Digital History>Topics>Film

American Film in the Silent Era

Digital History TOPIC ID 122

Some film historians, like Lewis Jacobs and David Robinson, have argued that early silent films revolved around "characteristically working class settings," and expressed the interests of the poor in their struggles with the rich and powerful. Other scholars maintain that early movies drew largely upon conventions, stock characters, and routines derived from vaudeville, popular melodrama, Wild West shows, comic strips, and other forms of late nineteenth century popular entertainment. Given the fact thousands of films were released during the silent era and relatively few have survived, it is dangerous to generalize about movie content. Nevertheless, certain statements about these films do seem warranted.

American films were born in an age of reform, and many early silent movies took as their subject matter the major social and moral issues of the Progressive era: birth control, child labor, divorce, immigration, political corruption, poverty, prisons, prostitution, and women's suffrage. The tone of these films varied widely - some were realistic and straightforward; others treated their subjects with sentimentality or humor; and many transformed complex social issues into personal melodramas. Yet there can be no doubt that many silent films dealt at least obliquely with the dominant issues of the time.

Although many Americans today think of the films of the silent era as relics of a simpler, more innocent age, in fact more serious social and political themes lurked "behind the mask of innocence." As Kevin Brownlow has demonstrated, despite their well-dressed tramps and child-like waifs, many early silent films were preoccupied with such broad issues as the the sources of crime, the nature of political corruption, shifting sexual norms, and the changing role of women. The silent screen offered vivid glimpses of urban tenements and ethnic ghettoes; the screen was filled with gangsters, loan sharks, drug addicts, and panderers and provided a graphic record of "how the other half lives."

In addition, many early films were laced with anti-authority themes, poking fun at bumbling cops, corrupt politicians, and intrusive upper-class reformers. Highly physical slapstick comedy offered a particularly potent vehicle of social criticism, spoofing the pretensions of the wealthy and presenting sympathetic portraits of the poor. Mack Sennett, one of the most influential directors of silent comedy, later recalled the themes of his films: "I especially liked the reduction of authority to absurdity, the notion that sex could be funny, and the bold insults hurled at Pretension."

Many films of the early silent era dealt with gender relations. Before 1905, as Kathy Peiss has argued, movie screens were filled with salacious sexual imagery and risque humor, drawn from burlesque halls and vaudeville theaters. Early films offered many glimpses of women disrobing or of passionate kisses. As the movies' female audience grew, sexual titillation and voyeurism persisted. But an ever increasing number of film dealt with the changing work and sexual roles of women in a more sophisticated manner. While D.W. Griffith's films presented an idealized picture of the frail Victorian child-woman, and showed an almost obsessive preoccupation with female honor and chastity, other silent movies presented quite different images of femininity. These ranged from the exotic, sexually aggressive vamp to the athletic, energetic "serial queen"; the street smart urban working gal, who repels the sexual advances of her lascivious boss; and cigarette-smoking, alcohol drinking chorus girls or burlesque queens.

In the late teens and '20s, as Lary May has demonstrated, the movies began to shed their Victorian moralism, sentimentality, and reformism and increasingly expressed new themes: glamour, sophistication, exoticism, urbanity, and sex appeal. New kinds of movie stars appeared: the mysterious sex goddess, personified by Greta Garbo; the passionate, hot-blooded Latin lover, epitomized by Rudolph Valentino; and the flapper, first brought to the screen by Colleen Moore, with her bobbed hair, skimpy skirts, and incandescent vivacity. New genres also appeared: swashbuckling adventures; sophisticated sex comedies revolving around the issue of marital fidelity; romantic dramas examining the manners and morals of the well-bred and well-to-do; and tales of "flaming youth" and the new sexual freedom.

During the 1920s, a sociologist named Herbert Blumer, interviewed students and young workers to assess the impact of movies on their lives, and concluded that the effect was to reorient their lives away from ethnic and working class communities toward a broader consumer culture. Observed one high school student: "The day-dreams instigated by the movies consist of clothes, ideas on furnishings and manners." Said an African- American student: "The movies have often made me dissatisfied with my neighborhood because when I see a movie, the beautiful castle, palace,...and beautiful house, I wish my home was something like these." Hollywood not only expressed popular values, aspirations, and fantasies, it also promoted cultural change.

Copyright Digital History 2021