Interview with Charles Epting

10 min read

Charles Epting is the Editor-in-Chief at The Silent Film Quarterly, the only magazine dedicated to silent cinema. Charles launched this magazine back in 2015 when he was a recent college graduate without a full-time job. Ten regular print issues along with few special editions have been published thus far. Each issue contains an assortment of works: reviews of lesser-known silent films, brief biographies of forgotten silent film stars, collection of original articles and interviews from the silent era, articles about silent era artifacts, and a lot more. Flipping through its pages allows you to plunge into a black-and-white world, without a sound.

For instance, these are some of the things you can find in the first issue: Greta Garbo’s narration of her life first published in the Photoplay magazine 1927, an essay on the influential movie trade journal The Moving Picture World, a brief account of Mary Miles Minter’s life, an interview of Mildred Harris (from 1920!) on her brief marriage with Charlie Chaplin, and a young girl’s scrapbook from the 1910s with letters from her favourite silent film stars.

In this interview, we talk to Charles about silent films (of course) and what goes into running a magazine.

When did you first discover your love for silent films? What finally led to the launch of Silent Film Quarterly?

My father exposed me to a few silent films as a child—I specifically remember Chaplin’s The Kid—but I never felt a desire to explore the format further. It wasn’t until attending university that I made a conscious effort to watch silent films, and this stemmed from a wider interest in the 1920s. I was interested in the clothing, the literature, the art of the era, and naturally I wanted to see what films of the era were like. I started with some very basic titles—Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last, Buster Keaton’s The General, Metropolis, It, and Wings were the first five I watched, if I recall.

Immediately I was hooked, and I started digging deeper into the canon of silent films. I began watching Harold Lloyd’s early shorts with Bebe Daniels and Snub Pollard, I began watching German films such as Faust and Woman in the Moon. My cousin, a fellow silent film fanatic, began feeding me a steady diet of Lon Chaney DVDs. During my less-interesting classes, I would stream films on my laptop—the lack of sound had the benefit of allowing me to watch these films anywhere without missing out on any key dialogue. Silent cinema very quickly went from a passing interest to the object of all of my attention.

It was around this time that the first seeds for Silent Film Quarterly were being planted. While there are some incredible silent film blogs (I’d like to mention my friend Lea Stans’s Silent-ology here), I wanted to contribute something more permanent to the community. Websites and blogs have a transient property to them, whereas a magazine (whether in print or online) has a little more permanence to it. On a lark, I wrote a couple of my friends to see if they might contribute to my first issue—I had no idea how I would format it or print it or distribute it—those were all things I learned (and am learning) as I go along. What’s very important to me is the passion and excitement that I share with my contributors.

Charles Epting [bottom] visiting the filming location of The House of Hate
Apart from the popular classics of silent cinema like City Lights, why do you think people need to know about other lesser known films and actors?

There are a handful of silent films—Wings, Metropolis, Chaplin’s features—that are more frequently screened and discussed than any of their contemporaries. And there’s certainly good reason for this; City Lights is undoubtedly a masterwork of cinema. But when people dive beneath the surface, they’ll find that there is a multitude of films that are forgotten not because of a lack of merit, but for the simple reasons of poor preservation or distribution. Many worthwhile pictures have simply not been released widely on DVD, or are rarely shown at film festivals.

These obscure and little-known films give us a better idea of what it was like to be a moviegoer in the 1910s and 1920s. While Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino are still well-known today, their contemporaries such as Esther Ralston and Richard Arlen were no less important figures, and were no less beloved by millions of adoring fans worldwide. Knowing about lesser known films and actors allows us to contextualize the era, to put ourselves in the shoes of those going to the cinema in real time—and ultimately, it teaches us why certain films (like City Lights) are still considered classics.

Charles Epting [left] interviewing silent film star Baby Peggy [right]
All passion projects face the challenge of distribution and sustainability. How do you tackle this? If you do not mind telling us, how is your magazine funded?

Distribution has certainly been the most difficult part of the process thus far. Editing content, laying out the issues, selecting a photograph for the cover—it’s all incredibly fun and exciting. Printing shipping labels and stamping envelopes is much more tedious. I’ve had wonderful support from family and friends, but at the end of the day it’s still something I dread every time a new issue comes out. Having a full-time job in an unrelated industry leaves me with very little free time, and what time I do have I’d rather spend writing and researching than stuffing magazines into envelopes.

Funding for the magazine is likewise tricky for me. Ideally, it would be self-sustaining with subscriptions, but from the start, I’ve never wanted to exclude anyone who couldn’t afford the magazine. Silent films in the 1920s were not solely for the upper echelons of society, and likewise, I didn’t want my magazine to be prohibitively expensive. As a result I’ve invested a significant amount of my own money into the project, trying to keep it afloat while offering a high-quality product at a reasonable price. I don’t currently sell advertising, which is something that may have to change in the future. For the time being, I’m trying to explore alternate avenues of distribution, whether it be online or at brick-and-mortar bookstores and museum gift shops.

What goal did you have in mind while coming up with SFQ’s simple and neat design and layout? Were there other magazines (film or non-film) that inspired you in this regard?

The design and layout of Silent Film Quarterly came in large part from my own inexperience when it comes to graphic design. I wanted something that let the text and the photographs speak for themselves, without flashy formatting distracting from the actual content of the magazine. Obviously reading many issues of The Moving Picture World and Photoplay had some sort of subconscious influence on me—particularly the former, whose simple formatting I find very easy to read and pleasing to the eye.

We notice you’ve made a shift to an online platform for this year’s editions of The Silent Film Quarterly. What are your future plans for the magazine?

For the time being, all future issues of Silent Film Quarterly will launch online first, followed by a limited print run. I shied away from online distribution initially, but ultimately the ease of uploading a file once instead of mailing an issue hundreds of times won out. I very much like the idea of doing hardbound omnibus collections at the end of each year, which would ensure that physical copies are still available for those who prefer to hold a book or magazine in their hands. Ultimately, whether through online distribution or physical copies, my main goal is to continue putting together engaging issues that combine the best contemporary researchers and writers with the most interesting content from the silent era.

Do you think online streaming platforms like Netflix have solved the problem of accessibility to silent films? What can they do better?

I think that the greatest platform for the spread of silent films has been YouTube. Since many films are old enough to be in the public domain, YouTube has allowed them to be shared freely to the masses. The quality is often not the best, but I’m a firm believer that even a poor-condition print of a rare film is better than nothing. I think it’s tough for for-profit platforms like Netflix and Hulu to incorporate silent films into their services, as there’s decided low demand for The Birth of a Nation and Wings when compared to Friends or Seinfeld.

I think that the recent failure of boutique streaming services such as FilmStruck has been particularly interesting, as I’ve noticed an affinity amongst the online silent film community for physical DVD releases. I can’t explain the desire for physical media—perhaps it is akin to the rise in vinyl record sales in the 21st century—but I believe that new silent film restorations and releases will continue to flourish on DVD and BluRay, at least for the near future. I would love to see a dedicated classic film streaming platform, but I’m not sure if the economics of it make sense.

Charles Epting [right] with the silent film historian and archivist Kevin Brownlow [left]
How do you think people can be encouraged to watch and appreciate silent films, even if sensibilities have undergone tremendous shifts in the intervening decades?

My career is in the stamp collecting business, and this is a question we find ourselves asking each other all the time. How can we convince people—especially young people—to care about something that peaked in popularity decades ago? I’m not sure there’s an easy answer. There will always be people naturally inclined to be interested in this sort of thing, but for the vast majority of society, silent films exist on the periphery of popular culture.

I have noticed college courses using silent films as a part of their lesson plans (for example, a course on race relations at my university used Broken Blossoms as a primary source), which simultaneously seems like both a good idea—it exposes young people to silent film, perhaps for the first time—and a terrible idea—it relegates the films to mandatory coursework, dissuading students from ever viewing them as a pleasurable experience.

I’ve seen children as young as three and four light up at Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin comedies. Whether these films will mean anything to them later in life is yet to be determined, but it certainly gives me hope for the next generation. These simple comedies transcend time and place, and are the perfect entry point for children into the world of silent films. So I suppose that’s my best plan—start young, keep your fingers crossed, and hope for the best.

Do you make it a point to write an article for each issue, apart from the editorial?

I try to have at least one article or interview in each issue. I seem to always be in the middle of a dozen or so research projects, and it helps to be able to get something off my plate every couple of months. I’m lucky enough to travel quite often for work, and I always try to incorporate silent films into my trips—whether it be a visit to Tom Mix’s birthplace, an interview with Baby Peggy, or a hike to the site of the famous train crash in The General. I try to share these fun, offbeat adventures with readers of the magazine, as they bring to life topics that might otherwise seem musty or boring.

We see you featuring a short biography of a relatively unknown silent film star in each issue. Whose life from the silent era do you find the most inspiring, or whose life resonates with you the most?

This is an extremely difficult question, because there’s so many incredible stories that deserve to be told. I wrote a biography of Bebe Daniels several years ago, and her life is one that I certainly find inspirational. She was able to transition from the stage to silent films to talkies all the way up to radio and television, which demonstrates a resilience that few others from her era could match.

I’ve also always been fascinated by Wallace Reid, who suffered one of the most tragic young deaths of anyone in Hollywood. The fact that he became a morphine addict against his own will—he was prescribed morphine for an injury he suffered while making a film—makes his untimely passing particularly devastating. By many accounts, he was one of the most pleasant men to work with in the movie business, and he was as comfortable behind the camera as he was in front of it. He had one of the most prolific careers of any of his peers by the time he died at age 31, and I always find myself wondering what he could have accomplished had he not met such an unfair fate.

How do you find new contributors for each issue? What do you look for in a potential contributor’s writing?

I’ve been extremely fortunate with the number of people who have reached out to me with an interest in writing for The Silent Film Quarterly. I’ve heard from people around the globe—from well-known authors to silent film enthusiasts who have never written an article before, from people who have been watching silent films for decades to those who have only been watching for a few years. The breadth and range of submissions is truly overwhelming, and is a constant reminder to myself of just how many stories there are that are left to be told.

I try to maintain a balance in the magazine between the popular and the obscure. I don’t want to make every article about Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton—although they’re certainly deserving—but at the same time I don’t want each article to be so obscure that only a few people will care. Likewise, I try to represent all eras of silent film (from the embryonic days of Muybridge through the advent of the talkies) and all corners of the globe. Ultimately, I’m looking for writers who are passionate, dynamic, and committed to telling stories that a majority of readers might be unfamiliar with.

Do you think silent cinema’s era has ended? Or do you think films like The Artist will keep reviving it from time to time?

I think that the silent era left its fingerprints all over Hollywood, whether through obvious homage (like Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie or The Artist), or through more subtle influences. There are scenes in Woody Allen’s Manhattan that contain no dialogue and act as perfectly-scripted silent vignettes. So I believe that while the era of silent cinema has been over for nearly a century, its ripples will be felt long into the future. Obviously The Artist provided a great deal of publicity for silent films for a short time, but I would be shocked if Hollywood produced another big-budget silent film anytime soon.

Instead, the advent of digital movie cameras and iPhones has made it much easier for amateurs to produce their own silent films. For example a good friend of mine, Keith Picot, makes silent films as commercials for local businesses in the town where he lives. Nowadays someone with a great passion for silent films—but not necessarily a film degree—can pay homage to their favorite stars and distribute their craft freely online. As long as there are people watching Keaton and Chaplin, there will be those who want to imitate and honor their stunts. Silent filmmaking is now in the hands of the common man instead of the professional.

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