“The Silent Era.” Movies in American History (Forthcoming, 2011)
The silent film era extends from the late nineteenth century, with the earliest work by the Lumière Brothers in France and Edison in America, into the early 1930s, when silent film gave way to “talkies.” However, most scholars situate the silent era in America during the 1910s and 1920s, when it matured as a tightly organized industry privileging the multi-reel feature film after the waning of the nickelodeon, the move to Hollywood from earlier production headquarters in New York and New Jersey, and the decline in competition from European filmmakers caused by World War I. D. W. Griffith’s twelve-reel feature The Birth of a Nation (1915) was a major commercial and cinematic success showcasing many of the directions the industry was to take into the 1920s.
While the term “silent” in silent cinema refers to the lack of synchronized sound, early cinema was far from silent in other respects. From the nickelodeon era into the 1920s, films were accompanied with live music, ranging from single pianos or reed organs to large orchestras, depending on the nature and location of the venue—which also ranged from small store-front theaters to thousand-seat picture palaces. Some studio releases came with specifically-composed musical scores, and almost all with cue sheets that suggested musical themes for specific scenes. Often, solo musicians more or less expert at reading the visual cues of the film improvised a score on the spot, and exhibitors also drew on large published collections of sheet music appropriate for stock scene types. Outside of musical accompaniment, theaters in the silent period could employ “descriptive talkers” or “lecturers” who narrated the film, sometimes from printed matter of varying degrees of specificity. Other lecturers improvised dialogue not included, for instance, on intertitles. In urban immigrant communities, this feature was represented as a means of self-improvement, and it continued to be employed whenever visual narrative clarity was compromised. As the feature film became the central industry product, the use of lecturers declined and the use of title cards for dialog became more realistic, gradually supplanting exposition cards. In 1925, Warner Brothers created the Vitaphone process, a sound-on-disc system that began the end of silent film, releasing The Jazz Singer in 1927; however, silent films would continue to be made into the 1930s, and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) is sometimes described as the last silent film. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the cinematic experience during the silent period because of individualism in respect to the varieties both of aural accompaniment and projection speeds. Though the standard projection speed was 16fps, exhibitors would often project films faster or slower than taking speed to ensure the program began and ended on time.
As a medium derived from still photography, vaudeville, and theater, silent film adapted many of their presentational methods; as the period progressed, however, the industry worked diligently to become more respectable, seeking to dissociate its product from that peddled by vaudeville houses and nickelodeons. While older venues and distribution methods persisted, grand picture palaces of the silent era dramatized the goals of the uplift movement—to create a safe, clean, family-friendly environment for an orderly, middle-class audience in an economical fashion with vast seating capacities, elegant lobbies, and impressive orchestras. Despite the rise of the picture palace, however, smaller theaters were more prevalent, with most having a seating capacity of under 500—the Roxy theater in New York, which boasted 6,214 seats, was opulent indeed, but it represented an extreme case. At the dawn of the 1920s, there were approximately 15,000 theaters in the United States, charging between 10 and 25 cents admission; of that number, more were in rural settings than in urban. Theaters exhibited varied entertainments in a balanced program, which grew in length over the period. A typical mid-1920s bill might include combinations of a musical overture, a news weekly, a lantern slide show, a live revue, a brief comedy or novelty film, and a feature film. Exhibitors sought to begin and end the programs at specified times, which sometimes meant, in addition to speeding up projection, dropping items from the bill or even cutting reels from the feature, to accommodate continual groups of audiences. As the number of larger theaters increased, there was less need for rapid audience turnover and the multi-reel feature film grew into the central attraction.
The evolution of the film industry’s structure during the silent era was complex, and it is marked by new refinements in cinematic production, distribution, and exhibition that brought about the feature film. The tenor of the film industry in the silent era is presaged by development of The Motion Picture Patents Company (1908-1918), a licensing and trade association set up among established production companies to discourage competition, chiefly by controlling the availability of raw film stock—though it also consolidated resistance among the independents. Throughout the period, the industry worked toward standardization; contracts, patents, and licenses bound the industry into a tight network. Studios affiliated with the MPPC controlled the distribution of their films—generally short one- to three-reel pictures—through The General Film Company. Controlling distribution enabled established east-coast companies to achieve a monopoly. These early efforts to control the film industry also included the development of the film exchange, a commercial arrangement between patent companies and exhibitors in which exhibitors rented their films—which changed almost daily—at set prices. In the early silent period, this established exchange system was not calibrated for multi-reel features; exhibitors, exchanges, and production houses themselves were reluctant to push multi-reel films both because of audience expectations and the costs associated with them. Within the existing system, multi-reel films were released one reel at a time, ensuring quick audience turnover but retarding the development of complex narratives. Multi-reel features would typically be shown as special attractions or outside of the established distribution and exhibition system, and states rights distribution practices evolved to allow local exchanges to contract with major distributors for territorial exhibition rights. Longer films were exhibited in this fashion, because they could travel throughout a territory as a special attraction until the audience pool was exhausted. Thus, early multi-reel films tended to emerge from independent production houses or European film studios, which didn’t experience the same limitations as mainstream American outfits. While distributors had separate arms specializing in features, as more large first-run theaters were constructed and demand increased, longer films became the order of the day. The devastation caused by the First World War had all but decimated the mainstream European industry, and American companies, often building on already existing import agreements, began to compete vigorously for prestige pictures.
Independent American houses and European companies realized that to compete they must be able to distribute their products as well, and they set up their own corporations; ultimately, a small number of these corporations would gain tight control over the industry. Carl Laemmle’s move from the east coast to the west in 1915, where he set up Universal City, allowed his company to escape the patent and licensing wars in some measure, and production houses began cropping up in what was to become Hollywood. Laemmle launched several important silent stars, though he for some time resisted the feature film movement. Despite the success of some early Universal features, like Traffic in Souls (1913), it was only in the 1920s that Laemmle sought to elevate the company’s profile. The assembly-line methods of Universal City meant harsh working conditions, and many talented actors were easily lured away. Nonetheless, the star system was emerging and the prestige film, the star’s vehicle, was on the rise. In 1914, Adolph Zukor released the New York-based Famous Players films through a newly-created corporation, Paramount, which soon merged with the Lasky Company to become Famous Players-Lasky; Paramount Pictures quickly dominated the industry as the MPPC weakened, benefiting from Zukor’s cunning business practices, the collapse of Triangle Film, a high concentration of star power, and the institution of block booking practices. Exhibitors threatened by Paramount banded together to form the powerful First National, which used states rights practices to distribute exclusively to the near 6,000 theaters they owned, and soon moved into production as well, acquiring a significant amount of talent. The battle between Paramount and First National for industry control and the distribution of prestige feature films had far-reaching effects. Amidst these power plays, and concerned with salary caps, the restriction of creative freedom, and a rumored merger between Paramount and First National, actors and directors entered the fray to form United Artists in 1919; however, without access to theaters, and burdened by hefty actors’ contracts, it foundered—despite Joseph Schenck’s inspired reorganization of the company in 1924. Zukor’s vast acquisitions spurred Marcus Loew’s expansion into feature films and the creation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and even Fox Film Corporation, which like Universal had been profitable with shorter and less prestigious films, moved after 1925 to strengthen their American real estate holdings, acquire new technological patents, and elevate the level of their productions, most notably in their expressionistic experiments inspired by F. W. Murnau. One important cause of the dramatic changes to the industry during the silent era was the method by which filmmaking was financed; by selling their stock on the public market, production and distribution companies not only acquired the influx of capital needed to compete but also made the industry more business-like. In conjunction with factory production methods, which ensured consistent quality and regular release schedules, these methods of financing transformed cinema into one of the nation’s leading industries. Cinema, trending towards the feature film, was becoming both art and product.
With standardization in production came a decrease in radical technological and artistic innovation, but an elevation in production values, set quality, costumes, acting, and lighting. Very early silent film tended to minimize the camera’s presence, composing short films of single, static shots or simple linear cuts, typically showing actors full-frame as on a stage. With the multi-reel feature, scene dissection became much more common, and a grammar of film emerged. D. W. Griffith pioneered cross-cutting and editorial techniques designed to control pacing, and Mack Sennet used quick cuts to develop a distinguishing comedic style. As the variety show waned, spectacle was incorporated into the feature film, in part under the pressure of foreign imports like Queen Elizabeth (French, 1912) and Cabiria (Italian, 1914). The extreme long shot and the wide pan could capture the spectacular expanses of the American landscape, and vast, detailed indoor sets could recreate images of elsewhere. With the rise of multi-reel feature films came a corresponding need for continuity, clarity, and character development; filmmakers introduced a more restrained acting style that emphasized facial expression over broad pantomime. The close-up became an important—though sometimes derided—stylistic device in the silent era, creating a new intimacy between audience and actor that opened the way for the star system. With the emergence of the star system, fan magazines like Motion Picture Story Magazine (1911) and Photoplay (1911) galvanized a mass audience of consumers, and some of the most enduring actors captured the public imagination—Lillian Gish, Norma Talmadge, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Mary Pickford, Theda Bara, Douglas Fairbanks. In the 1920s, few dramatic American innovations in cinematography occurred, but abroad, flourishing avant-garde movements produced a variety of experimental cinema in the wake of war; surrealism, expressionism, and impressionism offered alternatives to mainstream narrative film, and Soviet filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein developed rich montage techniques.
The significance of the silent era in film history cannot be overstated. During the first decades of the twentieth century, a truly commercial popular art emerged bound closely to the image of a modern America. With the development of synchronized sound, the era drew to a close, but the modes of production, distribution, exhibition, and consumption inaugurated during the silent film era persisted, creating the film industry as we know it today.
References and further reading:
Bowser, Eileen. The Transformation of Cinema: 1907-1915. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. History of the American Cinema. Print.
Greiveson, Lee and Peter Krämer. The Silent Cinema Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Koszarski, Richard. An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. History of the American Cinema. Print.
McCaffrey, Donald W. and Christopher P. Jacobs. Guide to the Silent Years of American Cinema. London: Greenwood Press, 1999. Print.
“City Lights.” Movies in American History (Forthcoming, 2011)
At the conclusion of City Lights (United Artists, 1931), the Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) looks wistfully at the Flower Girl (Virginia Cherrill) and asserts, with the hopeful inflection of a question, “You can see now?” She replies, “Yes, I can see now,” and it seems as if the whole of the film could be contained in the ambiguous, equivocal meaning of that exchange. City Lights is a richly romantic, tragic, and—at the same time—comic film that speaks powerfully of the difficulty of inhabiting a world from which one is in danger of being ejected. Written, directed, produced, and scored by Chaplin, City Lights took almost two years and 1.5 million dollars to finish, though it made nearly 2 million over the course of its run and half a million during the first two weeks; it was a commercial as well as a critical success. Today, it remains one of the most moving and significant films in American history.
City Lights addresses several themes typical of Chaplin’s Tramp films—the flaws endemic to the world of luxury, the struggle of the alienated individual in urban America, the moral superiority of the working poor—and some specific to the role of sight in American cinema at the dawn of sound. As the film opens, the title appears in lights over an energetic evening cityscape; in the distance we see the monument to “Peace and Prosperity” that will be unveiled in the next scene. This vignette sets the stage for the story to come, presenting a picture of urban America from the privileged perspective of the wealthy and the accepted. The modern, forward-looking city becomes an anonymous site of misery, misrecognition, and pitilessness for the Tramp. As the monument is unveiled, amidst the quacking of the city’s elite, we see the Tramp ironically curled in the arms of Prosperity, where he has slept the night before. Offended, the crowd commands him to remove himself. The Tramp wanders the bustling city street, and to avoid the gaze of a nearby policeman, the Tramp climbs through a waiting car to the other side where he meets the Flower Girl. After purchasing a flower, the Tramp discovers her blindness—but she, hearing the door to the car slam shut without having had the opportunity to render her patron change, believes him to be something he is not. The Tramp, unable to correct her misrecognition, observes her for a time, under the cover of her blindness. On her return that evening to the shabby flat she shares with her Grandmother (Florence Lee), she dreams of her wealthy suitor.
Later, the Tramp encounters an inebriated Millionaire (Harry Myers) attempting suicide by drowning; he is in despair because his wife has left him. The Tramp saves him, though both fall into the river several times during the process. Returning to the Millionaire’s luxurious home, they drink heavily under the disapproving eye of the butler (Allan Garcia). After the Millionaire again attempts suicide, the two head out for an evening under the city lights, the Tramp in his new friend’s borrowed clothes. At a stylish supper club, the two frenetically dance the night away. In his inebriated state, the Millionaire gives the Tramp his car. He sees the Flower Girl passing, and retrieves a few bills from the Millionaire to buy all the Flower Girl’s merchandise before driving her home. When he returns, the Millionaire has sobered up and forgotten the camaraderie of the night, though the routine recurs later that evening. The next morning, the two awake in the Millionaire’s bed—one of several homoerotic moments in the film. Despite his mighty struggle to remain in that world, the Tramp is again thrown out. The parlour is littered with rising partygoers, and the Millionaire leaves on a vacation to Europe.
The Tramp visits the Flower Girl, but learns that she is ill. Saddened, he is determined to earn money to help her and her Grandmother. Under the gaze of the statue for Peace and Prosperity, the Tramp, newly-employed as a street cleaner, shovels animal excrement into his bin. Later that afternoon, he calls on the Flower Girl, who eagerly awaits his arrival. He arrives laden with gifts of food; he tells her of a Viennese doctor who not only has a cure for blindness, but cures the poor for free. The two share a comfortable visit, until he discovers a letter informing her of impending eviction; now, the Tramp is even more in need of funds, but he has lost his job as a street-cleaner. A crooked boxer offers him easy money if he will participate in a rigged fight, but, wanted by the law, he flees, leaving the Tramp with a robust new opponent (Hank Mann). He attempts to ingratiate himself, smiling winsomely, and awaits his fight as boxer after boxer returns, badly beaten. In the ring, still wearing his bowler, it looks for a brief moment that the Tramp might indeed succeed, but after the second round, the Tramp is carried out, dazed. Later, he wanders the city streets, searching for a way to help the Flower Girl; a wave of well-dressed people rushes by him, and he encounters the recently-returned drunken Millionaire in their midst, who takes him home.
Unbeknownst to all, two burglars await. The Tramp tells of his and the Flower Girl’s troubles, and the Millionaire dispenses $1,000 to help. Discovering a gun on the floor, the Tramp worries that his friend will again seek to take his life; as they argue, a burglar creeps up behind them with a sap, eventually knocking the Millionaire unconscious. By the time the police arrive, the burglars have fled, the Millionaire does not remember the Tramp, and the Tramp has a wad of money in his pocket. He escapes in the confusion of the darkened room, and runs to the Flower Girl, giving her the money for her trip to the eye doctor. After leaving, however, he is captured by the law. For close to nine months, the Tramp is incarcerated; meanwhile, the Flower Girl has regained her sight and opened a successful shop. When we see her next, she is serving a handsome, well-dressed man, and for a brief moment, she thinks he must be her suitor; however, he leaves without recognizing her.
Released from prison, the Tramp seems broken. He aimlessly wanders the streets in torn pants, dirty bowler, and safety-pinned jacket, a far cry from either tidy vagrant or gentleman in borrowed clothes. On the street, he is mocked and tortured by paper boys, and when he finds some flowers swept into the gutter from the shop, he stoops to pick one up only to endure the boys tearing at his exposed underwear. After he chases them away, the Tramp recognizes the Flower Girl and gazes with such force she wonders if she has made a conquest; she gives the funny vagrant a coin and flower to replace the one from the gutter that he had crushed in his astonishment. As they touch, she recognizes him; she acknowledges that she can see, but in her eyes there is sadness, for he is not the man she thought he was. The camera fades out on the Tramp’s shy, hopeful smile.
Among Chaplin’s numerous financial and personal crises during the production of City Lights, the advent of sound was in danger of making his most well-known character and the moral-aesthetic sensibility he represents a relic of a bygone age. It is only as part owner of United Artists, however, that Chaplin was able to enjoy the privileges that granted him the flexibility to indulge his spontaneous production habits and the freedom to reject dialogue. In the late 1920s, cinema was quickly passing the rubicon marked by synchronized sound-on-film; City Lights, not a true silent film but a “silent talkie,” would attempt to negotiate this new technological terrain by employing a synchronized sound track but no dialogue. Chaplin’s score is notable in its use of sound effects that not only complement the film’s physical comedy but also suggest a kind of commentary on the empty noise of talking pictures—in the opening sequence, for instance, the pompous city luminaries “speak” through kazoos. Despite this satirical commentary, there is also a nostalgic quality about the film especially resonant for its Depression-era audiences. City Lights seems aware of itself as an anachronism, much like the Tramp himself, who belongs to none of the worlds he so desperately wants to inhabit. The Flower Girl’s unresolved choice at the conclusion of the film is thus not hers alone; it is also a choice the audience must make.
References and Further Reading:
Davies, Therese. “First Sight: Blindness, Cinema and Unrequited Love.” Journal of Narrative Theory 33.1: 48-62.
Flom, Eric. Chaplin in the Sound Era: An Analysis of the Seven Talkies. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1997.
Maland, Charles J. Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989.
Molyneaux, Gerard. Charles Chaplin’s City Lights, Its Production and Dialectical Structure. New York: Garland, 1983.