A silent film is a film with no synchronized recorded sound (and in particular, no audible dialogue). In silent films for entertainment, the plot may be conveyed by the use of title cards, written indications of the plot and key dialogue lines. The idea of combining motion pictures with recorded sound is nearly as old as film itself, but because of the technical challenges involved, the introduction of synchronized dialogue became practical only in the late 1920s with the perfection of the Audion amplifier tube and the advent of the Vitaphone system.
The term "silent film" is something of a misnomer, as these films were almost always accompanied by live sounds. During the silent era that existed from the mid-1890s to the late 1920s, a pianist, theater organist—or even, in large cities, a small orchestra—would often play music to accompany the films. Pianists and organists would play either from sheet music, or improvisation. Sometimes a person would even narrate the intertitle cards for the audience. Though at the time the technology to synchronize sound with the video did not exist, music was seen as an essential part of the viewing experience. The term is also frequently used to describe sound-era films that have a recorded music-only soundtrack without dialogue, such as City Lights and The Artist.
The term silent film is a retronym—a term created to retroactively distinguish something. Early sound films, starting with The Jazz Singer in 1927, were variously referred to as the "talkies", "sound films", or "talking pictures". Within a decade, the widespread production of silent films for popular entertainment had ceased, and the industry had moved fully into the sound era, in which movies were accompanied by synchronized sound recordings of spoken dialogue, music and sound effects.
Most early motion pictures are considered lost because the nitrate film used in that era was extremely unstable and flammable. Additionally, many films were deliberately destroyed because they had negligible continuing financial value in this era. It has often been claimed that around 75 percent of silent films have been lost, though these estimates may be inaccurate due to a lack of numerical data.
Elements and beginnings (1894–1936)
The earliest precursors to film began with image projection through the use of a device known as the magic lantern, which utilized a glass lens, a shutter, and a persistent light source (such as a powerful lantern) to project images from glass slides onto a wall. These slides were originally hand-painted, but, after the advent of photography in the 19th century, still photographs were sometimes used. Thus the invention of a practical photography apparatus preceded cinema by only fifty years.
The next significant step toward the invention of cinema was the development of an understanding of image movement. Simulations of movement date as far back as to 1828—only four years after Paul Roget discovered the phenomenon he called "Persistence of Vision". Roget showed that when a series of still images is shown at a considerable speed in front of a viewer's eye, the images merge into one registered image that appears to show movement. This is an optical illusion, since the image is not actually moving. This experience was further demonstrated through Roget's introduction of the thaumatrope, a device that spun at a fairly high speed a disk with an image on its surface.
The invention of film allowed for true motion pictures rather than optical illusions. The film which consisted of flexible and transparent celluloid could record split second pictures. Developed by Étienne-Jules Marey, he was one of the first to experiment with film. In 1882, Marey developed a camera that could take 12 photographs per second (superimposed into one image) of animals or humans in motion.
The three features necessary for motion pictures to work were "a camera with sufficiently high shutter speed, a filmstrip capable of taking multiple exposures swiftly, and means of projecting the developed images on a screen". The first projected proto-movie was made by Eadweard Muybridge between 1877 and 1880. Muybridge set up a row of cameras along a racetrack and timed image exposures to capture the many stages of a horse's gallop. The oldest surviving film (of the genre called "pictorial realism") was created by Louis Le Prince in 1888. It was a two-second film of people walking in "Oakwood streets" garden, titled Roundhay Garden Scene. The development of American inventor Thomas Edison's Kinetograph, a photographic device that captured sequential images, and his Kinetoscope, a device for viewing those images, allowed for the creation and exhibition of short films. Edison also made a business of selling Kinetograph and Kinetoscope equipment, which laid the foundation for widespread film production.
Due to Edison's lack of securing an international patent on his film inventions, similar devices were "invented" around the world. In France, for example, Auguste and Louis Lumière created the Cinématographe, which proved to be a more portable and practical device than both of Edison's as it combined a camera, film processor, and projector in one unit. In contrast to Edison's "peepshow"-style kinetoscope, which only one person could watch through a viewer, the cinematograph allowed simultaneous viewing by multiple people. Their first film, Sortie de l'usine Lumière de Lyon, shot in 1894, is considered the first true motion picture. The invention of celluloid film, which was strong and flexible, greatly facilitated the making of motion pictures (although the celluloid was highly flammable and decayed quickly). This film was 35 mm wide and was pulled using four sprocket holes, which became the industry standard (see 35 mm film). This doomed the cinematograph, which only worked with film with a single sprocket hole.
Silent film era
The work of Muybridge, Marey, and Le Prince laid the foundation for future development of motion picture cameras, projectors and transparent celluloid film, which lead to the development of cinema as we know it today. American inventor George Eastman, who had first manufactured photographic dry plates in 1878, made headway on a stable type of celluloid film in 1888.
The art of motion pictures grew into full maturity in the "silent era" (1894 in film – 1929 in film). The height of the silent era (from the early 1910s in film to the late 1920s) was a particularly fruitful period, full of artistic innovation. The film movements of Classical Hollywood as well as French Impressionism, German Expressionism, and Soviet Montage began in this period. Silent filmmakers pioneered the art form to the extent that virtually every style and genre of film-making of the 20th and 21st centuries has its artistic roots in the silent era. 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. Some scholars claim that the artistic quality of cinema decreased for several years, during the early 1930s, until film directors, actors, and production staff adapted fully to the new "talkies" around the mid 1930s.
The visual quality of silent movies—especially those produced in the 1920s—was often high, but there remains a widely held misconception that these films were primitive, or are barely watchable by modern standards. This misconception comes from the general public's unfamiliarity with the medium, as well as from carelessness on the part of the industry. Most silent films are poorly preserved, leading to their deterioration, and well-preserved films are often played back at the wrong speed or suffer from censorship cuts and missing frames and scenes, giving the appearance of poor editing. Many silent films exist only in second- or third-generation copies, often made from already damaged and neglected film stock. Another widely held misconception is that silent films lacked color. In fact, color was far more prevalent in silent films than in the first few decades of sound films. By the early 1920s, 80 per cent of movies could be seen in some sort of color, usually in the form of film tinting or toning or even hand coloring, but also with fairly natural two-color processes such as Kinemacolor and Technicolor. Traditional colorization processes ceased with the adoption of sound-on-film technology. Traditional film colorization, all of which involved the use of dyes in some form, interfered with the high resolution required for built-in recorded sound, and were therefore abandoned. The innovative three-strip technicolor process introduced in the mid-30s was costly and fraught with limitations, and color would not have the same prevalence in film as it did in the silents for nearly four decades.
As motion pictures gradually increased in running time, a replacement was needed for the in-house interpreter who would explain parts of the film to the audience. Because silent films had no synchronized sound for dialogue, onscreen intertitles were used to narrate story points, present key dialogue and sometimes even comment on the action for the audience. The title writer became a key professional in silent film and was often separate from the scenario writer who created the story. Intertitles (or titles as they were generally called at the time) "often were graphic elements themselves, featuring illustrations or abstract decorations that commented on the action".
Live music and other sound accompaniment
Showings of silent films almost always featured live music, starting with the guitarist, at the first public projection of movies by the Lumière brothers on December 28, 1895, in Paris. This was furthered in 1896 by the first motion-picture exhibition in the United States at Koster and Bial's Music Hall in New York City. At this event, Edison set the precedent that all exhibitions should be accompanied by an orchestra. From the beginning, music was recognized as essential, contributing atmosphere, and giving the audience vital emotional cues. (Musicians sometimes played on film sets during shooting for similar reasons.) However, depending on the size of the exhibition site, musical accompaniment could drastically change in scale. Small town and neighborhood movie theatres usually had a pianist. Beginning in the mid-1910s, large city theaters tended to have organists or ensembles of musicians. Massive theater organs, which were designed to fill a gap between a simple piano soloist and a larger orchestra, had a wide range of special effects. Theatrical organs such as the famous "Mighty Wurlitzer" could simulate some orchestral sounds along with a number of percussion effects such as bass drums and cymbals, and sound effects ranging from "train and boat whistles [to] car horns and bird whistles; ... some could even simulate pistol shots, ringing phones, the sound of surf, horses' hooves, smashing pottery, [and] thunder and rain".
Musical scores for early silent films were either improvised or compiled of classical or theatrical repertory music. Once full features became commonplace, however, music was compiled from photoplay music by the pianist, organist, orchestra conductor or the movie studio itself, which included a cue sheet with the film. These sheets were often lengthy, with detailed notes about effects and moods to watch for. Starting with the mostly original score composed by Joseph Carl Breil for D. W. Griffith's groundbreaking epic The Birth of a Nation (1915), it became relatively common for the biggest-budgeted films to arrive at the exhibiting theater with original, specially composed scores. However, the first designated full-blown scores had in fact been composed in 1908, by Camille Saint-Saëns for The Assassination of the Duke of Guise, and by Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov for Stenka Razin.
When organists or pianists used sheet music, they still might have added improvisational flourishes to heighten the drama on screen. Even when special effects were not indicated in the score, if an organist was playing a theater organ capable of an unusual sound effect such as "galloping horses", it would be used during scenes of dramatic horseback chases.
At the height of the silent era, movies were the single largest source of employment for instrumental musicians, at least in the United States. However, the introduction of talkies coupled with the roughly simultaneous onset of the Great Depression was devastating to many musicians.
A number of countries devised other ways of bringing sound to silent films. The early cinema of Brazil, for example, featured fitas cantatas: filmed operettas with singers performing behind the screen. In Japan, films had not only live music but also the benshi, a live narrator who provided commentary and character voices. The benshi became a central element in Japanese film, as well as providing translation for foreign (mostly American) movies. The popularity of the benshi was one reason why silent films persisted well into the 1930s in Japan.
Score restorations from 1980 to the present
Few film scores survive intact from the silent period, and musicologists are still confronted by questions when they attempt to precisely reconstruct those that remain. Scores used in current reissues or screenings of silent films may be complete reconstructions of compositions, newly composed for the occasion, assembled from already existing music libraries, or improvised on the spot in the manner of the silent-era theater musician.
Interest in the scoring of silent films fell somewhat out of fashion during the 1960s and 1970s. There was a belief in many college film programs and repertory cinemas that audiences should experience silent film as a pure visual medium, undistracted by music. This belief may have been encouraged by the poor quality of the music tracks found on many silent film reprints of the time. Since around 1980, there has been a revival of interest in presenting silent films with quality musical scores (either reworkings of period scores or cue sheets, or the composition of appropriate original scores). An early effort of this kind was Kevin Brownlow's 1980 restoration of Abel Gance's Napoléon (1927), featuring a score by Carl Davis. A slightly re-edited and sped-up version of Brownlow's restoration was later distributed in the United States by Francis Ford Coppola, with a live orchestral score composed by his father Carmine Coppola.
In 1984, an edited restoration of Metropolis (1927) was released with a new rock music score by producer-composer Giorgio Moroder. Although the contemporary score, which included pop songs by Freddie Mercury, Pat Benatar, and Jon Anderson of Yes, was controversial, the door had been opened for a new approach to the presentation of classic silent films.
Today, a large number of soloists, music ensembles, and orchestras perform traditional and contemporary scores for silent films internationally. The legendary theater organist Gaylord Carter continued to perform and record his original silent film scores until shortly before his death in 2000; some of those scores are available on DVD reissues. Other purveyors of the traditional approach include organists such as Dennis James and pianists such as Neil Brand, Günter Buchwald, Philip C. Carli, Ben Model, and William P. Perry. Other contemporary pianists, such as Stephen Horne and Gabriel Thibaudeau, have often taken a more modern approach to scoring.
Orchestral conductors such as Carl Davis and Robert Israel have written and compiled scores for numerous silent films; many of these have been featured in showings on Turner Classic Movies or have been released on DVD. Davis has composed new scores for classic silent dramas such as The Big Parade (1925) and Flesh and the Devil (1927). Israel has worked mainly in silent comedy, scoring films of Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Charley Chase and others. Timothy Brock has restored many of Charlie Chaplin's scores, in addition to composing new scores.
Renée Baker of the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project has successfully re-scored the 1929 classic silent film, Linda.
Contemporary music ensembles are helping to introduce classic silent films to a wider audience through a broad range of musical styles and approaches. Some performers create new compositions using traditional musical instruments while others add electronic sounds, modern harmonies, rhythms, improvisation and sound design elements to enhance the viewing experience. Among the contemporary ensembles in this category are Un Drame Musical Instantané, Alloy Orchestra, Club Foot Orchestra, Silent Orchestra, Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Minima and the Caspervek Trio, RPM Orchestra. Donald Sosin and his wife Joanna Seaton specialize in adding vocals to silent films, particularly where there is onscreen singing that benefits from hearing the actual song being performed. Films in this category include Griffith's Lady of the Pavements with Lupe Vélez, Edwin Carewe's Evangeline with Dolores del Río, and Rupert Julian's The Phantom of the Opera with Mary Philbin and Virginia Pearson.
The Silent Film Sound and Music Archive digitizes music and cue sheets written for silent film and makes it available for use by performers, scholars, and enthusiasts.
Silent-film actors emphasized body language and facial expression so that the audience could better understand what an actor was feeling and portraying on screen. Much silent film acting is apt to strike modern-day audiences as simplistic or campy. The melodramatic acting style was in some cases a habit actors transferred from their former stage experience. Vaudeville was an especially popular origin for many American silent film actors. The pervading presence of stage actors in film was the cause of this outburst from director Marshall Neilan in 1917: "The sooner the stage people who have come into pictures get out, the better for the pictures." In other cases, directors such as John Griffith Wray required their actors to deliver larger-than-life expressions for emphasis. As early as 1914, American viewers had begun to make known their preference for greater naturalness on screen.
Silent films became less vaudevillian in the mid-1910s, as the differences between stage and screen became apparent. Due to the work of directors such as D. W. Griffith, cinematography became less stage-like, and the development of the close up allowed for understated and realistic acting. Lillian Gish has been called film's "first true actress" for her work in the period, as she pioneered new film performing techniques, recognizing the crucial differences between stage and screen acting. Directors such as Albert Capellani and Maurice Tourneur began to insist on naturalism in their films. By the mid-1920s many American silent films had adopted a more naturalistic acting style, though not all actors and directors accepted naturalistic, low-key acting straight away; as late as 1927, films featuring expressionistic acting styles, such as Metropolis, were still being released. Greta Garbo, who made her debut in 1926, would become known for her naturalistic acting.
According to Anton Kaes, a silent film scholar from the University of California, Berkeley, American silent cinema began to see a shift in acting techniques between 1913 and 1921, influenced by techniques found in German silent film. This is mainly attributed to the influx of emigrants from the Weimar Republic, "including film directors, producers, cameramen, lighting and stage technicians, as well as actors and actresses".
Until the standardization of the projection speed of 24 frames per second (fps) for sound films between 1926 and 1930, silent films were shot at variable speeds (or "frame rates") anywhere from 12 to 40 fps, depending on the year and studio. "Standard silent film speed" is often said to be 16 fps as a result of the Lumière brothers' Cinématographe, but industry practice varied considerably; there was no actual standard. William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, an Edison employee, settled on the astonishingly fast 40 frames per second. Additionally, cameramen of the era insisted that their cranking technique was exactly 16 fps, but modern examination of the films shows this to be in error, that they often cranked faster. Unless carefully shown at their intended speeds silent films can appear unnaturally fast or slow. However, some scenes were intentionally undercranked during shooting to accelerate the action—particularly for comedies and action films.
Slow projection of a cellulose nitrate base film carried a risk of fire, as each frame was exposed for a longer time to the intense heat of the projection lamp; but there were other reasons to project a film at a greater pace. Often projectionists received general instructions from the distributors on the musical director's cue sheet as to how fast particular reels or scenes should be projected. In rare instances, usually for larger productions, cue sheets produced specifically for the projectionist provided a detailed guide to presenting the film. Theaters also—to maximize profit—sometimes varied projection speeds depending on the time of day or popularity of a film, or to fit a film into a prescribed time slot.
All motion-picture film projectors require a moving shutter to block the light whilst the film is moving, otherwise the image is smeared in the direction of the movement. However this shutter causes the image to flicker, and images with low rates of flicker are very unpleasant to watch. Early studies by Thomas Edison for his Kinetoscope machine determined that any rate below 46 images per second "will strain the eye". and this holds true for projected images under normal cinema conditions also. The solution adopted for the Kinetoscope was to run the film at over 40 frames/sec, but this was expensive for film. However, by using projectors with dual- and triple-blade shutters the flicker rate is multiplied two or three times higher than the number of film frames — each frame being flashed two or three times on screen. A three-blade shutter projecting a 16 fps film will slightly surpass Edison's figure, giving the audience 48 images per second. During the silent era projectors were commonly fitted with 3-bladed shutters. Since the introduction of sound with its 24 frame/sec standard speed 2-bladed shutters have become the norm for 35 mm cinema projectors, though three-bladed shutters have remained standard on 16 mm and 8 mm projectors, which are frequently used to project amateur footage shot at 16 or 18 frames/sec. A 35 mm film frame rate of 24 fps translates to a film speed of 456 millimetres (18.0 in) per second. One 1,000-foot (300 m) reel requires 11 minutes and 7 seconds to be projected at 24 fps, while a 16 fps projection of the same reel would take 16 minutes and 40 seconds, or 304 millimetres (12.0 in) per second.
In the 1950s, many telecine conversions of silent films at grossly incorrect frame rates for broadcast television may have alienated viewers. Film speed is often a vexed issue among scholars and film buffs in the presentation of silents today, especially when it comes to DVD releases of restored films, such as the case of the 2002 restoration of Metropolis.
With the lack of natural color processing available, films of the silent era were frequently dipped in dyestuffs and dyed various shades and hues to signal a mood or represent a time of day. Hand tinting dates back to 1895 in the United States with Edison's release of selected hand-tinted prints of Butterfly Dance. Additionally, experiments in color film started as early as in 1909, although it took a much longer time for color to be adopted by the industry and an effective process to be developed. Blue represented night scenes, yellow or amber meant day. Red represented fire and green represented a mysterious atmosphere. Similarly, toning of film (such as the common silent film generalization of sepia-toning) with special solutions replaced the silver particles in the film stock with salts or dyes of various colors. A combination of tinting and toning could be used as an effect that could be striking.
Some films were hand-tinted, such as Annabelle Serpentine Dance (1894), from Edison Studios. In it, Annabelle Whitford, a young dancer from Broadway, is dressed in white veils that appear to change colors as she dances. This technique was designed to capture the effect of the live performances of Loie Fuller, beginning in 1891, in which stage lights with colored gels turned her white flowing dresses and sleeves into artistic movement. Hand coloring was often used in the early "trick" and fantasy films of Europe, especially those by Georges Méliès. Méliès began hand-tinting his work as early as 1897 and the 1899 Cendrillion (Cinderella) and 1900 Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc) provide early examples of hand-tinted films in which the color was a critical part of the scenography or mise en scène; such precise tinting used the workshop of Elisabeth Thuillier in Paris, with teams of female artists adding layers of color to each frame by hand rather than using a more common (and less expensive) process of stenciling. A newly restored version of Méliès' A Trip to the Moon, originally released in 1902, shows an exuberant use of color designed to add texture and interest to the image.
Comments by an American distributor in a 1908 film-supply catalog further underscore France's continuing dominance in the field of hand-coloring films during the early silent era. The distributor offers for sale at varying prices "High-Class" motion pictures by Pathé, Urban-Eclipse, Gaumont, Kalem, Itala Film, Ambrosio Film, and Selig. Several of the longer, more prestigious films in the catalog are offered in both standard black-and-white "plain stock" as well as in "hand-painted" color. A plain-stock copy, for example, of the 1907 release Ben Hur is offered for $120 ($3,415 USD today), while a colored version of the same 1000-foot, 15-minute film costs $270 ($7,683) including the extra $150 coloring charge, which amounted to 15 cents more per foot. Although the reasons for the cited extra charge were likely obvious to customers, the distributor explains why his catalog's colored films command such significantly higher prices and require more time for delivery. His explanation also provides insight into the general state of film-coloring services in the United States by 1908:
The coloring of moving picture films is a line of work which cannot be satisfactorily performed in the United States. In view of the enormous amount of labor involved which calls for individual hand painting of every one of sixteen pictures to the foot or 16,000 separate pictures for each 1,000 feet of film very few American colorists will undertake the work at any price.
As film coloring has progressed much more rapidly in France than in any other country, all of our coloring is done for us by the best coloring establishment in Paris and we have found that we obtain better quality, cheaper prices and quicker deliveries, even in coloring American made films, than if the work were done elsewhere.
By the beginning of the 1910s, with the onset of feature-length films, tinting was used as another mood setter, just as commonplace as music. The director D. W. Griffith displayed a constant interest and concern about color, and used tinting as a special effect in many of his films. His 1915 epic, The Birth of a Nation, used a number of colors, including amber, blue, lavender, and a striking red tint for scenes such as the "burning of Atlanta" and the ride of the Ku Klux Klan at the climax of the picture. Griffith later invented a color system in which colored lights flashed on areas of the screen to achieve a color.
With the development of sound-on-film technology and the industry's acceptance of it, tinting was abandoned altogether, because the dyes used in the tinting process interfered with the soundtracks present on film strips.
The early studios were located in the New York City area. Edison Studios were first in West Orange, New Jersey (1892), they were moved to the Bronx, New York (1907). Fox (1909) and Biograph (1906) started in Manhattan, with studios in St George, Staten Island. Others films were shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey. In December 1908, Edison led the formation of the Motion Picture Patents Company in an attempt to control the industry and shut out smaller producers. The "Edison Trust", as it was nicknamed, was made up of Edison, Biograph, Essanay Studios, Kalem Company, George Kleine Productions, Lubin Studios, Georges Méliès, Pathé, Selig Studios, and Vitagraph Studios, and dominated distribution through the General Film Company. This company dominated the industry as both a vertical and horizontal monopoly and is a contributing factor in studios' migration to the West Coast. The Motion Picture Patents Co. and the General Film Co. were found guilty of antitrust violation in October 1915, and were dissolved.
The Thanhouser film studio was founded in New Rochelle, New York, in 1909 by American theatrical impresario Edwin Thanhouser. The company produced and released 1,086 films between 1910 and 1917, including the first film serial ever, The Million Dollar Mystery, released in 1914. The first westerns were filmed at Fred Scott's Movie Ranch in South Beach, Staten Island. Actors costumed as cowboys and Native Americans galloped across Scott's movie ranch set, which had a frontier main street, a wide selection of stagecoaches and a 56-foot stockade. The island provided a serviceable stand-in for locations as varied as the Sahara desert and a British cricket pitch. War scenes were shot on the plains of Grasmere, Staten Island. The Perils of Pauline and its even more popular sequel The Exploits of Elaine were filmed largely on the island. So was the 1906 blockbuster Life of a Cowboy, by Edwin S. Porter. Company and filming moved to the West Coast around 1912.
Top-grossing silent films in the United States
The following are American films from the silent film era that had earned the highest gross income as of 1932. The amounts given are gross rentals (the distributor's share of the box-office) as opposed to exhibition gross.
|The Birth of a Nation||1915||D. W. Griffith||$10,000,000|
|The Big Parade||1925||King Vidor||$6,400,000|
|Way Down East||1920||D. W. Griffith||$5,000,000|
|The Gold Rush||1925||Charlie Chaplin||$4,250,000|
|The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse||1921||Rex Ingram||$4,000,000|
|The Circus||1928||Charlie Chaplin||$3,800,000|
|The Covered Wagon||1923||James Cruze||$3,800,000|
|The Hunchback of Notre Dame||1923||Wallace Worsley||$3,500,000|
|The Ten Commandments||1923||Cecil B. DeMille||$3,400,000|
|Orphans of the Storm||1921||D. W. Griffith||$3,000,000|
|For Heaven's Sake||1926||Sam Taylor||$2,600,000|
|7th Heaven||1927||Frank Borzage||$2,500,000|
|What Price Glory?||1926||Raoul Walsh||$2,400,000|
|Abie's Irish Rose||1928||Victor Fleming||$1,500,000|
During the sound era
Although attempts to create sync-sound motion pictures go back to the Edison lab in 1896, only from the early 1920s were the basic technologies such as vacuum tube amplifiers and high-quality loudspeakers available. The next few years saw a race to design, implement, and market several rival sound-on-disc and sound-on-film sound formats, such as Photokinema (1921), Phonofilm (1923), Vitaphone (1926), Fox Movietone (1927) and RCA Photophone (1928).
Warner Bros was the first studio to accept sound as an element in film production and utilize Vitaphone, a sound-on-disc technology, to do so. The studio then released The Jazz Singer in 1927, which marked the first commercially successful sound film, but silent films were still the majority of features released in both 1927 and 1928, along with so-called goat-glanded films: silents with a subsection of sound film inserted. Thus the modern sound film era may be regarded as coming to dominance beginning in 1929.
For a listing of notable silent era films, see List of years in film for the years between the beginning of film and 1928. The following list includes only films produced in the sound era with the specific artistic intention of being silent.
- City Girl, F. W. Murnau, 1930
- Earth, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1930
- The Silent Enemy, H.P. Carver, 1930
- Borderline, Kenneth Macpherson, 1930
- City Lights, Charlie Chaplin, 1931
- Tabu, F. W. Murnau, 1931
- I Was Born, But..., Yasujirō Ozu, 1932
- Passing Fancy, Yasujirō Ozu, 1933
- The Goddess, Wu Yonggang, 1934
- A Story of Floating Weeds, Yasujirō Ozu, 1934
- Legong, Henri de la Falaise, 1935
- An Inn in Tokyo, Yasujirō Ozu, 1935
Several filmmakers have paid homage to the comedies of the silent era, including Charlie Chaplin, with Modern Times (1936), Orson Welles with Too Much Johnson (1938), Jacques Tati with Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953), Pierre Etaix with The Suitor (1962), and Mel Brooks with Silent Movie (1976). Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien's acclaimed drama Three Times (2005) is silent during its middle third, complete with intertitles; Stanley Tucci's The Impostors has an opening silent sequence in the style of early silent comedies. Brazilian filmmaker Renato Falcão's Margarette's Feast (2003) is silent. Writer / Director Michael Pleckaitis puts his own twist on the genre with Silent (2007). While not silent, the Mr. Bean television series and movies have used the title character's non-talkative nature to create a similar style of humor. A lesser-known example is Jérôme Savary's La fille du garde-barrière (1975), an homage to silent-era films that uses intertitles and blends comedy, drama, and explicit sex scenes (which led to it being refused a cinema certificate by the British Board of Film Classification).
The German film Tuvalu (1999) is mostly silent; the small amount of dialog is an odd mix of European languages, increasing the film's universality. Guy Maddin won awards for his homage to Soviet era silent films with his short The Heart of the World after which he made a feature-length silent, Brand Upon the Brain! (2006), incorporating live Foley artists, narration and orchestra at select showings. Shadow of the Vampire (2000) is a highly fictionalized depiction of the filming of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's classic silent vampire movie Nosferatu (1922). Werner Herzog honored the same film in his own version, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979).
Some films draw a direct contrast between the silent film era and the era of talkies. Sunset Boulevard shows the disconnect between the two eras in the character of Norma Desmond, played by silent film star Gloria Swanson, and Singin' in the Rain deals with Hollywood artists adjusting to the talkies. Peter Bogdanovich's 1976 film Nickelodeon deals with the turmoil of silent filmmaking in Hollywood during the early 1910s, leading up to the release of D. W. Griffith's epic The Birth of a Nation (1915).
In 1999, the Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki produced Juha in black-and-white, which captures the style of a silent film, using intertitles in place of spoken dialogue. Special release prints with titles in several different languages were produced for international distribution. In India, the film Pushpak (1988), starring Kamal Hassan, was a black comedy entirely devoid of dialog. The Australian film Doctor Plonk (2007), was a silent comedy directed by Rolf de Heer. Stage plays have drawn upon silent film styles and sources. Actor/writers Billy Van Zandt & Jane Milmore staged their Off-Broadway slapstick comedy Silent Laughter as a live action tribute to the silent screen era. Geoff Sobelle and Trey Lyford created and starred in All Wear Bowlers (2004), which started as an homage to Laurel and Hardy then evolved to incorporate life-sized silent film sequences of Sobelle and Lyford who jump back and forth between live action and the silver screen. The animated film Fantasia (1940), which is eight different animation sequences set to music, can be considered a silent film, with only one short scene involving dialogue. The espionage film The Thief (1952) has music and sound effects, but no dialogue, as do Thierry Zéno's 1974 Vase de Noces and Patrick Bokanowski's 1982 The Angel.
In 2005, the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society produced a silent film version of Lovecraft's story The Call of Cthulhu. This film maintained a period-accurate filming style, and was received as both "the best HPL adaptation to date" and, referring to the decision to make it as a silent movie, "a brilliant conceit".
The French film The Artist (2011), written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, plays as a silent film and is set in Hollywood during the silent era. It also includes segments of fictitious silent films starring its protagonists.
The Japanese vampire film Sanguivorous (2011) is not only done in the style of a silent film, but even toured with live orchestral accompiment. Eugene Chadbourne has been among those who have played live music for the film.
The American feature-length silent film Silent Life started in 2006, features performances by Isabella Rossellini and Galina Jovovich, mother of Milla Jovovich, will premiere in 2013. The film is based on the life of the silent screen icon Rudolph Valentino, known as the Hollywood's first "Great Lover". After the emergency surgery, Valentino loses his grip of reality and begins to see the recollection of his life in Hollywood from a perspective of a coma – as a silent film shown at a movie palace, the magical portal between life and eternity, between reality and illusion.
The Picnic is a 2012 short film made in the style of two-reel silent melodramas and comedies. It was part of the exhibit, No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, a 2018-2019 exhibit curated by the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The film was shown inside a miniature 12-seat Art Deco movie palace on wheels called The Capitol Theater, created by Oakland, Ca. art collective Five Ton Crane.
Right There is a 2013 short film that is an homage to silent film comedies.
The 2015 British animated film Shaun the Sheep Movie based on Shaun the Sheep was released to positive reviews and was a box office success. Aardman Animations also produced Morph and Timmy Time as well as many other silent short films.
The American Theatre Organ Society pays homage to the music of silent films, as well as the theatre organs that played such music. With over 75 local chapters, the organization seeks to preserve and promote theater organs and music, as an art form.
The Globe International Silent Film Festival (GISFF) is an annual event focusing on image and atmosphere in cinema which takes place in a reputable university or academic environment every year and is a platform for showcasing and judging films from filmmakers who are active in this field. In 2018 film director Christopher Annino shot the now internationally award-winning feature silent film of its kind Silent Times. The film gives homage to many of the characters from the 1920s including Officer Keystone played by David Blair, and Enzio Marchello who portrays a Charlie Chaplin character. Silent Times has won best silent film at the Oniros Film Festival. Set in a small New England town, the story centers on Oliver Henry III (played by Westerly native Geoff Blanchette), a small-time crook turned vaudeville theater owner. From humble beginnings in England, he immigrates to the US in search of happiness and fast cash. He becomes acquainted with people from all walks of life, from burlesque performers, mimes, hobos to classy flapper girls, as his fortunes rise and his life spins ever more out of control.
Preservation and lost films
The vast majority of the silent films produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are considered lost. According to a September 2013 report published by the United States Library of Congress, some 70 percent of American silent feature films fall into this category. There are numerous reasons for this number being so high. Some films have been lost unintentionally, but most silent films were destroyed on purpose. Between the end of the silent era and the rise of home video, film studios would often discard large numbers of silent films out of a desire to free up storage in their archives, assuming that they had lost the cultural relevance and economic value to justify the amount of space they occupied. Additionally, due to the fragile nature of the nitrate film stock which was used to shoot and distribute silent films, many motion pictures have irretrievably deteriorated or have been lost in accidents, including fires (because nitrate is highly flammable and can spontaneously combust when stored improperly). Examples of such incidents include the 1965 MGM vault fire and the 1937 Fox vault fire, both of which incited catastrophic losses of films. Many such films not completely destroyed survive only partially, or in badly damaged prints. Some lost films, such as London After Midnight (1927), lost in the MGM fire, have been the subject of considerable interest by film collectors and historians.
Major silent films presumed lost include:
- Saved from the Titanic (1912), which featured survivors of the disaster;
- The Life of General Villa, starring Pancho Villa himself
- The Apostle, the first animated feature film (1917)
- Cleopatra (1917)
- Gold Diggers (1923)
- Kiss Me Again (1925)
- Arirang (1926)
- The Great Gatsby (1926)
- London After Midnight (1927)
- Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928)
Though most lost silent films will never be recovered, some have been discovered in film archives or private collections. Discovered and preserved versions may be editions made for the home rental market of the 1920s and 1930s that are discovered in estate sales, etc. The degradation of old film stock can be slowed through proper archiving, and films can be transferred to safety film stock or to digital media for preservation. The preservation of silent films has been a high priority for historians and archivists.
Dawson City, in the Yukon territory of Canada, was once the end of the distribution line for many films. In 1978, a cache of more than 500 reels of nitrate film was discovered during the excavation of a vacant lot formerly the site of the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association, which had started showing films at their recreation centre in 1903. Works by Pearl White, Helen Holmes, Grace Cunard, Lois Weber, Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks, and Lon Chaney, among others, were included, as well as many newsreels. The titles were stored at the local library until 1929 when the flammable nitrate was used as landfill in a condemned swimming pool. Having spent 50 years under the permafrost of the Yukon, the reels turned out to be extremely well preserved. Owing to its dangerous chemical volatility, the historical find was moved by military transport to Library and Archives Canada and the US Library of Congress for storage (and transfer to safety film). A documentary about the find, Dawson City: Frozen Time was released in 2016.
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