The History of Silent Movies

By Contributing Writer
A romantic scene between a pirate and a damsel, circa 1918

The silent movie era spanned approximately three decades, beginning in the 1890s and culminating in the late 1920s. During this time, silent films evolved from fledgling novelties into mainstay forms of art and entertainment.

Origins

A kinetograph camera, July 1, 1912

Pioneer developments in "moving pictures" occurred during the 1890s with the patenting of the kinetograph and kinetoscope (1891) by Thomas Edison and W.K.L. Dickson in the United States and the cinematograph (1895) by the Lumiere brothers in France. By the turn of the century, films less than a minute in length were being exhibited at major fairs in the U.S. and abroad. Soon after, audiences began flocking to movie houses called "Nickelodeons," one-floor venues, where short films (approximately 10 minutes long) could be seen for a nickel, often on makeshift screens. As the medium's popularity soared, more opulent theaters were constructed and live piano music accompanied viewings.

Heyday of Silent Movies

American film director D.W. Griffith, circa 1925

By the late 1910s, moviemakers were reaping the artistic and box-office benefits of the early years of innovation and experimentation. Directors such as D.W. Griffith in the U.S., F.W. Murnau in Germany and Sergei Eisenstein in Russia were developing and perfecting film techniques that would become standard of the craft, and silent screen actors were blossoming into the first generation of Hollywood celebrities.

Genres

A scene from the silent movie

The earliest silent film footage in existence was documentary in nature, such as the brief clip of workers leaving the Lumiere Brothers' factory in France. By the 1910s, however, clear genres had emerged, including comedy, drama, romance and horror. D.W. Griffith's historical drama, "Birth of a Nation" (1915), with its elaborate spectacle and enormous cast, was just one of many notable moments in early cinema history.

Leading Ladies

American actress and vamp Theda Bara, circa 1919

Silent movie starlets typically appeared in one of two roles: the virgin or the vamp. Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish frequently were cast as the former type while flappers Clara Bow, Theda Bara and Louise Brooks, along with Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Jean Harlow, were more often cast as the latter.

Leading Men

Picture of Buster Keaton on Silent Movie Theatre wall display

Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Gilbert Roland and Rudolph Valentino were just a few of the male heartthrobs of the silent era while Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd endeared themselves to audiences with their slapstick comedies. Lon Chaney, who first became famous for his performance in "Phantom of the Opera," was the first American horror film star.

Decline of Silent Movies

Actors and actresses on set during filming of

By the late 1920s, moviemakers had established a reliable method for recording sound synchronously with images. While shorter films with synchronous sound began appearing during this decade, "The Jazz Singer" (1927) was the first feature-length talking film. The transition from silence to sound was difficult for most silent stars. In her portrayal of Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard" (1950), Gloria Swanson, once a silent screen actress, captured the bitterness and sadness she and others experienced when talkies emerged; in a famous scene, Norma retorts, "We didn't need voices. We had faces." Charlie Chaplin also clung to the older medium, creating several silent films during the 1930s, a decade otherwise dominated by "talkies."

Silent Movies Today

The Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles

Since the 1990s, there has been an increased effort in the U.S. and abroad to preserve silent film footage, restore theaters and establish recurring festivals. Some theaters have begun interspersing occasional "silents" among their routine offerings. The Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles, California, is one such example; in fact, from its inception in 1942 as a nostalgic movie house, until 2006, when it underwent a change in ownership, silent movies had remained its only bill of fare. The Silent Film Society of Chicago, founded in 1998, has ensured that silent films can still be seen at three art deco theaters in Chicago: The Arcada, The Pickwick and The Portage. On the whole, however, silent movies still lead a fairly marginal existence today. While more famous early films can be watched late night and early morning on cable networks, such as American Movie Classics (AMC) and Turner Classic Movies (TCM), purchased online or borrowed from major libraries, most viewings and discussions of silent films today occur within academic settings at schools that offer degrees in screenwriting, directing and production.