Most people living today have never seen a silent movie. We cannot imagine a movie without vibrant color, surround sound, and elaborate costumes and special effects. But more than 110 years ago, most of these things were not available to the pioneers of the industry. They relied on physical movements, facial expressions, intertitles, and music from a piano or a three piece band. They were not shown in theatres with stadium seating, with jumbo popcorn, candy and nachos. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? In his book, Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture, Peter Kobel takes us on an incredible journey, introducing the various cinematic pioneers. From inventors like Thomas Edison to the directors, Kobel’s book is full of amazing stories about the struggles these men and women faced while creating and marketing their product, and how changing technology eventually made silent movies obsolete. It was not just the Americans that were working on the creation of moving pictures; it was the French. Interestingly, there is still an ongoing debate about who did it first. Regardless of whom was the first, the efforts of both countries helped to establish an interest in these silent, flickering, moving photographs.
They were shown, at first, in places called nickelodeons, where people could watch them for a mere penny. As nickelodeons became more popular, so did a desire for new pictures, and the studio system was born. As more pictures were made, more people were needed: directors, actors, wardrobe, props, make-up, and the ever-present producer to make sure costs remained low. The actors were not well-known at first because the studios opted not to spend money on publicity (unlike today, where stars are seen on TV, giving interviews on talk shows). It also helped to keep the actors’ salaries low. But as the demand for movies grew, the public suddenly became interested in who they were watching. People began to learn the names of their favorite comedians – Chaplin, Pickford, Keaton – as well as their favorite actors – Valentino, Navarro, and Bow. Fan magazines materialized in the wake of the peoples’ curiosity about their favorite stars. Directors had to know how to control their stars and make a cheap movie fast. But many directors, like D.W. Griffith, wanted to see their visions come to life and often made epic movies, like Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a 1915 film about the Civil War and Restoration that was deeply racist and would be difficult for people to watch today. Some directors, like Cecil de Mille and Erich von Stroheim, crossed the line of good taste, making morally questionable movies, like Stroheim’s Foolish Wives and de Mille’s The Cheat. Even after the Hays code was enforced, directors still found a way to get around the code and make the kind of movies they wanted. Silent movies also came from other countries, like France, Germany and Russia. The wildly popular Metropolis came from Germany and was a huge hit overseas, although it lost money because of film costs. Scandinavia (Denmark and Sweden) not only produced movies like Atlantis and The Legend of Gosta Berling, but introduced us to one of the greatest silent movie stars of all time: Greta Garbo. Why were silent movies so popular? A picture is worth a thousand words, and the actions and expressions of the stars could convey more emotion than the intertitles that were placed between scenes. You could look at Lillian Gish and see her suffering; you could laugh at Chaplin as one simple action began a whole series of misunderstandings; you could look at Valentino and sigh as the maiden fell into his arms, hopelessly in love. Thanks to film preservation, it will be possible for future generations to see some of these brilliant movies, although many films have been lost due to deterioration of the old nitrate film stock. Kobel’s book is wonderful and entertaining. Most enjoyable are the numerous photographs throughout out the book: pictures of the stars, directors, theatre and lobby cards, beautifully reproduced in black and white as well as in color. The photos illustrate Kobel’s writing while playing a vital role in the reader’s understanding of the material. Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture serves to bring these gems back to the forefront of public awareness. It re-introduces some long-forgotten people who were instrumental in the humble beginnings of film.