Some noticeable trends of films made in the first years of the XX century


The so-called silent era officially spanned from 1895 to 1927, even though those dates are still controversial, from the first films being shown by Lumière brothers until the release of The Jazz Singer, which is considered the first talkie. Let’s just not focus on other landmarks and use those dates to delimit the silent era.

Many people claim they cannot understand silent films properly. I mean, films made at the end of silent era, after the main American studios like Universal, Fox, Paramount, etc were founded are easier to understand, as narrative structures were already consolidated. Films like The Big Parade (USA, 1925), Ben Hur (USA, 1925), Wings (USA, 1927), Sunrise (USA, 1927), Metropolis (Germany, 1927) and so on and so forth, can be much more technologically advanced than we can expect. In other words, their stories are told according to standards that can be comparable with modern films.

However, when we see the films produced in first years of silent era, until around 1915, when D.W. Griffith revolutionized film making with the highly controversial The Birth of a Nation (USA, 1915), we realize they are much more difficult to understand. It happens for some reasons, one of them is that it took a while until cinema got to develop its own “language” and “grammar,” so films were really connected to popular forms of culture, such as vaudeville, circus, magic, fair attractions, magic lantern, which were very popular ways people had fun in the end of XIX century, beginning of XX century. Such representations were opposed to more classic forms of art, such as literature and painting, theatre, etc.

Therefore, it really comes as no surprise that in those first years films were not shown in places where they were the only attraction, they shared the same space as other types of mass distraction, such as vaudevilles and burlesque shows. Mass media was advancing, so, for instance, newspapers had been much more common since XIX century already, news was spread more easily, novels were being read by more people and in many countries urbanization was advancing, which represented a small revolution in the typical peasant life. So, films were a result of all those changes brought about by industrialization and technology. In other words, a completely new world opened up for people and they felt deeply insecure at first.

Sensationalism also started being more widespread, especially because it did help sell more newspapers (some things don’t ever change, huh?). but it was not only that. The grotesque sensationalism was not only connected with economic exploitation, but it was also a way of people representing their feeling of vulnerability and insecurity in this new urban environment.

Thus, many references of early films can be seen in elements of popular culture like current jokes, news, songs, famous plays, novels, etc. So, the audience somehow already knew the plot. Some films that represent this trend are Uncle Tom’s Cabin (USA, 1903); Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (USA, 1905); The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog (USA, 1905), etc.

Everyday life was shown in many short films since the first short films were shot by Lumière (for example:  Démolition d’un mur (1896), among others) and Edison. An aspect of private life that was particularly highlighted was public spaces, as in films like The Great Train Robbery (1903) and Romance of the Rail (1903). One might say those very early silents are hard to understand by nowadays’ standards, but we must keep in mind that cinema has evolved very fast, particularly in its first 3 decades.

Something that can be easily noticed in those films is that life at that time compared with the one we have nowadays clearly revolved around manual labor, both to men and women.

This can be easily noticed, in slapstick films in general, such as Mabel Normand’s films by Keystone Studios. She was a rather athletic actress, who did most of her own stunts, which was not uncommon in early Hollywood and already in 1910ies we can see a long list of daredevil stars who did so. At that time not even domestic duties were a piece of cake. Many women used entire days to simply wash their clothes, for example. We also may not forget that in countries like the United States, in the first years of cinema, especially until 1915, when feature films established themselves, most of the audience of those short films were laborers and immigrants, the ones who were more involved with that manual labor.

Those events were not only related to rural life and habits, but also to news and urban life. An example of technology being readily shown in films is that trains were commonplace throughout the silent era, from Leaving Jerusalem by Railway (1896) to standard Hollywood productions like The General (1926). After all, cinema itself was a result of fast industrialization that started in the Northern Hemisphere as of middle XIX century, so it is natural that it portrays the wonders of recent inventions.

Let’s take a look at one of Normand’s films and briefly analyze some factors. In the short film A Dash Through the Clouds (1912), Normand in the beginning of the film enters an airplane that is rather fragile for nowaday’s standards.

Those films were somehow important for women’s rights, especially because women were commonly depicted as brave and intelligent enough to be out of trouble due to their own ingenuity, rather than being rescued by a protective man. An example of this new type of heroine can be seen in the serial The Hazards of Helen, released between 1914 and 1917. Even though in other films women were still portrayed as fragile little creatures who fainted at every little difficulty, we can consider it good progress towards acknowledging women could be as skilled and strong as men. Evidence of that is the featured image of this article. Despite being usually shown as a Victorian beauty, a little girl, always kind and fragile, Mary Pickford in real life was a real pioneer and was responsible for many aspects of film making and the first female superstar Hollywood ever produced. But that is another story.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Brazilian, greatly fond of classic movies, specially silent ones. I highly appreciate watching and reading about the silent era as much as possible.

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  1. Amanda Duke

    What a pleasure! I read this when coming home from a very long day at work. The silent era is a passion of mine too.

  2. Paula

    Thanks, Amanda! I love seeing and reading on the silent era. There are so many cultural references of this time that are still present in our lives nowadays. Silents are much more alive than one might expect.

  3. Christiano

    Nice to read this text, because it gave me a bird’s-eyes view on the silent era and its trends and features back that time. I’ll try to check out some movies you pointed out throughout the text – it was informative, really.

  4. Paula

    Thanks, Christiano. It´s nice to know this article helped you getting a better understanding about the silents. They may seem a little difficult at first, but they are a great testimony of how people lived many years ago, without mentioning they got to shape cinema and popular culture as we know nowadays.

  5. Robiniha

    Well written essay here! Thanks!

  6. Paula

    Thank you so much. More will come soon.

  7. Thomas Priday

    Nice to see another silent era fanatic. Very interesting post, especially the segments regarding early 1910s movies, probably the silent era’s least successful.

    I’ll look out for future posts.

  8. Paula

    Thank you, Thomas! I love this subject, Silent films are so underrated. And they have such big importance in popular culture throughout the decades. Since most silents are lost it’s important we see and analyze the few ones that we´ve had nowadays.

  9. Tatijana

    I guess I didn’t really realize silent films were still enjoyable. I must admit I’ve never seen one though.. so maybe that’s why I don’t know.

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