By Meaghan Walsh Gerard
It’s true that the silent era was never really silent. Going to the movies in the 1920s was quite the experience. News reels, shorts, small vaudeville acts, and live music accompaniment were all on the bill. With today’s high-tech options and multi-million dollar budgets, it’s amazing to look back at the early days of cinema and see how much they did with just a little creativity, ingenuity, and just a dash of daring.
Buster Keaton was a stunt man on camera but he was also an innovator in the director’s chair. Our Hospitality features a simple boys-loves-girl comedy plot but is notable for its wild waterfall scene with Keaton and his real-life wife, Virginia Talmadge.
Sherlock, Jr., may be my favorite Keaton film. Playing with the new technology of film, he plays a projectionist-turned-detective and features numerous camera and editing tricks. It’s funny, sweet, and a wonderful introduction to the ingenuity of the era.
When the Jazz Singer came out in 1927, audiences were delighted to hear recorded sound accompany some of its musical scenes. Studios, eager to capitalize, struggled to find ways to make sound realistic yet maintain the cheap production costs that allowed them to churn out two or three movies a week. Director F. W. Murnau (Nosferatu, The Last Laugh) set out to create a film so beautiful it would convince theatregoers and studio heads to keep the industry silent. The result is his delightful, gorgeous film Sunrise. It won three Oscars at the first Academy Awards.
One of the reasons silent cinema spread so quickly in popularity the lack of dialogue. Immigrant or illiterate populations didn’t need to read subtitles. What few title cards were interspersed didn’t detract from the enjoyment of a day at the movies. It also meant foreign films could easily make it to far-flung audiences. This Swedish film used technically-difficult double exposure and employed flashbacks -- and was a notable influence on Ingmar Bergman.
A collection of three films (the first is actually a serial) starring the master of illusion at the height of his career. Harry Houdini knew how to market himself. While he was world-renowned through his popular stage shows, film gave him the chance to be seen by even more of the adoring public. These are not particularly good movies, but they do give the modern audience a chance to see the magician in action.
Have you ever just sat and stared at an aquarium, completely mesmerized? A biologist and physicist, Jean Painleve filmed hundreds of hours of creatures for scientific research -- but also for art’s sake. He became an unlikely member of the Surrealist movement with these otherworldly, completely entrancing films. These were some of the first, real wildlife documentaries.
This was a mainstay in my cinema studies program. The collection includes everything from Man Ray to early Orson Welles. I cannot recommend Menilmontant (1926) enough. Shot on location in Paris, it is a moody and beautiful. Vormittagspuk (1928) is a comedic short using stop-motion animation to suggest that ghosts are dining at the table. Manhatta (1921) is a sort of moving painting of New York City by street photographer Paul Strand and urban painter Charles Sheeler.
Want to check out some more silent films? Look through our silent film genre page:
Meaghan Walsh Gerard has been writing about films (especially classic ones) and books (especially gothic ones) for more than ten years on her site. She is obsessed with the art of storytelling and holds a master’s degree in cinema studies. Meaghan has been a DVD Netflix member since 2003. Follow Meaghan at mwgerard.com, on Twitter @mwgerard, or Facebook and Instagram.