A supernova is defined as an explosion in the sky, resulting in “an extremely bright, short-lived object that emits vast amounts of energy.” The dictionary writers were defining a celestial phenomenon; but they could easily have been describing the silent cinema.
For their first 30 years or so, motion pictures were mute. They were a novelty at first “Imagine, a picture that moves!”, but there was no sound to accompany them, no voices, no music and no sound effects. Then, as more enterprising film makers entered the field, the novelty began to develop into an art form; still there was no audible dialogue, but the sophisticated showmen that now ran the picture business had created a tapestry of images that were complete in and of themselves, and could convey meanings without the use of words.
Today’s moviegoers may think of silent film as an intermediate form, a phase of development that cinema had to pass through in order to achieve apotheosis in the wide-screen blockbusters of today. But a growing number of fans and scholars are looking back and finding that silent film was no phase, but a mature art form complete unto itself. Its passion and vitality offered much more than merely a pictorial record of the early 20th century. Silent film was an artistic expression totally unlike any other. Like a supernova, it radiated a great deal of light and energy. Like the supernova, it died much too soon.
Its beginnings were humble: magic lantern shows, Kinetoscopes, penny arcades. These crude, inchoate forms were stepping stones that would lead to the real thing, but change didn’t happen overnight. Even after Auguste and Louis Lumière presented the first picture show in Paris in 1895, and pioneers such as George Méliès and Edwin S. Porter followed with their own innovative films, motion pictures were still considered cheap, inferior entertainment for the masses. All that would change with the arrival of David Wark Griffith. The early pioneers had taken still pictures and given them motion. Griffith would give them life.
Kentucky-born, D.W. Griffith ventured north to the Biograph studio in New York one day in 1908, and launched the career that would earn him the title “The Father of Motion Pictures.” In collaboration with cinematographer G.W. “Billy” Bitzer, director Griffith developed such progressive devices as the fadeout, backlighting, the iris shot, crosscutting, and the panoramic long shot. All these techniques had been available to filmmakers before Griffith’s time, but what he did was stretch their limits “push the envelope, in newspeak” creating a sparkling new lexicon of film language. Neither did he invent the closeup , that had been around since at least 1896’s harmlessly ribald one-minute The Kiss, but he did develop new ways of incorporating close-ups into his narratives, forever liberating the camera from its accustomed stationary position at long-shot distance in front of the actors. Griffith’s camera would move. His motion pictures would display a sweeping fluidity not seen in films before.
Griffith, perhaps alone among filmmakers of his time, saw in the new gimmick of moving pictures an instrument of art with Go Coupons Go. Certainly none of the early pioneers thought of movies as art. Even the Lumière brothers dismissed their invention as merely “a scientific curiosity.” But when Griffith’s masterpiece; the three hour-long The Birth of a Nation premiered in 1915 with live symphonic accompaniment, it took the world by storm. Audiences were stunned by its majesty, and perhaps a little shocked that film had such power to engage the intellect and touch the soul. Since that moment, the notion that a motion picture can be a work of art no longer seemed inappropriate. Griffith legitimized film.
Lillian Gish liked to call The Birth of a Nation “the first feature-length film.” It wasn’t quite that, though we can understand Miss Gish’s affection for the motion picture that would make her one of the screen’s “immortals” at the age of 21. As commonly understood, a feature is a film with a running time of at least four reels, or about 48 minutes; and films of that length had been around for three years before Griffith’s masterpiece hit the screen. A reel, in Hollywood usage, is a term generally taken to mean 1,000 feet of 35mm film. It could run as little as ten minutes on screen, or as long as eighteen. This is because in the days before sound, there was no strict “standard” speed at which film was projected. The operator would simply put his hand to the rheostat and alter the film speed from scene to scene, even from shot to shot.
During his five-year association with Biograph Studios, D.W. Griffith turned out more than 500 films of one, two, and three reels each; in France, George Méliès produced 400 short films between 1892 and 1902. This was the era of shoot-and-run filmmaking, with quantity prized above quality by the nickelodeon operators, eager to entice repeat customers with fresh fare nearly every week.
The pace was hectic, but despite the assembly-line nature of filmmaking, some quality works managed to emerge. Edwin S. Porter’s ten-minute The Great Train Robbery, seen through modern eyes that are used to blazing color and eye-popping computer graphics, may not seem noteworthy today; but it caused a sensation in 1903. The famous closing scene shows a bewhiskered outlaw pointing a gun directly at the camera (at us!), taking aim, and firing. We hear no gunshot, we see no lifelike color; but if we imagine ourselves in the place of the nickelodeon audience who had that pistol pointed at them in 1903, we can feel some of the panic they must have felt.
Because that is what a good film does. It engages our emotions and makes us surrender logic to its muse, and we are drawn into a new logic, that of the photoplay unfolding before us.
Today’s filmmakers accomplish this seduction with the help of reality-simulating devices such as color, multi-channel sound, and wide-screen formats that approximate the boundaries of human peripheral vision. Curiously, silent film accomplished the same thing because of, rather than in spite of, the absence of these devices.
Consider the limitations of early film. Although a way had been found to make pictures appear to move, they were still two-dimensional, lacking real life’s third dimension of depth. They were photographed in non-lifelike black and white. And though the people in the pictures spoke, they could not be heard. These defects hardly mattered in the beginning, when moving pictures were still a crude novelty, when, in the words of the Lumiére brothers, they were merely “a scientific curiosity.” But once film had progressed past the novelty stage and found the excitement of storytelling, a new artistry was needed. There was a broad new canvas waiting to be filled. And the new breed of artists found a way, by making film’s own limitations work in its favor.
Paul Klee, the Swiss master of abstract painting, wrote: “Art does not reproduce what we see. It makes us see.” D.W. Griffith understood this principle, and he applied it, ingeniously, in the ways he used the camera. One example, perhaps the most famous example, is the scene in The Birth of a Nation where a Confederate soldier returns home from the war, to a mother who has not seen her son in many months. He approaches the door; we see the door open; there is a moment of hesitation while realization sinks in, and then we see the mother’s arms, joyfully outstretched through the door, and they embrace the soldier and pull him close. We don’t see the mother’s face, only her hands and her arms. We are denied her expression of surpassing joy, and are left to imagine it for ourselves. Yet it is one of the most poignant scenes in movie history, all the more so because the artist Griffith has left out details and let the viewers supply those details in their own minds.
The Impressionist painters of the 19th century, Monet, Manet, Renoir and the rest, tried to depict reality in a new way, by not letting us see everything we could see in real life. They tried to give a feeling or “impression” of the way something looked, rendering not the thing itself, but rather the sensation of it. Thus the viewer is drawn into the art and is engaged in its creation. By using flat, two-dimensional, mute and monochrome motion pictures to create their own kind of art, early filmmakers were, consciously or not, using the Impressionist formula and extending it in exciting new ways.
One of the tools of this new artistry was a factor sometimes regarded as a drawback: black and white images. Real life is ablaze with color, but early movies were not. It is perfectly true that some silent films were tinted, but nobody pretends that they delivered full color as it is experienced in real life. And yet, monochrome fueled the rapport between artist and viewer; the less “real life” the film delivers, the more we must supply for ourselves. Besides, black and white are the colors of the subconscious, that fantasy realm where we experience all our dreams. Small wonder that those monochrome pictures found ready acceptance with movie audiences; the human psyche feels very much at home in a black-and-white world.
In his indispensable 2002 volume The Great Movies, Roger Ebert states the case for monochrome with the authority of a knowing, internationally celebrated observer of films: “You cannot know the history of the movies, or love them, unless you understand why b&w can give more, not less, than color.”
What about sound? Well, the absence of sound might be considered a handicap, but only by people who are now used to the talkies. As Chesterton wrote: “Art consists of limitation.” and Nickelodeon customers knew that the limitations of silent film drew them into the action and worldwide, audiences thrilled to the experience. Silence permitted every audience member to interpret the action on screen in relation to his or her own sensibilities.
The interplay between the minds of the artists and the minds of the audience produced an exquisite sensation, one not easily forgotten nor casually surrendered. Silent films created a kind of reverie, blissfully undisturbed by intrusive dialogue that rivets everything in place. We were offered a deliberately incomplete canvas and invited to fill in the blanks. As one writer observed, “When we made the transition from silent films to talkies, we lost as much as we gained.”
As for movie stars, there weren’t any, at least, not for the first fifteen (15) years or so. The first film performer to be acknowledged by name in advertising for a movie was Florence Lawrence, who was also sometimes known as “The Biograph Girl.” She made nearly 300 films, all of them short, and all of them now lost.
Slowly, as motion pictures developed into the semblance of an art form, more players began to be named in advertising. G.M. Anderson, the cowboy star, was known as “Broncho Billy.” Mary Pickford made her film debut in 1909, and by 1915 was almost universally beloved by film fans. They called her “Little Mary” and “America’s Sweetheart.” She had a long and illustrious career, winning one Academy Award as Best Actress and earning a second Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, in 1976.
By these standards, Charles Chaplin was a relative latecomer to films. This former British music hall comic made his first American film, Making a Living, for Keystone in 1914. This otherwise inconsequential bit of Mack Sennett fluff showcased a delicately nuanced performance by Chaplin, and heralded greater things ahead. By the way, in case a trivia question asks you: What famous comic actor wore a monocle in his first film, and never wore it again? It’s Chaplin.
Lillian Gish wrote about the time D.W. Griffith overheard one of his new actresses referring to films as “flickers.” He told the young starlet never to use that word again. She was, he said, working in the universal language that had been predicted in the Bible, which was to make all men brothers because they would understand each other. It’s clear that Griffith thought highly of this new art, even ascribing to it Messianic powers. The “universal language” he spoke of involved film’s own silence. Through the faces, gestures, and actions of his players and the artistry of his cinematographers he meant to convey a world of meaning without the use of spoken language. He succeeded brilliantly, and in the process helped launch the “golden era,” twenty years of the most unique theatergoing experience ever, a supernova for the ages.