscure pieces a little more accessible.
Discovering cinema’s past
You began writing at a very young age. While growing up in Britain, what made you become interested in digging into cinema’s past? And how difficult was it to find source materials for your writings?
I became interested in film when I was a teenager. My best friend at school was Jeffrey Richards, who is now Emeritus Professor of Cultural History at Lancaster University, and the author of quite a few good books on film history.
He and I would visit local cinemas on a regular basis, and every Saturday morning we would visit the main branch of Birmingham Public Library — I was born and grew up in Birmingham — and read old film books and magazines, of which the Library had a large collection. Iris Barry, an early film critic and founder of the Film Department at the Museum of Modern Art, was born in Birmingham, and I always liked to think I was following in her footsteps.
Of course, back then we didn’t have the resources to be found on the internet and so we had to rely on the printed page. Viewing “old” films was difficult, but there were film societies, and, if one visited London, there was always the National Film Theatre.
Avoiding the traps of historical research
In your introduction to The Truth at Twenty-Four Frames per Second, you make it clear that history, perhaps especially film history, is filled with traps even for the most well-intentioned, most experienced, most diligent researcher. Throughout your nearly six-decade career as a film author/historian, what have you needed to do to evade these pitfalls?
Unlike other disciplines, film is difficult to research. One cannot apply the same standards as might perhaps be relevant in studying literature or art. Scholars always maintain that one must go back to the primary source. But what is the primary source in film?
The film itself would be the response. But what does that tell the researcher, student, or scholar in terms of how it was made, the production process, the individuals involved?
Primary sources, in my opinion, are original production papers (often unavailable or lost), and, to a lesser extent, trade papers, fan magazines, and the participants involved. All are subject to the vagaries of those involved.
Isn’t it really a matter of intelligence when using these various sources?
One tries to identify links between one source and another, something which suggests that a news story is correct if it can be found in more than one outlet. One knows which publications are reliable and which are not. And one learns which modern writers and “historians” can be trusted and those who cannot.
How factual are oral celebrity histories?
In The Truth at Twenty-Four Frames per Second you have articles on Beulah Bondi, Vivienne Segal, Blanche Sweet, Lillian Gish, and other veterans. How did you get to know these older film and stage celebrities? How did you make them open up to you? And how could you know whether what they told you was factual or not?
I met so many celebrities from the so-called “golden age” of cinema initially because I wanted to interview them. Back then, it was easier to contact a former star or technician because they were not being inundated with requests for autographs and meetings from film buffs and the like.
Happily, I seemed to have a natural affinity with many of them. We enjoyed each other’s company. We became friends. (It has been unkindly suggested that this would not have happened had I not been, at the time, good-looking.) And I would invite them over for dinner. And, believe me, at the dinner table with the wine flowing freely, people open up about their lives and their careers.
As to how you know if they are telling the truth, I don’t really know. It is something one feels.
I remember Rose Hobart [Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1931] being asked a question about Colin Clive [Frankenstein, 1931] with whom she appeared on stage. She was suitably positive in her response. When, later, I asked if that was true, she said, “No,” pointing out Clive’s many negative qualities, but explained that she wouldn’t tell that to an interviewer.
My feeling has always been that if I am told something, then the individual expects that I will repeat what they have to say. But sometimes I am told something in confidence. For example, Blanche Sweet told me a couple of things about D.W. Griffith and asked that I not repeat them. And I have not and will not.
Favorite interview subjects
Among those you’ve interviewed, did you have one or more favorite interviewee(s)? If so, why? And among the many essays you’ve written, do you have a favorite?
I really liked Beulah Bondi. She was as nice in real life as one might expect.
I wish I had spoken at greater length with [director and screenwriter] Val Guest [Give Us the Moon, The Quatermass Xperiment], who had quite an extraordinary career, with relationships with so many important individuals.
I am glad I included [Films and Filming contributor] Geoff Donaldson, whom I am sure few people remember, but who was one of the most helpful and enthusiastic of researchers, sharing his knowledge through letters in the pages of Films in Review.
Unnamed least favorites
Any least favorite interviewees? If so, why?
I don’t really think I am going to answer that question.
There are one or two about whom I don’t really care that much, but whom I have included because I like what I have written.
I suppose Kirk Douglas and Jim Sheridan are not high on my list of favorite film people. Nothing personal. Just not that interested in their careers.
Lillian Gish lets her guard down
Has there been less-than-friendly feedback from people you wrote about?
I have never really had any complaints from those I have written about.
I do recall having dinner with Betty White at the home of film historian Rudy Behlmer, and she got quite angry with me because I referred to the Golden Age of Television which she insisted was today. When the piece appeared I didn’t think she would be that happy, but I received a very effusive, hand-written letter from her.
I did wonder if Lawrence Welk really knew I was interviewing him, but when the article appeared, again I got a letter informing me this was the best piece ever written about his career.
Beulah Bondi told me she liked the article, but that she had lied about her age.
The most awkward situation that aroused was with Lillian Gish; not about anything reprinted here, but a pamphlet I wrote about her in 1969, and which included a filmography. She was angry, claiming I had included dozens of Biograph shorts in which she did not appear. But she did. And I didn’t know how to respond.
Curiously, the interview that I did with her at the time is one of the best and most truthful, I am told by those who have used it. And the reason is that Lillian was in such a huff about the filmography that she wasn’t being careful in her replies or self-censoring.
In The Truth at Twenty-Four Frames per Second, you discuss just about every possible movie topic out there: Early color cinematography, censorship in horror films, city of Hull cinemas, etc. How did you come up with these topics? Was it a matter of availability, editors requesting specific subjects, something happening in your own life or in the world out there at the time, or…?
Generally I wrote about what interested me. Or if I happened to have access to the individual featured in the article.
By the way, I have many, many interviews which have never been published or used as the basis for a book or article, from British actress Joyce Howard to [Cat Ballou and A Man Called Horse] director Elliot Silverstein. Also, I don’t usually do interviews anymore. I am used to using a cassette tape recorder and they don’t make them. And so technology has brought an end to one aspect of my career!
Some of the pieces, of course, were just a matter of my wanting to write about film history and what was available to me. For example, the three essays relating to film and the Northern English city of Hull, where I started my working life at the age of sixteen in local government.
Do not print the legend
Based on your The Truth at Twenty-Four Frames per Second introduction, throughout your career you’ve chosen to honestly report/analyze the facts to the best of your ability. What do you have say about authors who have chosen to “print the legend”? And what about the readers who prefer that approach?
I do find it irritating that many film buffs do not want to believe or accept the truth about a favorite actor or actress. And I am disturbed by some writers who choose to ignore certain negative aspects of a subject’s career.
Of course, you can go to the other extreme, as with Charles Higham’s insisting on denouncing Errol Flynn as a Nazi spy without any real evidence and “tampering” with his primary sources.
A follow-up to the previous question: Would your essays on Charles Chaplin and Lillian Gish – in some quarters, controversial subjects – be any different today than they were when first published decades ago?
I wouldn’t change the Lillian Gish essays.
The Chaplin piece was originally commissioned by American Film and then rejected for reasons undisclosed. Subsequently, it was published without changes by Cineaste. It is not a piece I particularly care about, but I was paid to write it, and I did try to write something original about Chaplin.
Jean Renoir’s opinions
Are there topics that you very much wanted to write about, but for whatever reason never managed to? If so, what were they? Could they see the light of day sometime in the future?
There are essays and books that I would like to write about, but it is a matter of age and energy. I find it harder to concentrate these days.
I have thought about writing an essay about Jean Renoir and the comments he made to me after viewing various films at his house. (On Sunday afternoons, [Former UCLA Preservation Officer and A Century of Sound co-creator] Robert Gitt and I would visit Jean and Dido Renoir and screen “old” films for them. After the screenings, Norman and Peggy Lloyd would drop by after attending the membership screenings at the Academy. It is how I met them.)
Any more anthology books in the works?
I don’t think there is anything else worth anthologizing. I know some people have suggested that I take all my interview transcripts and publish them in edited form with commentaries. But, again, perhaps a little too much work.
I do want to mention that my book also includes a complete bibliography, listing every volume I have written or edited. It’s quite an impressive list (even if I say so myself).
One friend has suggested that The Truth at Twenty-Four Frames per Second is nothing more than a book-length resumé!
“Anthony Slide Q+A” notes
Movie truth or lack thereof
 The title refers to a 1993 article Anthony Slide wrote for the McFarland Publisher Catalog, “The Truth at 24 Frames per Second,” in which, discussing the field of film history, he affirms, “In few other disciplines is the truth so hard to ascertain, the dividing line between fantasy and reality such a cloudy one, the publicity story so indistinguishable from fact.”
More Anthony Slide q&as
 The author of dozens of film books (Early American Cinema, The Big V: A History of the Vitagraph Company, The Silent Feminists, Silent Players) and the director of a handful of documentaries (Portrait of Blanche Sweet; Vi: Portrait of a Silent Star, about Metro Pictures contract star Viola Dana), Anthony Slide has done a whole array of q&as for Alt Film Guide:
- Hollywood Unknowns: A history of movie extras, bit players, and stand-ins.
- Now Playing: A look at hand-painted movie poster art from the 1910s to the 1950s.
- D.W. Griffith Interviews: Compilation of interviews with the Father of American Cinema.
- The Arthur Askey Story: A biography of the once popular “everyman” British comedian.
- A Special Relationship: American talent working in the British film industry and vice versa.
- Alice Howell: The story of the early silent era comedienne who “could have been Chaplin.”
- Frank Lloyd: Master of Screen Melodrama: About the two-time Academy Award-winning director.
- Jimmy Edwards: The life and times of the “conservative” – and eventually outed – gay British comedian.
- Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine: A look at the writers who contributed to the studios’ publicity machine.
- It’s the Pictures That Got Small: The diaries of Ninotchka and Sunset Blvd. co-screenwriter Charles Bracket.
- Incorrect Entertainment: A reminder that what’s offensive in one’s time was once – and may be once again – the rule.
- Magnificent Obsession: The Outrageous History of Film Buffs, Collectors, Scholars, and Fanatics: The title says it all.
- The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville: A compendium of those who were part of this once hugely popular entertainment form.
Anthony Slide, James Karen, and Norman Lloyd image by Donna Kanter, courtesy of Anthony Slide.
Anthony Slide, Marsha Hunt, and Norman Lloyd image: Courtesy of Anthony Slide.
The Truth at Twenty-Four Frames per Second cover: BearManor Media.
“Anthony Slide Q+A: Film Historian on Cinema’s Greats + Eclectic Topics” last updated in April 2023.