At the advent of the twentieth century, America stood as the most prosperous nation in the world. William S. McKinley was well regarded as President; photographs replaced illustrations in newspapers, and coal was the fuel of choice. There was a strange amalgamation of old and new: horse and buggy and the automobile; covered wagon and locomotive. In Europe, modern art eschewed realism for the abstract, as Sigmund Freud challenged the way people thought about behavior. For those who could indulge in such pleasures, there was the phonograph, the theatre, and vaudeville entertainments. But by 1895, a new curiosity emerged that would slowly but surely inflict profound, controversial, and sometimes curious changes in the moral sensibilities, cultural life, and social order of human society. That new curiosity was the moving picture.
The moving picture was never intended to be silent but was envisioned by American inventor Thomas Edison as visual accompaniment to his earlier phonograph. It wasn't until late until the late 1920s, however, that "talkies" would be technologically and economically viable. The first three decades of film, therefore, would be the history of the silent movie.
To the average viewer, the silent movie may appear to represent little more than dusty vestiges of a bygone era, featuring storylines with little in common with current issues, and production values that pale in comparison to the slick look of the contemporary cinema. But the silent film can evoke more than nostalgia. The story of the silent film offers a history of the brand new industry of movie-making, as it struggled to overcome the forces of public opinion and censorship, differentiate its products, and create styles of filmmaking that would survive generations. Beyond industry and economics, it is during the period of the silent movie that we see the first glimpses of the film medium as an art form; the surviving collection of silent pictures, produced both in America and abroad, include some of the finest creative achievements in cinematic history. Far from being primitive, a number of silent pictures are today considered marvels, with high levels of technological innovation achieved by their producers (including color and special effects), long before the advent of computers, portable power tools, and motion picture capture and morphing. Moreover, the era of silent moving pictures has left behind a fascinating record of the biases and prejudices, fads and fixations, taboos and preoccupations of human history during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and not just in the documentary or fact film, but in the perhaps thousands of shorts, one and two-reelers, and feature films produced between 1896 and 1927.
The history of the early development of the moving picture, from its origins as 1870s series photography to the American studio system, is long, convoluted, and has no single point of origin. Moreover, the history of the invention of the moving picture is associated with a great deal of myth and lore. Americans commonly attribute the invention of the moving picture to the pioneering efforts of Thomas Edison, the flawed genius noted for his patents for electric light, storage batteries, the phonograph, and the telegraph. Contrary to common belief, the birth of the moving picture was not the genius of a single originator but of a kind of competition between inventors in Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. It was in Edison's West Orange, New Jersey, laboratory, however, that the genesis of the American film industry was nurtured through its embryonic stages. In 1894, Edison patented the Kinetoscope, an early movie camera, and in a makeshift studio called the Black Mariah, he and his associates produced the earliest American silent pictures.
Soon after the initial discoveries of Edison and his rivals, the moving picture quickly arose as a phenomenal success. Perhaps thousands of small-time businessmen and women from all backgrounds and ethnic constituencies competed to enjoy the profit-making potential of the newest novelty. Moreover, notes David Cook in his History of Narrative Film, the new medium of film moved quickly "toward becoming a mass medium with the then-unimaginable power to communicate without print or speech."
By the turn of the twentieth century, Kinetoscope "shorts" attempted to satisfy a quickly growing audience fascinated with the moving picture. The nickelodeon boom, (a period known as "nickel madness"), saw the growth of film-showing storefronts from a mere handful in 1904 to nearly 10,000 in less than five years. Almost overnight, any available space was converted to a movie theatre. The moving picture evolved from being a sideshow and filler for vaudeville to an entertainment by itself. Recordings of "entertaining or amusing subjects" as noted in one catalogue, comprised short films such as The Chinese Laundry, Dancing Bears, and The Gaiety Girls Dancing, featuring comedy, skits, and other brief performances. The storytelling possibilities of film were all but lost on early filmmakers. But whether novelty, filler, or short, as the popularity of this new form of entertainment arose, so did the public concern.
Similar to contemporary debates about film content and effects on society, the emergence of the moving picture as a popular form of entertainment caused an increasing measure of public disapproval. Daniel Czitrom documents early public concern about the movies in Media and the American Mind, noting that unlike the near "unanimous praise" afforded the introduction of the telegraph, "the motion picture confronted the accepted standards of culture itself." Film emerged during a time when a glimpse of a woman's bare ankle was considered by some to be obscene. To be sure, there were many early film shorts containing material of an "adult" nature. The Serpentine Dance (1895), produced by the Edison Co., was banned because the brief film included titillating glimpses of the female performer's undergarments. But content wasn't the only concern. "Indeed," notes Champlin in an article on the film production code for American Film, "it was the instant and immense popularity of the movies that stirred the first fears of their corrupting and inciting power." The culture war had begun.
As all and sundry flocked to the local store theatre to take in the latest short, worried cultural traditionalists and moralists debated the effects of motion pictures on society. "At the turn of the century," notes Janet Staiger in her book on sex and the early cinema, "people argued about what should and should not be said or shown during the first years of the American cinema." The people to whom she refers include the upper classes and the cultural and moral elite who felt themselves to be responsible for the maintenance of public culture and morals and for the governance of the middle and working classes.
To a punctilious Gilded Age society with Victorian moral sensibilities, a knowing glance, a leer, a glimpse of a woman's undergarment, and anything resembling burlesque could be considered inappropriate or outright obscene. In 1908, the seconds-long Edison short The Kiss created quite a stir. There, in grainy black and white, were stage actors May Erwin and John Rice bound together in a long and loving caress. Many were shocked at the "brazen" lack of morality in this brief exhibition.
It was not only film content that worried moralists, but also the nature of the audiences that flocked to the theatre and the circumstances of exhibition. The patrons of theatre stores included members of all ethnic constituencies as well as the lower and working classes. Some felt that this opportunity for races and classes of people to co-mingle could have potentially disastrous effects on the social structure. Moreover, the places where store theaters were located were considered indecorous—including amusement parks, penny arcades, dance halls, and pubs. A woman's reputation could suffer were she seen in such questionable establishments. Sanctioned censorship occurred in Chicago in 1907, where the first ordinances preventing the "exhibition of obscene and immoral pictures" were established. The film industry in America would escape its first decade with only a mild scolding and a bit of self-regulation, including the 1909 National Board of Censorship. But the die was cast, and in subsequent decades, the cries for regulation of the pictures would grow more strident.
The very earliest silent motion pictures were not full-fledged stories, notes Cook, but "unmediated glimpses of real action as it unfolded before the camera." French film entrepreneur Louis Lumière was said to have wandered the streets and set-up his portable camera before any scene that happened to take his fancy, creating what the French called "actualitiés." These brief glimpses of unmanipulated life fascinated viewers because nothing like it had ever been seen before. It is said that during the film screening of a train pulling into a station, panicked audience members rushed from their seats to get out of harm's way (The Arrival of a Train at the Station, 1895). In America, surviving "film-as-record" includes glimpses of San Francisco before and after the earthquake and fire; a peek inside a turn-ofthe century factory; footage of the Spanish-American War; and the inauguration and funeral of President William McKinley. Although mostly "staged" for the camera, silent shorts were produced as fillers and teasers for vaudeville, leaving behind a rare peek at Gilded Age theatrical performance and popular entertainment.
Quickly, the moving picture began to evolve into its next phase: story-telling. Film pioneers such as Georges Méliès, Ferdinand Zecca, Emile Cohl, D.W. Griffith, and countless others contributed to the development and refinement of the film narrative. In America, it is Edwin R. Porter whose name is strongly connected with creation of the true film story and who is often afforded much of the credit for the birth of narrative film.
Porter, a protege of Edison, began his filmmaking career in Edison's labs turning out actualities and one-shot film shorts. His 1902 The Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery (1903) are seen as the earliest true film narratives produced in the United States. The latter was a popular sensation. Though only 12 minutes in length, the building of suspense and the development of the action captivated an audience used to static shots of a single scene. Porter also produced The Ex-Convict (1904) and The Kleptomaniac (1905). It is interesting to note that these were more than simply stories for entertainment's sake; they also reflected prevailing "social values." The message movie was born.
Porter's 15-minute long Uncle Tom's Cabin (1905?) is considered to be one of the longest and most expensive American movies produced at the time. It would be the first of many adaptations of the 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe abolitionist classic. Edward Campbell has documented filmdom's romance with various American myths noting, "Significant was the wedding of film to historical myths that were uniquely American … storylines which would grow to be the most beloved, the Western and the Old South romance." As the length of the silent movie increased, so did the story possibilities. Filmmakers and the writers of scenarios turned to many sources for material including literature, legend, lore, and stereotypes.
A striking element in film shorts and early narratives is America's painful legacy of racism and bigotry. Early film audiences didn't need to ask why an Indian craved whiskey or a black man was a thief. "Racial stereotyping," note Bohn and Stromberg in Light and Shadows, "helped trigger conflict without the need of complex explanations as to motivation." Early filmmakers relied heavily upon rather egregious ethnic typecasting in their depictions of African-American life and culture, of Native Americans and recent immigrants. Contributors to the book Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity in the Cinema, document the inclusion of "dumb Irish maids, pilfering, lazy blacks, unscrupulously savvy Jewish storekeepers and naïve Yankee farmers" as the subjects of short subjects and ethnic-based comedies. The racial stereotyping evident in early film didn't suddenly evolve with the medium but emerged from predominant ideas about race and class communicated through literature, sociological studies, vaudeville, and cultural artifacts such as advertisements.
Ruthless and sinister Asian gangsters, whooping savage Indians, and superstitious "coon" characters were common fare in shorts, popular film series, and later, full-length features. "[T]he Mexican bandits were clearly the most vile," notes Allen Woll. "They robbed, murdered, plundered, raped, cheated, gambled, lied and displayed virtually every vice that could be shown on the screen." It took a combination of complaints and the First World War (which provided new villains) to "end the derogatory portrayals." In 1915, Cecil B. DeMille produced the highly successful The Cheat. In this story, a white socialite takes out a loan with a rich but lecherous and evil Asian man who viciously brands her with a hot iron when she can't pay him back. Black Americans were viciously lampooned and portrayed as ignorant, ridiculous, and animal-like on the covers of sheet music and advertisements. These same depictions quickly found their way into silent pictures. Early titles (often featuring whites in blackface) included the popular Rastus series (1910-1913) about an ignorant black thief and the Sambo comedies. "The pages of catalogues were thick with chicken thieves and crapshooters," notes film historian Thomas Cripps, "one catalogue urging its wares because 'these were darkies of the "Old Virginny" type."'
The year 1900 saw the largest influx of immigrants to the United States ever, and many native-born Americans were distrustful if not outright hostile, toward foreigners. Wars, revolution in Russia, anarchy, and fear of communism led some Americans to view foreigners as war-mongers and to blame them for the sometimes squalid conditions that were the reality in urban centers with high immigrant populations. Early on, foreigners were often used as the butt of jokes in such titles as How Bridget Served the Salad Undressed (1900), A Bucket of Ale, and Murphy's Wake, a film that earned the outrage of Irish movie-patrons because of its stereotypes of the Irish as drunkards.
By the early 1910s, films shorts and one-reelers would expand to multiple reels that later came to be known as "features." The rise of the longer length film was significant in that it helped to make motion pictures respectable for middle-class patrons. Longer films could more resemble legitimate theatre, and classic plays and novels could now be adapted for film.
Silent features expanded to several reels with more defined storylines, creative editing techniques, crosscutting, and innovative use of camera angles (some discovered accidentally). The popularity and success of the feature was in large part caused by the success of Italian-produced spectacles, which transfixed and delighted American audiences. These include Enrico Guazzoni's 1913 Quo Vadis? and Giovanni Pastrone's 12-reel masterpiece Cabiria (1914). Cabiria, more than two hours long, featured elaborated constructed sets, intricately designed costumes, and unique camera-work, dazzling the American movie-going public and influencing American directors like D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. Soon, "nickel-madness" gave way to "feature madness."
David Wark Griffith was one of the earliest American filmmakers to realize, perhaps by accident, the dramatic potential of the cinema and its persuasive power over an audience. A failed actor, he turned to directing pictures for Biograph in 1908. As the "master of melodrama," he refined techniques already in use and created new styles of editing, photography, montage, camera movement, and placement—precursors to the emerging classical Hollywood Style. With his "ensemble" of silent film luminaries (including Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Lionel Barrymore, and Blanche Sweet) he all but perfected the potboiler and chase scene story and also adapted the serious work of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Edgar Allen Poe. He approached his work with an energy, style, and innovation that worried investors while it fascinated and delighted audiences.
Though he enjoyed a respectable career in film, Griffith's name will be forever associated with the notoriety surrounding one particular film. When one and two-reelers could no longer contain Griffith's grand ideas, he turned to the feature. He adapted a civil war novel, The Clansman, and to much fanfare, released it in 1915 as The Birth of a Nation. It was widely hailed by most, including President Woodrow Wilson, who called it a "remarkable artistic achievement." But the film's scenes of racial violence, including sexually depraved black villains and hooded Ku Klux Klan heroes, were not lost on everyone. In 1916, the Boston Branch of the NAACP led the way in organized protest of the film's patently racist message. In a 47-page pamphlet, supported with endorsements by leading public figures, the group was one of many that sought to have the film banned altogether. Black citizens picketed and protested. In some places where the film was shown, race riots broke out. Wilson was forced to recant his earlier praise. The film was banned in some states. Griffith, a Southerner and the son of a Confederate officer, was surprised, perplexed, and insulted by the criticism of the film. As far as he was concerned, the film was based on a true and accurate portrayal of history. Black citizens knew better, realizing that such pejorative propaganda could only cause more lynchings and distrust, and heighten racial tensions. Griffith responded with a 17-page pamphlet on free speech and counter with his epic production, Intolerance (1916). Though one could argue the overall effectiveness of the campaign against this highly successful and groundbreaking silent film, the incident was one of many in a long history of organized protests staged by pressure groups against the images in American cinema.
With so much dissension over Hollywood's depiction of black life and culture, it is not surprising that a number of enterprising film entrepreneurs attempted to fill the void with independently produced, all-black feature films. "Race movies" evolved, in large part, as a response to The Birth of a Nation. With the means of financing and distribution often out of reach for the average black filmmaker, all-black, independently produced films were sometimes the products of white producers. Yet, with an all-black cast, black themes, black writers, composers, and sometimes black directors, race-movies provided black audiences a meaningful glimpse of how they saw themselves and their world at the time.
Though there were perhaps hundreds of black film companies, of particular mention is the career of black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. Like Edison, he was only mildly interested in the cinematic possibilities of the film medium. He was a businessman who wrote, produced, directed, and distributed his own pictures from 1919 to 1948. His subject matter varied widely, but he seemed particularly interested in melodramatic interpretations of personal events in his life. His scenarios included interracial romance, race and color consciousness, lynching, failed marriages, the black bourgeoisie, and issues of class. Most of his work was derived from his own novels, and he was known for his penurious approach to filmmaking. Notes Gehr for American Film, "[Micheaux] translated standard Western, gangster and melodramatic fare to a black context, but never without adding something unique, if only in the form of his own rough-hewn, self-taught technique." Not surprisingly, his surviving work has an unfinished look—an odd amalgamation of bad acting, thin storylines, and sometimes nonsensical editing. But the significance of Micheaux and his contemporaries is not aesthetic value. Their films provided work for many black artists and filled the void for a race of people desperately seeking an improved image. Though the scripts may not have always been perfect, and the production values lacking in contrast to today's standards, in the all-black films, blacks could be doctors, lawyers, police officers, entertainers, and otherwise contributing members of society. Micheaux's surviving works include The Homesteader (1919); Body and Soul (1925; featuring Paul Robeson in his first film role), Within Our Gates (1920), and The Exile (1931).
In the 1910s, the American film industry evolved from a scientific oddity to an important big business. Notes Douglas Gomery, a scholar of the economic history of the film industry, "the former system of film sales 'by the foot' was soon replaced with the star system, a finely tuned network of national and international distribution, and the 'run-zone-clearance' system of exhibition." Fights over patents and the eventual monopolistic ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exhibition helped to change the structure of the film industry to one that came to be dominated by a handful of very powerful companies, including the Famous Players-Lasky Co. (later Paramount), the Goldwyn Picture Corporation, Universal, and the Fox Film Corporation. Film production shifted to the West Coast to escape patent litigation and unpredictable weather. Early in film's infancy, the names of the performers and directors of a film were not publicized. It didn't take long however, for the newly organized studios to exploit the profit potential of "star power." By 1915, Little Mary Pickford, nicknamed "America's Sweetheart," would earn a staggering $10,000 weekly and the adoration of millions of fans; Theda Bara became the first screen "vamp," and Clara Bow the "It" Girl. The faces of Lon Chaney, John Barrymore, little Jackie Coogan, Rudolph Valentino, and a young Swedish newcomer named Greta Garbo would grace the covers of fanzines. Striking was the swift development of the new industry. Notes Czitrom, "[o]f all the facets of motion picture history none is so stunning as the extraordinarily rapid growth in the audience during the brief period between 1915 and 1918." As Europeans mobilized for war, the American motion picture industry became an important, legitimate, and powerful facet of American industry.
While film history books have most often chronicled the "great men" of the movies, a number of women managed to carve out respectable filmmaking careers in the new male-dominated industry. Alice Guy Blaché (also known as Alice Guy) was probably the first woman film director, directing nearly 200 films between 1897 and 1920. Born in Paris, by 1912 she used her own money to organize the Solax Film Company. Her mission, notes Alley Acker in Reel Women, was to "cater films specific to American tastes and acted in by American artists." Among her American films were The Vampire (1915), The Heart of a Painted Woman (1917), and When You and I Were Young (1917). Former teenage actress Ida May Park was one of several prominent women directors employed at Universal Studios during the late 1910s. Dorothy Arzner began as a script-girl during the silent film era and continued on a respectable career as a director of "women's pictures" well into the 1940s. Similar was the career of Virginia Vann Upp, a former assistant, screenwriter, producer, director, and executive producer and one of few early film women who would later crash the "glass ceiling" of a major film studio. While the current screenwriting industry has endured a reputation as being sexist, most notable are the contributions of women who wrote hundreds of scenarios and screenplays for the early silent pictures. Respected women writers like Grace Cunard, June Mathis, Frances Marion, Julia Crawford Ivers, and Anita Loos created or contributed to the scripts for such films as Ben Hur (1907), The Four Horsemen of Apocalypse (1914), The Sheik (1921), and Tom Sawyer (1917).
Although some filmmakers continued the style for years to come, the decade of the 1920s would be the final decade that the silent movie would be a viable, profit-making mode of production. The film industry in United States began to organize itself into what become known as the American Studio System. Though the reasons for this development are many, the evolution of the studio system is often attributed to the success of producer Thomas Ince. Ince's legacy to film history was not the production of a classic film. He was no cinema-auteur, nor did he enjoy a long reign as a mogul of some major studio. His contribution was the institution of "production conventions," including his absolute control over screenplays, shooting script content, and editing. His Inceville Studio served as a model for the efficient and cost-effective running of a motion picture factory. Under his guidance, directors had to adhere to tight budgets and pre-approved schedules. Moreover, he required that scripts not emerge extemporaneously from the muse of a director but be finished products that contained lines of dialogue. The power of the individual would diminish greatly. Variations of Ince's model would soon dominate American film production.
Soon cash would overpower creativity. Film became industry and filmmaking was business. American film studios evolved into factories for the large-scale production of mass entertainment. Filmmakers developed "conventions" and formulas: frequently used devices and techniques that were cheap, economical, easily recognizable, and easy to recreate over and over. Formulas allowed producers to remain within tried and true patterns; they helped keep costs contained since the same sets, props, and costumes could be used more than once. Early mass-produced films quickly began to appear very much alike, with the director's task being to create an "illusion" of variety (keeping well within, of course, the tight economic boundaries that would ensure profit margins). Among other things, producers in the 1920s quickly tried to capitalize on whatever fad, controversy, or preoccupation had caught the imagination of the public: "cycle filmmaking" was born. It is estimated that between 1920 and 1927, nearly 100 films apiece were produced about cars, aviation, and chorus girls, three of the decade's more popular subjects.
Filmmaking strategies in the 1920s also included the development of genres or distinctive categories of films, the continued exploitation of types and stereotypes, the homogenization of cultures, and the creation and propagation of a mythical and filmic view of manners and morals. The process of "standardization" that occurred in silent filmmaking in America had a profound effect on film structure and determined the images and stories audiences would see in the movies for generations to come.
The emerging Hollywood formula film came to include such tried-and-true conventions as: stories with a linear plot (a clearly defined beginning, middle, and "happy" ending); a focus on one or two central characters with clearly defined goals; and in general, a style that didn't call much attention to itself. Moreover, a high premium was placed on the conventions of genre (Western, gangster, women's picture) and the film's entertainment value. It was at this time that many of the more endearing, popular, and successful American film genres would emerge.
With its emphasis on wide open spaces, firearms, exciting action, clear delineation of heroes and villains, and Native American stereotypes, the Western emerged as one of the most popular and endearing genres in American filmmaking. Western formulas included the "myth of the West" stories, Western epics such as The Iron Horse (1925), and the Western star vehicle, which included the popular films of William S. Hart including The Gun Fighter (1916) and The Covered Wagon (1923), and films featuring Tom Mix, Buck Jones, and Hoot Gibson.
The virile planter bedecked in a white suit; the ever-present mint julep; frail, white womanhood (whose existence never included a day of work!); and happy and contented darkie slaves who profited from the benevolence and care of the overseer—these were some of the conventions of "plantation tales." "The movies of the Antebellum South," notes Campbell, "with their increasingly familiar settings and character types … reinforced an image shaped cinematically since 1903."
The suave, dashing, acrobatic, athletic, swashbuckling hero of the action adventure film also found popularity in the silent film, as popularized by screen star Douglas Fairbanks. His films, including The Three Musketeers (1921), Q, Son of Zorro (1925), The Black Pirate (1926), and Robin Hood (1922), helped to establish a new kind of filmmaking with a new flow and tempo, dynamic editing, and a building of action scenes still evident in contemporary action adventure films such as the Indiana Jones series.
Although film as a visual medium was perfectly suited for physical gags and comic mime, the potential for true comedy went unrecognized by early filmmakers. At first, some directors copied the popular style of trick photography pioneered by Méliès in France, but a true comic style had yet to be identified. By 1913, an amalgamation of foreign and American performers and producers came to create what has been described as American filmmaking's most enduring contribution to the history of film—that of silent screen comedy.
Mack Sennett was a Canadian who became head of the Keystone Co. in 1912. He is the originator of silent slapstick comedy, high-action films signified by their purely visual acrobatic humor including pie-throwing, cliff-hangers, auto-chases, explosions, and last minute rescues. He is notable for his creation of the zany Keystone Cops, and is responsible for "discovering" comedy greats Fatty Arbuckle, Ben Turpin, and Charles Chaplin. Between 1913 and 1935 he produced thousands of one and two-reel films and features, helping to fine-tune a new screen genre in a way that no one ever had done before.
America's favorite comics also included Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton, whose deadpan countenance never changed even as he struggled to hang onto a moving locomotive; Harold Lloyd with his wide-rim glasses, dangling precariously from the hands of a clock suspended over a busy street in a "comedy of thrills"; and Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who continued their successful careers beyond the coming of sound.
By far the most celebrated figure in silent filmmaking was Charles Chaplin, an English vaudevillian who made his first appearance in America in a 1913 film by Keystone Studios producer Mack Sennett. A master of the art of mime, he developed a unique style of humor that exploited the connection between comedy and tragedy—a style that was in sharp contrast to a Sennett picture. He developed his famous persona, the "Little Tramp," while still working for Sennett. In 1919 he formed a partnership with three of the more powerful names in film—Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Grif-fith—that they called the United Artists Corporation. There Chaplin produced A Woman of Paris (1923) and his signature film, The Gold Rush (1925), where in a classic scene he serves up a boiled boot and devours it like a gourmet meal. The success of this film and others caused him to become the most popular, the highest paid, and the most successful figure in film history. "During the silent era," notes Silver for American Film, "[Chaplin] was regarded as a indisputable genius by nearly everyone who cared about movies in any remotely serious matter." Chaplin continued to produce "silent" pictures well after the evolution of sound in film.
The exigencies of World War I and the launching of the industrial age helped to melt away Victorian-age ideals in American society. Women cut their hair and donned short dresses for a night of dancing to the sultry sounds of black jazz artists like Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. Formerly secure taboos like divorce were discussed more freely. For some, it was an exhilarating time when the champagne flowed and the party was endless. It is not surprising that this prevailing mood was depicted on Hollywood film screens. Divorce, adultery, sex, drinking, and drugs were now treated openly in the same medium that once gasped at the sight of a woman's bare ankle. Rudolph Valentino resonated a smoldering, on-screen sexuality in films like Blood and Sand (1922), while a young Greta Garbo made her U.S. film debut with John Gilbert in the erotic Flesh and the Devil (1926).
But dark clouds formed on the Hollywood horizon, as a series of scandals rocked the film world. First, there was Chaplin's highly publicized divorce in 1920. And then Mary Pickford, accused of bigamy for her liaison with Douglas Fairbanks (while still married to Owen Moore). Charles "Fatty" Arbuckle, one of the country's more cherished comic figures, was falsely implicated in the brutal rape and death of a young starlet during a party that was described as wild, drunken, and orgiastic. The lurid details of the crime were widely exploited in the press and, even though he was cleared of any charges, Arbuckle's career was over. In 1922, actor Wallace Reid, positioned as an "all-American boy" type, was found dead of a drug overdose. Director William Desmond Taylor was found murdered, and the two women film stars he was involved with (Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter) were implicated in the crime that was never solved. Notes Champlin in an article on the Taylor murder for American Film, "all were seen as proof that Hollywood, on and off-screen, was an affront to decent men and women everywhere."
The public outcry was tremendous. Birth of a Nation, with its riots and Klan organizing, had shown what damage a film could create. Now this. Some called for government legislation of the film industry. To stave off government regulation, the industry once again turned to self-regulation. They hired a conservative, Presbyterian elder named William Hays to head their trade association, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). Among other things, a list humorously referred to as Do's, Don't's and Be Carefuls was published to serve as a kind of guideline for producers. In truth, the Hays Office was ineffectual, possibly even corrupt. But the die was cast. Censorship of the movies was reality. And as silent pictures evolved into sound, a much more stringent and limiting form of censorship would emerge that would influence filmmaking for decades to come.
Even as American movies were fitted into formulas, shrouded in conventions, and stamped-out in an assembly-line process, the artistic potential of the medium continued to emerge. It was during the era of silent filmmaking that some of greatest artistic achievements in film were produced. And nowhere was the film-as-art movement more evident than in Europe. Emerging from the rubble of World War I, German Expressionists, Soviet Revolutionaries, and French artists and intellectuals sought freedom from the conventions, behaviors, and structures of the former world order. The roots of the phenomenon can be attributed to artistic movements currently in vogue, and the influence of American directors like D.W. Griffith. European filmmakers were particularly interested in the "visual potential" of the medium. They experimented freely with makeshift mobile cameras, bold, new editing techniques, and revolutionary optical effects such as masks, supers, and dissolves. Soon, film production in 1920s Europe would pose the strongest competition ever to the growing Hollywood machine.
In Germany, the art movement known as Expressionism first became important in painting around 1910 and was later adapted to theatre and literature. The motto of filmmakers who adapted the expressionist style was, "the film image must become graphic art." Expressionist artists tended to distort or exaggerate natural appearances in order to create a reflection of an inner world. The stylistic techniques of Schauerfilme (films of fantasy & horror), notes Cook, included extreme stylization—like a "moving expressionist wood-cut." The effect was heavily dependent upon mise-en-scène, including geometrically stylized sets and nightmarishly distorted decor, actors with heavy make-up moving in jerky or slow motion, chiaroscuro (or Rembrandt) lighting, and unusual camera work. In addition to the prominent expressionist artists hired to design and paint film sets, important German filmmakers include Carl Meyer, with his Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (1919); F.W. Murnau, with Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horrors (1922); and Fritz Lang, with Dr. Mabuse, der Spiler (1922) and Metropolis (1926-27). So prominent and striking was the work of these men that Hollywood felt compelled to lure many of them away to produce films for American movie screens.
In Denmark, notes Cook, Carl Dreyr concerned himself with "communicating with the audience's soul" in his monumental The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which featured Renee Falconetti, who cropped her hair and wore no make-up for the role. In sharp contrast to America's straightforward approach, Dreyr's directing technique emphasized close-ups that could relay Joan's "spiritual agony." It was the success of French silent filmmaking that perhaps posed the most competition for America. Between 1919-1929, film artists in France developed a style that offered interesting alternatives to the classical Hollywood style. Film, felt the French, should owe nothing to literature or theatre but be an occasion for the artist to express feelings. After surviving near destruction during World War I, the French film industry rose like a phoenix to produce some of the finest silent motion pictures in the history of film. Of particular mention is the work of Abel Gance and his production of the epic Napoleon (1926). Notes Cook, "Cameras were "carried at arms length, attached to swings, strapped to a horse's back and sent into the air in balloons." Gance used 18 cameras during the shooting and introduced the earliest use of wide-screen effects.
"Of all arts, for us cinema is the most important," stated Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. Probably the most striking and influential of all the European styles to emerge during the period is the film editing technique that came to be known as Soviet montage. Sergei Eisenstein is possibly the most famous filmmaker to emerge from the silent period. He was a Marxist intellectual and a veteran of the abortive 1905 revolution who saw film as a mass medium designed to appeal to and educate millions of illiterate Russian peasants. His The Battleship Potemkin (1925) is considered by some to be one of the most influential films ever made, and is even today the focus of analysis and marvel. Eisenstein's stylistic techniques represented a sharp contrast to the style of American pictures. Eisenstein communicated primarily by means of emotion. He highlighted no individual protagonist (large groups could form a collective hero), used non-actor "types," and promoted a kind of documentary reality in his use of photography. Most significantly, he pioneered a new editing technique, one based on "psychological stimulation" rather than narrative logic. As opposed to the seamless or "invisible" editing" that signified American films, Eisenstein used a juxtaposition of shots to create a concept and/or emotion. He felt that in order to create the maximum effect (a jolt for the viewer) shots should not fit together perfectly but create a montage of "shock stimuli."
The reality of a second European war would curtail the short-lived triumph of film production in Europe. A host of European actors, performers, designers, and directors made the transition to the sound stages of Hollywood—with varying degrees of success. While no one style would have a profound effect on the American film industry, the influence of montage editing, crosscutting, wide screen, and mosaic narrative would inspire generations of filmmakers on both continents for generations to come.
More than merely a repository of the past, the era of the silent movie represents nearly three decades of sex and scandal, art and angst, sin and censorship, and crime and comedy. From the Gilded Age to the Jazz Age, the silent picture has left behind striking images of American society as it swelled to include the recently manumitted and the thousands of immigrants from many nations who appeared on its shores. From the Black Mariah to motion picture palaces, from seconds-long shorts to feature-length spectacles, from a film-by-the-foot to multinational business, the silent film helped create new and profitable forms of commerce, forms which continued on in the guise of the talking film which has dominated the industry ever since. A combination of myth proffering, image building, and empire construction, the legacy of the silent film still endures, and remains a vital and potent facet of human cultural history.
—Pamala S. Deane
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