Peter Knobel and the Library of Congress.Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of the Movie Culture. New York: Little Brown and Co.2007.
Silent films were designed to be seen with lie music. Live music is better than teater sound systems. Silent film viewing was a pleasure that many of today’s audiences fail to recognize.
The Library of Congress is working to preserve many silent films so they may continue being enjoyed,
Kevin Browlow observes there were many bad silent movies. Many of the bad ones wre cheaply produced and designed for audiences paying lower admission prices. Many of those today are found distributed under the Aywon, Mastodon, and Chesterfield labels.
Brownlow also believes D.W. Griffith has been overly criticized for the racism depicted in his film “The Birth of Nation”. Brownlow observes Griffin toned down the racism of the original play and novels. While “The Birth of a Nation” glamorized the Ku Klux Klan, Griffin also directed “Rose of Kentucky” which made the Ku Klux Klan villains. Griffin, despite his statements against reform movements, directed two films advancing social reforms, namely “Intolerance” which was critical of people who hates others due to their religion or being labor strikers, and “Broken Blossom” which presented prejudice against Chinese immigrants.
Many greats of the silent era were not educated yet had the intelligence to produce popular and great films. This included D.W. Griffin, Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett, Great Garbo, and Buster Keaton.
The silent films looked better when originally released than they do now with aged film quality. They were shot at various speeds. Shown today the speeds are often off a bit. The films may appear jerky today yet that jerkiness was not originally there.
Eadweard Muybridge developed motion series photography using multiple cameras in the 1870s. Some of his series were of nude women where he used hired prostitutes. Etienna-Jules Marcy in 1882 developed the Chronophotographic Can camera that can take a serioes of photographs. William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson headed a team that developed the Kinetoscope. Thomas Edison presented the Kinetoscpoe to the public in 1891 where moving pictures were viewed through peepholes.
August and Louis Lumiere on March 22, 1885 showed 800 colored slides projected over a minute’s time in a film “Leaving the Lumire Factory.” The first showing led to requests for more showing,
The first film shown in New York was shown on April 21, 1895 by Otway and Gary Latham. It was shown on a Panoptikon.
The Latham brothers had the public public exhibition where people paid to see a film on May 20, 1895 at 156 Broadway.
Thomas Edison threatened a law suit claiming he had the film technology prior to others with his Kinetoscope. Edison started showing films on April 23, 1896 at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall located at 34th and Broadway (now Macy’s).
The Edison Kinetoscope lasted about 20 seconds. Projected film then moved the business away from the Kinetoscope. Long feature films beame popular in 1900.
Max Skladanowsy opened the first European film theater that charged admission in Berlin, Germany beginning May 20, 1895.
Silent films grew in length and began telling stories. “The Great Train Robbery” was one of the earliest popular films.
D.W. Griffith moved camera and filmed from various perspective. These techniques had been uses by previous director yet it was Griffin that popularized these techniques.
Eastman Kodak agreed in 1908 to sell celluloid stock film in the U.S. only to the “Trust”, known as the Motion Picture Patents Co. (MPPC) consisting of Edison, Viagraph, Biograph, Essanay, Lubin, Kalm, Selig Polyscope, Star Film, Pathe-Freres,and Kleine Optical. The “Trust” dominaed the film industry. Only licensed distributors could lease Trust films and only then to licensed exhibitors who could only show Trust films. The licensed produced millions of dollars which went mostly to Edison and Biograh. This kept many foreign films, except those which were branches of foreign films in the Trust (Star Film, Pathe-Freres, and Klein Optical, which were French companies).
A group of independent film producers headed by Carl Laemmle resisted the Trust by forming the Independent Motion Picture Company in 1909. It included the Nestor Company, New York Motion Picture Corp. and the Centaur Film Manufacturing Co. This group created the Independent Film Protective Association, a trade organization, and in 1910 formed a stronger group, the Motion Picture Distributing and Sales Co.
The U.S. Justice Department filed restraint of trade legal action against the MPC. This weakened it until it legally dissolved in 1918.
Filming initially was mostly in New York and New Jersey and to a lesser degree Chicago and Philadelphia. Jacksonville, Florida sprang as a film center due to better lighting. Some non-Trust companies, subjected to violence from the Trust, moved to create distance from the Trust to California. Trust companies moved there as well. 60% of films were filmed in Southern California in 1915.
Scandal hit the film industry. Arthur Roscoe “Fanny” Arbuckle was arrested charged with manslaughter and rape. His first two trials ended in hung juries and he was acquitted in his third trial. Yet his film career was over.
William Desmond Taylor, a director, was murdered in 1922. His murder was unsolved. Yet two actressed he had dated. Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter, found their film careers were finished.
Wallace Reid’s morphine addiction became public. red died in a sanatorium.
The film industry faced declining audiences and possible government censorship. The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America formed in 1922 to regulate from within the industry. It was led by Will Hayes, who had earlier led President Warren Harding’s successful Presidential election campaign. Hays was expected to be an effective lobbyist with government officials.
Hays created 13 guidelines for films to voluntarily follow. There were 11 subjects to never present and 26 subjects to show with caution. For example, vice could be shown but only if was then shown as being actions that were later punished.
There were some local government film regulations, with Chicago creating a licensing board in 1907 followed by Pennsylvania in 1911 and Ohio in 1913.
Numerous genres of films developed. Max Linder was an early comedy star. Mack Sennett and Hal Roach were early comedy film creators. Sennett found Charlie Chaplin who became very popular. Comedies featured mostly male comics.
Westerns were popular and actually sometimes current events in some cases. G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson was among the original Western film stars.
Horror / science fiction films were popular. Lon Chaney was an early star of this genre.
Documentaries found audience success.
Film serials gained audience attention and brought them to return visits to theaters to see new episodes.
Animation was first made popular by J. Stuart Blackton in 1906.
Epics wowed audiences and were first successfully produced by D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMill.
Experimental films arose with avant-garde producers.
Many early films used well known writings in the public domain that could be filmed without paying royalties. Anita Loos was an early influential scenarist. She submitted it by mail and was paid $25. She sold her first film a age 12.
In 1914, writers were paid $50 per reel. Early screenwriting books were “The Photoplay Synthesis” by A. Van Buren Powell and “The Elinor Glyn System of Writing” by Elinor Glyn.
Set design in some early films resembled stage set designs. Constructed sets then gained favor William Buckland was an early supervising art director. Early notable art directors were William Cameron Menzies and Cedric Gibbons.
Cinematography was an important element to films. The Pathe camera was used in 60% of fims before 1918. Pathe cameras were hand cranked. Bell and Howell developed a motorized camera yet film companies preferred hand cranking. G.W. “Billy” Bitzer was a famous camera operated who worked with D.W. Griffith. It was Bitzer who first observed that reflected light improved the look of faces and took away shadows.
Early acting stars included Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, John Gilbert, Blanche Sweet, Greta Garbo, Baby Peggy (Margaret Montgomery), John Barrymore, Richard Barthelmess, Louise Brooks, Douglas Fairbanks, Janet Gaynor, Lillian Gish, Sessue Hayakawa, Emil Jennings, Colleen Moore, Ivan Mossoukke, Pola Negri, Asta Nielsen, Charles Ray, Rin-Tin-Tin, Gloria Swanson, Norma Talmadge, Rudolph Valentino, and Conrad Veidt.
Early film actors were not identified as film companies did not want them to become famous and then demand higher pay. Then film companies began promoting their stars. Many promotions were untruthful but anything that brought news was considered positive promotions. Some film companies spread false death news of stars. Irving Asher, Warner Brother’s first press person admits “Anything I wrote and sent to the papers, they’d print...90% of it was manufactured.”
Film criticism emerged. Robert F. Sherwood was an early noted and respected critic.
Oscar Michener was a noted African American film producer, writer, and distributor. His Michener Pictures first filmed Paul Robeson.
Thomas Ince was an early famous director. He was more popular in Europe. Other notable earlly directors besides D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille include Maurince Tourneur, Lois Weber, Erich Von Stroheim, and Joseph Von Sternberg.
Foreign films gained prominence. The world’s largest film distributors before World War I were France’s Pathe and Denmark’s Nordisk. Sweden offered several successful films. The German film industry developed during World War I with propaganda films and grew afterwards. The war hurt French film companies as the U.S. grew in their place. French film companies rebounded in the 1920s. The Soviet Union produced films to advance their causes for collectivism. As the U.S. film industry grew, many European film personnel moved to the U.S.
There were some silent films in color. The celluloids were hand painted.