Happy Birthday, Walter Kerr

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Today is the birthday of Walter Kerr (1913-1996). Kerr was and is known for many things. He was a major New York theatric critic for over a quarter of a century, first for the Herald Tribune and then for the New York Times. He wrote many plays and many books. He was written ABOUT in his wife Jean Kerr’s book Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, which became a movie and then a tv series. But ultimately I’d be very surprised if his most lasting legacy didn’t prove to be the book pictured above.

Starting when I was about 19 I read The Silent Clowns cover to cover many, many times. In Chain of Fools, I talk some about how it was the only way to experience most silent comedies at that time (the mid 1980s), unless you physically traveled to archives or waited until they were screened or shown someplace. It was kind of The Silent Comedy Bible. I’ve totally internalized its contents and have essentially memorized it.  Kerr had grown up watching silent comedies as a kid. In the intervening years, he became one of the best critical writers in the nation. His writing on the topic is so insightful and so well expressed, it’s the next best thing to being there. Better — he taught an appreciation. He was at the vanguard of a turnaround in public attitude to these musty old movies. A huge influence.

Then amazingly, in around the year 2000, I met someone whose life was touched even MORE by Kerr. Not just by his books, but by HIM. Ben Model (one of the co-producers of the Silent Clowns Film Series) actually used to go watch silent films at Walter Kerr’s house — learned about all the old films at Kerr’s KNEE. And in the aftermath, he wasn’t selfish about it — he now spends every single day spreading that knowledge and love for these old movies wherever he goes. If Walter Kerr has an heir apparent (at least on the subject of silent film) it’s Model.

That’s a good thing. As much as I cherish the book, time is constantly passing it by. It was written in 1975. Sometimes Kerr was relying solely on 50 year old memories as he wrote. Access to the films was limited back then and knowledge about the artists, the films, and EVERYTHING was so much less. There have been reassessments. There are comedians Kerr dismisses who are more appreciated nowadays. But one thing you can’t argue with is how beautifully he expresses himself. He teaches you to love what he loves. Definitely one of my heroes as a critic.

And Ben proves the efficacy of oral transmission in the the dissemination of knowledge and appreciation from generation to generation. Books are great. But what could possibly beat being motivated and animated by a real, live human being?

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