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T he Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was formed by Hollywood’s silent-film community just as the silent film itself was about to pass from the scene. The announced goals of the Academy were “to develop harmony and adjust differences and grievances within the industry, … promote the good repute of the profession and protect it from outside attack, and … aid in the advancement of the motion picture in all its arts and sciences.” 1 Today the Academy is best known for its annual awards ceremony, but in its initial months it was far more concerned with the threat to industrial “harmony” posed by incipient unionization.

On 29 November 1926 the major producers had finally signed the Studio Basic Agreement, which codified their relationship to organized stagehands, carpenters, electricians, painters, and musicians. Prior to this date jurisdictional quarrels among competing unions had weakened and divided the organized labor force, but when the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Motion Picture Machine Operators was finally able to establish its jurisdiction over studio craft workers, industry leaders were forced to capitulate. Hollywood’s moment as a non-union haven was over. 2

The “talent,” however, was still unorganized. Honorary societies such as the Screen Writers’ Guild of the Authors’ League of America or the American Society of Cinematographers did not function as unions. But with the signing of the Studio Basic Agreement, unionization was in the air, and Actors’ Equity, which had been trying without success to organize the studios since 1922, announced plans for a new campaign.

Enter the Academy. Within weeks of the signing of the Studio Basic Agreement, Louis B. Mayer had suggested a new industry organization to supplement the activities of the Hays Office, especially in regard to this new labor issue. By March the International Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had elected its first officers: Douglas Fairbanks, president; Fred Niblo, vice-president; M. C. Levee, treasurer; and Frank Woods, secretary. 3

The Academy consisted of five distinct branches: actors, directors, producers and production executives, technicians (including cinematographers), and writers. However, it soon became apparent that the producers’ branch was controlling the agenda for its own benefit. It coopted the other branches on such tricky issues as the 10 percent wage cut of 1927, a threatened blow to non-union labor that the Academy claimed credit for rescinding. With its controlled, invitational membership, the Academy soon became the studio-approved alternative to a real union, a situation that caused immediate grumbling, especially among the actors and writers. 4

While all this was moving forward, the Academy’s committee on merit awards announced a dozen categories that would be the basis for an annual series of citations. Films released between 1 August 1927 and 1 August 1928 would be eligible—in effect, the last year of the silent cinema. Earlier awards had been given by trade papers, fan magazines, and “better films” committees, but what made the Academy’s awards interesting were their final two categories. There was no citation for “Best Picture.” Instead, Academy members were asked to vote on two production awards:

  1. A Distinction Award for the most outstanding motion picture production, considering all elements that contribute to a picture’s greatness.
  2. A Distinction Award for the most unique, artistic, worthy and original production without reference to cost or magnitude. 5

It would appear that the Merit Award Committee understood a distinction between art and commerce, and established equal prizes for films that excelled in each area. The award for “outstanding motion picture production” was clearly intended to honor the craft of producing, the domain of one of the Academy’s five component branches, while that for "artistic, worthy and original production " suggests the aesthetic criteria of Exceptional Photoplays.

This distinction is typical of the age. Even in Hollywood, where a vast industrial structure for the manufacture of film had sprung up in less than two decades, there was a deep regard for the artistic potential of the new medium. The public statements of Griffith, Pickford, Chaplin, Thalberg, Vidor, Gish, and other industry leaders make this clear in a way that would be inconceivable today. On the other hand, only a few radicals (von Stroheim chief among them) felt that there was anything inherently contradictory in the American cinema’s dual function as commerce and art. 6

Films eventually singled out in these two categories reflected these distinctions fairly well: SUNRISE , THE CROWD , and CHANG for “artistic production,” WINGS , THE LAST COMMAND , THE RACKET, 7TH HEAVEN , and THE WAY OF ALL FLESH for “outstanding production.” That first year the Academy bestowed its two top production awards on Fox’s SUNRISE and Paramount’s WINGS .

History records this event differently, especially history as written by the Motion Picture Academy. The following year it was decided to combine the two Distinction Awards into one top prize. There are a number of reasonable explanations for this, including the greater economic impact that a single award carries, and the ego problem of designating one group of nominees as “not so artistic.” In tracing the lineage of the current “Best Picture” category, however, official histories approved by the Academy consciously elevate WINGS at expense of SUNRISE . One such volume not only discounts the stature of the “artistic quality of production” award, lumping it with the minor technical citations and special awards, but retroactively changes the name of the award given W INGS to “Best Picture.” 7

No doubt the Academy has its own reasons for ignoring the high award its founders voted to SUNRISE and tracing the lineage of its current top winner directly back to WINGS . Certainly it is no easier today to analyze the rich output of silent American features and rank them according to “best,” “outstanding,” or “most important.” Such a task was attempted by the Royal Film Archive of Belgium as part of a project honoring the American bicentennial, and the results are interesting not so much for how they relate to the Academy’s thinking but for how they summarize history’s verdict on the films of the 1915–1928 period and their place within the entire history of American cinema. 8

An international grouping of critics and historians, including 116 Americans and 87 “non-Americans,” was asked to list the “most important and misappreciated” American films through 1976. Of the top ten “most important” titles cited, eight were released between 1915 and 1928, a phenomenal number that reflects the high regard accorded films of this era half a century after the demise of silent pictures. Here are the top ten films cited, along with the number of times each film was recognized (out of 205 possible votes):

It should be noted that any such poll reflects only the critical thinking of the moment, and not any ideal or even objective pantheon. Nevertheless, the consensus seen here (on the silent films, at least), would have held few surprises for any critic writing since 1930.

As we have seen, SUNRISE was immediately cited by the Hollywood community for its “unique” and “artistic” qualities. A conscious attempt to merge the European art cinema with Hollywood’s production and distribution resources, it failed commercially but succeeded as a prestige item for the Fox studio. More important, it suggested a new method of visual discourse to a whole generation of American filmmakers:

Here is camera technique pushed to its limits, freed from pantomime and parade against a world as motionless as a backdrop…. Not since the earliest, simplest moving pictures, when locomotives, fire engines, and crowds in the streets were transposed to the screen artlessly and endearingly … has there been such joy in motion as under Murnau’s direction (Louise Bogan, “Sunrise,” New Republic, 26 October 1927).

Of the eight silent films on the list, SUNRISE may have been the least important to audiences of the time, but its standing among critics and industry professionals was remarkably high. Karl Struss, one of its cinematographers, found it revolutionary in the way it expressed thought entirely through visual imagery—not just camera movement, but all elements of a carefully preplanned production design. 9 While the American cinema had produced work of great style and substance before this, SUNRISE was able to demonstrate the Hollywood community specific values that could be gained from a formal, even self-conscious application of purely “cinematic” devices. Criticism of SUNRISE within this group almost completely bypassed the film’s story line and focused instead on its incorporation of title cards, the function of its camera movements, and the stylized perspectives employed in its settings. The critical community, meanwhile, was not yet sophisticated enough to fully understand the importance of such elements and spent far more time quibbling about the film’s “happy ending” and the alleged corruption of artistic ideals this represented for them. The result was an unjust attack on the Fox hierarchy, and the elevation of Murnau to the status of martyr in Hollywood’s long battle between commerce and art.

Erich von Stroheim was an even more flamboyant martyr. While SUNRISE may or may not have been compromised by its ending, the whole of GREED was seen as a bleeding fragment, a two-hour sliver of a masterwork originally prepared by its maker in a nine-hour version. But if SUNRISE earned wide support within the professional community, GREED polarized critics and audiences alike. To Richard Watts, Page 320  Jr., it was “the most important picture yet produced in America,” a dramatic achievement on a par with that season’s great Broadway success Desire Under the Elms. On the other hand, the New York Times praised MGM executives for cutting the film, and even Robert E. Sherwood denounced von Stroheim as “a genius … badly in need of a stop watch.” 10

What all these critics were reacting to was the success of von Stroheim’s effort to find a cinematic equivalent of Frank Norris’ literary naturalism. In McTeague, Norris had made the world of his characters a significant, even palpable, force in the drama. Pages of detailed description created a world that defined and delimited the lives of his characters. In his screen adaptation, von Stroheim employed deep-focus photography, set decoration of extraordinary authenticity, and a performance style of rare intimacy and authority. To most viewers in 1924, the screen was not yet ready for so strong a dose of “realism,” but among the critical community such attitudes soon began to change. GREED , especially its uncut version, quickly became an icon of authenticity, a “holy grail” whose loss could be blamed on crass studio executives. This being the case, it is somewhat ironic that none of those voting for GREED in the 1976 poll had ever seen anything but the shortened MGM release—a version completely rejected by its director. 11

It is not surprising that THE BIRTH OF A NATION and INTOLERANCE should appear so closely together on this list, since history has often considered these two D. W. Griffith productions as some sort of matched pair. In fact, one view of INTOLERANCE sees it as a direct response to the reception of the earlier picture, with Griffith lashing out at those who sought to censor or suppress his epic of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

The same month that Universal City opened in California, New York audiences saw the premiere of THE BIRTH OF A NATION . If Carl Laemmle’s new studio reflected the rapid industrialization of the motion-picture business, then Griffith’s film served as a similar landmark in the development of the motion-picture product itself. THE BIRTH OF A NATION had an unprecedented effect on the cinema’s economic, aesthetic, technological, and cultural development. While other films may have matched it in one or another of these categories, no other work in film history has achieved an impact so broad, and so deep. Figures on the film’s exact earnings are unavailable, but all research indicates that THE BIRTH OF A NATION was by far the greatest financial success of the silent era. It was the first feature to attract vast crowds to theater box offices, and it did so while offering an experience that was technically and artistically in the vanguard of 1915 production standards. It might be argued that Griffith did not introduce here the moving camera shots, close-ups, parallel story development, or lighting effects that so impressed audiences, but he certainly synthesized them in this film with breathtaking effect. THE BIRTH OF A NATION should never be thought of as just a movie, however. Rather, it was the first great film event, the first film to force its way into the national consciousness. Griffith’s picture of the war itself was unexceptionable, but his Reconstruction, peopled with heroic Klansmen, duplicitous mulattoes, and rampaging hordes of freed Negro slaves, roused unprecedented storms of protest. 12

If INTOLERANCE was Griffith’s answer to this uproar, it was not an apology for his own position but an attack on the forces that saw fit to restrict his right of free speech. Griffith lost that battle in the Supreme Court, but with INTOLERANCE he lost at the box office as well. Far more costly and ambitious than THE BIRTH OF A NATION ,INTOLERANCE was rejected by audiences who were unable to focus on its four interwoven narrative lines—the fall of Babylon, the Crucifixion, the St. Bartholomew’s Eve massacre, and a modern story of labor unrest.

In retrospect it is clear that Griffith demanded too much of an audience that, only a few years earlier, had been satisfied with two-reel chases and slapstick comedies. Even today the dispersed focus clouds INTOLERANCE for modern audiences. No sooner have they developed an interest in Mae Marsh’s struggles in the modern story than they are pulled back to ancient Babylon or the Huguenot episode. An unintended effect of this, of course, is to stress the film’s formal dynamics while minimizing that emotional appeal which drives THE BIRTH OF A NATION like a roller coaster. INTOLERANCE is a far more intellectual experience than its predecessor, and even today it is a more amenable subject for classroom analysis. Indeed, during the silent era it had already become a textbook, as young Soviet directors took it apart and reconstructed it, in an attempt to understand how it worked and how its lessons might be applied to their own films.

There is only one film on this list that is not a traditional studio narrative: Robert Flaherty’s NANOOK OF THE NORTH . Honored by later generations as a progenitor of the documentary tradition, NANOOK was not the first feature produced on an exotic location, nor even the first to take “reality” as its subject matter. In some ways, NANOOK is very much the nonfiction equivalent of THE BIRTH OF A NATION , for Flaherty was able to win a tremendous audience for his film through his canny manipulation of dramatic devices that had already been demonstrated onscreen by others. The genius of NANOOK was to combine the most basic elements of drama—conflict, character, rising and falling dramatic action—with the “documentary” authenticity of cinematography.

With paint-and-canvas “realism” dominating the American studios, and the expressionism of the German studios the only apparent alternative, NANOOK arrived with a thunderclap:

In a day of emotional and artistic deliquescence on the screen, a picture with the fresh strength and pictorial promise of Nanook of the North is in the nature of Revelation. It may be said to be the first photoplay of the natural school of cinematography…. Here at last begins our native screen language, as original in concept as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, yet as natural as that is fantastic (Frances Taylor Patterson, “Nanook of the North,” New Republic, 9 August 1922).

The promise remained unfulfilled. Historians once saw film as the inheritor of two traditions, fantasy and reality, stemming from the work of French film pioneers Georges Méliès and Louis and Auguste Lumière. If NANOOK OF THE NORTH seemed to be a new BIRTH OF A NATION , they looked in vain for a subsequent INTOLERANCE , GREED , or SUNRISE . The small number of great nonfiction works that did follow never threatened the prevailing fictional tradition. But even a half-century later, NANOOK OF THE NORTH still maintained this aura of promise for critics around the world, who dutifully ranked it as one of the landmark works in cinema history.

That THE GENERAL and THE GOLD RUSH should stand together on this list underscores one of the great sources of tension between period criticism of silent cinema and its modern counterpart. To put it bluntly, Chaplin was a god to film Page 323  intellectuals of the 1920s, while Buster Keaton was often considered a likable, if limited, performer with nothing very much to say. 13

THE GOLD RUSH was revered for its humanity, for its studied mixture of pathos, drama, and slapstick, and for its very existence as the latest example of Chaplin’s art. By 1925 what Chaplin was doing pretty much defined the highest aspiration of comedy onscreen. He had so succeeded in capturing the hearts and minds of his generation that other comedians (even unintentionally) were inevitably compared to his standard. Chaplin’s films remain as imaginative and affecting as always, but the passage of years since their creation has allowed their flaws to show through as well. The crudities of Chaplin’s technical methods were simply not an issue in 1925. His cutting, his camera placement, even his scenic design, seem to later audiences a crude holdover from a simpler age of cinema, a limitation that Chaplin’s genius for character and gag construction works to overcome. The cardboard sets of THE GOLD RUSH offer very little help to the star and director of this picture, who seems to care not a whit for the actual ambiance of the Far North and, in the old music-hall tradition, is satisfied to throw up a flat.

To look at Buster Keaton’s THE GENERAL , however, is to step back into a recreation of nineteenth-century life that rivals Griffith in texture and detail. As von Stroheim drew strength from the density of his environments, so Keaton creates his gags from objects, situations, and personalities generated by the period and location with which he is working. Chaplin’s hungry cabin-mates might inhabit any frozen clime, but Keaton’s characters create a southern landscape with more conviction than most dramatic features of the day.

Yet THE GENERAL was a financial catastrophe of such proportions that Keaton was ultimately forced to give up his own production company and sign with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Critical reaction was not much better. For example, the New York Times reviewer, Mordaunt Hall, felt that the picture was lacking in humor and inferior to Keaton’s earlier films. The comedian “appears to have bitten off more than he can chew,” he wrote. Thirty years later a popular survey of silent cinema was still quite guarded in its assessment, admitting only that the film’s “reduced comedy content” is compensated for by its unique narrative strength. All this began to change with Keaton’s rediscovery in the 1960s. A new perspective on humor saw value in Keaton’s style and sensibility, not just his gag structure. 14

But as this particular poll shows, Keaton was not elevated at the expense of losing Charles Chaplin. Continued viewing, restoration, and analysis of silent films—not only by historians but by theater audiences as well—has allowed a healthy reevaluation of surviving films of the era. The Chaplin-Keaton contest is probably the most visible aspect of this constant restructuring of pantheon priorities. It tells us that silent film as a performing art still lives, but it also suggests that today’s pantheon may be very different from that of a generation hence.

King Vidor’s THE CROWD is the most recent silent film on the Belgian poll’s “top ten” and was in fact released in competition with the earliest talking films. Shot between December 1926 and March 1927, it was on the shelf for almost a year before being issued by MGM. In retrospect, it is not surprising that studio executives had trouble deciding how to position the film in the marketplace. It avoids the plot constraints and character conventions of traditional silent melodrama and looks instead to the “enlightening influence” of German silent cinema as a model. THE CROWD lacks a villain, a happy ending, an action sequence, or even the traditional   silent-movie idea of dramatic conflict. Instead it follows the lackluster career of a lower-middle-class urban office worker and his family. The “star,” James Murray, was chosen by Vidor for his anonymity, a position to which he quickly returned in the months following the film’s release. Vidor may have been looking back at the German cinema in his use of stylized settings, camera movement, and Kammerspiel acting, but much of the film’s strength today comes from elements that predict the Italian neorealist cinema, still twenty years in the future. While not quite matching Cesare Zavattini’s neorealist ideal of “ninety minutes in the life of an average man,” THE CROWD comes very close, especially in Vidor’s handling of Murray, and his extensive location shooting in New York, much of it filmed with hidden cameras. 15

MGM might have been uncertain about how THE CROWD should be released (they offered it to exhibitors with a choice of endings), but their decision to budget half a million dollars for so nontraditional a film is clearly commendable. THE CROWD actually turned a small profit for them, despite competition from films like THE JAZZ SINGER , indicating audience support for high-quality filmmaking in the twilight period of silent film that few have discussed. The Motion Picture Academy even nominated it as “most artistic and unique production,” but the competition from SUNRISE was too strong. 16

The eight films on this list are consensus masterworks, unsurprising and even a bit conservative in their selection. Without suggesting this group of titles as a rigid canon, it is worth noting that the consensus reached in 1976 was not so very different from what might have been achieved two generations earlier. These are the silent cinema’s official masterworks, films that will live forever behind the walls of museums and universities.

But as we have tried to show throughout this book, the silent cinema was not just a roll of film in a can. It was a complex social, aesthetic, and economic fabric that brought the power of the moving image into the twentieth century. The silent film was not simply Hollywood and movie stars but a system of local theaters linking America’s small towns and great cities, not just a list of films and filmmakers but a way of life in which technology, showmanship, and economics were all key determinants.

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