Silent Film Era Research Paper

Pages: 8 (2636 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 5  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Film

Silent Film And Its Effect on the Imagination

As Richard Abel observes, "The materiality of silent cinema…has become so unfamiliar to us, so different from that of our own cinema in the late twentieth century" that it is difficult to view silent film as anything but anachronistic (4). However, with 2011's the Artist -- an homage to silent film -- winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards, it may be worthwhile to examine the nature and appeal of silent film. In a way, silent film does something that the modern day special effects spectaculars do not do: it leaves more to the imagination and calls upon the viewer to use his or her own mind in correspondence with the moving pictures. This paper will analyze what it is that makes silent film unique and show how the nature of silent film allows viewers to envision for themselves those aspects of the drama that are left out (voice, dialogue) while emphasizing others (action, place, physical humor) in much the same way that an audience participates with a live performance in the theater.

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Research Paper on Silent Film Era Assignment

Film is a visual medium. Yet, this does not mean that there are not other elements to film. The silent film era, for some, recalls a time when movies were silent and simply visually expressive. But as Melinda Szaloky states, it is a "truism that 'silent cinema was never silent'" (109). Indeed, Szaloky notes that "the sounds of the silent have been conceived of as something external, an accompaniment to the visual universe of the film" (109). Silent film, from its very beginnings in the basement of the Grand Cafe in Paris in 1895, was ever a medium that relied solely on the visual power of its moving pictures. Indeed, the Lumiere brothers' early films were simply brief clips or photographs of simple actions -- a train pulling into station, a gardener at work, workers leaving a factory. These films were visually exciting for the audience because they reflected life as it is witnessed in motion. However, there was more to the experience than simply seeing. On the contrary, the experience was felt. In fact, the Lumieres provoked panic in their theater upon showing the train pulling into station: "the audience is said to have shrieked and ducked when it saw the train" (Mast 33). Even such a simple, ordinary event produced a visceral thrill because it played upon the imaginations of the audience -- and the audience was encouraged to fill in the gaps between what it was seeing and what the real thing was like. Therefore, it is likely that the Lumieres' audience in 1895 could hear the sound of the train and the rush of the crowd and the noises of the station in its mind -- even though in reality all it was seeing was the silent flashing image of the train on a screen.

The ability of film to produce such a trick has always been its main selling point. When Szaloky states that "Rick Altman's claim that 'silence was in fact a regular practice of silent film exhibition' appears…to challenge the historical accuracy of the received opinion that 'the silent film never existed'" (109), she suggests that silent film did not necessarily need the live musical accompaniment that modern audiences so often associate with the silent film showing. On the contrary, it is likely that the silent films themselves often ran silently. In fact, Szaloky makes the point "that the term 'silent film' came to denote early cinema only after the coming of sound had turned presound films into 'silents'" (109). What this means is that silent film as it has been conceived since the introduction of talkies is not the way it was conceived before sound was introduced into the filmmaking process. Films in the early twentieth century were simply conceived as a photographic art, in which information was conveyed via sight. This had, then, two effects: 1) it forced actors of that era to hone their craft in a much more expressive manner; 2) it allowed audiences to use their imaginations in much the same way that a book encourages the reader to imagine scenes of dialogue, action, climax, etc.

The Apex of the Silent Film Era

For these reasons, the silent film era was able to produce some of the greatest film directors and actors in film history. They worked with the photographic image to give the viewer a visceral and intellectual experience -- not only provoking the emotions of the viewer (whether to laughter, fear, or sorrow) but also the mind. By 1927, when the first talkie was released (the Jazz Singer), news magazines like Film Daily were running reviews of all the latest silent films. The arrival of talking pictures changed the way films were forever produced, but prior to October 1927, pictures were still "silent" and the reviews that accompanied their release to the public are particularly informative of what an audience could expect to experience by going to one.

For example, the review for the Popular Sin starring Florence Vidor ran under the headline: "Done in Malcolm St. Clair's Best Style and Certain to Interest His Followers. An Exceptionally Fine Cast. Story Perhaps a Trifle Sophisticated for the Average Audience" (8). What the headline indicates is that by 1927, audiences were looking for quick cinematic narratives that did not strive to demand too much from them in the way of attention: "story perhaps a trifle sophisticated for the average audience" points to both the nature of silent film by the end of the silent film era and the nature of audiences in the decade also known as the Roaring Twenties. The review begins by analyzing the star of the film: "Star….Charming at all times. There is one profile close-up of her (one where she wears long, brilliantly studded earrings) that is the best ever" (8). Again, the emphasis is on visuals -- but the visuals are pivotal in spurring the imagination: the star of the film, Florence Vidor, is decked out in fine jewels and looks stellar on screen -- a selling point for a 1920s audience, captivated by glamour and riches. That the film's selling point would be a single scene in which Vidor's profile is depicted in gorgeous detail is telling. What it suggests is that silent film, like a storybook with pictures, was meant to be seen and felt -- not heard or read.

Seeing and Feeling: the Ability of the Audience to be Moved

Indeed, such was the power of the silent films by the 1920s that Hollywood was in damage control mode for fear that the movie-going public would be scandalized by what it saw on screen. Part of this was, of course, because of the scandals that rocked the headlines involving the Hollywood actors themselves. But part of it was also because what was viewed silently on film had a tremendous power to incite emotions that the Puritanical times saw as unwelcome (even though movie posters continued to exploit them to sell tickets!).

As a matter of fact, 1922 got off with a bang with the trial of Fatty Arbuckle, silent screen comedian (who stared in numerous shorts with Buster Keaton, whose private life would be just as rocky -- though it would not involve the death of any Hollywood starlets). Arbuckle was acquitted in the death of Virginia Rappe, but his career was finished. Arbuckle had attracted a blitz of negative press and was forever stigmatized. The imaginations of the silent film era were active and energetic, and even the private lives of the actors and actresses, simply being viewed on screen, were enough to conjure up in the minds of the audience all sorts of horrific thoughts -- apparently. At least, that is what Hollywood appeared to think: in fact, Hollywood, just like the rest of the nation, wanted to put on a veneer of purity and keep its sins in the closet. Not long after Arbuckle's trial and fall from grace, the Hays Code was rolled out to protect the integrity of showbiz (Sann) and the production of silent films. Far from being dull or unexciting, silent film was the gateway to a world of provocation and wonder -- and the Hays Code was established to make sure nothing too provocative or wonderful disturbed the minds or souls of any audience members.

Meanwhile Temperance societies and muckrakers were busy trying to end the evils of the day. Upton Sinclair's infamous depiction of the meat-packing industry in the Jungle brought forth government crack-downs and new regulation in the form of the Food and Drug Administration. Yet, oddly enough, the progressives ironically ushered in some new evils of their own such as the income tax (of the Sixteenth Amendment), mass production (ala Henry Ford), and the age of bootlegging. While many progressives professed to be "for the family," it seemed, rather, that family life and capitalism and industrialization were diametrically opposed to… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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How to Cite "Silent Film Era" Research Paper in a Bibliography:

APA Style

Silent Film Era.  (2012, March 6).  Retrieved May 26, 2020, from

MLA Format

"Silent Film Era."  6 March 2012.  Web.  26 May 2020. <>.

Chicago Style

"Silent Film Era."  March 6, 2012.  Accessed May 26, 2020.