Check Those Sources!–A Handy Guide

It’s time to go over something so important, so essential to research, that colleges should teach entire courses on it: how to tell good sources from bad ones.

Now, a “source” is not merely some dry technical thing that only interests college professors and newspaper writers.  Sources of information are a part of daily life.  When you look up a recipe in a book, that book is a source.  When you go on a website to see what time a store closes, that site is your source.  When you ask someone where your sunglasses are and they reply “On your head, stupid,” that person is a source.

Bad sources are everywhere, and it’s so easy to be taken in by them that even news stations can be fooled (as constantly points out).  And of course we’ve all seen how crazy stories circulate on the Internet, spreading worry in their wake like paranoid tornadoes.  How many of you have gotten an e-mail forward from your grandma insisting that you should always check under your car in case a crazed murderer is lying there, waiting to awkwardly crawl his way out and attack you?  How many of you have seen a story on Facebook declaring that fast food meat is soaked in vats of ammonia?

With that in mind it’s easy to see that we should be extra careful when reading about the lives of people who died decades ago.  Anything can be written about subjects who aren’t around to defend themselves, and rumors are easily passed off as fact.  Look at how many people still think that Clara Bow, err, “partied” with an entire football team, for example.

So let‘s say you want to do research on the silent era.  How do you learn to tell good sources from bad ones? Where do you begin?

1. Get recommendations.

Probably the best way to get started on the right track is to dig a little and see if other people recommend the books, articles, documentaries, and other sources of information that you‘re thinking about picking up.

Let’s say you’re interested in Rudolph Valentino (hee hee) and want to read some books about him.  Rather than just picking up the first book you see with his face on it, take a look online and find out which books have better reviews.  Asking for recommendations on message boards and social media groups is also helpful–many fans are happy to share their knowledge with curious newbies.  Then, make your informed decision about which books are the best to buy.

2. Check your sources.

Yup, this definitely means to research your research–and you‘ll be glad you did it. It isn’t as difficult as you might think.  If you’re looking for recommendations then you’re already learning to distinguish between the good sources and the terrible ones.

Let’s say you’ve picked up a couple books about Rudy at a used book store (a great place to look).  One is a slim paperback you hadn‘t heard of before.  Where‘s the bibliography?  Is it listed in the back?  Are there footnotes at least?  Wait, it doesn‘t have any of that and it‘s published by Three Wolf Moon Media, which also publishes books with titles like “Sensational Starlets: Their Filthy Secret Lives”?  Well, scratch that book off your list.  How can you ever trust it?

The other book is one that has many good reviews.  And not only that, but it’s by an author well-known for writing good biographies, it has lots of sources listed in the back, footnotes (how fancy!), Rudy’s favorite meatball recipe, and you’ve even had it recommended to you several times.  By all means, read it.  And when you are done, go back to that used book store and find some more good Rudy books! Because you should…

3. Read and watch as much as you can.

Articles, documentaries, biographies, interviews, magazines, e-zines, blog posts, message board posts, bumper stickers, graffiti scrawled on walls, YouTube comments–devour as much as you can!  If it’s a subject you really love and are dying to know more about, it’s not going to be a chore–it’ll be exciting as you uncover more and more fun stories and offbeat facts.

You’ll also start recognizing things.  Some books and articles will pop up in discussions often–either to be praised for being excellent or scorned for being crap.  You’ll start remembering where a certain anecdote came from or where you saw a certain photo for the first time.  You will find yourself agreeing with people that yes, that one Rudy bio was so awesome that you want to eat it, and correcting someone who wrote down the wrong ingredients for Rudy’s famous meatball recipe.  This is all because you are slowly, but surely, becoming savvy about your sources.

4. Don’t be afraid to question anything that seems controversial.

The more savvy you become, the easier it’s going to be to recognize what “facts” are mistakes, exaggerations, or even just plain old speculation.  You will start to read things more carefully, to try and figure out how different stories add up, and most importantly, to use your common sense.  Common sense is key.  You’ll start to get skeptical of any writing that seems needlessly judgmental or melodramatic.  And soon you will experience that glorious point where you start to ask questions yourself–not “just because,” but because you have a whole wealth of strong source material behind you to help back you up.

Let’s say that one day you stumble across a rare photo of a copy of Rudy’s meatball recipe, handwritten by Rudy himself to give to Mary Pickford or something (she had wanted that recipe for months).  After reading so much about the virtues of Rudy’s meatballs, at last you get a chance to see the original recipe for yourself.

But wait! As you scrutinize the picture of the faded, timeworn paper closely, your eye catches it–clearly written by the magnificent hand of Rudy himself, it says “one Teaspoon of Oregano“–not one tablespoon of oregano, as that one fabulous biography had always said.  You are surprised to realize that hey, even the best biographies aren’t always 100% perfect.

And now you are now well on your way to being a sharp-eyed, well-read, well-informed, smart and savvy researcher.

Good luck!

8 thoughts on “Check Those Sources!–A Handy Guide

  1. Pingback: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly Of Movie Star Biographies | silent-ology

  2. Pingback: Silent-ology Turns One Today! | Silent-ology

  3. Holy smokes, Lea……you have done a fantastic service here. I’ve noticed some people read a biography and just take things at face value…..and they don’t read between the lines, question the angle of the writer….think about how something “doesn’t add up”, as you so typically nailed it!!!!

    Because the first thing you advise is to get recommendations. WELL…..I think EVERYONE who frequents this blog would recommend the work of Kevin Brownlow. How great is Kevin Brownlow? They just gave him an OSCAR.

    Here’s your shopping list:

    -His book The Parade’s Gone By. It’s one of the greatest books ever.

    -His documentary series (which is right now on You Tube in a Laserdisc transfer!): Hollywood: A Celebration Of The American Silent Film…..13 episodes, narrated by JAMES MASON. Think about that. Just spending 13 more hours with James Mason is reason enough to watch it! One of the best narrations in any documentary I’ve ever seen. This series is literally a masterpiece. And it will never be released on DVD apparently, due to legal garbage, so run, don’t walk, and see that. That alone will convert you to silents!

    -Then his documentaries on Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd are the definitive documentaries about the great ones (am I wrong?)

    -And lastly “Cinema Europe”, a six part documentary series about the European side of silent films.

    That is a crash course in silent film right there, for those who need it!!!! Lea talks about sources… Brownlow’s work, it’s usually right from the horse’s mouth!

    -I also recommend his book “Mary Pickford Rediscovered” as the very first thing you read about this seminal figure, to go along with watching all her (extant) films. It is literally one of the most beautiful books you will ever own.

    One last thing: there are three Mary Pickford documentaries, and my opinion is that THE one to see is the PBS American Experience, narrated by Laura Linney, which is the most affecting. I believe it’s up on You Tube right now.

    The weakest one is the one that came out more recently “The Muse of the Movies” (also on You Tube). It’s narrated by Michael York, in this really weird tone of voice, and they choose to tell the story in a weird way, jumping around. It’s just not on the money, tone-wise. “Mary Pickford: A LIfe In Film” has the most details, and WOULD be the best, except Whoopi Goldberg’s narration, again, is really not very good, I’m sorry to say. And it bogs it down. They all have stuff to recommend about them, but the essential one is the PBS one. Laura Linney does a very good job on the narration. It’s not perfect, and i don’t like the way the dismiss her post-career life, but it will get you in the door.

    • Thanks for sharing your recommendations, super useful! Especially since our Kevin is mentioned so prominently. 😉 His documentary on Keaton is very much considered the definitive one, at least so far. Oh, the interviews he managed to get! We all owe him a thank you card at the very least, ha ha!

      It’s very true that people often don’t think to read a biography critically. My mom will still mention this one awful Marilyn Monroe bio she read, saying that she was disappointed to find out certain things about her (no idea which bio it was, but we can well imagine what sort of awful things a bad Marilyn Monroe bio would print). I keep telling her that it’s probably just full of crud, but she keeps forgetting… 😀

      That American Experience doc on Mary is one of the very first things I watched that related to silent films. It’ll always have a special place in my heart for that!

      • You wrote: “That American Experience doc on Mary is one of the very first things I watched that related to silent films. It’ll always have a special place in my heart for that!”

        Me, too!!!! Same exact thing!

        Oh my gosh, that Keaton documentary. Thank God he interviewed everyone right before they left this mortal coil. I have considered joining Facebook just so that I could write him and thank him for that, and to convey how much his work has meant to us. (But I just can’t bring myself to join it!!!!) Is it true he’s working on a documentary about Fairbanks? Or is it just that he would like to do that? Because if so, we should write to TCM or one of these cable channels….tell them to cough up some dough! A documentary about Fairbanks is way overdue (though I happen to love that charming documentary that those women did, parts of it are up on You Tube now, if not the entire thing. It’s actually everything you want to know, and they do a great job telling his story!)

        • You saw that American Experience episode early on too?! Ha, that’s great! I haven’t heard that Kevin’s working on a Fairbanks documentary, but wouldn’t be surprised! Doug needs more recognition than he currently gets.

  4. Here are some other silent era biographies I liked:

    THE FIRST KING OF HOLLYWOOD: THE LIFE OF DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS by Tracy Goessel (such a great book that even my non-silent film fan grandmother got engrossed in it)

    DARK LOVER: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF RUDOLPH VALENTINO by Emily Leider (Valentino might have the most trash published about him compared to any other 1920s star, so this even-handed biography was great)

    BUSTER KEATON: THE PERSISTENCE OF COMEDY by Imogen Sara Smith (okay, only part-biography and more an analysis, but it’s about the best book on Keaton)

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