Silent Cinema

Silent Cinema

by Brian J. Robb

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Silent cinema was never truly silent as performances were more often than not accompanied by live music and the noise of enthusiastic audiences. Yet silent cinema is regarded as a specific era in the history of the medium, and often as a separate art form in its own right. New York Times-bestselling author Brian J. Robb's lively resource traces how, from the origins of cinema onwards to the coming of sound in 1929 with The Jazz Singer, many of the ground rules of cinema were laid and filmmaking techniques developed, including editing and special effects, styles of acting, and filming on location. Studying the earliest origins of cinema, including the stars, comedians, and directors who became popular from the late-Victorian era to the end of the 1920s, including D. W. Griffiths, Cecil B. DeMille, and Sergi Eisenstein, this book also includes a look at the Hollywood scandals of the time. The accompanying DVD includes lengthy excerpts from films such as The Perils of Pauline, Phantom of the Opera, Salomé, and Son of the Sheik.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781842433744
Publisher: Oldcastle Books
Publication date: 09/28/2007
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Brian J. Robb is a writer and biographer whose previous books includ a New York Times-bestselling biography of Leonardo DiCaprio; Screams & Nightmares, the definitive book on horror director Wes Craven; biographies of Johnny Depp and Ewan McGregor; and Counterfeit Worlds. He is managing editor at Titan Magazines and editor of the Official Star Wars Magazine.

Read an Excerpt

Silent Cinema

By Brian J. Robb

Oldcastle Books

Copyright © 2007 Brian J. Robb
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84243-374-4



From its beginnings as a series of Victorian novelties, the new art and industry of cinema rapidly developed in the first years of the twentieth century to become a distinct art form in its own right. Some would claim it was the definitive art form of the twentieth century. The 30-year period from the end of the nineteenth century through to the coming of sound in 1929 saw dramatic technological and aesthetic change in the cinematic arts. The result was the period of silent cinema when film had a distinctive form, and directors and actors worked within a set of growing and changing artistic criteria. It was unique and virtually ended when Al Jolson uttered the immortal words 'You ain't heard nothin' yet' in 1927's The Jazz Singer.

Technological experimentation to create moving images started as a quest by a series of individuals across Europe but rapidly became the concern of commercial organisations that saw the development of a new medium that could be exploited financially. From the earliest days cinema was torn between art and commerce. The first films (merely recordings of 'reality' projected back to an audience) were simple, but as creative techniques – such as editing, moveable cameras, studio and location shooting – emerged, cinema became more complex. By the time an audience had formed for film and the days of vaudeville were numbered, a creative critical mass had also collected around the production side of the cinematic equation.

The developing art of cinema saw a series of individuals working within commercial entertainment organisations drive the form forward through stylistic and technological innovation. No one individual invented 'cinema' as we know it, but skilful practioners such as Georges Méliès, DW Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille and Charlie Chaplin all pushed the boundaries of the medium.

The rise of film saw the creation of a star system as fictional narratives came to dominate the form. The likes of Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin became the biggest stars of their age through audience adoration. Known around the world – as silent cinema knew no language barriers – these stars came to live extraordinary lives. Their unique status would lead to the US film colony of Hollywood becoming known as a city of sin where people lived by their own rules. A series of scandals in the 1920s – from the Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle murder trial to the unexplained death of starlet Olive Thomas – would bring censure and censorship down upon the movies. It seemed that the new entertainment format of film also had a dark side.

The silent clowns – prime among them Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd – showed that Hollywood also had a lighter side. However funny these guys – and others like Ben Turpin, Harry Langdon and Charley Chase – were, their lives were often fraught with difficulty and tragedy, from Chaplin's multiple relationships, to Lloyd's near fatal accident and Keaton's inability to handle his own finances. While they made audiences cry with laughter, these great screen clowns of the silent age were often the 'crying on the inside' type.

Silent cinema wasn't all Hollywood-based, of course. Serving as an informed introduction to the wider subject, this volume briefly acknowledges significant silent film production in Germany (the Expressionist classics The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Metropolis), Italy (the epics Quo Vadis? and Cabiria), France (the Impressionist serial Fantomas, and Abel Gance's Napoléon) and Russia (home of political montage editing, as seen in the work of Eisenstein in Battleship Potemkin).

A quick survey of the 29 classics of silent cinema listed in detail in this book shows significant work from France, Germany, Sweden, Russia/USSR and the UK, alongside that from the US, indicating the international reach of silent cinema.

That the first 30 years of cinema's history can be regarded as a unique and separate era of filmmaking is beyond dispute. This book celebrates the history and art of silent cinema, serving to introduce the curious film fan to the wonders of Metropolis, the lyricism of Sunrise and the artful comedy of Buster Keaton's classic The General. There is more silent era material available now than ever before through DVD, with many films restored and released in forms true to their creators' original intentions. Complete careers – such as those of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd – are widely available for us to view. There is extensive written material on all the topics explored in this introductory tome available in print or on the web. The resources section at the back of the current volume provides a jumping off point. That's what this book is intended to be: a place to begin your explorations of the era of silent cinema.




Images were nothing new in the Western world of the industrial revolution period. The art of capturing images in paint (whether on cave walls or canvas) had existed from the earliest times, while still photography had been invented in 1827. Persistence of vision – the way the brain perceives rapidly changing still images as moving – was well known and formed the basis of many Victorian novelties.

From the creation of the 'magic lantern' in 1640, the goal of many visual artists had been to capture 'moving images'. The magic lantern could produce a series of single images projected in sequence upon a wall, illuminated by candlelight and later oil lamp, which told a story. From then to the invention of moving pictures, most devices that created the illusion of movement from still images were regarded as mere amusements or novelties.

A simple spinning disc held on a string with pictures on either side – called the Thaumatrope – would combine the two images, say a bird and a cage, into one: an image of a caged bird. Belgian Joseph Antoine Plateau invented the Phenakistoscope in 1832, producing a disc with a series of evenly spaced slits cut into it. On one side the disc featured drawings representing a simple movement, with a slight change in position between each image. Spinning the disc and viewing the images in a mirror through the slits in the spinning disc, the drawings would appear to move continuously

Building upon Plateau's proof of persistence of vision, William George Horner came up with the Zoetrope. Drawing on the same principles, the Zoetrope consisted of a cylinder with evenly spaced slits cut into the top. Inside was placed a cartoon strip-like series of drawings, again attempting to capture a series of small movements. When the cylinder was spun and the images viewed through the slits (as with the Phenakistoscope), the illusion of movement was achieved. It wasn't until many years later, in 1867, that the Zoetrope was widely sold as an amusement. Similarly, the Phasmatrope, the 'projecting Phenakistoscope' and many other inventions kept the Victorians amused by creating the illusion of limited movement through drawings. There was little attempt to use these limited devices for any kind of narrative, or to develop them technologically.

It was the investigations into motion studies by photographer Eadweard J. Muybridge in 1877 that would lead directly to moving pictures. Muybridge was a British photographer who had made his name marketing photographic views of America in the 1860s. His initial creation of a series of photographs of a horse taken milliseconds apart was the result of a bet. Leland Stanford, the former Governor of California, hoped to prove that during a gallop all four hooves of a horse were off the ground simultaneously. Stanford hired Muybridge to prove his contention. The problem of achieving the technical requirements was only solved with the involvement of John D. Isaacs, chief engineer for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He knew nothing about photography but was able to apply his knowledge of mechanics, creating a system of magnetic releases to trigger the cameras photographing the horse in action. Muybridge shot a series of still photographs as a horse cantered past a row of twelve cameras. He then checked the images to see if any showed all four hooves off the ground. Stanford won his bet, though his expenditure to achieve his proof hugely exceeded the amount he eventually won.

Muybridge subsequently exhibited his series of horse photographs on tour, adapting them to various projection devices such as the Praxinoscope, the Zoetrope and others. He would go on to conduct other 'motion studies' with a variety of other subjects, including elephants, domestic pets, farm animals and, eventually, people. An added frisson was brought to Muybridge's people studies as all his subjects were photographed nude. While he claimed educational purposes in touring his projections of these 'motion studies', no doubt Muybridge was a showman who knew the value of selling taboos to curious audiences. Muybridge even pioneered a form of stop motion animation as he took his human motion studies to their ultimate conclusion: a series of photographs of a skeleton moved into various poses to simulate life and then projected. Bizarrely, essentially the same multiple still camera set-up used by Muybridge in cinema's pre-history would be used to create the 'bullet time' effect in The Matrix (1999) and its sequels over 100 years later, well into the digital age of cinema.

Whatever his motivations, Eadweard Muybridge had shown one thing beyond any doubt: there was more to moving pictures than Victorian parlour games. In doing so, he'd also proved that there was a curious audience for such moving image diversions.


If the invention of cinema was to be compared to one of the many genres which later came to dominate the art form, it might be regarded as a whodunnit. Given the claims and counterclaims for the sole right to be known as the inventor of cinema, perhaps the specific whodunit in question is JB Priestly's An Inspector Calls, in which everyone has some degree of culpability. Among the 'suspects' were American Thomas Alva Edison; the French Lumière brothers, Louis and Auguste; British-based Frenchman Augustin Louis Le Prince; and the British William Friese-Greene. Like movies themselves, however, the hunt for the sole inventor of cinema is an illusion.

The projection of moving images was a result of industrial development, rather than the inspired 'Eureka' moment of a lone inventor. From the beginning of the 1890s, conditions had developed which allowed for the progress of cinema technology primarily in four countries: the still-youthful Republic of America and the prime older nations of Europe – Britain, France and Germany. The end-of-the-century rush to cinema was driven by the profits to be made through commercial competition, rather than the romance of individual invention.

In 1884 George Eastman devised a way of manufacturing film on a roll (initially on paper, then celluloid) rather than in the form of individual slides, as had been the practice for still photography. By the end of the 1880s, Frenchman Louis Le Prince had patented a device for recording moving images on film and had used the large, cumbersome machinery he'd created to film trams and people from Leeds Bridge. This 1888 film – one of the earliest which still survives, shot on one of Eastman's paper film rolls – was only viewable with an Edison Kinetoscope, allowing the moving images to be seen by just one person at a time. Projection – which would allow a large number of people to simultaneously view moving images – was the goal, one that Le Prince never cracked. Eastman, however, returned to the fray, perforating his new celluloid film rolls with a series of holes, which allowed them to be driven through a camera and a projector. The only problem was that each individual frame had to momentarily stop in front of the lens to be exposed. It was the French Lumière brothers who solved this engineering challenge by adapting sewing machine technology. They created a camera smaller than that of Le Prince (who was to mysteriously vanish travelling on a train between Dijon and Paris in 1890, along with his briefcase of patent applications), dubbed the Cinématographe, which could also project the images it captured. Another innovation that contributed to the overall development of the early technology of cinema came from the entrepreneurial American Latham family who discovered a way of ensuring that the film running through the camera didn't suddenly break by running the reels loosely rather than tightly wound.

This was a nascent industry dominated by patents and piracy. Thomas Edison is prime among those whose names are associated with the invention of cinema, and his interest in moving pictures had begun seriously in 1887, two years after William Friese-Green's limited moving image experiments in Britain. Muybridge had met Edison in 1888 and they discussed Edison's invention of the light bulb and the phonograph. The result of those inventions was his company Edison General Electric, which was able to fund a whole programme of research. The truth of the discovery/invention process is that Edison himself did very little work on any apparatus. It was his team of employees who developed the first film cameras and projection equipment in America. Where his own team could not solve a problem, or someone else got there first, Edison's company would rapidly buy up the rights. For Edison, like so many after him, the success of cinema would be in its commercial exploitation not in the equipment that merely solved the problem of creating moving pictures.

It was an Edison employee, William KL Dickson, who is credited with the discovery – in 1891 – of a way to record images on a strip of celluloid which, when projected back, gave the illusion of movement. The machine – dubbed the Kinetograph – was used to create an early film, Fred Ott's Sneeze (1891), featuring one of Edison's workers ... well, sneezing.

Edison applied for patents on the earliest film equipment, starting in 1893, and so it was his name that became attached to the creation of the film camera, projection equipment and the invention of motion picture film, even though others had made the discoveries or contributed in a major way. Despite his attention to commercial detail, Edison failed to expand his patents to Europe, so allowing the pioneers in moving image technology there to make their own claims to primacy of discovery.

Edison was to begin the commercial exploitation of cinema in 1896 and by the following year he was merrily suing others to protect the integrity of his patents for the movie camera. This model of the creation and exploitation of new technology was the common experience in the nineteenth century, so no one saw any particular problem with it or with Edison's activities.

In the early years, cinema was seen as an industrial process rather than a creative art. Money was to be made in the building, selling and licensing of the equipment to make and project films. The creation of the films themselves was almost regarded as a side-effect: in today's parlance, they were the software needed to drive the hardware sales, athough the industrial model was the inverse of that for modern computing where the money was to be made in the hardware (the cameras and projectors) rather than the software (the films).

The immediate precursor of properly projected cinema – and thus the group experience that was so important to the impact of the art form – was the individually viewed, Edison-invented Kinetoscope device. The Kinetoscope – supplied to amusement arcades across the world – helped to create the idea that the money to be made in cinema was in the hardware. Viewed by one person at a time using the 'What the Butler Saw' machines, the Kinetoscope created in the public the idea of proper moving images, paving the way for projected cinema.

By February 1893, the year of the Chicago World's Fair where the Kinetoscope made its public debut, Edison had established the world's first dedicated film studio to create films for his Kinetoscope machines. Dubbed the 'Black Maria', the studio lacked a roof as it used sunlight for illumination. The entire thing had been built upon a pivot so it could be rotated to take best advantage of the position of the sun. It was in the Black Maria that Edison's assistant Dickson embarked upon the creation of a series of films recording the acts of leading vaudeville performers, including 'Buffalo Bill' Cody and Annie Oakley. Fun in a Chinese Laundry (1894) was a film record of a well-known vaudeville sketch, while Execution of Mary Queen of Scots (1895), made by Alfred Clark after Dickson's departure, is a historical reconstruction. These Kinetoscope films lasted less than a minute each.

It is the French Lumière brothers, however – Auguste and Louis – who are usually credited with being the first to publicly screen movies before an audience on a large screen, in Paris on 28 December 1895, widely recognised as the official birth date of cinema. At the time the Lumière brothers were the biggest manufacturer of photographic plates in Europe. Their dramatic programme of films was also screened to a paying audience in Britain on 20 February 1896 at the Regent Street Polytechnic, hosted by a representative of the Lumières. Edison himself followed with a demonstration of his equipment on 23 April 1896 at Koster and Bial's Music Hall in New York City. Within months, exhibitors in France, the United Kingdom and the United States could screen films to large paying crowds at once using just one projecting machine.


Excerpted from Silent Cinema by Brian J. Robb. Copyright © 2007 Brian J. Robb. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
1 Silent Cinema: An Introduction,
2 The Origins of Cinema,
3 The Developing Art,
4 Georges Méliès: Innovator and Entertainer,
5 The Directors,
6 The Dramatic Stars,
7 The Silent Clowns,
8 Silent Scandals,
9 International Silent Cinema,
10 The Silent Classics,
11 The Coming of Sound,
12 Silent Cinema Resources,

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