The Silent Era

With the end of  World War I in 1918,  European and American film makers embarked on an era of innovation and development.  American films were somewhat ahead of this curve, in part because the war had not taken such a toll, and also because by 1915 they were free from Thomas Edison’s attempt to control the industry through the MPCC.      

D. W. Griffith: The most innovative and yet racist film of the silent era was D. W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation. It told the story of families torn apart in the aftermath of the Civil War, depicting Reconstruction-era African Americans in the worst possible light, as drunkards, rapists and murderers, who were only thwarted when a heroic white vigilante group, the Ku Klux Klan, rode out to oppose them. Critics said it was “unfair and vicious.” Riots broke out at theaters in major cities, and a wave of disappearances, murders and lynchings followed in the wake of the movie. Performances were shut down in eight states, and many others were picketed by the emerging National Association for Colored People.

Probably the most notoriously racist clip is below, where a white woman throws herself from a cliff to avoid being subjected to a deranged African American.  For a full version of the movie, see this link. Here is one clip, and an interview with Library of Congress motion picture division chief Mike Mashon.

Eisenstein: One of the star directors of the silent era was Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Here we see the famed “Odessa Steps” montage from the Battleship Potemkin (1925).  The montage seems relatively modern, even though, at the time, Eisenstein was pushing the envelope of  cinema vocabulary.

Chaplin: The most famous icon of the silent era was Charlie Chaplin, whose “tramp” character delighted audiences worldwide. He created the character for film producer Mack Sennett when he was asked to put on a comic costume for a 1914 film. Chaplin delighted fans worldwide with the tramp’s down-at-the heels costume and his refined but bewildered demeanor. Two years later, he became one of the first great stars of the Silent Era, signing a contract with Mutual Films for over half a million dollars. At that point, Chaplin owned his own studios, producing classic silent films like The Gold Rush and The Kid.   Here’s one of the iconic scenes from the Gold Rush… the table ballet:

Keaton: Almost as popular as Chaplin at the time was Buster Keaton, whose stunts in “The General” of 1927 were breathtaking.

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari  — 1921 – Director Robert Weine uses painted sets and contrary lighting to give the impression of an insane world as seen through the eyes of a lunatic in an asylum. Caligari and Nosferatu (below) are considered the beginning of German expressionist cinema of the 1920s.

Nosferatu — 1922 — An adaptation of the Dracula story directed by F. W. Murnau. The producers could not get permission from Braum Stoker’s “Dracula,” written in 1897 and still under copyright, so they changed names and other details: the “vampire” became “Nosferatu” and “Count Dracula” became “Count Orlok.” Stoker died in 1912, but his heirs sued over the adaptation, and a court ruling ordered that all copies of the film be destroyed. A few, however, survived.
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Metropolis by Fritz Lang – 1927 — One of the crowning achievements of German Expressionism and the entire Silent Era. The German science fiction epic is set in a future dystopia where workers and wealthy are on a collision course.

Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov – 1929 – A montage of urban life in Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa. This experimental film is famous for exploring the language of cinema through montage and a self-reflexive style. (A 1927  film by Walter Ruttman, “Berlin: Symphony of a Great City,” takes the same theme.)

H2O Ralph Steiner‘s 1929 short film H2O, a cinematic tone poem, takes a similarly experimental approach in the US. A similar Steiner film from 1930, Mechanical Principles, is a study of abstracts in motion.

Sound test, with duck In this 1925 test of synchronized sound by Theodore Case, Gus Visser and his duck sing a popular Twenties tune. Some have called this the world’s first music video.


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First talkie, 1928 — Hollywood was already at the top of its game by the mid-1920s, and few saw any reason to change things. When Jack Warner agreed to spend $10,000 to build a sound stage in 1927, he changed his mind a few hours later—only to find the stage already under construction. Warner Brothers used Vitaphone equipment, developed over the previous years by AT&T, and despite low box office expectations, a movie called The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, turned out to be a major hit. Although Jolson’s blackface act is offensive by modern standards, it was meant to be clownish and sentimental at the time, and had none of the virulent racism of Birth of a Nation.

How much did sound change film? The combination of sound and film changed everything, said film historian Scott Eyman. “It changed how movies were made, of course, but more importantly, it changed what movies were.” Where silent film demanded participation in the experience, talking films were immersive but stylistically shallow. “Talkies were not an evolution, but a mutation, a different art form entirely; as a result, an art form was eliminated and hundreds of careers were extinguished” (Eyman, 1997). Early sound film technology limited camera movement and actors gestures, and often forced shooting into indoor studios. Some of the narrative sweep of silent films was lost for the time being.

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