The Silent Era Of Hollywood Film Studies Essay

The Silent Era of Hollywood’s History was a great milestone in paving the way for today’s film industry. With great actors and innovative technology, silent films poked fun at society and helped America get through some tough times. Happening between the end of World War I and the beginning of the Great Depression, silent films helped American audiences sit back and relax for an hour or two and laugh at society. Slapstick comedy made fun of high society and authority, absorbing the audience. Actors like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks took the audience on adventures beyond any they had ever seen. In a world of black and white, silent films brightened up the lives of Americans everywhere.

Whether it was a comedy, horror, or suspense, on television or at the theater, everyone in America has seen at least one movie. But have they ever stopped to appreciate how far the movie industry has come to produce outstanding special effects, eye-popping 3-D, and out-of-this-world colors? Where did all the film studios come from? Who paved the way for today’s actors? Advancements and dilemmas in a world of silent black and white helped shape the movie industry forever.

Early Beginnings.

In 1873, a photographer was asked to find a way to photograph running horses to study their gait. Eadweard Muybridge set up twelve cameras and snapped his pictures. Each one had a half-second period of movement. He never went on to create films, but he certainly paved the way for many others. Émile Reynaud built a toy he called the Projecting Praxinoscope in 1877. It was a spinning drum where viewers saw various images in mirrors. In 1882, he found a way to project moving pictures using a lantern and mirrors. In 1888, Kodak started introducing film on paper rolls. This caught the eye of inventor Thomas Edison. He and his assistant cut the film and punched four holes onto one side so that gears could pull the film strips through the camera (Thompson & Bordwell, 1994, pgs. 5-8). Early film was definitely primitive with choppy editing and jerky movements, but without it movies would have never come to existence. It took many years to perfect it, and by the time America needed entertainment, film makers were ready.

The Silent Era.

Looking back, the roaring twenties was a great decade for directors, actors, and audiences in America. Post-World War I and Pre-Great Depression, America was the leading producer of movies, dealing with many of the society’s problems and taboo topics. Scott Mintz of Digital History, described the silent movie era:

American films were born in an age of reform, and many early silent

movies took as their subject matter the major social and moral issues of the Progressive era: birth control, child labor, divorce, immigration, political corruption, poverty, prisons, prostitution, and women’s suffrage. The tone of these films varied widely – some were realistic and straightforward; others treated their subjects with sentimentality or humor; and many transformed complex social issues into personal melodramas. Yet there can be no doubt that many silent films dealt at least obliquely with the dominant issues of the time (2007).

Film Studios.

By 1926, over 400 feature films touching on society’s problems were made and were emerging from eight different studios, five major and three minor. The “Big Five” produced 90% of films in America (Scott, 2005). Warner Bros. Pictures was the first of the five. Created by four Polish brothers, Jack, Harry, Albert, and Sam, Warner became prominent after first introducing “talkies” in the latter half of the decade. The studio later became infamous with Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes cartoons. The next great studio was Famous Players-Lasky Corporation in 1916. In 1935 it became known as Paramount Pictures, and generated many silent film stars such as Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, and talking stars including Bing Crosby and Bob Hope (Dirks, 1996). Paramount made a total of 101 movies in 1921 (Scott, 2005). The third studio was known as RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) Pictures. It struggled in the 1920s until talking films came to the surface. The next studio is more commonly known as MGM or Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Metro Pictures Corporation, Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, and Louis B. Mayer Pictures Company merged together in 1924. They are best known for the Tom and Jerry cartoons. The final big studio was a merger of two big studios, Fox Film Corporation/Foundation and 20th Century Picture Company. It became known as 20th Century Fox (Dirks, 1996).

The last three studios may have just been minor then, but today two of them are top-selling studios. Universal Pictures was formed in 1912 and became known for the Woody Woodpecker cartoons. The C.B.C Film Sales Company was founded in 1920 and later became known as Columbia Pictures. They established fame with the first Batman serials. The last of the little three was United Artists, formed in 1919 by the top film stars of the time, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W Griffith (Dirks, 1996).

Movie Palaces.

Not only did the film companies create innovative movies, they also constructed deluxe palaces to showcase their films. By starting these movie theater chains, the movie industry skyrocketed. Between 1922 and 1930, investment jumped from $78 to $850 million, and movie patrons doubled from 40 million people a week to 80 million (Thompson & Bordwell, 1994). The Strand Theater opened in 1914 with 3,300 seats. The 6,200-seat Roxy Theater opened in New York City in 1927. It closed in 1960 and became known as Radio City Music Hall in 1965. On the west coast, Sid Grauman built three theaters in Los Angeles: the Million Dollar Theater (2,345 seats), the Egyptian Theater (1,760 seats), and the infamous Chinese Theater (2,258 seats). Grauman decided to start a tradition of Hollywood stars leaving their imprints in front of the theater (Dirks, 1996). Many of today’s stars have their imprints at the theater, including one of the best known silent film stars of all time: Charlie Chaplin.

Charlie Chaplin.

Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in London in spring 1889. His parents were both actors and singers, giving Charlie each a piece of their talents. Unfortunately, the sudden death of his father and the mental illness of his mother forced him out on his own at the age of 10. Having his first stage performance at the age of 14 in “Sherlock Holmes”, Charlie started doing vaudeville comedy and was immediately taken to America to showcase his talents (Overview). Easily recognized by the toothbrush moustache, bowler hat, and funny walk, Chaplin starred in 87 short films and became known for his trademark Little Tramp character (see figure 1) (Smith, Mini Biography). Chaplin became ambitious and starred in a drama that ridiculed high society. His audience, however, avoided a film without the Little Tramp. He brought the character back in two of his greatest films, The Gold Rush (1925) and The Circus (1927) (Thompson & Bordwell, 1994, pgs. 166-167).

Figure : Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp

Not only did Chaplin star in almost 100 films, he also wrote and directed, financed and produced, and composed all the music for them. During his spare time he wrote four books and composed many other songs. His films always focused on the economic and social problems of the time, making him relatable to the public while still being a comedian. He died on Christmas day in 1977. He was married and divorced four separate times and was survived by nine children (Smith, Mini Biography).

Douglas Fairbanks.

Another co-creator of United Artists, and a great actor in the action genre was Douglas Fairbanks. Born in Denver, Colorado in 1883, Fairbanks moved to New York in 1900. He made his Broadway debut there in 1902 and quickly prospered in his career. Wanting to move on to bigger and better things, he was under close watch of D.W. Griffith and became a huge movie star. He starred in many social and romantic comedies, making him very appealing to his audience. During a World War I Liberty bond tour, he met his future wife and equally popular actress Mary Pickford. After divorcing their respective spouses, they were married. Divorces were frowned upon during this era, but at the time they were so popular that America forgave and forgot their divorces. The couple was known as the king and queen, the royal couple of Hollywood. He is best known for action films such as The Mask of Zorro (1920), The Three Musketeers (1921) (see figure 2), Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), and The Black Pirate (1926) (Stars, 2004).

Figure : Douglas Fairbanks in “The Three Musketeers”

In 1927, Fairbanks and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) was founded. Together they created the Academy Awards, to acknowledge, appreciate, and reward excellence in film (Dirks, 1996). Fairbanks died suddenly of a heart attack in 1939, and was given a special Oscar for “recognizing the unique and outstanding contribution of the first President of the Academy to the international development of the motion picture” (Stars, 2004).

Early Innovations in Color.

Making these award-winning movies was no easy feat since technology was moving fast. In the 1910s, directors and cinematographers were placing semi-transparent fabrics over their lenses to give the shot a soft, blurry look. By the 1920s, special lenses were created that focused all attention on the main actors and scenery, while “blurring out” the background. Another major advancement was the development of panchromatic film stock. Film was only sensitive to purple, blue, and green. Yellow and red barely registered, making any object of that color appear black (like an actress’ lipstick, see figure 3), while blue and purple appeared white. The sky with clouds rolling by was hard to film since the blue washed out to white with the clouds. By 1925, Eastman Kodak starting producing panchromatic stock and film studios were quickly switching over (Thompson & Bordwell, 1994, pgs. 177-178). While vibrant shades of gray and black becoming popular, a world famous icon was still just an idea.

Figure : Mary Pickford’s lips appear black and she clearly stands out from the background

A Mouse for All Ages.

Walt Disney started his own arts firm in 1919. After many failed attempts at short cartoons, he and his brother Roy started the Disney Brothers Studios in Hollywood. It would later grow into one of the biggest corporations in the twentieth century. A character Disney created was taken over by another during a legal battle (Thompson & Bordwell, 1994, p. 179). In retaliation, Disney created “Steamboat Willie”, starring Mickey Mouse for the first time in 1928. “Steamboat Willie” was also the first cartoon with synchronized sound. Strangely enough, the first sound was not Mickey’s voice, but background noises and music. Mickey didn’t speak until his ninth cartoon when he said “hot dogs!”, using Disney’s voice for Mickey’s (Dirks, 1996).

Let’s Hear it for the Movies.

As the decade came to a close, the arrival of sound was a major disturbance. Silent films could be distributed all over the world, having no language barrier. Now that actors were beginning to talk, the movies had to stay strictly in the US and audiences started to realize the actors lacked an appealing speaking voice. Many directors had to have their actors imported from Broadway, knowing they already had excellent speaking voices. Cameras were bulky and created a lot of noise, and immobile microphones attached to the actors limited their mobility. Soon the silent film studios became almost extinct and boom mikes, mounted cameras, and sound-proof stages were the most innovative equipment (Dirks, 1996). With the new microphones, actors could move freely and speak at their normal pace, giving films a new rhythm. The Bell & Howell Rotambulator was also invented, giving cameras movement they never had before. The dolly could raise the camera vertically from 18 inches to 7 feet and panning, tilting, and tracking were simpler and easier (Thompson & Bordwell, 1994, pgs. 241-242).

Coloring a Black and White World

Black and white was also becoming obsolete. People had tried in the past to paint or hand-tint the film strips, but their efforts were futile after realizing the films looked unrealistic. Kinemacolor was introduced and used alternating red and green filters, black and white film was projected through them. In 1915, the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation was developed. They added the green and red color to the negative film strips and printed them together. A two-color system starting in the 1910s had evolved into a three-color system in 1932, due to Technicolor (Dirks, 1996).

Effects of the Great Depression

In addition to new advancements slowly deteriorating the Silent Era, The Great Depression also hurt everyone, including the film studios and their palaces. Theaters could no longer afford ushers, and they started selling popcorn, soda, and candy as an extra means of income. Since audiences had very little money to spend outside of necessities, theaters needed to create new sales pitches. Theaters began playing double and even triple features. Even though the last movie was a short, cheap B movie, audiences felt they were getting more for their dollar. Prize giveaways were also done at the door, giving away anything from pillows to dishes. Each week a new dish was given away, further persuading patrons to come back every week to collect and complete their dishware set (Thompson & Bordwell, 1994, p 240).

Never Forgotten.

Even though many Americans think of silent films as ancient, boring antiques, they are so much more. In addition to addressing major social and moral issues, early films “were laced with anti-authority themes, poking fun at bumbling cops, corrupt politicians, and intrusive upper-class reformers. Highly physical slapstick comedy offered a particularly potent vehicle of social criticism, spoofing the pretensions of the wealthy and presenting sympathetic portraits of the poor” (Mintz, 2007). Silent films let audiences know that it was alright to laugh at the morally corrupt world after the first World War. They opened the door for great actors and actresses to pave the way for today’s movie stars. Silent films are a major part of Hollywood’s history and should never be forgotten.

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