History of the Cinema: The Silent

        Over the years, film has come a long way from once only being thought of as a novelty or pass time, to becoming one of the most influential and most important aspect of communication and entertainment today. The cinema has been around since the nineteenth century; since then it has had major impact on not only technology, but on the arts and politics as well. Film has not always been what it is today. From the very beginning, producers and inventors attempted to move pictures along with synchronizing sound; however, not until the 1920s did this idea become reality. Therefore, film was more or less silent during the first thirty years of its existence.

        In 1896, a Paris stage magician, Georges Méliès, started exhibiting and shooting films. Méliès' films concentrated on fantasy and subjects that were considered quite bizarre. Méliès was responsible for the first movie to show a portrayal of space travel, 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. Méliès pioneered many of the essential and fundamental special effects technique used in movies for more than half of the twentieth century. Méliès proved that film had unlimited power to bend visible reality instead of only recording it. Méliès was also credited with beginning the multi-scene narratives that lasted the industry standard, fifteen minutes.

        Along with Méliès' developments in film, director Edwin S. Porter pushed some aspects of the cinema to new lengths. Porter used sophisticated film editing in his 1903 movies, Life of an American Fireman and the first known Western film, The Great Train Robbery. Porter was also a big believer of the basic unit in a film is not the scene but is instead the shot.

        Méliès and Porter's development in cinema, along with other directors, aided in establishing film more than just a trend and at the same time encouraged the increase of interest in the first permanent movie theaters called nickelodeons. By 1908, there were 10,000 nickelodeons in the United States. Pathe Freres, a French company, gained a dominant position throughout the world with methods like control of key patents and ownership of theaters. In the United States, the Motion Picture Patents Company achieved a brief monopoly by using not only aggressive business tactics, but also intimidation, which became sometimes violent, against independent competitors.

        During the fist decade of the century, about ten to fifteen minutes was the standard length of film. However, in Europe multiple-reels started to push the envelope of film length. The French 1912 film, Queen Elizabeth, the Italian 1913 film, Quo Vadis?, and the Italian 1914 film, Cabiria, were very successful internationally. All three were multi-reel, which were also called feature films. Multi-reels slowly started to replace the short reeled films as the main form in cinema.

        The main multi-reel director in America was D. W. Griffith. Griffith was responsible for the great historical epics, The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). Griffith also aided in developing codes of editing and visual storytelling that still remain the foundation of mainstream film grammar. Griffith's 1915 silent film, The Birth of a Nation, was the first notable film to inspire widespread controversy concerning racial issues, because of the portrayal of the slaves and treatment of the slaves in the film.

        In the twentieth century, films started to become popular among the middle class and gained recognition as an art form with a firm spot in the emerging of culture. Cinemas in France and Italy had been the most poplar and powerful across the world until this point. However, the United States was quickly gaining when World War I caused an outstanding negative interruption in the European film industries. The American industry started to become known as "Hollywood" because of its new geographical center in California. Hollywood became the movie factory for the world, exporting its products to countries across the world along with controlling many of the markets for the films.

        The United States reached its era of greatest-ever output in the 1920s when it produced an average of eight hundred feature films annually. This was eighty-two percent of the global total for feature films being produced. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton comedies, Clara Bow romances, and Douglas Fairbanks adventures, made these actors' faces and icon in almost every country in the world. Being exported everywhere was the Western visual norm, continuity editing. This type of classical editing became solidified; however, its popularity in non-Western countries such as Japan was not as high at first.

        The growth of the studio system, and its greatest publicity tool, the start system were intertwined with the explosion of the new type of editing. New and increasing level of lavish production and technical sophistication was made possible by the studios' efficient control over all stages of their product during this time period. At the same time, the system's focus on glamorous scenes discouraged daring and ambition beyond a certain degree.

        The dominance of mainstream Hollywood entertainment at the time was not as strong as it would eventually get. Many alternatives were still widely seen by audiences and were very influential. Germany was America's largest competitor. Germany had a very distinctive dark contribution to film, with the hallucinatory worlds of German Expressionism. German Expressionism advance the power of anti-realistic presentation by placing internal states of mind on the big screen, as well as the emerging and strongly influential horror genre of film.

        The first feature-length silent film was in India by Dadasaheb Phalke. Phalke was considered to be the Father of Indian Cinema. The film was the period piece Raja Harishchandra in 1913. Raja Harishchndra laid the foundation for a series of period films. The output of Indian Cinema by the next decade was an average of twenty-seven films per year.

        Refinement was fast moving even with the mainstream film. It brought silent film to be its aesthetic summit. The possibilities of cinematography continued to expand as cameras became more mobile and films stocks became more versatile and sensitive. Eventually, screen acting came into its own as a craft. Screen acting left behind its earlier theatrical exaggeration and achieved a psychological realism. Reliance on intertiltles decreased as visual eloquence increased. Then at about this point, around the late 1920s silent film came to an abrupt end.

        In conclusion, silent film played a major in the history of cinema. Even though it did not have as long lasting of a career as sound in films have had, without the silent film, the film we have today would have never probably been made possible.

Ashley Davis

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