The Legacy of Silent Film

Perhaps one of the main reasons that so many of us, myself included, fail to “get” certain films, or certain aspects of film as a whole, is that we have not spent sufficient time studying the beginnings of the art form. We have not looked to the past. This, then, is a look at the first few decades of the cinematic arts, and the influence of these early films on what we see onscreen today.

When Louis and Auguste Lumiere first showed their short film, “The Arrival of a Train”, in 1895, bazinga they certainly had no inkling that, almost 100 years later, it would be the film-within-a-film in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Nor could Carl Theodor Dreyer have suspected that his 1928 feature The Passion of Joan of Arc would one day be the major inspiration for Mel Gibson’s hugely successful The Passion of the Christ (2004). But no matter where these and other early filmmakers envisioned the medium in 100 years, or whether they even believed it would last that long, the films we see today are undeniably the legacy of these pioneers of a nascent art form.

Besides the Lumiere brothers, who basically invented the scene with their early one-reelers, the earliest major influence on today’s cinema was the French magician turned movie-maker, Georges Melies. His cinematic sleight-of-hand in short films like “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) brought about the innovation of stop-motion photography, a precursor of today’s animated films, as well as a noticeable influence on special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen (the 1981 Clash of the Titans) and Czechoslovakian puppet animator Jan Svankmajer (1988′s Alice). “A Trip to the Moon” was also the first science fiction film, which eventually led to more scientifically grounded films like Alien (1979) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

The American filmmaker Edwin S. Porter also contributed a great deal to the advancement of the new art form. Originally a sailor and electrician, Porter made one of the most important films of the first 20 years of the cinema with 1903’s “The Great Train Robbery,” a prototype of the popular westerns of decades later. It also introduced many cinematic techniques that had not yet been used, including color tinting, close-ups and panning shots, films having been mostly shot from single, static set-ups until that point. Another innovation “The Great Train Robbery” introduced was the matte shot, a kind of superimposition in which one set of images is photographed in front of a screen, on which a previously photographed “background” is projected; this technique was thereafter widely used well into the 1960s, and even occasionally employed today, as in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film, Pulp Fiction. In addition, “The Great Train Robbery” could be said to be the first example of cinema violence, a concept that became extremely controversial in the late 1960s and early 1970s, eventually leading to the MPAA motion picture rating system still in place today.

“The Great Train Robbery” made Porter the most famous and influential American director of his time, but he was eventually displaced by one of his own writers, David Wark Griffith. D. W. Griffith, as he is more widely known, found his success as a director in 1908, working for the Biograph Company. In 1909, he made “A Corner in Wheat,” an anti-capitalist short based on the work of Frank Norris, whose novel, McTeague, was later the inspiration for Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924).

Griffith went on to make The Birth of a Nation, America’s first feature-length film, in 1915. The film was a great advance in cinematic storytelling and is still recognized today as one of the greatest motion pictures of all time, but its portrayal of emancipated slaves after the Civil War was offensive to many even in 1915, and much of the film is laughable today. According to Griffith (or, to be fair, to the Rev. Thomas Dixon, on whose novel Birth was based), at the end of the War, rich plantation owners were not only displaced from their land, they were also relentlessly persecuted by ex-slaves and poor carpetbaggers. Who knew rich white folks had such a hard time? Luckily, one heroic white man founds the Ku Klux Klan, an apparently misunderstood organization that the film posits was the savior of America as we know it.

Despite the controversy, or perhaps because of it, Birth was a box office success Griffith would never again equal. His next film,Intolerance, was a spectacular failure. Budgeted at over $400,000, it was the most expensive American film up to the time of its release in 1916. It was also years ahead of its time in terms of set design and other technical elements, including the use of a crane to capture the multi-layered Babylonian set created by Walter Hall.

Unfortunately, due in part to poor timing, the film never made its budget back and effectively put Griffith in a lifetime of financial debt. It did not, however, end his career. Probably his most successful and accomplished film after The Birth of a Nation was 1919’s Broken Blossoms, a sad and beautiful tale of forbidden love and paternal brutality. In this regard, Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1992) is an interesting parallel: the two films share themes of interracial romance, as well as shocking incidents of a father killing his child.

On a lighter note, Griffith was also a major influence on other filmmakers of his time, including Mack Sennett, who later founded Keystone Studios. Though Sennett’s humor was broad, crude, and not actually very funny by today’s standards, many great comedic talents got their start at his studio, including Charles Chaplin, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd and W.C. Fields.

Arbuckle soon outgrew Keystone and began directing his own short films. Some of these, including “The Cook”, featured Buster Keaton, who went on to be one of the greatest talents of the American silent cinema. “Buster” was actually a nickname given him as a child by the great magician, Harry Houdini, and the love of magic tricks and stunts is evident in Keaton’s films. In fact, modern actor, director and amazing stuntman Jackie Chan can be seen as a descendant of Keaton’s work, using the same incredible timing, athleticism and resilience to create cinematic joy. Both suffered for their art as well, regularly breaking bones and sustaining other injuries while doing all their own stunts. In fact, all the silent-era comedians did their own stunts, but Keaton’s were probably the most dangerous. He broke his neck making his 1926 feature, The General, which involves many dramatic stunts on board a moving steam engine; in one scene, Keaton is knocked off the train by a deluge of water, landing with the back of his neck across the rail. He didn’t find out until years later that a fracture had occurred.

Keaton’s 1924 film Sherlock, Jr. was extremely innovative in that it introduced the now-standard convention of the out-of-body dream sequence, using double exposure to give the impression of Keaton’s spirit-body separating from his physical one. Another interesting technique Keaton pioneered in this film was later an inspiration for Woody Allen’s 1985 film, The Purple Rose of Cairo. It is a scene in which Keaton actually walks into a movie screen and becomes part of the action. According to Keaton – as quoted in Film Quarterly, Fall 1958 – this is how the effect was accomplished: “We built what looked like a motion picture screen and actually built a stage into that frame… so I could go out of semi-darkness into that well-lit screen right from the front row of the theater right into the picture.” When the scene in the “movie” changes, then, amazing precision had to be used to ensure that Keaton was in the exact same position from take to take. The illusion is perfect, and it is innovations like these that make Keaton one of the premier filmmakers of all time.

In Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2004 film, The Dreamers, two of the central characters argue over who was the greater filmmaker, Chaplin or Keaton. Clearly, Keaton was a huge benefit to the advancement of the art, but Chaplin is, of course, more popular and widely known, in part because he was more prolific. Like Keaton, Chaplin began in vaudeville and did his own stunts, though they were not quite as spectacular as Keaton’s. As Andre Bazin notes in film critic Andrew Sarris’s 1967 collection Interviews with Film Directors, Chaplin’s cinema was “a comedy of space, of the relation of man to objects and to the exterior world.” This is certainly evidenced in Chaplin’s 1916 short, “One A.M.,” in which he drunkenly encounters a variety of objects in his house, as well as in his 1925 feature, The Gold Rush. His iconic dance with two rolls on forks, creating the comical impression of two tiny legs supporting his enormous head, has been imitated many times, most notably in Benny and Joon (1993), starring Johnny Depp, and an episode of The Simpsons, in which Grampa takes up Chaplin’s immortal forks.

The antithesis of Chaplin’s style, according to Sarris in the aforementioned book, is the montage formula originally developed by Lev Kuleshov and later expanded upon by Sergei Eisenstein. Kuleshov’s famous experiment in montage showed that the essence of cinema is editing: by cutting together a single close-up of an actor’s face with three different images, he made the audience interpret three different expression’s on the actor’s face, which, of course, remained the same throughout. The impact of this experiment reaches throughout cinema history, from Eisenstein, to Hitchcock, to filmmakers like David Fincher and Darren Aronofsky today.

Eisenstein’s 1925 film, The Battleship Potemkin, is an ideal example of the power of montage. In one scene toward the end of the film, static shots of three stone lions are cut together in succession so it appears as though the lion is rising to its feet in solidarity with the rebelling sailors. But the greatness of Potemkin is not entirely in the editing. Earlier in the film is a brilliant lighting technique, in which a priest on board the ship holds a crucifix and sternly reprimands the sailors; the flared light behind him suggests the fires of hell. Of course, the most famous sequence in the film is the showdown on the Odessa steps. As the Cossacks fire upon the Odessa citizens who support the revolution, a baby carriage perilously bumps down the stairs. This scene was quoted in Brian De Palma’s 1987 film, The Untouchables, which was in turn spoofed in The Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear (1991).

Potemkin is an overtly political film about the use of technology in order to seize power. In his essay, “Politics and the Silent Cinema,” published in the 1988 book Visions and Blueprints: Avant-Garde Culture and Radical Politics in Early Twentieth-Century Europe, Michael Minden contrasts it with Robert Wiene’s masterpiece of German Expressionism, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), a film which Eisenstein “regarded as negative, unhealthy and representative of a futureless introspection which affronted the vibrant young medium of film.” It has also been called “something of a dead end” because “the artificiality and limited storytelling potential of such purebred expressionism restricted its use,” according to Louis Giannetti and Scott Eyman in their 2001 book Flashback: A Brief History of Film, but it has influenced modern cinema more than it might seem at first glance. Its geometrically impossible set design is a clear influence on filmmakers like Tim Burton and David Lynch; the somnambulist, Cesare, could easily be one of the zombies in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968); and it is also notable as perhaps the first film with a twist ending, a clear precursor to later supernatural films from Carnival of Souls (1962) to The Sixth Sense (1999).

Another important film of the German Expressionism era is F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). Loosely based on Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula (though not loosely enough to prevent Stoker’s widow from suing Murnau), the film stars Max Shreck as the rat-like Count Orlock, and was the beginning of an extremely popular genre, the vampire movie. It utilizes stop-motion photography (when Orlock’s coffin loads itself onto a carriage, with him inside) and double exposure (when Orlock disintegrates in the sunlight at the film’s climax) to evoke the supernatural. It was also a strong influence on filmmakers like Werner Herzog, who remade the film in 1979 with the inimitable Klaus Kinski as Orlock, and Coppola, who managed to achieve a similar atmosphere in the first act of his Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Shreck’s performance in Nosferatu was so convincing it inspired a legend that Shreck was actually a vampire dug up by Murnau for authenticity; this legend was the basis for the 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire, starring John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Shreck.


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