An Unforgettable Era: An Overview of the History of Silent Films (2022)

An Unforgettable Era: An Overview of the History of Silent Films (1)

They say speech is silver, but silence, gold. In accordance, many regard the era of silent films as a time when some of the masterpieces of the movie industry were crafted and presented to audiences. Given here is a brief history of the era of silent movies.

An Unforgettable Era: An Overview of the History of Silent Films (2)

An Unforgettable Era: An Overview of the History of Silent Films (3)

An Unforgettable Era: An Overview of the History of Silent Films (4)

(Video) A Beginner's Guide to Silent Cinema

Imagining a mute movie in today’s times would probably freak the daylights out of your mind! For many years, this popular medium of entertainment – cinema, movies, or films – did not have a voice. It is called the silent era of movies.

Movie-makers back then had to heavily and largely depend on all other aspects of movie-making, since the technology to combine visuals with sound had not yet developed. It was only a matter of time before this technology did develop, but meanwhile, cinema witnessed the birth of many legends, who crafted many masterpieces that were appreciated and viewed over and over again, even as the ‘talkies’ arrived.

The Journey of Silent Cinema

First Motion Picture Documentation

The history of silent movies begins with the history of cinema itself; as all movies made in those times did not have sound. Eadweard Muybridge’s Sallie Gardner at a Gallop was the first silent film ever to be made. It documented equine motion and was released in 1878. The film consisted of a series of 24 photographs that were projected on the Zoopraxiscope (considered the first movie projector) in succession at high speeds to create the illusion of motion. Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope was the inspiration behind the Kinetoscope, which was meant for individual viewing. It used the same basic technique of relaying successive photographs to create the illusion of motion. However, in spite of being a ‘motion’-picture, Sallie Gardner at a Gallop cannot be really called a ‘film’, as it was merely a relay of successive photographs that created the ‘illusion’ of motion.

First Narrative Film

The first narrative film ever, Roundhay Garden Scene was made by Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince. It was released on 14 October 1888, and was only 2 seconds long! Louis Le Prince is considered the true father of motion picture. Motion pictures matured into full-length feature films in the 1920s, but still lacked sound. It is this short period of a few decades that is referred to as the era of silent cinema.

The Cast and the Crew

Silent movies were at their peak by the 1920s – the decade saw the birth of many a legend and many a masterpiece. By the 1920s, people had mastered the art of speaking volumes without saying a word. In fact, so adept was the film fraternity with the concept of silent films, that for quite a few years after the ‘talkies’ arrived, movies failed to create the impact they did in the silent era, for directors and actors alike could not deal with all the sound!

Acting

Charlie Chaplin, one of the geniuses of the silent era, very correctly once said that “Cinema is pantomimic art”. No sound meant no dialogs, so your body language and facial expressions had to do all the talking. Many actors hence adopted hyperbole in their acting. You may notice many actors exaggerate their actions in silent films – you fall, it has to be dramatic; you are sad, you have to be melodramatic; you are falling in love, you have to bat your eye-lashes and blush! Exaggeration worked especially well for comedies. Exaggerating grief is something that can very quickly and easily go wrong. But they all managed to do it beautifully; and that is sheer brilliance.

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Music

The importance of music in creating a mood was already known – music was effectively used to the same purpose in plays and dramas. In the very beginning, music was only used to entertain the audiences before the actual movie began, and during the intertitles. Later, movies came to be accompanied with live music performances that coordinated with the scene. Theater organs were used to create special sound effects too. However, most of the movies adapted theater music and improvised on it. The first ever movie to have an original music score was D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation(composed by Joseph Carl Breil). As silent movies reached their highest peaks of success, the popularity of plays and dramas slowly waned.

Direction

Directors of the silent era never shied away from experimenting, for movies were still new to everyone. While most directors insisted on their actors being theatrical, melodramatic and flamboyant, a few allowed the actors to identify their own acting styles, and act naturally and candidly. Many movie-makers considered this style as rather mellow and subtle. With barely any sound and no dialogs, direction was hence a big challenge, which talented, daring directors took up bravely, and did justice to it.

Dialogs

When the requirement of saying something was unavoidable, movies made use of something called intertitles. Intertitles were text plates interspersed between the visuals. They helped carry the story from one point in the plot to another. Intertitles themselves went through various stages, from simple text intertitles to elaborate ones, sometimes even carrying an illustration of one or more of the movie characters. Writing intertitles became a profession, and soon people apart from the screenplay writers (or scenario writers, as they were called back then) came to be hired to write intertitles for movies! Intertitles evolved too, like all other aspects of silent movies, to become a special feature of the films.

Technology

The technology which was used to make movies in the silent era – and hence the norms that governed movie-making – are completely different from those which exist now. But even thinking of showing a small boy flying on a broomstick or a man dreaming would have seemed blasphemous in the silent era! And yet it was achieved brilliantly by G.A. Smith as early as in the year 1898, using a technique called double exposure. Other techniques like stop motion were also used to add to the movie-watching experience. Film continuity, slow motion, animation – some of the techniques that have become the basics of movie-making now, were all developed in the silent era of cinema.

Most Celebrated Legends of the Silent Era

Some of the initial movies were written, directed, and produced by a single person. Even after various divisions were established, some ambitious movie-makers continued to make ‘all-me’ films, where they worked on more than just one aspect of movie-making. Below is an account of some of the most celebrated legends of the silent cinema.

D.W. Griffith

The man who directed the epic The Birth of a Nation (1915), D.W. Griffith is regarded by film historians as one of the greatest American film directors ever, although he arrived in New York with the dreams of becoming a successful playwright. He made his debut in the film industry as an actor in Edward Porter’s Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest. With The Birth of a Nation, Griffith raised the bar of movies to another level. The movie set many a record, becoming the highest grossing film in history, and the first American feature film. Griffith is also celebrated for his other films – Lady Helen’s Escapade, Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages, and Broken Blossoms; all of which have been preserved by the United States National Film Registry.

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Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was an actor, director and screenwriter. But he is widely and most significantly acknowledged for his comic genius. Arbuckle’s is a life full of controversies. When he was born, his father named him after a politician he despised, because he did not believe Roscoe was his child. From childhood, Roscoe had a very melodious voice. He was soon pulled into vaudeville for his singing talent. Arbuckle’s acting debut was Ben’s Kid. He popularized the cliché gag ‘pie in the face’ that went on to be adapted into several comedies of the silent era. But more than anything else, I think we are all indebted to Arbuckle for having mentored Charlie Chaplin (it is believed ‘The Tramp’ was adapted from Arbuckle’s dressing style) and discovered Buster Keaton; two very famous personalities of the silent era.

Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin is one of the most sensitive comedians to have ever existed. You watch a Chaplin movie, and you laugh – but look into the eyes of the actor, and you cannot help shedding a tear. Chaplin’s early life had him face tough times and go through hardships unimaginable of a small boy. It must have, however, paved the way for his film-technique – for Chaplin’s humor is one that begins with laughter but leaves you ashamed of yourself and what the world around is turning into. Chaplin had the power to make you introspect, after giving you a good laugh – almost as if he were challenging you. Chaplin’s films came to define and dominate the silent era, especially in the 1920s. Two of his films – The Gold Rush and The Circus, went on to become top-grossing silent films in the United States.

Buster Keaton

If Charlie Chaplin epitomizes pantomime, Buster Keaton is ‘The Great Stone Face’ (as he was nicknamed). Keaton’s comic appeal came from the way his characters in different films were always unfazed by the events occurring around them. Keaton’s debut in The Butcher Boy was first in the legacy of films of the duo that Arbuckle and Keaton made. Keaton went on to become Arbuckle’s gag-man, second-director, and best friend for life, who was to stand by Arbuckle through all his highs and lows. Such was the acting and directorial genius of the man, that he has been ranked as the 7th greatest director of all times (Entertainment Weekly) and 21st greatest male star of all times (American Film Institute). He and Arbuckle together as a pair have given the film industry some of the best comedy films.

Sergei Eisenstein

One cannot talk of silent cinema and not mention Eisenstein, a director and a film theorist. Eisenstein traveled a lot throughout his life. As a young boy, Sergei took up architecture and engineering, his father’s profession. Eisenstein’s introduction to the arts came with the study of the Japanese language, when he learned about the Kabuki theater. Eisenstein is best known for his silent film Battleship Potemkin. One who has seen this film cannot help but remember and shudder at the aesthetic beauty in which the Odessa Steps scene was shot. Though not entirely factual, the incident was added in the film to emphasize on the cruelties of the Imperial regime. Alexander Nevsky, one of Eisenstein’s talkies, won him the Order Of Lenin.

Making Way For The Talkies

The first ever talking movie was The Jazz Singer, which was released in 1927. However, attempts to construct a device that could combine visuals and sound had been made many years prior to the release of this movie. Thomas Edison’s Kinetophone was probably the earliest of movie projectors to combine sound and visuals. Even after the release of the first talky, silent films continued to reign the cinema world for quite a few years. The early attempts of the film fraternity to adapt to ‘talking movies’ were clumsy, and for a brief period, the quality of work produced reduced significantly. But even as talkies gained popularity, many a director, producer and film-maker continued to make silent movies, some with the specific intention of making a film that would celebrate the art of silent cinema, and some to pay a tribute to an era gone by. Murnau’s City Girl (1930), and Chaplin’s Modern Times(1931), are few such examples.

The names of many more maestros are associated with the silent era; like the German film director and expressionist F.W. Murnau, or Fritz Lang, who gave us the earliest science fiction film Metropolis, which was also the most expensive silent film ever made. Some film personalities even began their careers in the silent era and continued to work through the talkies till as late as the 1980s, like the silent era actress Lilian Gish, who had one of the longest careers, a complete 75 years!

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Beginning at personal experiments ending in a two-second clip, the U.S. movie industry has grown into a gigantic force providing employment to more than 2 million people, and contributing grossly $180 billion each year to the U.S. economy. We indeed have a lot to owe to personalities of the silent film era, for they developed in us a taste to see motion on a screen, even though it was without sound. The art of silent movies will be celebrated by generations to come.

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FAQs

What is the most famous silent film? ›

The General

What are some of the important features of silent era films? ›

The silent era was also a pioneering one from a technical point of view. Three-point lighting, the close-up, long shot, panning, and continuity editing all became prevalent long before silent films were replaced by "talking pictures" or "talkies" in the late 1920s.

What is the history of silent films? ›

A silent film is a film with no accompanying, synchronized recorded spoken dialogue. The technology for silent films was invented around 1860, but remained a novelty until around 1880 - 1900, when films on a single reel became easily produced.

What caused the end of the silent film era? ›

After further fine-tuning and some light bulb adjustments, the era of silent films was about to come to an end due to successful sound synchronization. Theatrical orchestras and scripted music had become such a cultural norm in film that synced sound didn't become widely accepted until a few years after.

Who was the most famous silent movie actor? ›

03Charlie Chaplin is the most famous silent film star of all time, spanning a career of more than 75 years until his death in 1977.

Why were silent films so popular? ›

The first silent films were created in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They were popular because they were a new technology and people were curious to see them. This may seem strange to us now, but at the time it was a new and exciting way to tell a story.

In what era were silent films most popular? ›

By 1907, popularity of silent movies speeded across entire United States and Western Europe. Only in United States over 4000 small “nickelodeon” cinemas were established in US, and movie performances were accompanied by skilled pianists and other musicians.

What is meant by silent film? ›

a movie without any sound. Compare. talkie old-fashioned.

Who made the first silent film? ›

The oldest surviving silent film is known as the Roundhay Garden Scene. It was recorded on October 14, 1888, by inventor Louis Le Prince in Roundhay, Leeds, West Riding of Yorkshire, England.

What are the 7 film eras? ›

The Evolution of Cinema – 7 eras that defined world cinema.
  • Inception: The Silent Era. ...
  • The Sound Era. ...
  • The Golden Age of Cinema. ...
  • The Blockbuster Era. ...
  • Collaborate. ...
  • The Independent Era. ...
  • New Age Cinema.
7 Sept 2020

How many silent films are lost? ›

Seventy-five percent of all silent films made at the end of the 19th Century and in the first three decades of the 20th, are considered lost, according to a 2013 study by U.S. Library of Congress. Some of these vanished artifacts have taunted film historians for decades.

When did the silent era end? ›

The gradual transition from silent films to talkies took place between 1926 and 1930 and included many small steps — both technological developments and adjustments to audience expectations — before it was complete.

Do people still make silent films? ›

A new study commissioned by the Library of Congress confirms that only 25% of the films produced by major American studios in the silent era still exist, and only 11% of them in their original 35 mm format.

Why did silent films have music? ›

With skillful scoring, musical accompaniments to silent films become as important as dialogue, and much more expressive. They add to the image a physical immediacy that counteracts the flat screen.

What happened to silent films? ›

Universal-International destroyed its remaining silent film copies in 1948. And those studios who opted to keep the material around usually did so cheaply — and poorly. Once the silent era gave way to sound, most studios put their silent film reels in storage.

Who is the king of silent films? ›

Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton (October 4, 1895 – February 1, 1966) was an American actor, comedian and filmmaker. He is best known for his silent film work, in which his trademark was physical comedy accompanied by a stoic, deadpan expression that earned him the nickname "The Great Stone Face".

When did silent films begin? ›

The movie business has very humble beginnings. In the 1800's, many inventors, such as Thomas Edison and the Lumiere Brothers worked on machines that projected images. This led to the silent movie era which ranged from 1894 to 1929.

How did silent films impact society? ›

Silent movies provided cheap entertainment that overcame the language barrier for the millions of immigrants coming to America in the early 20th century. The Silent Film era was characterized by significant power struggles, as individuals and corporations fought to capitalize on the burgeoning industry..

Why are silent films important today? ›

Silent films still matter because they're part of the film language that evolved over time. Even as Talkies took over in the late 1920s, the drive and actions of a character still mattered. and look at all the camera angles that needed to be used to show emotion within a silent film.

Which is the first silent movie? ›

Produced by Thomas Edison but directed and filmed by Edison Company employee Edwin S. Porter, the 12-minute-long silent film, The Great Train Robbery (1903), was the first narrative movie—one that told a story.

Why were early silent films actually not silent? ›

Showings of silent films usually were not actually silent: they were commonly accompanied by live music. Early in the development of the motion picture industry, it was learned that music was an essential part of any movie, as it gave the audience emotional cues for the action taking place on the screen.

What controversial movie produced in the silent film era was the first blockbuster? ›

The Birth of a Nation, landmark silent film, released in 1915, that was the first blockbuster Hollywood hit. It was the longest and most-profitable film then produced and the most artistically advanced film of its day. It secured both the future of feature-length films and the reception of film as a serious medium.

When was the last silent movie made? ›

In 1922, when Hollywood was young and anarchic, an actor known as Baby Peggy made a silent film called The Darling Of New York.

What is silent acting called? ›

Silent acting is known as "Mime". It is a form of acting in which no speech or sound is used but the message is conveyed through gesture and body movement.

What techniques are used in silent movies? ›

The Consistency of the Silent Era Technique in The Artist

From the aspect of visual technique appears there are some that are typical of the silent movie era that is acting players, type of shot, editing transitions, intertitles and sound techniques such as the use of music throughout the film.

Why do silent movies move so fast? ›

Silent films were mostly shot on hand-cranked cameras, which meant they were intended to run at variable speeds through the cinema projector, rather than today's standard 24 frames per second. Run a silent movie at the modern speed and more often than not it will look ridiculous – jerky and comically fast.

What was the 1st film ever made? ›

1888. In Leeds, England Louis Le Prince films Roundhay Garden Scene, believed to be the first motion picture recorded.

What is the golden age of film? ›

The Golden Age of Hollywood began during the Great Depression in the late 1920s and continued through to the early '60s. Film technology took off with more studios making talkies and filming in technicolour and cinemascope.

What was the Disney dark age? ›

There is one era of Disney's output (1970-1988) that is often overlooked and described as 'the dark age,' referring to when Walt Disney Pictures was trying to follow in Walt Disney's footsteps after his death.

Did actors talk in silent films? ›

Most silent film actors had stage experience and were comfortable delivering dialogue, but were accustomed to directors shouting instructions during filming, and using exaggerated facial expressions and movement to project emotion.

What was the first non silent movie? ›

The Jazz Singer, American musical film, released in 1927, that was the first feature-length movie with synchronized dialogue. It marked the ascendancy of “talkies” and the end of the silent-film era.

Is London After Midnight still lost? ›

If you hadn't seen the movie, you'd be forgiven; "London After Midnight" is considered a long-lost film, its last print destroyed in the MGM vault fire of 1965. The movie is both the victim of heat damage and of a time when film preservation was a low priority, leaving films to waste away in studio vaults.

What was the first color movie? ›

FIRST MOVIE EVER MADE IN COLOR

The first commercially produced film in natural color was A Visit to the Seaside (1908). The eight-minute British short film used the Kinemacolor process to capture a series of shots of the Brighton Southern England seafront.

Who was the king of silent movies? ›

Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton (October 4, 1895 – February 1, 1966) was an American actor, comedian and filmmaker. He is best known for his silent film work, in which his trademark was physical comedy accompanied by a stoic, deadpan expression that earned him the nickname "The Great Stone Face".

What was the last silent movie? ›

In 1922, when Hollywood was young and anarchic, an actor known as Baby Peggy made a silent film called The Darling Of New York.

Who made the first silent movie? ›

The oldest surviving silent film is known as the Roundhay Garden Scene. It was recorded on October 14, 1888, by inventor Louis Le Prince in Roundhay, Leeds, West Riding of Yorkshire, England.

Are there any modern silent movies? ›

Contemporary silent films
  • Juha (1999) Not Rated | 78 min | Comedy, Drama, Romance. ...
  • Tuvalu (1999) Not Rated | 101 min | Comedy, Drama, Romance. ...
  • The Unusual Inventions of Henry Cavendish (2005) 16 min | Short, Drama, Romance. ...
  • Brand Upon the Brain! ( 2006) ...
  • The Aerial (2007) ...
  • Dr. ...
  • The Artist (I) (2011) ...
  • Return to Babylon (2013)

How long did the silent era last? ›

This led to the silent movie era which ranged from 1894 to 1929. During this time period, a number of moving pictures were created and shown in theaters on big screens.

What is the only word spoken in silent movie? ›

Marcel Marceau reprises his "walking into the wind" routine while trying to lift a phone. He then shouts his only spoken word of the film: "Non!". When the Studio Chief asks what was his answer, Mel Funn cowardly replies that he doesn't understand French.

How many silent films are lost? ›

Seventy-five percent of all silent films made at the end of the 19th Century and in the first three decades of the 20th, are considered lost, according to a 2013 study by U.S. Library of Congress. Some of these vanished artifacts have taunted film historians for decades.

What is a silent actor called? ›

Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. A mime artist, or simply mime (from Greek μῖμος, mimos, "imitator, actor"), is a person who uses mime as a theatrical medium or as a performance art. Miming involves acting out a story through body motions, without the use of speech.

Why did silent films have music? ›

With skillful scoring, musical accompaniments to silent films become as important as dialogue, and much more expressive. They add to the image a physical immediacy that counteracts the flat screen.

What year did they stop making silent films? ›

The switchover from silent to sound in the American film industry, which began in late 1927, was primarily complete by 1929 (though even in that year silent pictures continued to be produced, though at a heavily reduced rate).

What are the 7 film eras? ›

The Evolution of Cinema – 7 eras that defined world cinema.
  • Inception: The Silent Era. ...
  • The Sound Era. ...
  • The Golden Age of Cinema. ...
  • The Blockbuster Era. ...
  • Collaborate. ...
  • The Independent Era. ...
  • New Age Cinema.
7 Sept 2020

Why were early silent films actually not silent? ›

Though these early films are now called “silent films”, they were not silent at all. In fact, these first films were typically accompanied by some type of live or recorded music. Pianists, musicians, and sometimes whole orchestras would play sheet music or improvise for movie audiences.

Why do silent movies move so fast? ›

Silent films were mostly shot on hand-cranked cameras, which meant they were intended to run at variable speeds through the cinema projector, rather than today's standard 24 frames per second. Run a silent movie at the modern speed and more often than not it will look ridiculous – jerky and comically fast.

What movie has no talking in it? ›

17 PM. “A Quiet Place” didn't need any dialogue to become a breakout hit at the box office. John Krasinski's near-silent horror film opened to $50 million and is destined to gross over $100 million by the end of its run. Fortunately, it's not the only modern film to take an artistic risk and go the silent route.

What movie has the least amount of words? ›

The movie with the fewest spoken words was Son of Saul, a 2015 Hungarian film set in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, winner of Grand Prix at Cannes and Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Where can I watch old silent films? ›

The National Film Preservation Foundation website features a virtual screening room replete with silents, including features such as Hell's Hinges (1916) and rarities such as Orson Welles' lost-and-found slapstick treat Too Much Johnson (1938), and the Library of Congress website offers films dating back to the 1890s.

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