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Film Appreciation... Silent Pictures Overview
 

 

In the later part of the 1800's the public's attention and imagination was captured by a new art form - motion pictures. When the Lumiere Brothers, George Melies and Thomas Edison began placing images on film they captured not just a slice of life but the imagination of viewers throughout the world. From films that were as simple as Fred Ott's "The Sneeze," to imaginative science fiction that placed men on the moon, to the innovative birth of that most basic of American artistic endeavors the Western in "The Great Train Robbery" (1903), movies had a revolutionary impact on the societies in which they were made. So much so that they continue engender a debate as to whether film is a reflection of the values of the society in which it was made, or whether it is film that in fact, determines what that society values.

Although the efforts of the Lumiere Brothers, George Melies and Thomas Edison can not be discounted (they were, after all, the creators of the medium), the man who is frequently identified as having shepherded the transformation of film into an art form in its own right was D. W. Griffith. Certainly one of the most ingenious film makers in the history of the art form, Griffith has been credited with being the first to utilize close ups, cross cutting / quick cuts, flashbacks and a host of other innovative cinematic techniques. In addition to being a superlative technician Griffith was at heart a brilliant story teller ("Birth of a Nation" (1915) and "Intolerance" (1916), with an eye for talent, working with such early talents as Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. It was Griffith's collaboration with Pickford, Gish, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin that led to the formation of United Artists in 1919. United Artists was designed to provide greater artistic / creative freedom for the big name talents of the day who were chaffing under the studio's star system. It was in the early years at United Artists that the studio produced some of the best films of the silent era. Most notable among these were Fairbanks's classic swashbucklers "Robin Hood (1922), and "The Thief of Baghdad" (1924), and the Charlie Chaplin classic "The Gold Rush" (1925).

The Silent Era has often been referred to as the Golden Age of Comedy. It was this period that produced such comic geniuses as Charlie Chaplin (whose antics as the Little Tramp delighted audiences), Harold Lloyd (the original daredevil whose antics in "Safety Last" (1923) explain why film makers are required to post a bond before production starts), and Buster Keaton (whose stoically grateful characterizations in such films as "The General" (1926) are stuff of which legends are made).

While the previously mentioned artists supplied the creative drive for American film making the media was also being advanced in other countries. Indeed, the American cinema was quickly being surpassed creatively by its cinematic European cousins. It was during this time that German Expressionism was flourishing. Expressionism was an influential early twentieth century artistic movement which rejected the simple reproduction of reality. This movement applied non­naturalistic forms in an abstract symbolic approach to thematic material. Most films created during this period were produced in studios which encouraged a stylized approach and allowed for total control of the film's visual elements. Expressionism strove to visibly display the inner turmoil of the film's characters and was characterized by highly artificial utilizing stylized and distorted sets and decor, unnatural lighting that created deep shadows and sharp contrasts, visual compositions that emphasized the grotesque, and an exaggerated acting style, meant to externalize the characters' psychological torment. The three best examples of this style are "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1919), "Nosferatu" (1922), and "Metropolis" (1926).

It was during the latter part of this period that the Surrealistic movement was also having an impact on European film making. This iconoclastic style featured the prominent use of symbolism and was heavily influenced by the prominent artist Salvador Dali (who often appeared in films by the legendary Luis Bunuell producing such classics as "Un Chien Andalou" (1928), and "L' Age D'Or" (1930).

The Russian cinema was also experiencing tremendous artistic growth. During this time the Russian cinema was primarily used as propaganda to serve the interests of the state (a pattern that has continued throughout much of Russia's history) . Under the stewardship of the great Russian director Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian cinema flourished. Eisenstein is best known for his theory of montage. Specifically he believed that it was possible to create a visually dramatic and emotional moment by utilizing judicious editing. This technique is best exemplified in Eisenstein's "Battleship Potempkin" (1925) during the now famous Odessa Steps sequence.

 

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