National Silent Film Day
This year film enthusiasts celebrated the first National Silent Film Day. It took place on September 29, and I am betting that most folks did not participate in the appreciation of this almost completely lost artform. So, in anticipation of next year’s holiday, or simply to offer some of the greatest cinematic fare ever created, here are several of the most significant and utterly beautiful silent films.
The big screen lit up for the first time around 1895 or 1896. Films of the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras are static, but their power is evident. Among the filmmakers of that time were Sagar James Mitchell and James Kenyon. Based in Blackburn, England, in 1897, they first took their camera to marketplaces, factory gates, and to the streets of a number of northern England’s towns. Their actualities, what we call documentaries today, can be streamed on YouTube and viewed on DVD. In these films, we see bits of their long-gone world, and become fascinated with their own fascination with a new-fangled moving picture camera which records their actions.
The French, the Lumiere brothers and Georges Melies, and industrious, modern-minded people from many parts of the world obtained cameras, formed independent studios, and began making silent fiction and non-fiction films. Edison and the Black Maria and the Biograph Studios in the U.S…. The cinema matured quickly. Adventuresome men and women experimented with lenses, composition, make-up, storytelling, and editing. They figured ways to make movies, distribute the prints, and exhibit their product to willing consumers.
By 1909 and certainly by the start of World War I, movies were much more than primitive. And by 1921 – 100 years ago, silent films had reached a level of sophistication. Two of my favorite films are 1921 releases. The first is Charles Chaplin’s The Kid, a heart-breaking drama with many brilliant comedic touches. The story involves an unwed mother who grudgingly abandons her infant son by placing him in a fancy automobile, hoping he will grow up in comfort. But the baby winds up in the care of the Little Tramp, Chaplin. Years pass before anyone challenges the Tramp’s loving care of the child. When tragedy strikes, the Tramp fights with all his might to keep his beloved “kid”. This film leaves me breathless.
Another great film from 100 years ago is Tol’able David, directed by Henry King, and starring the talented but forgotten Hollywood star, Richard Barthelmess. It’s a tale of rural life in West Virginia, a rustic lifestyle then prevalent in many parts of the U.S. David is the youngest in a family of strong men. He’s kind of a runt, but a good kid. When vicious brutes cause the death of his father and cripple his tougher brother, David sets out to revenge his family. Tol’able David was shot on location in the Allegheny Mountains, even using locals in small roles.
It’s a film that has been celebrated, even cherished, by film historians and archivists, including David Shepard and Kevin Brownlow. In 1930, it was remade as a talkie—a good film, but not like the 1921 original. Barthelmess never gave an average performance. If you appreciate him as David, do see him in the silent D.W. Griffith films Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920). Then watch him with Cary Grant in the sound films Heroes for Sale (1933) and Only Angels Have Wings (1939). All are available for home viewing.
Silent films not only set the stage for modern cinema. A good number of those that survive – and only about 50% do survive, are fine entertainments and provide passageways into earlier lifestyles, values, and to the talents of so many performers, writers, directors, cinematographers, and editors who came before those who work today.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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