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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)
Here is an excellent Radio 4 programme all about silent filmmaker Percy Smith who specialised in detailed studies of the natural world. Named after one of his most famous films, The Balancing Bluebottle (1908, also known as The Acrobatic Fly, above), this programme features two of the greatest silent film experts: Bryony Dixon and Luke McKernan.
Take a listen on BBC iPlayer.
As Luke McKernan has pointed out on The Bioscope, Percy’s famous The Birth of a Flower (1910), in living colour, is available to view online here.
This is a real treat for fans of Chaplin and silent cinema more widely. All of Chaplin’s 35 films from his work at Keystone during 1914 have been reconstructed and restored by the British Film Institute and the Cineteca di Bologna. They will all be screened at the BFI Southbank in London during August and September.
In the past these films have been branded as ‘primitive’, but in many cases the severely degraded quality of the prints worked against a proper appreciation of these early titles. The incredible popularity of these titles, as well as their lack of copyright, resulted in a heavy duplication and deterioration of the prints. In many cases the films were chopped into a variety of alternative versions with different titles which then went on to circulate for decades. This made the job of restoring and reconstructing these titles a particular challenge. Indeed the Keystone films are the last of Chaplin’s shorts to have been restored by the British Film Institute, following on from the Essanay and Mutual restorations.
Keystone was known for its breakneck comedies featuring quick thrills and chaotic chases, and in many ways these titles live up to that reputation. But the Charlie you see here is not the sensitive soul found in his later feature films. Here is character is rude, abrasive and violent while his virtuoso performances are wild, thrilling and unexpected. Chaplin’s performance style is unique to him: he manages to be many things at once. Not only does his dandyish gestures contradict the state of his clothes, but his body can often belie his face and vice-versa.
I was lucky enough to preview some of these restorations at the Charlie Chaplin Conference in 2005 and indeed they were revelatory. I will be attending every screening myself over the next two months (I will probably be the one taking notes) as a way of re-aquainting myself with these films.
Not only do you get to watch the glorious Chaplin himself as vivid as ever on-screen, you get to witness his early development as performer and director. You also get to see a slice of American cinema history that instantly poses several overlapping questions: what was popular American cinema like in 1914? What were films by independent studios such as Keystone like? What was the studio brand and how do they differ from the films of the larger studios that would emerge just after the war? Why were these films, and more importantly Chaplin himself, so popular? How far were these films and Chaplin’s performances performed by the British music hall from which he came?
The still above from A Film Johnnie offers a glimpse of movie posters outside a cinema in 1914. Interestingly they feature films from the studios Keystone, Essanay (a Bronco Billy title) and Mutual, the three studios that Chaplin himself would work at between 1914 and 1917.
Book below with the full schedule for August. The September schedule will follow.
- Sat 9 Aug 16:00 NFT2
- Wed 13 Aug 18:20 NFT2
Ninety minutes of early Chaplin, including his Keystone debut.
- Sat 16 Aug 16:00 NFT2
- Wed 20 Aug 18:20 NFT2
A programme of Charlie Chaplin’s Keystone shorts.
- Sat 23 Aug 16:10 NFT2
- Tue 26 Aug 18:20 NFT2
Our third programme of Charlie Chaplin’s earliest films.
- Thu 28 Aug 18:20 NFT2
- Sat 30 Aug 16:00 NFT2
Our fourth programme of the Keystone movies of 1914.
This will hopefully be the very first of many posts to come on early film, one of my particular interests.
It seems to me that few are aware of the pleasures of early film. The term ‘early film’ refers to the earliest films, from around 1894 until around 1907 at which point films shifted towards a the more explicitly narrative cinema.
Early films are distinctly different to the narrative feature films in obvious ways: namely they’re far shorter, contain far fewer shots, and many are factual. At least silent feature films resemble the fiction films we are used to of today. As a result early films tend not to be dealt with in broad film histories (particularly online), and as I’ll probably end up mentioning over and over on this site, many people seem to believe that cinema began with either A Trip to the Moon (1902), The Great Train Robbery (1903) or The Birth of a Nation (1915).
These fragments of film can seem to come out of the blue, a tiny window on somewhere in the world. One common reaction is that these films are ‘primitive’, almost naive, in their form. ‘Why have a single shot when we now know that films are meant to be made up of many shots? If they only knew then what we know now.’
One aspect of films that many do not take into account is how they were exhibited. For many, films should ‘hold up’ as singular entities that should ‘work’ regardless of the year in which they are being watched. Therefore if they do not work today, they do not ‘work’ at all. Early films, many of which today can be comprehended with absolute clarity, were shown in a programme of other films, and often other kinds of acts. Moving pictures would have played on a music hall programme amidst live acts, for instance. Therefore these films were not intended to be watched in isolation.
There is often great imagination in these films, which consisted of trick films with spectacular special effects or actualities documenting life and movement. The earliest films consisted of a single shot, as in the film above, View From An Engine Front – Ilfracombe (1898). One of the earliest multi-shot films was G.A. Smith’s A Kiss in the Tunnel from 1899. The technological constraint of only being able to shoot using a single strip of film was not viewed as a constraint to early filmmakers but rather a mere fact of their trade. This ‘limitation’ to creative variations, such as in the phantom ride above, and to a visual economy that was ultimately succinct aesthetically intriguing. The single shot also resulted in early films having a distinct temporal difference to edited fiction feature films, namely that they linger, play out in real time, and in many ways do not seem to begin or end, they just happen.
Many people do not realise that cinema began as early as it did and that there indeed were Victorian films. These films can still be a pleasurable shock in the vivid window they present to us of our world over 110 years ago.
I plucked the film above from the BFI’s YouTube collection. Indeed it’s one of the films I have written about for the BFI’s Screenonline here. Also check out my mini-essay on the ‘phantom ride‘, of which this is a great example, here.
If only you were watching it on a big screen rather than through the fog of pixels.