History of Film: Silent Cinema

History of Film: Silent Cinema
Before jumping into a historical study of film, it can be rewarding to take a survey of some key genres that define the medium, in this case: The The study of early cinema holds in it the key to understanding the filmic universe. The early silent films were the proving grounds of this great art. Anyone who works in film, video or animation would benefit from a thorough study of early film history. From camera moves, to lighting, to effects this is where you go to learn the ropes. And who better to learn from than by those who pushed the boundaries of this medium: Griffith, Eisenstein, Vertov, Gance, Chaplin, Lang, Keaton, Murnau.

Early Films and Film Makers
These are the true pioneers and innovators of the medium. They went public. They fascinated audiences. They invented tricks and filmic conventions that are still used to this day.

  • Thomas Edison, Early Films
  • Auguste and Louis Lumière, Réalité Films of the Lumière Brothers
  • Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès, A Trip to the Moon
  • Edwin S. Porter, The Great Train Robbery
  • Emil Cohl, Fantasmagorie

The Birth of The Giant
D.W. Griffith elevated film to art. Drawing upon his muse, Charles Dickens, he sought to tell great stories through celluloid and employed elaborate sets, costumes, the best actors, the cream of the crop of writers and directors to make impactful films.

  • W. Griffith, Films for Biograph
  • W. Griffith, The Birth of a Nation (1915)
  • W. Griffith, Intolerance (hand tinted) (1916)
  • W. Griffith, Broken Blossoms (tinted/toned/music) (1919)

Comedic Tragedy/Tragic Comedy
Chaplin elevated the comedy to high art. A genius in his own right, capturing people’s hearts with his signature character: The Tramp.

  • Charles Chaplin, Short Films
  • Charles Chaplin, The Immigrant (June 1917)
  • Charles Chaplin, The Cure, April (1917)
  • Charles Chaplin, The Gold Rush (1925)


Clever Dummies
Comedy had no shortage of genius—Chaplin, Sennett and of course Buster Keaton, with his elaborately staged physical pranks.

  • Mack Sennett, The Clever Dummy (1917)
  • Buster Keaton, One Week (1920)
  • Buster Keaton, Sherlock Junior (1924)

The Literary Nature of Film
Movies got longer and more literary as directors sought to bring significant writings to the silver screen.

  • Melville Webber and James Sibley Watson, The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)
  • Abel Gance, Early Films
  • Abel Gance, La Roue [French Titles, 3 Hours (originally 9 hours)] (1922)
  • Erich von Stroheim, Greed (1924)

Recommended Reading

  • David Cook, A History of Narrative Film (1996)
  • Bruce Kawin, How Movies Work (1992)
  • Kevin Brownlow,The Parade’s Gone By (1976)
  • Kevin Brownlow, Behind the Mask of Innocence (2013)
  • Peter Kobel, Martin Scorsese, Silent Movies: the Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture (2007)
  • Silent Lives: 100 Biographies of the Silent Film Era (2014)
  • William Everson, American Silent Film (1998)


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