Silent Cinema

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Silent Cinema



By 1915 cinema seemed poised to enter a new phase of its development: with bigger-budgeted multireel films, popular and widely publicized stars, new modes of production and distribution, picture palaces, and aspirations of artistry all vying to define the medium in different ways, that sense of potential was more than met in the fifteen years that followed. What no one could have predicted was that the end of the 1920s would mark not only the completion of cinema's third full decade of existence, but also the end of a particular form of cinematic expression ushered in with the advent of features. Whether viewed as an economically motivated inevitability or a technologically generated caprice, the introduction of sound effectively put a stop to the unique qualities of silent cinema. Compelling arguments can be made that as many fundamentals of form and practice persisted as perished when sound displaced silence as the dominant cinematic mode; nonetheless, sound challenged the primacy of the image, resulting in a rethinking of how to harness the expressive capacities of the medium. Affected least by sound's introduction was the classical, conventional filmmaking strongly associated with Hollywood. Conversely, the experiments launched within the contexts of other national cinemas, specifically those of France, Germany, and the USSR, evaporated in sound's wake, leaving the norms of American cinema virtually unchallenged for the next fifteen years. Many would lament the passing of the silent era, some with a fervor bordering on reverence; eventually, nostalgia for a paradise lost was replaced by respect for the considerable achievements of an aesthetically distinct segment of cinematic history.


It was a specific technological development that ended the mature silent period, but it was an international event of epoch-defining magnitude that helped mark its beginning. By and large, World War I, which began in 1914, had a disastrous effect on most national cinemas in Europe, hastening a decline already apparent for some (England, France) while halting the momentum experienced by others (Denmark, Italy). Only two countries, Sweden and Germany, emerged from the war with their national cinemas in a stronger position than when it began. Both benefited from restrictions placed on them during the war, primarily in the form of a blockade on imports imposed in 1916. While Sweden saw its own domestic industry bolstered by the blockade (and an ability to export to Germany), Germany's thrived, particularly because the ban was sustained there until 1920. Demand for films meant that the number of production companies in Germany grew exponentially, reaching 130 by 1918. A year earlier Germany's government had taken steps toward centralization of the industry, with the formation of Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft, or Ufa, which merged production, distribution, and exhibition via a vertically integrated, state-run model. After the war, Ufa passed to private ownership but remained the primary distributor for German films. Ufa's massive studios also allowed Germany to mount films whose scale and production values rivaled those from its only true competition within the international market during this period—Hollywood.

Coincident with a push into wider markets by the country's manufacturing sector, the American film industry continued to make inroads internationally in the years prior to World War I. But the war diminished the producing capacity of its chief rivals, Italy and France, opening the market to US domination more readily. Benefiting from its geographic separation from the wartime deprivations plaguing Europe, the American film industry capitalized on its advantages, increasing direct sales to markets where its presence had been less prominent before the war. The turning point appears to have been 1916, and the United States retained its domination of the international market from that point onward. A key component in that dominance was the industry's ability to spread its exporting might across regions, so that by the close of the decade exports to all the major markets (save Africa) were much more evenly distributed than ever before. Although Europe was still the major recipient of American films, South America, Asia, and Oceania each accounted for roughly 10 percent of US film export revenue. The United States moved into the 1920s buoyed by the confidence that it was the undisputed commercial dynamo, with an average annual production rate of over six hundred features a year.

Had the war not intervened, matters might have developed quite differently, considering how slowly the American film industry moved into production of features as compared to France and Italy, the pioneers in epic feature filmmaking. And when it did begin to produce features in earnest by 1914, the industry had to contend with the widespread changes to distribution and exhibition such a shift in production strategy entailed. In retrospect, it is evident that the timing of the American switch to features was fortuitous, as it occurred at the onset of the war, when the United States could best afford these substantial disruptions to its industrial system. The chief impediment to America's wholesale adoption of the feature film was the existing distribution system, which, since the early days of the General Film Company, had concentrated on renting packages of short films, typically at a set price, to any theater capable of paying. Arguably, adherence to this method of distribution had inhibited attempts to experiment with longer films, especially when those which had been produced were released in a staggered fashion as a series of discrete single reels, incorporated into a standardized package of other shorts.

Other distribution options did eventually present themselves, though they proved of limited value for handling the large number of features the industry would come to release annually. One such approach was road-showing, borrowed from theatrical models, whereby a film moved from city to city, with venues rented specifically for the purpose of showing that title. For large-scale productions that lent themselves to splashy publicity campaigns, such as The Birth of a Nation (1915), the most famous example to be distributed in this fashion, road showing made sense; but it was not workable for a steady stream of features. Another strategy was the state rights system, wherein the rights to distribute a film would be allocated for a prescribed region. Those holding the rights could choose to rent to exhibitors within the region or split up their rights further. Although the state rights system also provided films with more individualized advertising campaigns than the package approach afforded, it remained a piecemeal approach to distribution, with no national reach. What features required were the more developed publicity mechanism associated with roadshowing and state rights, coupled with the comprehensive coverage of territories General Film and its ilk had provided.

The first satisfactory alternative arrived in the form of Paramount Pictures, which offered exhibitors a full annual slate of features, replete with advertising. Formed in 1914 by bringing together eleven local distributors, Paramount was soon releasing the films of Famous Players Motion Picture Company, one of the premiere producers of feature-length films. Paramount's ability to advance funds to the producers whose features it released translated into greater security for those producers, who, in turn, were able to expand their production budgets. Adolph Zukor (1873–1976), the head of Famous Players, recognized the centrality of distribution to production strategies and soon engineered the merger of Paramount and his firm in 1916, along with another important production company releasing through Paramount, the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company. The resulting production-distribution combine, Famous Players-Lasky, set the standard for what would become a discernible tendency toward mergers and consolidation within the American film industry over the remainder of the silent period. The ultimate goal was vertical integration, wherein one firm owned and operated all three sectors of the industry: production, distribution, and exhibition. Famous Players had started primarily as a producer, acquired distribution three years later, and then finally began buying theaters in 1919, ultimately merging with the large regional theater chain, Balaban and Katz, in 1925. First National, which became vertically integrated in 1922, grew in the opposite fashion. Formed in 1917 by a group of exhibitors who resented Paramount's abuse of block booking (wherein exhibitors were forced to accept the entirety of a release schedule in order to secure any of the films on offer), First National first moved into distribution before establishing its own production facilities five years later. Nearly all the major players within the American film industry would be vertically integrated by the 1920s, and most of these firms had been operating within the industry since the mid-teens in one form or another. Tracing the mature studio system to the advent of the feature film may be something of a simplification, but the seeds of that system were definitely sown in the upheavals produced by the shift to feature production.


Tendencies already evident in the previous period grew more pronounced as firms became larger and films became longer and more costly. In particular, the production process became progressively more standardized, with division of labor and departmentalization of crafts refined even further to rationalize the process of making films within a large-scale studio system. Thomas Ince (1882–1924) and Mack Sennett (1880–1960), both early proponents of a centralized production process wherein a production chief oversaw the work of numerous distinct units, helped establish the model upon which Hollywood would build throughout the 1920s. The studio system aimed to achieve both efficiency and product differentiation; thus, as much as standardization was prized, it could not be promoted at the expense of a certain degree of novelty and innovation. The result was a modified version of Fordism: principles of mass production were observed wherever possible, tempered by a bounded creativity.

The standardization of the production process translated into the representational norms pursued by Hollywood studios as well. Control over all aspects of production ensured that a degree of uniformity would define how stylistic elements functioned within American films. Now commonly referred to as the classical style, by the late teens it had become an internalized set of norms followed by all the studios. At its center was the implementation of interconnected rules concerning editing, which ensured a smooth and coherent rendering of time and space. Not only did continuity editing guarantee the spectator's ongoing comprehension of the spatial coordinates of the represented action, it systematically broke down that action to guide the spectator's attention, with an eye to highlighting the narratively salient actions. For this reason, editing became much more insistently analytical from the mid-1910s onward, with establishing shots giving way to a series of closer-scaled shots designed to render the space narratively intelligible. In particular, editing worked to reinforce character psychology, so that shot-reverse shot sequencing and the point of view shot became cornerstones of the classical approach to cutting.

Sets of Hollywood films were sufficiently detailed to produce an effect of realism promoting believability; studio lighting molded figures and heightened dramatic moments as required; camera movement was judicious, typically employed to follow characters or readjust the framing to maintain stable and well-centered compositions. Hollywood classicism prized unity and self-effacement over bravura demonstrations of stylistic prowess, precisely because the system took priority over any individual product or practitioner. Overall, the Hollywood style functioned to draw as little attention to itself as possible, its primary role being to serve the prerogatives of the story. Because the tightly woven causal chains at the center of these narratives seemingly sprang from the motivations of the central characters, the actors playing them became fundamental to the success of Hollywood's films. Stars did more than help connect audience members emotionally to the potentially repetitive narrative formulas devised by the studio system: their function as cultural phenomena reinforced the fantasy associated with Hollywood, outstripping these performers' mere presence on the screen.


Even before American companies began actively promoting their actors by name around 1910, audiences had demonstrated their preference for particular performers, resulting in such favorites as the Biograph Girl (Florence Lawrence) and the Vitagraph Girl (Florence Turner). Initially, stars were known only for their onscreen personae, so that the actor's (first) name became synonymous with his or her characterizations. Such was the case with the two preeminent stars of the 1910s, Mary Pickford (1892–1979) and Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977). Before the star system could reach its mature stage, knowledge of the stars' off-screen lives also needed to become available to eager fans. Fan magazines, of which Photoplay was the first to appear in 1912, supplied this information, though the true source for most such promotional material was the studios themselves. Not surprisingly, given the centrality of stars to the success of Hollywood features, the star system developed in tandem with the industry. Pickford had proven instrumental to Zukor's early success with features and functioned as the carrot to go with the stick of block booking. The undeniable pull the top-rank stars exerted at the box office placed them at the center of publicity campaigns and pushed salaries ever higher, with the average weekly paycheck quadrupling in the period between 1916 and 1926. The most powerful stars saw their power extend beyond monetary rewards: in the most celebrated instance of stars laying claim to control over their careers, Pickford, Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks (1883–1939) (in collaboration with the famous director D. W. Griffith [1875–1948]) formed United Artists in 1919 as a distribution outlet for their productions. Each of these stars would command yearly salaries in excess of $1 million by the 1920s.

It is no coincidence that the star system emerged at the same time as motion picture production was shifting its central operations from the East Coast to the West. The ongoing relocation of film personnel to the Los Angeles area facilitated the identification of movie-star lifestyles with the geographical (and symbolic) site of Hollywood. Hollywood thus became synonymous with a particular lifestyle; it was not simply where movies were made, but where those who made movies chose to live. Moreover, that life assumed a special quality reinforced by the physical separation of movie stars from the rest of the United States. As denizens of a distinct colony, stars were expected to lead lives that justified the coverage they received in fan magazines and that would stimulate the longings of admiring, even envious, fans. In this way stars became synonymous with a type of conspicuous consumption, endemic to the years of unbridled economic growth in the United States during the 1920s. As their salaries grew, and their possessions and homes became more luxurious, movie stars came to epitomize a fantasy of wealth and choice. They functioned simultaneously as a realization of the American Dream—the boy or girl next door rising to fame and fortune—and an impossible ideal—larger-than-life figures living an existence only a rarefied few could ever enjoy. Their film roles would often mirror this duality, with many narratives of the 1910s and 1920s placing stars within two favored scenarios: either the star is wealthy at the outset, but shows himself/herself to be possessed of values that equate him/her with the common people; or, the star gains wealth by the film's conclusion, ideally by meeting the perfect (and perfectly wealthy) mate, but never sacrificing him/her principles in the process of attracting a rich suitor.

Both through their performances and the presentation of their public and private lives, then, stars had to appear remote and exotic while also seeming familiar and normalized. Stars lived a kind of dream existence, a heightened version of everyday life, and it was predicated on their sustaining a complex balancing act within the minds of their fans. In the early 1920s a series of scandals threatened that balance, puncturing the illusion that all stars lived by the same moral code adhered to by those who adored them. Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (1887–1933) faced rape and murder charges connected to the death of a starlet whom the rotund comedian had met at a "wild" party; Mary Pickford's image as "America's Sweetheart" was not easily reconciled to her divorce in 1920; the murder of director William Desmond Taylor (1872–1922) (famous for having directed numerous Pickford vehicles) implicated two celebrated actresses, Mabel Normand (1892–1930) and Mary Miles Minters (1902–1984); and matinee idol Wallace Reid (1891–1923) died as a result of morphine addiction. The collective force of these scandals lent credence to the notion that Hollywood was out of control, and that hedonism

b. Gladys Smith, Toronto, Canada, 8 April 1893, d. 29 May 1979

No major star within the silent era can match the career longevity of Mary Pickford. Starting at Biograph in 1909, she established herself as a leading performer with her first films and went on to become the industry's biggest female star for the next two decades. Compelling onscreen, Pickford was equally adept at controlling the aspects of stardom that extend beyond the screen. A consummate businesswoman, she capitalized on her popularity from early on, negotiating favorable terms of employment and, eventually, considerable creative control. She achieved a degree of power most stars during the period could not hope to possess.

Pickford began acting as a child in Canadian theatrical productions before moving on to the New York stage under the tutelage of the impresario David Belasco in 1907. Switching to films two years later, she made a strong impression at Biograph, particularly as a comedienne. Even though the names of film performers were not made known to the public at that time, fans soon christened Pickford "Little Mary"; she parlayed that recognition into a series of increasingly lucrative contracts, moving from one company to another, and commanding a salary of several thousand dollars a week in the process. In 1916 she tightened control over her career by forming the Mary Pickford Corporation, and soon her earnings rose to nearly $1 million a year.

Distributors used the Pickford name to entice exhibitors to rent blocks of films among which would be her star vehicles. Recognizing how indispensable she was to a company's bottom line, she insisted on sharing in whatever profits her films earned. As the industry moved toward a vertically integrated structure by the close of the decade, Pickford elected to take over the distribution of her own titles by forming United Artists with her soon-tobe husband, Douglas Fairbanks; her director from the Biograph days, D. W. Griffith; and her rival in box-office popularity (and record-setting earnings), Charlie Chaplin.

Even as Pickford remained one of the most financially astute of the early stars (exploiting the benefits of the celebrity testimonial in advertising campaigns, for example), she failed to find ways to develop her onscreen persona. In her early films a particular type emerged—plucky, impetuous, but good-humored—and in the years to come fans resisted any substantial changes to the Pickford screen personality. Her golden ringlets symbolized the eternally youthful sensibility her roles demanded, and she became trapped in a cycle of films as a perpetual child-woman. Most attempts at expanding her range failed, and even when she cut her hair in defiance of her established image, she was forced to wear a wig onscreen to ensure continuity with the Little Mary of years past. Forever identified as "America's Sweetheart," upon the introduction of sound she became an increasingly anachronistic figure and retired from acting for the lucrative management of United Artists.


Wilful Peggy (1910), The New York Hat (1912), Tess of the Storm Country (1914), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), Stella Maris (1918), Daddy-Long-Legs (1919), Pollyanna (1920), Sparrows (1926)


Balio, Tino. United Artists: The Company Built by the Stars. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976.

Eyman, Scott. Mary Pickford, America's Sweetheart. New York: Dutton, 1990.

McDonald, Paul. The Star System: Hollywood's Production of Popular Identities. London: Wallflower Publishing, 2000.

Whitfield, Eileen. Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1997.

Charlie Keil

and self-indulgence had come to define the movie colony lifestyle.

Onscreen, matters were no more encouraging. Erich von Stroheim's (1885–1957) dramas, such as Blind Husbands (1919) and Foolish Wives (1922), revolved around scenarios of seduction and infidelity overlaid with psychological realism and a degree of sadism. Cecil B. DeMille's (1881–1959) comedies of manners from the same period, including Don't Change Your Husband (1919), Male and Female (1919), and Why Change Your Wife? (1920), treated their audiences to the spectacle of Gloria Swanson (1897–1983) in various states of undress while promoting the pleasures of wanton consumerism. Fearing the imposition of state-controlled censorship (and worse, as public concern over stars' behavior coincided with congressional calls for greater control over the business operations of the film industry), the studios acted preemptively. Enlisting the country's postmaster general, Will Hays (1879–1954), as head of a new trade organization, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, the industry's leaders hoped Hays would be able to use his political acumen and sober, Presbyterian image to combat the bad publicity and forestall government intervention. Hays, who was well connected to Washington, wasted no time in giving the appearance of introducing significant changes designed to "clean up" Hollywood. He saw to it that the studios introduced morals clauses into their stars' contracts, pulled Arbuckle's films from distribution, and, most significantly, introduced the first in a series of self-regulatory documents designed to curb onscreen excesses. That Hays's efforts produced few tangible results remained secondary to the impression he created of being committed to effective regulatory monitoring of film content. As the decade wore on, new guidelines were introduced in the guise of the "Don'ts and Be Carefuls," but the imposition of a meaningful form of self-regulation did not take place until the Production Code Administration of the 1930s.


As much as the star scandals of the early 1920s may have outraged sectors of the American populace, the negative publicity did little to dampen the general enthusiasm for motion pictures. During the mature silent period, movies acquired the status of a mass commercial entertainment, with audience levels climbing throughout the 1920s, especially in the latter part of the decade. Weekly paid admissions in the United States jumped from 40 million in 1922 to 65 million in 1928. In fact, it was film's very popularity that prompted ongoing concern about its effects on select audience members, children and youth in particular. Various studies into filmgoing conducted throughout the late 1910s and 1920s found that young people constituted a sizable portion of the total audience for motion pictures. The question of whether movie-going had an adverse effect on the behavior of young people was not easily answered; for every study that denied the negative influence of the movies on children, such as the chapter devoted to the topic in Phyllis Blanchard's The Child and Society (1928), another found statistical correlations between juvenile delinquency and high rates of movie attendance, such as Alice Miller Mitchell's Children and Movies (1929).

Data on the composition of movie audiences during this period remain scattered and questionable, but some studies indicated that a significant percentage of adult members were female. The film scholar Gaylyn Studlar has pointed out that, whether or not we accept as true the figures putting the proportion of female movie patrons as high as 80 percent, women were indeed seen as highly desirable audience members precisely because of their status as consumers. Fan magazines were pitched to female readers, and the rapturous star-gazing fan was imagined to be female, even if the reality was more complicated. (For example, though press reports describing the hysterical reaction to Rudolph Valentino's (1895–1926) death emphasized the behavior of female fans, newsreel footage shows just as many men in attendance outside the funeral service as women.) On another level, however, the steady evolution of movie culture that accelerated throughout the mature silent era worked to eliminate any distinctions among fans, suggesting that all patrons had equal access to the grand fantasy represented by Hollywood films and the stars who populated them. Nowhere was this clearer than in the moving picture palace, which came to define the era's aspirations and set a standard for exhibition that would never be surpassed.

The picture palace, renowned for its architectural flights of fancy and sumptuous decor, encapsulated the spirit of fantasy that moviegoing was designed to engender. The opulence of these theaters alluded to the high cultural realm of opera houses; architects consciously emulated antiquated styles as well, mixing traditions in a manner that intensified the idea that the ticket holder was entering a realm free of constraints, either of expense or history. In atmospheric theaters, stars might twinkle in a cloud-bedecked ceiling; exoticism announced itself through ersatz Mayan statuary or an elaborate staircase modeled after French Renaissance originals. Oversized lobbies were designed to engulf the senses (while also solving the more prosaic problem of crowd flow), with the amassed details of murals, lush drapery and carpeting, chandeliers, and excessive displays of marble and bronze announcing that patrons had stepped into a world distinct from their normal, workaday lives. The epic that might be shown onscreen would merely be an extension of the spectacle already mounted within the theater itself.

If the films shown in picture palaces were dwarfed by their surroundings, many viewers seemed not to mind. Questionnaires designed to identify patrons' preferences determined that the moviegoing experience often rated more highly for audience members than the film on view. Music in particular, but also comfort and beauty, out-ranked the movies shown as the most appealing features a theater had to offer. The grandest theaters offered musical entertainment on a scale commensurate with the decor: in addition to featured singers, and even a stage show of sorts, one could count on an orchestra, responsible for overtures as well as accompaniment for the entirety of the program presented, which might include a newsreel, a scenic, and a comedy short, all preceding the main feature. Admission prices at picture palaces were certainly higher than those charged at more conventional theaters, topping out at over one dollar; but patrons were gaining entry to an experience, replete with a full array of service personnel, from doormen to pages to ushers to nursemaids. If the movies transported their viewers to another world, the picture palace aimed to sustain that sensation until patrons had left the confines of the theater.


Although American films enjoyed unchallenged success in the domestic market and dominated abroad, other nations made their mark by offering a distinctive alternative to classicism. Though quite different in their approaches to establishing unique forms of cinematic expression, Germany, France, and the USSR each forged national film movements during the 1920s, resulting in a body of idiosyncratic films that could lay claim to the status of art. These countries made conventional films in abundance even as they sustained more experimental works, but for the most part their legacy within the silent period can be traced to German Expressionism, French Impressionism, and Soviet montage, respectively.

Of the three countries, Germany's film industry was the most developed and the most prolific. In the 1920s it produced over two thousand feature films, and in 1923 German domination of its own market peaked for the decade, with domestic films accounting for 60 percent of the motion pictures screened in the country's cinemas. Although the nation's intelligentsia had resisted involvement with motion pictures until just prior to the war, the postwar sentiment within the country encouraged greater cross-fertilization among forms, and artists trained in Expressionism embraced film as a means to extend the visual experimentation of that art movement. The jagged shapes, crude lines, and forced perspective of Expressionist art was transposed onto the sets of the first German Expressionist film, Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920). The Expressionist approach also extended to the makeup and performances of Caligari's lead actors, reinforcing the film's sense of pronounced stylization. Few of the subsequent films linked to the movement replicated the application of an Expressionist visual logic to the mise-enscène to the degree achieved by Caligari; nonetheless, those films classified as Expressionist arguably managed to adhere to the movement's general aim of rendering an internal state through external means, albeit in a modified fashion. This is the case even in Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, F. W. Murnau,1922), which, unlike most Expressionist films, made extensive use of outdoor locations for its treatment of the vampire legend: rather than integrate Expressionist touches into a fabricated mise-en-scène, Murnau poses the actor playing Nosferatu in front of archways (creating visual echoes with the vampire's coffin) or uses shadows to further extend the already grotesque features of the character's body. Fritz Lang's films from this period, most spectacularly Metropolis (1927, and usually considered the movement's swan song), employ large-scale compositions which play up the geometricism evident in late period Expressionist art.

The distinctive look of German Expressionist productions, especially the care exercised in set design and lighting, were a direct outgrowth of Germany's updating of its studio facilities and refinement of its filming techniques, done with an eye to making its films desirable as exports. The approach achieved its goal, as many German productions, including historical epics (especially those directed by Ernst Lubitsch [1892–1947]) and the less grandiose kammerspiel ("intimate play") films, found receptive audiences abroad. However, Germany's film industry had been able to capitalize on a protected domestic market and a devalued currency to undersell its elaborate productions elsewhere; all this changed after 1924, with the stabilization of the mark and the lifting of quotas on foreign imports. American films poured into the country, overspending drove Ufa into debt, and personnel began to migrate to Hollywood, a trend initiated by Lubitsch's departure in 1923. Though the film industry recovered by the late twenties and experienced renewed aesthetic success with a realist strain of street films reflecting the influence of Neue Sachlichkeit (often translated as the New Objectivity), particularly in the works of G. W. Pabst (1885–1967), German filmmaking failed to duplicate the ambitions—and achievements—of the Expressionist period at the end of the 1920s.

The production situation in France differed radically from that in Germany. No centralized production facilities existed; filmmakers struggled to keep up with the technological innovations marking the films coming from the United States and Germany; the government failed to institute a system of quotas to protect domestic producers, opting for disabling taxes on movie tickets instead. In 1918 Pathé abandoned the vertically integrated structure that had propelled it to success before the war, opting out of production. The French filmmaking landscape was populated with numerous marginal independent companies, rendering it a particularly unstable environment; nonetheless, the artisanal approach to production invested the director with much more control than was possible in a system predicated on a detailed division of labor. If nothing else, the unpredictability of French film production offered possibilities for enterprising filmmakers to secure financing for projects of a less conventional nature. Many of the film makers associated with the Impressionist movement who emerged in post-war France divided their time between experimental works and more commercial projects. Those who remained separate from the industrial mainstream, such as Louis Delluc (1890–1924) and Dmitri Kirsanoff (1899–1957), found themselves making films with distinctly limited means. Despite the uncertainties of the production context, Impressionist filmmaking persisted for over ten years.

Unlike the Expressionists, the Impressionist filmmakers were not directly influenced by any single art movement. Instead, they were interested in exploring the potential of the cinematic medium, particularly its capacity for capturing the impressions that define the essence of the world. Appealing to notions of photogénie, which held that cinematic style could exercise a transformative effect on the everyday, Impressionist filmmakers employed superimpositions, masks, filters, distorting lenses, slow motion, varying shot scale, and mobile framing to render cinematically the spirit of what the camera recorded. More often than not, these techniques were designed to convey character subjectivity, emphasizing thought processes to a degree far in excess of what less digressive Hollywood narratives allowed. A moment in Kirsanoff's Ménilmontant (1926) is emblematic of the Impressionist approach: as a character sits reading, waiting for her sister to return, she loses consciousness and the screen goes blurry, giving way to a series of seemingly unrelated and superimposed images, many in close-up, including a woman's naked torso, a clock, cars on the street, and light pouring through a window. This collection of impressions may convey the sleeping woman's dream state or a more abstract synthesis of events real and imagined within the sisters' shared environment. Impressionist films traded on the ambiguity such imagistic passages could produce.

Sequences like this approximated the condition of cinéma pur that some French filmmakers championed, though other strains of French filmmaking, influenced by Dadaism (Entr'acte, 1924), Cubism (Ballet mécanique, 1924), and Surrealism (Emak-Bakia, 1927), probably came closer, abandoning narrative altogether as they did. The heterogeneous nature of French filmmaking led to a proliferation of experimental modes, with Impressionism being only the most long-lasting. A desire to reduce film to its basic elements, giving priority to rhythm and lyricism, found its outlet in films that were purely abstract in nature, including works by one of France's most important female directors, Germaine Dulac (1882–1942) (Thèmes et variations, 1928; and Arabesque, 1929). The lyrical qualities of cinéma pur also bled over into one of the more striking international developments of the late 1920s, the city symphony, examples of which emerged out of France (Rien que les heures [Nothing But Time], 1926), Germany (Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt [Berlin: Symphony of a Great City], 1927), the Netherlands (Regen [Rain], 1929) and the USSR (Chelovek s kino-apparatom [The Man with a Movie Camera], 1929).

The Man with a Movie Camera, directed by Dziga Vertov (1896–1954), was one of the most impressive achievements of the late silent era and one of the final examples of silent Soviet montage filmmaking, which had been initiated in earnest only five years earlier. The October Revolution of 1917 had necessitated a rebuilding of the Soviet film industry from the ground up, as many prerevolutionary filmmakers fled the country, taking their equipment and film stock with them. For the first few years production levels were low, and most of the films made were brief agitation-propaganda shorts. The Bolshevik government, realizing the potential of film to advance the prerogatives of the new regime, made efforts to aid in its revitalization, first by putting the Education Commisariat (or Narkompros) in charge of overseeing filmmaking in 1917, and then, two years later, by nationalizing the film industry. Also in 1919 Narkompros established a State Film School, where fledgling director Lev Kuleshov (1899–1970) began his studies of editing, which would prove instrumental to the development of montage filmmaking. The studies Kuleshov conducted reinforced the idea that a film's meaning lay in the combinations of shots rather than the individual shots themselves. Though outstripped in his theorizing of montage principles by later writers whose ideas were both more complex and more radical, including the directors Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948), Kuleshov proved influential as both a filmmaker and a teacher; among his students was a key figure within the movement, Vsevolod Pudovkin, who incorporated montage into stirring narratives, making his films, such as Mat (Mother, 1926), popular at home and abroad. Sustained feature production required more than inspired tutelage, however—an infusion of capital was necessary.

b. Joseph Francis Keaton Jr., Piqua, Kansas, 4 October 1895, d. 1 February 1966

One of the greatest of silent-era comedians, Buster Keaton fused the showmanship of his vaudeville training with an understanding of how to stage complicated gags uniquely able to exploit cinema's temporal and spatial parameters. In doing so he created film comedy that indulged a populist penchant for knockabout humor while also revealing a modernist sensibility attuned to reflexive jokes and an absurdist perspective. Part Keystone Kop, part surrealist manqué, Keaton and his image-based comedy did not weather the transition to sound, but his artistry won renewed recognition beginning in the 1950s, two decades after his career experienced a precipitous decline.

A performer from the age of three, Keaton moved into films by joining Fatty Arbuckle in the production of nearly twenty two-reelers in the late teens. In these early works Keaton established a way to translate vaudeville stagecraft into cinematic comedy and also forged a working relationship with the producer Joseph M. Schenck that would last through the 1920s. In 1920 Keaton embarked on a series of shorts over which he exercised creative control, resulting in a body of work defined by its physical virtuosity and sustained ingenuity. Two salient aspects of Keaton's comedy became enshrined in these films: the seemingly fruitless battles with massive objects, and the indomitable body of Buster. Diminutive yet muscular, Keaton might have been crushed by formidable forces; but despite constant buffeting he refused to relent. His resilience was signaled by the Great Stone Face, a visage that showed only glimmers of emotion, the slight range all the more effective for the subtle inflections it allowed.

From the disastrous house-in-a-box constructed in One Week (1920) to the legion of police officers pursuing Buster en masse in Cops (1922), Keaton's comedy derives from the protagonist's finding himself in predicaments that worsen in ever-multiplying ways. As the calamities proliferate, Keaton stages the consequences with a precision bordering on the geometric. Many of Keaton's most famous gags—such as when a collapsing house front fails to crush him because the open window frame provides the perfect space through which his body emerges unscathed—display a careful profilmic planning in the paradoxical service of proving the capriciousness of chance. As Keaton moved into feature-length filmmaking in the mid-1920s, the scale of the gags became even more impressive and the fatalistic implications more palpable. Buster's balletic grace, displayed in a variety of life-threatening situations, be it avoiding a multitude of rolling boulders, riding on the back of a driverless motorcycle, or caught in the midst of a cyclone, was magnified by the epic scale of the perils his body confronted. Human fragility and sheer endurance were conveyed within the context of the same gag.


One Week (1920), The Playhouse (1921), The Boat (1921), Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock, Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), The General (1927), Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)


Blesh, Rudi. Keaton. New York: Macmillan, 1966.

Horton, Andrew, ed. Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Knopf, Robert. The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Krämer, Peter. "Derailing the Honeymoon Express: Comicality and Narrative Closure in Buster Keaton's The Blacksmith. " Velvet Light Trap 23 (1989): 101–116.

Charlie Keil

The Bolshevik government instituted the New Economic Policy in 1921, which integrated modified forms of capitalist endeavor into the communist system. Since 1917 the USSR had basically been cut off from other countries' products, but the 1922 Treaty of Rapallo opened up trade between Russia and Germany, and soon imports began to flow back into the Soviet Union. The government was able to take advantage of the revenue generated by these imports, especially once it set up an effective state-run enterprise, Sovkino, early in 1925, to control production and distribution. Slowly, state intervention paid off, and production levels climbed. Equally important, key films of the burgeoning Soviet montage movement, most notably Eisenstein's Bronenosets

Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925) proved effective as exports, and Sovkino could begin to put money earned from the sales to other markets back into domestic production. By the late 1920s the USSR was producing as many features as France, and Soviet films outnumbered imports by two to one in the country's own theaters.

Although montage-based films constituted only a portion of the USSR's feature output in the period from 1924 to 1929, they tended to be among the more high-profile and influential of the films produced. Moreover, the formal complexity of the films was wedded to an overt ideological project: the transformation of the political consciousness of the Soviet populace. In this the montage films can be linked to Constructivism, a broader artistic movement that defined many aspects of Soviet post-revolutionary culture. A montage aesthetic pervaded much Constructivist art, most evident in mixed-media sculptural works and photo-collages. Montage involved the assemblage of heterogeneous elements or juxtaposition of fragments, the connection of which would produce a whole greater than the assorted parts. Accordingly, art was likened to a machine, whose constituent parts operated together in a dynamic fashion to create a propulsive force capable of productive change. Being a machine-based art form, cinema functioned as an obvious testing ground for Constructivist principles. Directors such as Eisenstein explored the various ways in which shot combinations could produce measurable effects on the spectator. Applying the Marxist concept of the dialectic, Eisenstein favored a notion of montage that depended on opposing elements coming into collision, and producing in their interaction a synthesis that would lay the groundwork for the next clash of opposites. He also likened each shot to a cell, which reverberated with the potential for montage. Placed into rapid juxtaposition with other similarly charged shots, the cumulative effect was one of revolutionary propulsion. One finds ample demonstration of Eisenstein's theories in action in Battleship Potemkin: early on in the film, Eisenstein conveys the potential for the sailors' rebellion through a quick series of simple shots itemizing basic daily tasks aboard the battleship. Each shot tends to be defined by a dominant quality (a geometric shape or pointedly directional movement), such that rapid cutting from one to the other produces a sense of agitation, until the action climaxes in the famous sequence detailing a sailor (dressed in a striped shirt) smashing a circular plate, this singular action broken down into a short burst of ten distinct shots.

As the Soviet government's attitude toward artistic experimentation hardened near the close of the decade, both Constructivist art and montage filmmaking found themselves subject to charges of needless formalism. Government officials questioned how the increasingly abstract intellectual connections underlying shot combinations in films such as The Man with a Movie Camera and Eisenstein's Oktyabr (October and Ten Days That Shook the World, 1927) could be understood by the peasantry; eventually, filmmakers were forced to abandon the modernist "excesses" of the montage movement. Although direct government intervention was not always responsible, the aesthetic ambitiousness of the late silent cinema was arrested worldwide by the close of the decade, the main culprit being the introduction of sound. From the mid-twenties onward, the medium underwent a formal maturation, spurred in part by the increased circulation of accomplished films, but also by a growing sense of film's potential for artistry.

Even Hollywood, typically identified as driven by commercial success over artistic aspirations, seemed to reach new aesthetic heights in the years immediately before the wholesale conversion to sound. In part, one can attribute the flurry of masterworks to the presence of European directors who had been lured to the studio system, such as Lubitsch (So This Is Paris, 1926), Murnau (Sunrise, 1926), Victor Sjöström (The Wind, 1928), and Paul Fejos (Lonesome, 1928); but American directors also contributed, among them Buster Keaton (1895–1966) (The General, 1927), Frank Borzage (1893–1962) (Seventh Heaven, 1927), King Vidor (The Crowd, 1928) and Josef von Sternberg (1894–1969) (The Docks of New York, 1928). Theorists like Rudolf Arnheim celebrated the unique aesthetic qualities of late silent cinema, while the combined stylistic influence of Expressionism, Impressionism, and montage resulted in striking films from countries as disparate as England (Anthony Asquith's A Cottage on Dartmoor, 1929) and Japan (Teinosuke Kinugasa's Kurutta Ippeji [A Page of Madness], 1926). The era's crowning achievement may well be Carl Theodor Dreyer's (1889–1968) La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928), whose stark compositions, unsettling editing patterns, and isolated, closely scaled shots of its star, Maria Falconetti (1892–1946), distill the spiritual struggle of Joan into a concentrated portrait of intense emotion. Some would say the film's extensive title cards indicated that cinema was longing to speak; others would long for the purity that the mute orchestration of complex images offered, terminated by the headlong rush to incorporate sound in the years to follow.

SEE ALSO Comedy;Documentary;Expressionism;France;Genre;Germany;Great Britain;Narrative;Pre-Cinema;Russia and Soviet Union;Shots;Slapstick Comedy;Sound;Sweden;Star System;Stars;Studio System;Technology;Ufa (Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft);World War I


Abel, Richard. French Cinema: The First Wave, 1915–1929. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

——, ed. Silent Film. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

Aitken, Ian. European Film Theory and Criticism: A Critical Introduction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Arnheim, Rudolf. Film as Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.

Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

de Cordova, Richard. Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Grieveson, Lee, and Peter Krämer, eds. The Silent Cinema Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Higashi, Sumiko. Cecil B. DeMille and American Culture: The Silent Era. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Keil, Charlie, and Shelley Stamp, eds. American Cinema's Transitional Era: Audiences, Institutions, Practices. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Koszarski, Richard. An Evening's Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915–1928. New York: Scribners, 1990.

Studlar, Gaylyn. This Mad Masquerade: Stardom and Masculinity in the Jazz Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Taylor, Richard. The Politics of the Soviet Cinema, 1917–1929. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Thompson, Kristin. Exporting Entertainment: America in the

World Film Market, 1907–1934. London: British Film Institute, 1985.

Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.

Waller, Gregory, ed. Moviegoing in America: A Sourcebook in the History of Film Exhibition. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

Charlie Keil