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A Silent American Cinema Primer, pt. 1

As I grow older, I am becoming more and more enamored of the silent film era. Even a bad silent movie will typically have a certain “lyrical” quality that I find myself admiring due to the necessity that bound all silent filmmakers of having to tell stories primarily through visual means. The silent cinema in America was a particularly fecund period, in which the rules of “narrative continuity filmmaking” (the predominant mode of filmmaking in the world today) were first invented and popularized; it was an exciting, experimental time when talented directors could improvise on the nascent language of movies in much the same way that Shakespeare riffed on verbal language in Elizabethan England. In Hollywood during the late silent era, this visual language had become almost impossibly sophisticated, as evidenced by films as disparate as King Vidor’s The Crowd, Paul Fejos’ Lonesome and F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. After studying – and teaching – this period in depth, I can only concur with the old Hollywood masters who lamented that something was irretrievably lost when the transition from silents to talkies was complete.

The silent film era in America also saw the formation of Hollywood’s studio system, which paved the way for the “golden age” of Hollywood that began in earnest in the 1930s. As with the posts I made about that era, this list (consisting only of feature-length movies), has been supersized to include 26 titles and will be broken into two parts. Part one begins with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat in 1915 and continues through Buster Keaton’s immortal The General in 1926. Part two will be posted next week.

In chronological order:

The Cheat (DeMille, 1915)

Forget what you think you know about the conservative purveyor of stolid 1950s epics and experience the raw power of Cecil B. DeMille’s scintillating “yellow peril” melodrama when the trailblazing director was just beginning his career in the mid-1910s. Edith Harvey (Fannie Ward) is a socialite who embezzles money from a charity, loses it in a bad investment and borrows money from shady Japanese businessman Hishuru Tori (Sessue Hayakawa) in order to pay it back. The film’s most outrageous scene involves the Asian Hayakawa (an ostensible “villain” who exudes more movie star charisma than anyone else onscreen) literally branding the caucasian Ward with a hot iron. The dramatic use of chiaroscuro lighting was way ahead of its time and anticipates the rise of German Expressionism a few years later.

Intolerance (Griffith, 1916)

D.W. Griffith is mostly known today for creating The Birth of a Nation, a film whose unfortunate racism has had the side effect of dissuading budding cinephiles from exploring the director’s filmography in depth. But everyone should see Intolerance, an insanely ambitious, epic movie consisting of a quartet of intercut stories set in different historical eras united by the common theme of “love’s struggle through the ages”. The film’s audacious pageantry and complex structure show off the narrative cinema’s first true master at the height of his considerable powers.

Within Our Gates (Micheaux, 1920)

Oscar Micheaux was the first African-American director of feature length movies and the Chicago-shot Within Our Gates is both his earliest surviving film as well as his best. A convoluted melodrama about a northern woman’s attempt to raise money for a struggling school in the Jim Crow south, this film’s shocking climax contains an extended flashback to a white-on-black lynching and a near-rape that serve as an explicit rebuttal to Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Low-budget and technically crude, this is nonetheless an invaluably authentic look at black life in early 20th century America, one of only a handful of movies about which that can be said.

The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (Ingram, 1921)

In 1968’s The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris listed director Rex Ingram as a “subject for further research” based solely on this masterpiece – an epic World War I/family drama that builds on the innovations of Griffith in its incredible painterly images and dynamic cutting, but which adds a more naturalistic acting style to the mix. Rudolph Valentino, in his first starring role, plays a rich ne’er-do-well who enlists in the French Army to impress the woman with whom he’s having an affair. But, once on the battlefield, he finds himself face to face with his German cousin . . . Sadly, Ingram is still a subject for further research; his movies, including this one, remain virtually impossible to see. Needless to say, this should be viewed at all costs whenever the opportunity arises.

Our Hospitality (Keaton/Blystone, 1923)

Buster Keaton hit his stride as writer/director/star with his second feature, a riotously funny version of the Hatfield/McCoy feud. Not as well known today as The General, this is for my money Keaton’s funniest film and the one with the most impressive physical stunts (the climactic waterfall rescue has never been equalled). Our Hospitality remains the most modern of all silent comedies due in part to Keaton’s hilariously blank facial expressions as actor as well as his beautifully engineered physical gags as director, which he always profitably captures in immaculately composed long shots. One of the best places to start exploring silent movies period.

Safety Last! (Newmeyer/Taylor, 1923)

As far as silent comedians go, Harold Lloyd was second only to Charlie Chaplin in terms of popularity. Safety Last! is his most famous film and one that anyone who cares about comedy movies should see. Lloyd plays his famous, can-do “Glasses Character” as a country bumpkin who arrives in the big city and gets a job in a department store. He concocts a publicity stunt to bring in more customers, which involves him scaling the exterior of the high-rise building where he works. This leads to a jaw-droppingly funny and amazingly acrobatic climax featuring one of the most iconic images in all of cinema: Lloyd suspended from the hands of a giant clock face near the top of the building.

Greed (von Stroheim, 1924)

Erich von Stroheim’s nine hour adaptation of Frank Norris’ classic American novel McTeague was brutally cut down to its present two hour and twenty minute running time by MGM executives, who also unconscionably destroyed all of the excised footage. Remarkably, the remaining shadow of Stroheim’s original vision (an excoriating indictment of the destructive power of money about a dentist, his wife and best friend who find their lives torn apart by greed) is still a deathless masterpiece. The powerhouse performances and shot-on-location Death Valley climax are unforgettable.

He Who Gets Slapped (Sjostrom, 1924)

Victor Sjostrom is best remembered today as the lead actor in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries but he also directed a couple of the best American films of the silent era – this Lon Chaney vehicle and 1928’s Lillian Gish-starring The Wind. Here, Chaney plays a scientist who is betrayed and humiliated by his wife and a wealthy benefactor. He consequently resigns himself to a life of self-flagellation by becoming a circus clown whose wildly popular act consists of being repeatedly slapped by the other clowns. Chaney was known for suffering for his art through the application of painful prosthetics but it’s the subtle emotions that play out on his face when he’s not wearing make-up that provide the high points of this awesome morality play.

Isn’t Life Wonderful (Griffith, 1924)

Polish refugees struggle to survive in post-World War I Berlin in D.W. Griffith’s final masterpiece, a deeply moving family drama shot almost entirely on location in Germany. Among the narrative strands is an exeedingly poignant subplot involving the courtship between Paul (Neil Hamilton), a war veteran whose lungs have been damaged by mustard gas and Inga, an orphan played by Carol Dempster (Griffith’s real-life love interest). A prototype of Neorealism, it is frankly astonishing that Griffith could extend such sympathy to the plight of a people who had been a much vilified enemy of the United States only a few years previously.

The Thief of Bagdad (Walsh, 1924)

The greatest of the 1920s swashbucklers, Raoul Walsh’s adventure epic stars Douglas Fairbanks as a thief who falls hopelessly in love with the daughter of the Caliph of Baghdad. In order to win her hand, the thief endeavors to best her other suitors by bringing back the rarest treasure before “the seventh moon.” This allows Walsh, one of the most astute directors of action ever, to execute the narrative as a series of exciting, self-contained set pieces, the elaborate special effects of which still impress and charm today.

The Big Parade (Vidor, 1925)

The highest grossing film of the silent era is King Vidor’s anti-war tour-de-force about Jim (John Gilbert), a callow rich kid who is shamed by patriotic friends into enlisting in the army during the first World War. Leaving his American fiance behind, Jim travels to France where he romances a peasant girl before heading to the front lines. The intense, realistic battle scenes were extremely influential on subsequent war movies (including All Quiet on the Western Front) but the highly emotional homecoming scene remains the most memorable in the film.

3 Bad Men (Ford, 1926)

John Ford’s first masterpiece is an epic western about a cowgirl (the splendid Olive Borden) who recruits the title trio to help her avenge the death of her father as well as find her a suitable husband. These twin plots unfurl, as happens so often in Ford, against the backdrop of a real life historical event – in this case the Dakota Land Rush of the 1870s. The climactic land rush sequence is presented as an exhilarating, fast-paced montage that rivals the best montage scenes coming out of the Soviet Union during the same period.

The General (Keaton/Bruckman, 1926)

Buster Keaton’s best-loved film tells the story of Johnny Grey (Keaton), a Civil War-era engineer from the South who ventures behind Yankee lines to rescue his beloved train after it is stolen by Union spies. Not only a very funny film and one that features Keaton’s amazing trademark stunt work, this is also notable for being one of the most authentic recreations of the American Civil War (influenced by the famed photographs of Matthew Brady) ever committed to celluloid.

To be continued . . .

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

7 responses to “A Silent American Cinema Primer, pt. 1

  • jilliemae

    The picture with the long, taffy-looking hands remind me of Guillermo del Toro. I wonder if he has ever seen that movie…

  • michaelgloversmith

    GDT is well-versed in the history of cinema so my guess would be yes. Although GREED is not a fantasy or horror film (it’s more of a dark, psychological drama), the image of these abnormally long, bony hands and fingers sifting through gold coins is certainly horrific! (I always try to find arresting images to illustrate these posts.)

  • cole roulain

    i discovered your fantastic blog via facets today and anticipate spending a lot of time digging through the archives as soon as i get the chance. i am thoroughly enjoying what i have seen already. excellent work.

    if you are so inclined, i do a bit of film blogging myself and i always appreciate input. it seems like we might share a sensibility or two. vitagraphamerican.blogspot.com is where that can be found.

    looking forward to part two of this primer,
    cole

  • jpreskitt

    Keaton kinda looks like a young Michael Cain

  • michaelgloversmith

    Thanks for stopping by, Cole. I just subscribed to your blog; it appears we do have a lot of overlapping interests.

    I’ve never thought about it before but you’re right, John – it’s the sleepy eyes and semi-curly hair!

  • Sunny

    A wonderful job. Super hlefpul information.

  • healthfairflyer.com

    Hi, just wanted to tell you, I enjoyed this blog post.
    It was practical. Keep on posting!

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