The Bootleg Files: Hollywood

BOOTLEG FILES 733: “Hollywood” (1980 British television documentary series).

On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Difficulties in clearing the rights to the films in the series resulted in its absence from DVD and Blu-ray.


One of the most impressive documentaries on film history was Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s “Hollywood,” which was produced by Britain’s Thames Television for broadcast on ITV. Spanning 13 50-minute episodes, the series included interviews with many of the on-screen and behind-the-camera talent who were active in film production before the coming of the talkies.

When “Hollywood” was first broadcast in 1980, it came at a time when silent films were mostly unavailable to movie lovers. Outside of an occasional PBS broadcast or a college film appreciation course screening, most of the films from this genre were only known to the general public by reputation rather than exhibition. Prior to the rise of VHS video, there was a home entertainment market where silent movies were sold to the public in 16mm or 8mm formats. But many of those offerings were edited down from the original running times and lacked pristine visual quality – and more than a few of these prints either lacked music soundtracks or were saddled with irritating piano music that rarely matched the on-screen action.

Brownlow and Gill worked to secure the best quality prints for their presentation. However, they were laboring at a time when film restoration was a very low priority, so the visual aspects of the prints they secured varied. Nonetheless, an adequate-quality print was better than no print – though, oddly, “Hollywood” did not dwell on the shockingly large number of silent films that were considered lost. James Mason offered an intelligent and unobtrusive narration to the proceedings.

The first two episodes of the series, “The Pioneers” and “In the Beginning,” traced the genesis of the American motion picture history from the penny arcades and nickelodeons into a full-throttle industry headquartered in Hollywood. For anyone seeking insight on where Hollywood came from, these episodes are invaluable. The remaining episodes focused on trends that shaped film production and the distinctive talents who rose (and, sometimes, fell) in this environment.

Among the more memorable episodes of the series was “Autocrats,” which profiled two very different directors: Cecil B. DeMille, who successfully created epic spectacles within the studio system, and Erich von Stroheim, whose artistic brilliance was derailed by his self-indulgence and refusal to kowtow to studio hierarchies. The episode offered generous clips of DeMille and von Stroheim’s best known works, with then-rare glimpses of DeMille’s original “The Ten Commandments” (which was mostly unseen after the 1956 remake) and von Stroheim’s career-killing “Queen Kelly” (which had not been seen in the U.S. except for a few seconds excerpted in “Sunset Boulevard”).

“Out West” highlighted the rise of the most American of all film genres, the Western, with the rise of cowboy stars like William S. Hart, Harry Carey and Tom Mix. John Wayne, whose career started at the tail end of the silent movies, gives a poignant recollection of the impact of the silent Western stars on his career.

The episode “Comedy – A Serious Business” tries to squeeze too much into 50 minutes, but at least it gave proper credit to Mack Sennett’s foundation-building efforts and it acknowledges the influence of French star Max Linder on Charlie Chaplin. In fact, there is rare footage of Linder meeting Chaplin at the latter’s Hollywood studio. Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon are also cited, albeit which much less running time and insight.

The last episode of the series, “End of an Era,” detailed the end of silent films and the rise of the sound films. This included a great deal of footage from little-known sound film experiments made prior to “The Jazz Singer” and some of the wonderfully wobbly earlier talkies, including the hilariously stiff 1928 gangster flick “The Lights of New York.”

For film buffs who ached to see historically important but elusive titles, “Hollywood” provided generous glimpses of landmark films including “Ben-Hur,” “The Big Parade,” “Sunrise,” “The Crowd” and “Wings.” And while some of the on-screen personalities being interviewed for “Hollywood” were immediately recognizable for their work spanning both silent and sound films – most notably Gloria Swanson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Lillian Gish and Jackie Coogan – Brownlow and Gill tracked down many stars who seemed to vanish when sound came into films, including Leatrice Joy, Louise Brooks and Blanche Sweet. The series also paid tribute to Dorothy Arzner’s unique role in the Hollywood studio system, giving her a level of scholarly attention that she did not enjoy up until that time.

“Hollywood” was shown in the U.S. on PBS and later released on VHS and LaserDisc formats. Sadly, the series has been out of circulation for too many years. Brownlow acknowledged that the production was absent from DVD and Blu-ray because the series would require an expensive remastering to meet current resolution standards, and the film clips used would need to be culled from higher quality sources. And even if that was accomplished, many of the films featured in “Hollywood” are still copyright protected and their rights would have to be cleared again.

Nonetheless, bootlegging fans of “Hollywood” have sold their own DVDs of the title for years, and the entire series can be found on YouTube in unauthorized postings. And while it is certainly not the ideal way to enjoy this landmark series, it’s better than nothing at all.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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