Film History: Silent Cinema, A Different World (1915–29)

Last month I re-read Leonard Maltin's “Behind the Camera”, interviews with five famous directors of photography, and it got me interested in re-reading Kevin Brownlow's “The Parade's Gone By”, a longtime favorite. “Camera” was published in 1970, when Maltin was only 21; “Parade” was published in 1968, based heavily on interviews that Brownlow did during a 1964 trip to America, when he was 26. Both men are to be commended for knowing about and seeking out some of the then-forgotten filmmakers of the silent and early sound eras, many of whom were still around and delighted to have a chance to tell their stories. Now it's a half century later.

Brownlow's was the more influential, though both books were coming to attention at the historical moment when film scholarship was really taking off. Brownlow's thesis is simply that modern people look down on silent films because they've never seen a good one, and never seen one properly shown. In fact, he claims they're the height of cinema, better than sound films once you properly see and understand them. He builds a good case but oversells it some. Still, there are so many great anecdotes, interviews, and learned explanations. Chapters on the making of Ben Hur and Robin Hood would be classic articles all by themselves.

There's a whole pre-cinema, proto-cinema world of forgotten history in the fairground and nickelodeon days, roughly 1896-1911. Brownlow gives a clear and interesting account of those pre-Hollywood days, but his real interest begins when the movies began to mean something, sometime between about 1912 and 1915, the year of The Birth of a Nation, pretty much the agreed-on beginning of film's claim to being an art form. That window closes in 1928, though a lagging handful of silent films came out in '29 (and of course City Lights was 1931, but Chaplin was a special case). So, this vanished, maybe golden age of the silver screen lasted little more than 13 years.

Brownlow's book was part of a revivalist movement that brought many remaining silent prints back into access, so although film history no longer commands as much attention as it did decades ago, conditions for getting to see them are greatly improved from the 1968 days. If an internet-equipped TV screen isn't exactly the Loew's Capitol theater, that screen is as large as the ones once used by film collectors to show 16mm prints.

The book is eloquent, poignant testimony of a different Hollywood and a vastly different, more conservative Los Angeles than any that I encountered fifty years later. Silent era Hollywood was based on instinct, hunches and loosely managed compared to the more organized factory process established by the mid-Thirties. Or course, it's still Hollywood, all right, eternally based on marketing dreams of youth and beauty to a worldwide audience. Stories about the on-set behavior of actors and directors may not be identical to today's, but the basic idea hasn't changed.

This being Kevin Brownlow, I wasn't surprised that to him the zenith of silent movie making, indeed of all movie making, was Abel Gance's Napoleon, the single cause he is most associated with. Since Gance was not American, he left the chapter for the near-end of a very long book. Kevin Brownlow later wrote an entire book on the making and the revival of Gance's Napoleon. It's a tale of frustration and eventual triumph as the finally restored film is played with live orchestra in some of the key cities of the world. It's a world I once knew well: of small-time film collectors, revival houses, institutions like the AFI and BFI, of Filmex, and the Chicago and San Francisco film festivals, roughly 1960 to 1985. The cultural establishment.

Yon Barna's “Eisenstein” caps a bunch of reading about silent films in June. Griffith, Gance, and Sergei Eisenstein were grandiose egomaniacs, self-appointed national heroes of the USA, France, and the USSR who made their names with silent films. Eisenstein was the only one of the three who made at least one memorable sound film, just one (“Alexander Nevsky”). Little known fact: all three were Jewish, (as was Mack Sennett) and all three played it down or kept it hidden—Griffith and Gance because it sounded too foreign and “low-born” in the bloodline-obsessed worlds of the genteel South and of provincial France, Eisenstein ironically for the opposite reason; to play down his upper middle class, educated background as a Communist filmmaker.

Some expert specialties of The Parade's Gone By are the things that are distinctive to silent film: tinting and toning the black and white film to reinforce a visual or emotional effect, intertitles, called subtitles here; and the existence of live music at all but the smallest film screenings. (“The Silents Were Never Silent”). I actually tried tinting and toning 16mm film as a student film and it worked, though it was amateurish. Tinting colored the highlights and was often used for day-for-night scenes. Toning colored only the darkest parts of the image. As with cars, two toning became something of a fad in these largely pre-color days. A forest scene with blue skies and green trees, or a new dawn in shades of pink and light blue. Today it seems as strange, almost funny as the gauche idea of painting color on statues; but it turns out that the ancients did paint the statues. As in the novel Time and Again, the colors faded before they got to us.

Brownlow approaches silent film titles as an advocate who's trying to make a reasonable case. Nearly every serious student innocently says, “Why not make a silent film without any titles at all?” Brownlow replies, “It could be done...it was done” but the results were slow, taking too much time to establish a few key points. Though he readily admits that badly written titles could kill suspense or invite derisive laughter, he makes a case that good, evocative titles helped set a mood and tell a story more efficiently.

The silent film orchestra is obviously distant from our experience, except for a few super-duper social events for Filmex or the AFI. But some of my favorite films could easily be imagined as silent movies with great visuals and a live orchestra: Fantasia. Vertigo. 2001: A Space Odyssey. There have been a handful of modern-era silent films, but they've never been successful even as art films. A pity; Brownlow makes a good case that someone could do it again.

Before leaving The Parade's Gone By, an excellent book, now a half century old, let us note the waxing and waning of fame and later, of history. By the Fifties and early Sixties, silent movies were mostly a forgotten joke, “Fractured Flickers” TV comedy material when Kevin Brownlow and others, like critic Andrew Sarris, resurrected them. For decades, say 1965 to 2005, as the flame of serious film scholarship burned bright and archival budgets started to catch up with demand (“Nitrate Won't Wait!”), we enjoyed the strange paradox that up to a point, we were privileged to be learning more and more about a period that was farther and farther in the past.

And then it all went into reverse. Mainstream film history seemed to fade in importance. People lost interest once again. Silent movies have always been a tough sell, because of pacing and the lack of what made them once seem grand. The romanticized, exaggerated Victorian/Dickensian attitudes and melodramatic plots were an obstacle to our appreciation, fifty years ago; they are even larger obstacles for today's younger adults. Silent cinema sank from educated consciousness once again, as did early sound and most aspects of what we Sixties-Nineties filmgoers regarded as a basic required viewing list.

Not for the first time, new waves of technique and new kinds of technical expertise altered the content of media and audience expectations of it. I have one specific hunch about why the world of silents is particularly tough for today: when I was a student, at least home movies, which most of us were familiar with, had always been silent. Though little recognized as such, for fifty years they were the last holdout of silent cinema, if only in amateur form. Every film student in my day and even for a decade or two later began with silent 16mm film, worked our way up to silent films with synchronized music, and finally was allowed to shoot sync sound, only after we'd mastered telling a story visually. When film students learned their craft, from Sergei Eisenstein to Christopher Nolan, they were forced to personally recapitulate the history of film whether they liked it or not.

Only in Super 8's final years, say 1976-1980, with home video just around the corner, were there mass market sound cameras for home use. By contrast, video, whether TV, videotape, or mobile phone video has always had sound. Since television left John Logie Baird's laboratory, there's never been such a thing as “silent television”. Today, hardly anyone under 45 remembers a time when moving images were ever silent. For most, trying to appreciate a silent film as anything other than a momentary curiosity creates a gulf in understanding that can't easily be bridged.