They say speech is silver, but silence, gold. In accordance, many regard the era of silent films as a time when some of the masterpieces of the movie industry were crafted and presented to audiences. Given here is a brief history of the era of silent movies.
Imagining a mute movie in today’s times would probably freak the daylights out of your mind! For many years, this popular medium of entertainment – cinema, movies, or films – did not have a voice. It is called the silent era of movies.
Movie-makers back then had to heavily and largely depend on all other aspects of movie-making, since the technology to combine visuals with sound had not yet developed. It was only a matter of time before this technology did develop, but meanwhile, cinema witnessed the birth of many legends, who crafted many masterpieces that were appreciated and viewed over and over again, even as the ‘talkies’ arrived.
The Journey of Silent Cinema
First Motion Picture Documentation
The history of silent movies begins with the history of cinema itself; as all movies made in those times did not have sound. Eadweard Muybridge’s Sallie Gardner at a Gallop was the first silent film ever to be made. It documented equine motion and was released in 1878. The film consisted of a series of 24 photographs that were projected on the Zoopraxiscope (considered the first movie projector) in succession at high speeds to create the illusion of motion. Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope was the inspiration behind the Kinetoscope, which was meant for individual viewing. It used the same basic technique of relaying successive photographs to create the illusion of motion. However, in spite of being a ‘motion’-picture, Sallie Gardner at a Gallop cannot be really called a ‘film’, as it was merely a relay of successive photographs that created the ‘illusion’ of motion.
First Narrative Film
The first narrative film ever, Roundhay Garden Scene was made by Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince. It was released on 14 October 1888, and was only 2 seconds long! Louis Le Prince is considered the true father of motion picture. Motion pictures matured into full-length feature films in the 1920s, but still lacked sound. It is this short period of a few decades that is referred to as the era of silent cinema.
The Cast and the Crew
Silent movies were at their peak by the 1920s – the decade saw the birth of many a legend and many a masterpiece. By the 1920s, people had mastered the art of speaking volumes without saying a word. In fact, so adept was the film fraternity with the concept of silent films, that for quite a few years after the ‘talkies’ arrived, movies failed to create the impact they did in the silent era, for directors and actors alike could not deal with all the sound!
Charlie Chaplin, one of the geniuses of the silent era, very correctly once said that “Cinema is pantomimic art”. No sound meant no dialogs, so your body language and facial expressions had to do all the talking. Many actors hence adopted hyperbole in their acting. You may notice many actors exaggerate their actions in silent films – you fall, it has to be dramatic; you are sad, you have to be melodramatic; you are falling in love, you have to bat your eye-lashes and blush! Exaggeration worked especially well for comedies. Exaggerating grief is something that can very quickly and easily go wrong. But they all managed to do it beautifully; and that is sheer brilliance.
The importance of music in creating a mood was already known – music was effectively used to the same purpose in plays and dramas. In the very beginning, music was only used to entertain the audiences before the actual movie began, and during the intertitles. Later, movies came to be accompanied with live music performances that coordinated with the scene. Theater organs were used to create special sound effects too. However, most of the movies adapted theater music and improvised on it. The first ever movie to have an original music score was D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation(composed by Joseph Carl Breil). As silent movies reached their highest peaks of success, the popularity of plays and dramas slowly waned.
Directors of the silent era never shied away from experimenting, for movies were still new to everyone. While most directors insisted on their actors being theatrical, melodramatic and flamboyant, a few allowed the actors to identify their own acting styles, and act naturally and candidly. Many movie-makers considered this style as rather mellow and subtle. With barely any sound and no dialogs, direction was hence a big challenge, which talented, daring directors took up bravely, and did justice to it.
When the requirement of saying something was unavoidable, movies made use of something called intertitles. Intertitles were text plates interspersed between the visuals. They helped carry the story from one point in the plot to another. Intertitles themselves went through various stages, from simple text intertitles to elaborate ones, sometimes even carrying an illustration of one or more of the movie characters. Writing intertitles became a profession, and soon people apart from the screenplay writers (or scenario writers, as they were called back then) came to be hired to write intertitles for movies! Intertitles evolved too, like all other aspects of silent movies, to become a special feature of the films.
The technology which was used to make movies in the silent era – and hence the norms that governed movie-making – are completely different from those which exist now. But even thinking of showing a small boy flying on a broomstick or a man dreaming would have seemed blasphemous in the silent era! And yet it was achieved brilliantly by G.A. Smith as early as in the year 1898, using a technique called double exposure. Other techniques like stop motion were also used to add to the movie-watching experience. Film continuity, slow motion, animation – some of the techniques that have become the basics of movie-making now, were all developed in the silent era of cinema.
Most Celebrated Legends of the Silent Era
Some of the initial movies were written, directed, and produced by a single person. Even after various divisions were established, some ambitious movie-makers continued to make ‘all-me’ films, where they worked on more than just one aspect of movie-making. Below is an account of some of the most celebrated legends of the silent cinema.
The man who directed the epic The Birth of a Nation (1915), D.W. Griffith is regarded by film historians as one of the greatest American film directors ever, although he arrived in New York with the dreams of becoming a successful playwright. He made his debut in the film industry as an actor in Edward Porter’s Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest. With The Birth of a Nation, Griffith raised the bar of movies to another level. The movie set many a record, becoming the highest grossing film in history, and the first American feature film. Griffith is also celebrated for his other films – Lady Helen’s Escapade, Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages, and Broken Blossoms; all of which have been preserved by the United States National Film Registry.
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was an actor, director and screenwriter. But he is widely and most significantly acknowledged for his comic genius. Arbuckle’s is a life full of controversies. When he was born, his father named him after a politician he despised, because he did not believe Roscoe was his child. From childhood, Roscoe had a very melodious voice. He was soon pulled into vaudeville for his singing talent. Arbuckle’s acting debut was Ben’s Kid. He popularized the cliché gag ‘pie in the face’ that went on to be adapted into several comedies of the silent era. But more than anything else, I think we are all indebted to Arbuckle for having mentored Charlie Chaplin (it is believed ‘The Tramp’ was adapted from Arbuckle’s dressing style) and discovered Buster Keaton; two very famous personalities of the silent era.
Charlie Chaplin is one of the most sensitive comedians to have ever existed. You watch a Chaplin movie, and you laugh – but look into the eyes of the actor, and you cannot help shedding a tear. Chaplin’s early life had him face tough times and go through hardships unimaginable of a small boy. It must have, however, paved the way for his film-technique – for Chaplin’s humor is one that begins with laughter but leaves you ashamed of yourself and what the world around is turning into. Chaplin had the power to make you introspect, after giving you a good laugh – almost as if he were challenging you. Chaplin’s films came to define and dominate the silent era, especially in the 1920s. Two of his films – The Gold Rush and The Circus, went on to become top-grossing silent films in the United States.
If Charlie Chaplin epitomizes pantomime, Buster Keaton is ‘The Great Stone Face’ (as he was nicknamed). Keaton’s comic appeal came from the way his characters in different films were always unfazed by the events occurring around them. Keaton’s debut in The Butcher Boy was first in the legacy of films of the duo that Arbuckle and Keaton made. Keaton went on to become Arbuckle’s gag-man, second-director, and best friend for life, who was to stand by Arbuckle through all his highs and lows. Such was the acting and directorial genius of the man, that he has been ranked as the 7th greatest director of all times (Entertainment Weekly) and 21st greatest male star of all times (American Film Institute). He and Arbuckle together as a pair have given the film industry some of the best comedy films.
One cannot talk of silent cinema and not mention Eisenstein, a director and a film theorist. Eisenstein traveled a lot throughout his life. As a young boy, Sergei took up architecture and engineering, his father’s profession. Eisenstein’s introduction to the arts came with the study of the Japanese language, when he learned about the Kabuki theater. Eisenstein is best known for his silent film Battleship Potemkin. One who has seen this film cannot help but remember and shudder at the aesthetic beauty in which the Odessa Steps scene was shot. Though not entirely factual, the incident was added in the film to emphasize on the cruelties of the Imperial regime. Alexander Nevsky, one of Eisenstein’s talkies, won him the Order Of Lenin.
Making Way For The Talkies
The first ever talking movie was The Jazz Singer, which was released in 1927. However, attempts to construct a device that could combine visuals and sound had been made many years prior to the release of this movie. Thomas Edison’s Kinetophone was probably the earliest of movie projectors to combine sound and visuals. Even after the release of the first talky, silent films continued to reign the cinema world for quite a few years. The early attempts of the film fraternity to adapt to ‘talking movies’ were clumsy, and for a brief period, the quality of work produced reduced significantly. But even as talkies gained popularity, many a director, producer and film-maker continued to make silent movies, some with the specific intention of making a film that would celebrate the art of silent cinema, and some to pay a tribute to an era gone by. Murnau’s City Girl (1930), and Chaplin’s Modern Times(1931), are few such examples.
The names of many more maestros are associated with the silent era; like the German film director and expressionist F.W. Murnau, or Fritz Lang, who gave us the earliest science fiction film Metropolis, which was also the most expensive silent film ever made. Some film personalities even began their careers in the silent era and continued to work through the talkies till as late as the 1980s, like the silent era actress Lilian Gish, who had one of the longest careers, a complete 75 years!
Beginning at personal experiments ending in a two-second clip, the U.S. movie industry has grown into a gigantic force providing employment to more than 2 million people, and contributing grossly $180 billion each year to the U.S. economy. We indeed have a lot to owe to personalities of the silent film era, for they developed in us a taste to see motion on a screen, even though it was without sound. The art of silent movies will be celebrated by generations to come.