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By looking at early and silent cinema you are investigating primal questions about cinema. What is cinema, where did it come from and how does it actually function? Your understanding of silent cinema will adjust your understanding of cinema right up to the present day. So if you want to study, write or talk about cinema, you’d better get reading.
Here are five books I highly recommend that will give you a foundation for understanding where cinema came from, and frameworks with which to think about early and silent film.
The Emergence of Cinema by Charles Musser
Charles Musser is a leading authority on early American film. This was the first volume of the excellent History of American Cinema series and takes a definitive look at the origins of cinema and its development. Musser makes an important distinction that cinema emerged out of existing traditions rather than being invented in an ‘Eureka’ moment. Essential for an understanding of cinema as a whole.
The Dream That Kicks by Michael Chanan
In this book Michael Chanan rethinks everything. All our assumptions about cinema are questioned and reassessed. He provides an insightful account of the emergence of cinema, deconstructs the myths that have surrounded ‘persistence of vision’ and provides an excellent account of how celluloid came to be cinema’s medium. A thought-provoking and exciting book.
The Beginnings of the Cinema in England, vols 1-5 by John Barnes
This ambitious five-volume masterwork investigates the cinema in England from 1904 to 1901. Written by revered film historian John Barnes, this was the most complete survey of early film in Britain at the time of publication in the 1970s (reprinted in the 90s) and it remains an authority on the subject to this day. To collect all five volumes will set you back £250, so if you ever find a bargain on one of the volumes, don’t think twice.
Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative edited by Thomas Elsaesser
Published in 1990, this key collection of essays gathered groundbreaking research on early film from the 1980s. This new wave of early film study was a direct result of the annual conference of the International Federation of Film Archives held in Brighton in 1978, in which over 200 early films were studied and reassessed. What scholars found was that pre-conceived notions of early film as ‘primitive’ and ‘unsophisticated’ had to be rethought. This inspired new research methodologies, theoretical frameworks and a reassessment of the work of the Lumières, Méliès, and the Brighton school. This book acts as an important overview of early film scholarship after 12 years of research.
The Parade’s Gone By by Kevin Brownlow
The book that rekindled an interest in silent film. Today’s enthusiasm and preservation for silent film owes a lot to Kevin Brownlow who has tirelessly championed, preserved and documented silent film throughout his life. The Parade’s Gone By was the end product of a series of pioneering interviews that Brownlow undertook with forgotten filmmakers during the 1960s. The place to start for an understanding of the silent film in Hollywood.
still from Les Palais Des Mille et une Nuits (Georges Méliès, 1905) available in the Five Volume DVD Set Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913)
I’ve received a lot of emails on my post about Why 3D Does Not Work. Many agree, but some others seem to have problems with it.
For those left scratching their heads, here are five simple points:
- The 3D object exists on a 2D plane. There is no weight to this 3D object. It’s paper-thin.
- 3D effects draw attention to themselves and take us out of the film experience, distracting us from the narrative.
- 3D can cause a loss of sharpness to the image. Particularly in fast-paced sequences images can become blurred, losing clarity and resolution.
- Our eyes adjust quickly to 3D. We most likely will notice 3D effects at the start of a film but not at the end. If we’re not actually noticing it, it might as well be 2D, because:
- The ‘2D’ image already has an incredible depth that is totally convincing. It’s part of the reason why both photography and film have remained so powerful to this very day.
In 3D individual, isolated spectacles are most effective, for example a bubble leaving the screen and heading towards you, a fish swimming out from the ocean or a secret passageway extending deep into the screen.
3D is most effective as a novelty, not as a sustained visual system throughout a feature film. And there has not yet been a film to prove otherwise.
Photograph (US, J. R. Eyerman, 1952) of an audience at Bwana Devil. Originally published in Life Magazine, hosted by and co. of Google.
Louise Brooks in Overland Stage Raiders (1938)
The only thing tragic about Louise Brooks’s appearance in Overland Stage Raiders (1938) is that it was her final film. No longer the icon of the silent screen, here she is unrecognisable. Her exoticism has turned to homeliness and her famous Pandora’s Box (1929) bob has been replaced with a shoulder length cut as Lulu meets rising star, John Wayne:
Available on a cheap 20-disc John Wayne DVD set.
Veronica Lake in Flesh Feast (1970)
The beautiful Veronica Lake starred in now-classic noirs such as This Gun For Hire (1942), The Glass Key (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946), and also sparkled in Sullivan’s Travels (1941), one of the finest films of the 1940s. Yet she went on to have a tragic life. Dropped from Paramount at the end of the 1940s, she failed to continue her career independent of a studio contract. Washed up, she wound up working in bars and turned to drink and eventually died at the age of 53. Her final acting appearance was in the cheap Flesh Feast (1970), a world away from her films of the forties.
Available on a schlocky DVD release.
Joan Crawford in Trog (1970)
By the 1940s Joan Crawford was giving some of the most stylised and unique performances of classic cinema. It felt like films such as Mildred Pierce (1945), Humoresque (1946) and Possessed (1947) were constructed around her image of a fragile yet powerful woman. Kicked out of the studio system and into the world of low budget horror, Crawford still attempts to hold some control through the mannered nature of her performance. But then again she was starring in films such as Straight-Jacket (1964) and Berserk (1967). Once an icon of refinement, here we see the surreal sight of the great Joan Crawford on the quest to discover a frozen monkey…. thing, in her final theatrically-released film, Trog (1970).
Mae West in Sextette (1978)
Mae West, one of the true comediennes of the studio era, famously returned to the screen in the 1970s after a 30-year hiatus for the films Myra Breckinridge (1970) and Sextette (1978). As the name would suggest West continued to play a sex-kitten even though she was in her eighties.
Available on a now-expensive out-of-print DVD.
Bette Davis in Wicked Stepmother (1989)
Of course Bette Davis continued to work non-stop from the 1930s to the 1980s, eventually featuring in over 100 movies. Her final film was Wicked Stepmother (1980), an eighties ‘comedy’ that has come to be widely reviled, partly for its sense of exploiting a once-great star. Rumour has it that she even walked off the picture mid-production. Most shocking, however, is how frail Davis looks at the very end of her life. Yet even though she looks impossibly skeletal, she still seems tough as ever.
This one is currently unavailable and DVD, but can be found on an old VHS release.
If you know of any other final films as tragic, surreal or as shocking as these, please let me know.
I was recently asked by the BBC to comment on whether Avatar would herald in a new revolutionary kind of cinema, and whether its CGI and 3D effects meant that it would be far more immersive and spectacular than anything we’d ever seen before. It’s a shame they asked me before the film had actually been released. On the radio I warned: ‘Don’t believe the hype’ and that turned out to be pretty much the case, except I wasn’t prepared for how bored I would be.
Here’s the real problem with 3D. The 3D plane that detaches itself from the screen and heads towards you is itself 2-dimensional, creating an effect that is explicitly artificial. Yet as the 3D effects continue our eyes adjust and we no longer notice it, as was the case in Coraline, Up and Avatar. 3D has to draw attention to itself to be noticed but by doing so distracts you from the film itself.
3D cinema breaks the primal illusion of cinema, that a flat image can appear to have depth. 3D suits its status as a novelty for good reason. It’s 2D cinema that’s the truly immersive experience.
The Ultimate Film Archive is a hand-picked chronology of films from each decade (starting with the 1940s), all of which I highly recommend you seeking out. Not an exhaustive list but it’s a start as further films are added.
How many of these have you seen? Either leave a comment or email me at email@example.com.
Have I missed any out? Any further suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
1940 The Grapes Of Wrath (USA, John Ford)
1940 Fantasia (USA, Walt Disney Productions)
1940 The Great Dictator (USA, Charlie Chaplin) … See all here…
Originally published at A Year in the Dark
Citizen Kane holds the weight of cinema on its shoulders. Often cited as ‘The Greatest Film of All-Time’, the film maintains an unusual place in film history. This post attempts to outline one particular way in which the film gained its unique reputation.
The accolade in fact refers to the Sight & Sound poll taken every ten years. Kane took the top spot in 1962 and has not budged in over 40 years. In 1952 it was De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves that came out on top and at that point Kane did not even feature.
Although critics were enthusiastic about the film on its release in 1941, Kane was not a particular success with audiences. It had become partly-notorious for an attempt to suppress its release by William Randolph Hearst, the tycoon who took offence at the parallels between Kane’s life and his own. The film did however gain several major Oscar nominations alongside other key titles of the year such as How Green Was My Valley, The Little Foxes and The Maltese Falcon, claiming one win for Best Screenplay.
So something clearly changed between 1941 and 1962 for Kane to be selected as the pinnacle of all cinema. This shift can perhaps be pinpointed to post-war France where all the American films that had been prevented entry during the war suddenly flooded its screens. So its audiences were experiencing Hollywood cinema of the early 1940s in a condensed period of time, an experience that clearly had an effect on many of its young viewers. When the French magazines Cahiers du cinéma celebrated popular Hollywood cinema throughout the 1950s it was perceived as a strange affectation by other contemporary European film magazines such as Britain’s Sight & Sound.
However, when these very critics, such as Truffaut and Godard went on to spearhead the nouvelle vague in 1960, their films became praised as milestones in contemporary cinema. This therefore posed problems for Sight & Sound critics who were enamoured by the films of the nouvelle vague yet against the popular Hollywood cinema that the New Wave filmmakers celebrated.
‘The French Line’, a 1960 Sight & Sound article, took a look at the ten-best lists published by Cahiers du cinéma. They were pleased to find revered titles as Ivan the Terrible (1944), Les Quatres-Cents Coup (1959) and Wild Strawberries (1957), but were very surprised (and dismayed) to find titles such as Rio Bravo (1959), Run of the Arrow (1957), Wind Across the Everglades (1958) and Vertigo (1958). The author wrote, ‘One’s first reaction might be to conclude that these men must be very foolish’  but based on the evidence of their films found it was hard for the writer to accept Resnais, Truffaut, Chabrol and Godard as fools.
Classical Hollywood cinema was therefore being reassessed in the 1960s and indeed many of our contemporary perceptions of cinema were cemented at that time. It was also a period during which the reputations of Hollywood figures were being reconstructed. For example Humphrey Bogart became a romantic cult hero for young movie fans – as reflected in Jean-Paul Belmondo’s adoration of Bogart in A Bout de Souffle – and retrospectives of Buster Keaton’s films elevated him out of the shadows as a master of cinema. Similarly Orson Welles became seen as a crucial cinematic icon.
One of the defining characteristics of Orson Welles’s cinema is a struggle for control. Indeed a great number of Welles’ films were taken out of his hands and re-edited (or chopped up), including The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Lady From Shanghai (1947), Othello (1952), Mr. Arkadin (1955) and Touch of Evil (1958). Then there were all those projects that never made it, either unfinished or doomed from the start, such as It’s All True (circa 1943), Don Quixote (circa 1955) and The Other Side of the Wind (circa 1972). 
In Welles’ persistence to make films in the face of resistance from studios and financiers he became an inspirational hero for filmmakers and cinephiles, his cinema ingrained with a message of never giving up for cinema’s cause.
Critics and cinephiles believed Welles to have been greatly misunderstood and mistreated by a Hollywood who could not see the brilliance in his work that was so clear to them. Welles’ tragic fall from grace and his role as an underdog against the system only heightened adoration for him. He became seen as a neglected ‘genius’ whose opportunity to flourish had been crushed by a system so clearly against originality. And it was Citizen Kane that defined this tragedy, becoming the iconic film that represented much more than the film itself.
The Sight & Sound poll reflects this shift and in 1962 we find the point at which Citizen Kane cemented an extraordinary reputation.
 Richard Roud, ‘The French Line’, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1960 p.167.
 For more information on this see the illuminating documentary The Lost Films of Orson Welles (Germany/France/Sweden, dir: Vassili Silovic, 1995) which includes many clips from both unfinished films and curiosities.
If you know where to look in London, you can find some astonishing places. Winding through the backstreets of the East End you may come across a faded building, its front scuffed and peeling, more reminiscent of a Venetian side-street than a London alley.
It’s humility hides the fact that this door is a portal into Victorian London. Wilton’s Music Hall is the oldest surviving music hall in the world and to step through the door is to immerse yourself in Victorian entertainment culture. Opened in 1859, it held a crowd of 1500 at its busiest, and featured music hall stars of the day such as Champagne Charlie. The auditorium is now faded, with its scuffed walls and balcony suggesting a grander past. But in many ways this is a far more vivid representation of what it once was than if it were superficially gilded and restored.
The current show playing there, Wink the Other Eye (until 16th August 2008), is a great introduction into music hall culture. Hosted by the ebullient John Wilton himself, you are led through an evening’s entertainment that features songs, comedy and drama in the old music hall style. Played out by the stars of the day, such as Dan Leno and George Formby, Sr., it is essentially a night out at the music hall combined with a strong sense of history. Taking you through the decade in one evening, it demonstrates how the music hall was affected by emerging technologies (electricity), new trends (moving pictures) and world events (The Great War). Not forgetting a reference to a young Charlie Chaplin, the show is highly recommend it if you can catch it in time.
A true study of the cinema is to look closely at other traditions, histories and cultures. The music hall was central to the development of areas such as the star system and film comedy, and filmgoing culture came out of the tradition of visiting the music hall. If you want to get a far deeper understanding of film, investigate other avenues. Graces Alley, London, is a perfect place to start.
Have you ever wondered how Hollywood studios made so many movies and you never saw the same set twice? Well it’s just a case of looking closely. Check out this scene from All Through the Night, produced by Warner Bros. and featuring Humphrey Bogart. It was release on 2nd December 1941.
Now compare the set to another film starring Humphrey Bogart, this time released only a couple of months earlier on 18th October 1941. Also produced by Warner Bros. and again starring Humphrey Bogart, a little film known as The Maltese Falcon.
Same lift, same hallway, same room. You’re going to have to do more than move the furniture around to fool me…
If you know of any other examples of this, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The internet often feels like an uncontrollable mass of information that is both impossible to navigate and difficult to justify. But amidst that constant junk-stream lie glittering collections that would remain otherwise unavailable. I wanted to point you towards an audio resource that not only encompasses film, radio and entertainment history, but is also incredibly funny: the Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis radio shows.
Podcaster Brian Noe is doing a great job of putting together the entire collection for listeners, making the episodes accessible to us and providing continuity and context between the episodes. Not satisfied with producing the all-encompassing The Frank Truth Sinatra podcast, here Noe provides us with regular installments that give us an authentic old-time radio listening experience that takes us back to 1949, the year when the series began.
Some would argue that the many films of Martin & Lewis often struggled to capture the chemistry that made them successful. It would seem as though it was the radio shows that captured that raw, sparkling interplay between the two. The inclusion of a live audience is key: Dean and Jerry would thrive in playing off the audience – and you can hear their response – an element naturally lacking in their features. There is a great vaudevillian spirit to these shows, with loosely-scripted exchanges driven by a ‘Make ‘em Laugh’ mentality. When it sounds under-rehearsed it only makes it more refreshing.
But not only do you get the interplay and the great lines—
Jerry: I have a system I used one time when I was trying to find Errol Flynn.
Dean: Oh yeah, what did you do?
Jerry: Well I just said, ‘Now if I were Errol Flynn, where would I go?’
And I went there.
Dean: Well Jerry, did you find him?
Jerry: No, but I sure had fun.
—you also get guest appearances by great stars and character actors of the day: Lucille Ball, Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre, John Garfield, Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster, Billie Burke, George Raft and Bing Crosby. On top of that each episode features songs performed in Dean Martin’s uniquely exquisite style.
I can hardly believe my eyes, but it looks like Kino are releasing three of Victor Sjöström’s Swedish silents on DVD. For those who don’t know, Victor Sjöström was an early master of film who began making films in Sweden in 1912. The kind of independence he and his fellow filmmakers, such as Mauritz Stiller, were able to reach, meant that they could develop distinctly personal films. Almost as though cut off from the world during the war, Sjöström made films of such sensitivity and vision that they seemed to be far advanced of filmmakers working elsewhere, including America.
The history books and other critics will tell you that Sjöström is known for his dazzling portrayal of landscapes. And while he certainly was able to create a synthesis between a character and their surroundings, it is certainly not the be all and end all of Sjöström’s cinema. What ultimately makes his films so unique is the psychology that Sjöström manages to draw from these characters. It seemed as though the rest of the world was still learning what Sjöström managed to do with ease.
The first is a two-film set of Ingeborg Holm (1913) and A Man There Was (Terje Vigen, 1917) . Ingeborg Holm is one of the few surviving Swedish silents from before WW1 and it is a fascinating example of the early feature film. It is particularly interesting for its visual style, which is distinctly pre-Classical. It includes lengthy single-shots in which the staging of characters shifts throughout the scene, changing the status and meaning of their relationship together. It is also a remarkable psychological portrait of a woman’s downfall from contented wife to a mental institution.
A Man There Was is an adaptation of an Ibsen poem and tells an epic story of a man torn away from his wife and child at sea, causing their deaths on a remote island. Years later he is given the chance to avenge their deaths when he finds himself in a position of power over the men who imprisoned him. This is a succinct film of only about 45 minutes in which one man’s psychological struggle is played out against striking scenes of the open sea. The central character is played by Sjöström himself who was also an actor and featured in many of his own films.
He also featured in his feature film The Outlaw and His Wife (1918). It is truly difficult to decide which is Sjöström’s greatest since he created a string of brilliant films right through the 1910s (and indeed the 1920s in Hollywood), many of which are little-seen nowadays. The Outlaw and His Wife would certainly be among his finest. This is another epic tale of a couple who are forced to live in the mountains. As always, shot on location with a vivid authenticity, this film portrays the turbulent lives of this couple as they face severe hardships.
I was lucky enough to see every film Victor Sjöström made that still exists, and it was a revelation. This is cinema from the 1910s that is far more complex, thrilling and sensitive than most of the films made since. These films prove that there is little that is primitive about silent cinema and that there are worlds to be discovered. Buy these immediately, if only to actually own a copy of the rare and beautiful Ingeborg Holm.