With technology every day becoming more and more a part of our lives, and with that technology bringing along new and fantastic evolution of Hollywood special effects and sound design, it is not a surprise that Silent Films have become virtually ignored. Not surprising, but sad.
It took a long time for me to watch a silent movie, it must have been a Charlie Chaplin film. Back in the early to mid-’90’s there were a series of re-releases on VHS of some of his classic films including “The Gold Rush”, “City Lights”, and “Modern Times.” I remember falling in love with the films. Although the humor was out-dated (it is hard for something to stay funny for 60-70 years) but I really loved the heart of the movies and also the character of the Little Tramp. Chaplin had a wonderful gift of blending humor with sentimentality. He never asked for sympathy for his character, yet we felt some always.
Around that time I discovered a series of books that were going to document the entire history of film, starting with the short film experiments of the late 19th century. The series, “History of the American Cinema” was an exhaustive, but fascinating, account of how film started until it formed into what we know of as the Silent Era and then the Golden Age of Hollywood. It was through this series that I discovered filmmakers like Georges Melies, Edwin S. Porter, and, of course, D.W. Griffith.
Reading about the early pioneers I felt a certain pang. I had wished that I had been born a hundred years earlier so that I could have moved to California and worked on these short films, experiments really. These pioneers helped develop the language of cinema as we know it today. The close-up, the tracking shot, the wide shot, these are all things that were created by these filmmakers and these were techniques that, at the time, were shocking to the audience of the day. Griffith is the filmmaker most credited with these revolutionary techniques. These all culminated in the release of his epic film “The Birth of a Nation.”
Before “The Birth of a Nation”, most films were well under an hour in length, most of them were still one or two reelers at about 10-15 minutes a reel. When Griffith’s epic was released it was over 2 and a half hours. When it was released it became a sensation, though at the same time, it became, and still is, the most controversial film ever made. For those unfamiliar with this film, Griffith, a descendant of Confederate soldiers, made the film from the viewpoint of the South before, during, and after the Civil War. By taking on this point-of-view, the film showed the formation of the Klu Klux Klan as a heroic device to help protect the poor white Southerners from the evils of the Northern carpet baggers and the evil black race.
While one can’t forgive the film these ideas (ideas that many still carry to this day) it was a monumental achievement in film history. A film of epic length with multiple story lines and dozens of characters was rare in those days. Not only that, Griffith used editing as a way to cut from one scene of action to another to dramatic and exciting effect. The audiences of 1915 were not used to seeing editing or film-making like this. It’s no surprise that this film was a huge sensation.
After Griffith came the more recognizable of the Silent Era filmmakers: Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Sergei Eisenstein, Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, and countless others. The European styles created by the German filmmakers would later influence Hollywood Film Noir films from the ’40’s and ’50’s, films that were shot with shadows, weird camera angles, and stylistic set designs. The pioneers of the 1900’s and ’10’s were inspiring the legends of the ’20’s. Soon, though, this would be over.
With the advent of sound films in the late 20’s, no one wanted to see silent movies anymore. Talkies were the rage and audiences wanted to hear their favorite stars and listen to singing and music. Several silent film actors never worked in films again as their voices lacked something to be desired. Charles Chaplin, slow to change to the times, released 2 nearly silent films in the ’30’s, as a way to protest the new technology.
Although I love where sound design is in film today, with the surround sound and the loud explosions and musical scores, I still enjoy watching films from the Silent Era. It’s the closest thing we have to a time machine. Watching the actors silently perform their roles while orchestral music plays seems so much simpler. However we may feel when looking back at these films we need to understand, and respect, the work that these early pioneers put into film. Everything in film today owes a debt to these early, silent films.