Film Histories, Part 1

Tol'able David

This is the first in a series of posts in which I will evaluate some of the one-volume histories of film in English. Nominally, it will be from my perspective of their suitability of their use in the classroom, particularly those I teach on the undergraduate and graduate level at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Initially, I thought of focusing on the way they deal with (or ignore) animation and television. (I should note that SCAD’s TV production majors are required to take History of Cinema and a number of animation majors take the class as an elective.)

On one level, when I first examine a book on film history, I look to see if they include films I want to screen, especially those that I feel have sort of fallen from grace, e.g., Henry King’s Tol’able David (1921) and Morris Engel’s Little Fugitive (1953); Gerald Mast and Bruce F. Kawin’s A Short History of the Movies does put the King film in context, showing how it influenced Pudovkin (seen rather clearly in Mother), while Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell’s Film History: an Introduction does briefly mention Engel’s film and its role in the American independent film movement and the way it anticipated Direct Cinema documentaries (but not how it influenced Truffaut’s The 400 Blows).

Little Fugitive

There are other, more important factors I take into account, including but not limited to the book’s accuracy, scope, narrative sense, illustrations, price and how it fits in with the way I teach. For instance, when I first started at SCAD, I used The Oxford History of World Cinema, edited by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, which has a lot going for it, featuring as it does in-depth articles and informative sidebars by a host of specialists (the pieces on animation by William Moritz and Donald Crafton blow away the competition, as do its sidebars on Max Linder, Karl Freund and Alexandre Trauner). With a list price of $34.95, it’s also a real bargain. Yet, I dropped it because its lack of overall narrative didn’t fit in with the way I taught. (The fact it hasn’t been revised since its 1996 publication doesn’t bother me, but might concern others.)

I then switched to David Parkinson’s The History of Film, one of Thames & Hudson’s inexpensive but well written World of Art paperbacks; at the time, I compared it to an edition of Jack C. Ellis and Virginia Wright Wexman’s pricier A History of Film (Wexman has since taken over authorship) and found it much its equal. Though I would have had to drop it when it went out of print, I ceased using it because my students (who were then largely film majors) found that it lacked enough detail; as I now teach History of Cinema mostly as an elective, I would certainly think about using it again, especially as a new edition is apparently in the works. Since then, I have mostly used Thompson and Bordwell, with a brief experiment with Mast and Kawin; this fall I am finally trying Wexman. (Needless to say, I find it hard to make up my mind; m y wife has suggested I consider not using a textbook at all, but I’m not ready to go that route.)

In addition to those mentioned above, I will consider several other books, including David A. Cook’s A History of Narrative Film, Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn  Audrey Foster’s A Short History of Film, Louis Giannetti and Scott Eyman’s Flashback: A Brief History of Film and Mark Cousin’s The Story of Film. (The Cousins book has just gone out of print, but is worth looking at.) In addition, I will briefly look at books on animation history, as well as look at some of the reasons why animation and television are dealt with they way they are.

Author: Harvey Deneroff

Harvey Deneroff is a Los Angeles-based independent animation and film scholar specializing in labor history. He formerly taught at the Savannah College of Art and Design and was editor of Animation Magazine, Animation World Magazine, and Graiffit (published by ASIFA-Hollywood). He is the founder and past president of the Society for Animation Studies.

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