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TNR Film Classics: American Silent Film (July 1, 1978)

If sensation-gorged sound movie audiences think about silent films at all, it is in that narrow category bounded by the ridiculous on one side and the grotesque on the other. If silent films are nut pratfalls, custard pies and people moving too fast, they are desiccated relics like Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s stark Sunset Boulevard, whispering about how “we didn’t need words, we had faces then,” And when they do chance to see silent films, William Everson writes, “all too many contemporary audiences consider it smart and sophisticated to laugh at them, and go to them looking for an excuse to laugh.”

To William Everson, this is heresy of the first order. To him the silent film is a world unto itself, with its own royalty and its own rules. “It cannot be stressed too strongly that the sound motion picture was an entirely different medium from the silent motion picture and not merely the extension of it,” he says. “The difference between the two media is literally the difference between painting and photography, and the frequent unreality—or stylized reality—of much of the camerawork of the silent film was, artistically, one of its greatest assets.”

Everson is not just sounding off, he is talking on the basis of having seen almost every silent film available for viewing, plus most of the sound ones as well. A recognized authority on the Western film, he was a deft choice to do this, the first volume in a projected Oxford University Press history of the American film, and a book that lives up to its ballyhoo as the best modern survey, of the silent period, complete with a more-than-ample selection of haunting stills, a book in the tradition of earlier classic histories like Lewis Jacobs’s The Rise of the American film, Paul Rotha’s The Film Till Now, and Kevin Brownlow’s more recent The Parade Gone By.

As an art form, film continually surprises by its youth and by the fact that its earliest products didn’t give observers much hope for the future. It was in February, 1803, that the world’s first movie studio opened in presumably scenic East Orange, New Jersey, and proceeded to turn out its very first product: Fred Ott’s Sneeze, in tight close-up no less.

Though many things have obviously changed since Mr. Ott, a surprising number of film’s facets, as Everson astutely points out, have survived unchanged. From its very beginnings, he emphasizes, film was a business as well as an art, and from the first it capitalized on “the kind of shock and sensation that could not be presented on stage,” giving early audiences everything from lurid (not really) kisses to Edison’s Electrocution of an Elephant, “a grisly pieceof footage more because we know it is real than because of what it actually shows.”

Year by year, practically film by film, Everson takes us through the silent era from those primitive starts to mature classics like von Stroheimls Greed and F.W. Murnau’s luminous Sunrise, the author’s slightly hedged choice as “a climax to the art of silent film…a textbook illustration not only of what the silent film could achieve despite the lack of dialogue, but, on the contrary, what it could achieve because of it.”

Though he deals extensively with films and directors rediscovered since the last silent histories, Everson’s virtue lies not in pioneering. Rather it is in his feeling for grasp and synthesis, the almost tangible sense he conveys that he has seen and absorbed everything worth seeing, plus much that isn’t, and is able to pass it all on in cogent form.

So while one may wish at times that Everson wouldn’t enthuse quite so much over quite so many items no one else has seen, the bonus comes when he arrives at much discussed films like Edward Porter’s 1903 The Great Train Robbery and is able to definitively say that while hardly the first plotted film, as is often claimed, it is “certainly the first American film in which a narrative structure was recognized, and in which the name of the director was acknowledged.” It’s certainly nice to have the record set straight after 75 years.

An added bonus from Everson’s maniacal thoroughness is that he turns up various charming odds and ends from the silents’ history, tidbits that intrigue as well as educate. We learn, for instance, that in 1924 one of the last of the great overland cattle drives was considered for filming but rejected as “not colorful enough” for inclusion in a moving picture, and that it was not unusual to have two wildly unrelated films shot almost simultaneously on the same location as an economy measure, as when a dramatic sand dune was used as a backdrop for a William S. Hart western and then, “without even a change of camera angle,” it was taken over as the set for a drama of exotic India called “The Beggar of Cawnpore.” Only in Hollywood can such things happen. Dominating the book, and with good reason, is the courtly, egotistical, Victorian figure of David Wark Griffith, the director who was regarded as the artistic pinnacle of his time as well as the standard against which all current popular entertainment was measured. Placing him, as Everson does, against the minutely detailed strivings of his contemporaries merely serves to emphasize how extraordinary his own accomplishments were.

Just for openers, between 1908 and 1913, Griffith, in the course of directing more than 400 one-reelers, almost unilaterally “created the whole language of film,” a language he used to spectacular effect with his 1915 Birth of a Nation.

Everson feels that this Civil War and Reconstruction melodrama, in terms of its sheer audience involvement and its enormous influence on other filmmakers, even as far away as Russia, was “quite possibly the single most important film of all time,” an epic that hit with an impact almost impossible to appreciate today, “as if an audience familiar only with comic strips had suddenly been introduced to Tolstoy, and in a way that they could understand.” Everson defends Griffith against the frequently made charges of racism, puts forth the film’s claim to having garnered the most paid admissions in cinematic history, and in general marvels at Griffith’s ability to work on an epic scale completely without a written script, “carrying all of the plot and construction details in his head, and conducting rehearsals by releasing details on the spot.”

Yet even this extraordinary man eventually fell on hard times, misjudging his audience, feeling that the post-World War I swing toward sophistication and away from his particular brand of sentimentality would be only a temporary thing. Griffith lingered on into the sound era, but nothing he did with words equaled his use of cinema when it was silent. Truly, Everson convinces us, a self-contained world away when Al Jolson spoke his famous piece, and readers of this book will never again be quite so sure we are unreservedly the better for it.