It’s been a while, fellow Patchlings! Here’s hoping your holidays and New Years’s were good to you, and, after lots of vigorous holiday overeating, I have returned.
So, in honor of the new year, we’re taking it way back. Back to the very beginning of cinema, which, in fact, turns 125 this year. Crazy, right? This was the era of the silent film, many of which have sadly been lost due to decaying celluloid, or to fire, as early film was made with nitrate, which was extremely flammable. But plenty of silent films survive and have been restored, giving us a little glimpse of how film—and subsequently TV, computer-generated imagery, video games and web series—all began.
The earliest known “motion picture” is a 2.11-second clip known as “The Roundhay Garden Scene,” filmed in 1888 by Louis Le Prince in England, and shows a few people walking in a garden. Needless to say, nothing happens—picture a two-second clip from someone’s home movies—but you can catch a glimpse of some great late-nineteenth-century fashion.
Silent films are known for their dialogue cards, piano soundtracks and overacting. Film was still a very new media at the time, so it hadn’t been quite finessed yet. That’s why the actors, male and female alike, can be seen wearing troweled-on stage makeup that makes everyone look like Robert Smith. When viewed on modern equipment, silent films often seem to be running in high speed. This is because the frame rate (number of still frames per second) was much lower back in the day than it is now. So if you were watching a film in 1915, it would appear to be moving in normal speed, but now, they seem sped up. So now that you know the basics, lets look at some silent classics.
The Great Train Robbery. Edwin S. Porter. 1903. The Great Train Robbery has the honor of being the earliest surviving American film, though it’s not the oldest surviving film in the world. Clocking in at twelve minutes, this Western tells the tale of (you guessed it) a train robbery and the subsequent hunt for the bandits. It’s fairly straightforward storywise—after all, they only had twelve minutes to tell it. It features a number of filming techniques that at the time were cutting edge, like double exposures, cross cutting and camera movement. It was also filmed on location rather than in a studio—although “on location” is a bit misleading; while Train Robbery is a Western, it was actually filmed in New Jersey.
A Fool There Was. Frank Powell. 1915. John Schuyler is a happily-married and successful Wall Street lawyer. But on a diplomatic assignment to England, he falls under the seductive power of a predatory woman known only as “The Vampire,” played by then-famous screen siren Theda Bara whose wardrobe is seriously amazing in this film. She’s not a literal vampire, but she’s the sort of woman who drains men of their money rather than their blood. Schuyler falls into ruin and psychological torment and while it seems like a sort of standard story, the film is surprisingly progressive in terms of gender roles, and ultimately ends with Schuyler’s wife, the epitome of the good wife and mother opposite Bara’s vamp, leaving her unfaithful husband to make a better life for herself. That did not happen in Fatal Attraction. Theda Bara was a prolific actress in the silent era, and known for her risqué performances, though only a few of her films survive today.
Broken Blossoms. D. W. Griffith. 1919. D.W. Griffith is generally known for his sprawling 1915 epic, Birth of a Nation, a movie that is at once notable for its innovations in filmmaking, and cringe-worthy for its appalling racism and glorification of racial violence. Broken Blossoms, however, is rather different. It tells the story of Cheng Huan, who comes to London from China in the hopes of spreading Buddhism. In London’s gritty slums, however, facing poverty and racism, he becomes disillusioned and turns to opium use in his depression. Meanwhile, Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish) is the physically and mentally abused daughter of a brutish prizefighter (Donald Crisp). One evening, her father beats her severely and casts her out, and she stumbles into the doorway of Cheng’s curio shop. Cheng takes her in and nurses her back to health, and between them, an innocent love blossoms. The story is deeply tragic (don’t expect a happy ending) and tells the story of two lost souls finding a little bit of hope in a brutal world. Now, there is a caveat with this one: filmmaking in its past—and present—is often marred by racism. Even while Broken Blossoms tells the story of an interracial relationship and the perils of prejudice, it falls prey to the racist norms of its day. Cheng, first off, is played by a white actor (Richard Barthelmess). Plenty of the extras are Chinese, which indicates that there was no shortage of Chinese actors, but apparently actually depicting an interracial relationship was still too much for Griffith. Cheng is also habitually referred to as “The Yellow Man,” and the alternate title was "The Yellow Man and the Girl," which is embarrassing for everyone. Watch it with a proverbial grain of salt, and understand that cinema is to this day plagued with racism. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy this film. For it’s faults, its intention is an inclusive message, and it was a tiny step in the direction of integrated casts.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Robert Wiene. 1920. This German Expressionist horror film tells the story of a murderous sleepwalker under the control of a mad doctor and the heroic young man who stops them to save his beloved—or does it? Are we watching a straightforward horror story, or the delusions of a madman? Using wild, surrealistic sets that reflect the madness portrayed in the story, this silent film is truly a visual feast, and draws on the traditions of German Expressionism to create a moody atmosphere where the setting reflects the internal. German Expressionism went on to influence directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Tim Burton, as well as genres like film noir.
Eventually, silent films went the way of the dinosaur with the advent of “talkies,” which we kind of take for granted today. Because of their lack of sound, silent films had to rely solely on the visuals to communicate characterization, story and mood. Today, watching a silent movie is a very different experience than watching a recent film, but it’s a good one. Many have passed into the public domain, which means you can find them for free online, like The Great Train Robbery, Broken Blossoms and A Fool There Was, which can be viewed on YouTube. Feel free to supply your own soundtrack.