A neglected art form
The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture
by Peter Kobel
(New York: Little, Brown & Company)
Hardback: 320 pages
Rec. price: AUD$69.95
While TV channel-surfing a number of years ago, I began my love affair with silent movies when I stumbled across a replay of Ben Hur – not the well known 1959 colour version starring Charlton Heston, but the 1925 silent version with Ramón Novarro as the protagonist.
Although initially disconcerted by the lack of dialogue, the fascination with the form, together with the quality of the set and the acting, succeeded in introducing me to movies as my grandparents would have encountered them during their teenage years and early adult life.
Peter Kobel’s Silent Movies traces the history of this interesting art form from its emergence in 1895, thanks to the Lumière brothers and Thomas Edison, until the late 1920s, when it was superseded by “talkies”.
Kobel argues that silent movies deserve better than to be disregarded as merely quaint pieces to be consigned to a museum or, at worst, forgotten. The study of silent movies, he says, is integral to our understanding of film as a medium, because most of what we now associate with films emerged during the silent movie period.
Not only were many famous literary works and tales, such as Shakespeare’s plays, Jane Eyre, Robin Hood, Ben Hur and Beau Geste, first adapted for film during the era, but genres such as action, westerns and comedies were well developed by the end of the 1920s.
The book’s first section traces the history of silent cinema, beginning with developments in the second half of the 19th century which culminated in the production of motion pictures on celluloid film in 1895.
Although initially motion pictures lasted only a couple of minutes, by early in the 20th century films were running as long as 10 to 15 minutes and could fit onto a single reel. Theatres rapidly emerged as a cheap form of entertainment, and for this reason were regarded as very “low brow” entertainment.
By the second decade of the 20th century, films came to occupy two to three reels. While the USA was a prominent producer of films, some 60 per cent of motion pictures at this time were produced in Europe.
In an attempt to squeeze out overseas competition, Edison and a number of other US film producers banded together to form the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), known as the Trust.
This move was the catalyst for Hollywood. Independent producers set up operation in the vicinity of this Los Angeles suburb, not solely because the land there was cheap and the weather and light were more favourable for filming, but because the producers were outside the reach of MPPC agents sabotaging their work.
The independents survived, and the MPPC did not, because the independents satisfied audience demand for longer feature-films which were screened not in cheap nickelodeons but in decent theatres or purpose-built cinemas.
As a consequence, motion pictures came to be viewed more as a respectable middle-class form of entertainment. Another successful marketing technique of the independents was to promote their movie stars as a means of ensuring return patronage of their films.
One of the most notable, if notorious, pioneers of the feature film was W.B. Griffiths. Inspired by an Italian film, Cabiria (1914), he broke new ground with his famous (or rather infamous, given the racist content) Birth of a Nation (1915), followed by Intolerance (1916).
Other famous directors soon emerged, such as Cecil B. DeMille, whose prolific career was to span decades and include two versions of The Ten Commandments – the silent version of 1923, and the well-loved colour version of 1956, starring Charlton Heston.
Not only did a number of famous directors such as Griffiths and Alfred Hitchcock commence their careers before the advent of “talkies”, but many of the famous film companies, such as Paramount, United Artists and MGM were well established by the end of the 1920s.
The other great impetus for the development of the US cinema industry was the advent of World War I. While Europe was distracted by the conflict, the US was able to continue to develop its industry.
Silent Movies examines not only movie companies and directors, but also the careers of famous actors and actresses from the period, such as Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish and Charlie Chaplin. The common perception that many silent movie performers faded from the screen with the advent of “talkies” due to poor voices is only partially true; many successfully made the transition.
Kobel’s work also examines other aspects of cinema from the silent period, such as set design, promotional material and posters, and European films.
Unfortunately, the once vibrant Australian film industry, which all but disappeared in the early 1930s, is not discussed. The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), with its running-time of 65-70 minutes, was, at the time of its release, the longest film ever produced.
Tragically, about 80 per cent of films made before the end of the 1920s have perished from neglect. However, many of the others in recent years have been restored and made available to the general public through DVDs or downloadable files from websites such as www.archive.org.
Silent Movies, with its numerous photos and illustrations, would make an attractive gift or addition to a personal library.