Originally printed in Razorcake #78 (Feb./March 2014, revised May 2021), here is a printable PDF and full text of Donna Ramone’s One Punk’s Guide to Silent Films.
Illustrations by Bone Dust
This zine is also available directly from Razorcake.
One Punk’s Guide to Silent Films
By Donna Ramone
Buster Keaton’s perfect face was what started this love.
I would wager everyone has seen at least one silent film in their lives. Having always been a troubled, goth kid at heart, I think my first silent film was Nosferatu, the German Expressionist vampire story from 1922 by F.W. Murnau. I know I saw some Charlie Chaplin when I was younger, probably with my mom one Sunday night (which might be how everyone first experiences Chaplin). As I got older, I watched and enjoyed a few silent films here and there on my own. But then, one beautiful October, I noticed my favorite cable channel was showcasing Buster Keaton all month.
“Holy shit, Buster Keaton!” I yelled this to my parents, who have long-since learned to ignore most things I scream over at them. I don’t remember if it was one of his movies or shorts I watched that night. All I can remember was the intensity I felt. I didn’t see the stereotypical idea of silent film—you know, the over-the-top slapstick comedy coupled with overly expressive facial and hand gestures, while a tinkling ragtime piano unrelentingly bangs out every pratfall. Instead, I saw someone defy gravity. I saw someone make me laugh loudly. I saw the world as it was in the 1910s. I saw where so much used in films today originated from. But what really stood out was possibly the most beautiful face that has ever existed, and it belonged to Buster Keaton. My heart grew three sizes that day.
A NOT-VERY BRIEF HISTORY OF FILM
A not-very-brief history of films goes something like this: The whole thing started in the 1870s when Eadweard Muybridge set up a series of cameras to take a succession of photos that would prove, when prompted by the then-governor of California, that at full speed, a horse would have all four legs off the ground at some point (and just so you know, the whole thing about it being a bet has since been proven false). Turns out, horses absolutely have all four legs up when in a full gallop. Muybridge continued to use the process to study movement in humans and animals, eventually making a career out of taking beautiful black and white photos of Yosemite (they were just as boring and popular as Ansel Adams, turns out).
In America, Thomas Edison took the idea of projecting a succession of photos further and in 1889 brought the invention of the Kinetoscope to the masses. Those were the penny machines with the viewing holes at the top of the cabinet that you pressed your face into to watch a funny, flickering “movie” that lasted under sixty seconds (if you’ve been to Disneyland, you may remember seeing some by the Candy Palace on Main Street). The Kinetoscope’s popularity spread worldwide, with everyone wanting more of this new technology.
Alexander Black, an American, is credited with creating the projected photoplay, which was similar to those slide projectors you may remember from school. Same idea there. It was a series of images, backlit by a lantern and shown in succession on a screen as a person narrated the story. It was similar to when someone’s dad showcased the family trip to Europe in the ‘80s.
Patents started to pour in afterwards as inventors improved upon the ability to show a lit-up succession of photos. Everyone, everywhere was trying to patent a new style of projector. The year was 1895. It was France that eventually won the projector race, with the award going to Auguste and Louis Lumiére. The Lumiére brothers are considered the earliest filmmakers and commonly regarded as the inventors of the movie.
AUDIENCES SHIT THEIR PANTS. TWICE.
The Lumiére projector was called the cinématographe and was the hit of Paris that year—despite the fact that their first film was just footage of workers leaving a factory. The Lumiére brothers were also responsible for Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat—the infamous film that caused the audience to shit themselves as they attempted to leap out of the way of the moving train projected onto the screen in front of them. I know we all like to think that the people of that era were “simple” for not understanding a new technology immediately, but people still react to something coming directly at them on a movie screen (like those 3-D films everyone seem to enjoy). And there we were: seventeen meters of film cranked out fifty seconds of flickering movement, and the world rejoiced.
The subjects of these early, short films were everyday life: a small portion of a boxing match, a couple kissing, a baby getting a bath, some really cute ladies dancing, some guy sneezing, etc. This may sound boring by today’s standards, but if I had just become aware of the advent of photography, telephones, and indoor plumbing, a lit screen portraying a person moving would probably cause me to run to a church for safety from this demon magic.
Speaking of magic, it was a magician in France who brought us what is considered the first narrative film, Voyage dans la Lune (or Trip to the Moon) in 1902. Georges Méliès combined the use of film with storytelling to create what we call a movie today. Using a studio built within a greenhouse (natural light was necessary for filming in those days), Méliès made amusing movies that were rooted in fantasy, horror, and science fiction. He used ideas from his days as a magician, along with film splicing, to make people disappear in a puff of smoke, have someone duplicated six times to form an entire band, or animate a rocket blasting through the sky. It is in those creative shorts that the majority of what we understand about a movie is derived. His crew even hand-painted each cell of certain films to create some of the first color films. (If you saw the 2011 Martin Scorsese film Hugo, you know some of his incredible story.)
Meantime, Thomas Edison was still fighting to be at the forefront of the motion picture race and produced a narrative film, The Great Train Robbery. An explosive western action movie, by 1903 standards as well as today’s, the film runs almost twelve minutes long. You watch helplessly as robbers steal a train, force all the passengers to give them their valuables, shoot a guy in the back, and have a shootout with other cowboys. It ends with one of the robbers shooting the audience, point blank. Much like the legend of people jumping out of the way when watching film of an oncoming train, audiences screamed when the bad guy they’d been watching for twelve minutes suddenly drew a gun and shot them. I recently re-watched it for this article and just before the guy shot at me, even I made some kind of “Ack!”
THOMAS EDISON WAS A BULLY AND A DICK
One of the worst things to develop during these times is the same douchery present in show business forevermore: the rip-off. Unsurprisingly, Georges Méliès’s impressive films were being distributed. People all over the world wanted to see them, so his movies were shipped to movie houses, at the time called “Nickelodeons,” all over the globe. The thing was, distribution rights and regulation, royalties, copyrighting, and every other legality that we now groan at didn’t exist yet. So, people like Thomas Edison would get a copy of one of Méliès’s films, dub it as many times as he wanted, and sell it to American movie houses.
In 1908, Edison founded the Motion Picture Parents Company, which allowed him to control the U.S. and European film industries. The company required each studio to produce 1,000 feet of film weekly, which was a lot for a smaller company like Méliès’s. That’s right, friends, America’s prestigious inventor was also a total dick. Eventually, Méliès left the corporation. He made fewer and fewer films until he stopped completely in 1913. He eventually received the recognition he deserved later in life by way of awards and praise, but he died in 1938 a poor toy maker and candy seller in a Parisian train station.
Another important thing to remember is that the prestige of film wasn’t anything like it is now. It was a trade not very highly regarded. Those involved went un-credited and nameless, and it was rare to find someone who was previously trained in anything. Stage actors were not interested in the lowbrow pantomime of the silent screen. The jobs didn’t pay well at first, either. If you were young and looking for easy work, you could help build sets or crank cameras for the movies. The film industry took all types, and it wasn’t exactly the kind of job that thrilled your in-laws. Based on some first-hand accounts, most people, however, found the entire endeavor to be a lot of fun. Early actors and directors weren’t known by name to the public until about 1911. It was around that year when the studios of the time realized that audiences had favorites, while actors were starting to acknowledge that film acting wasn’t just a lowly form of stage acting—especially since their paychecks were getting more and more impressive.
DUMB COPS AND BATHING SUITS
Between 1909 and1913 is when the movies became THE movies. Actors with devoted fans and large bank accounts, prestigious and artistic directors, large studios people knew by name, genre films for different audiences, famous animal actors—it was all happening and the industry was growing exponentially. This is when names many of us recognize stepped into the spotlight: D. W. Griffith, Mack Sennet, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Tom Mix, Warner Brothers, Cecil B DeMille, Paramount Pictures, and the list goes on.
This period of time saw the rise of highly influential and regularly imitated acts. One such torchbearer was Mack Sennet. Originally an actor, he made a deal with some high rollers and went entrepreneurially when he took over Keystone Studios. Keystone primarily developed comedies, and Sennet created The Keystone Kops in 1914. That was quickly followed a year later by Sennet’s Bathing Beauties. These were one or two-reelers featuring bumbling cops in slapstick comedy at its finest and the bathing beauties were—well, cute girls in bathing suits.
Sennet personally went talent scouting and hired some of the biggest comedians and cutest cuties, all of whom were relative unknowns at the time. Easily, his best finds were the then-vaudeville comedians Roscoe Arbuckle (guy hated being called “Fatty”) and Charlie Chaplin. Harold Lloyd, Gloria Swanson, Mabel Normand and a shit-ton of others also got their start at Keystone Studios. Even today, the image of a blue-suited, nightstick-waving, bumbling police officer is a familiar one, and I doubt I have gone without seeing a woman in a swimsuit in recent movies.
NOW I’M READY FOR MY CLOSE-UP
Another innovator starting up at the same time was Cecil B. DeMille. Like Sennet, he also started out as an actor, but it was his directorial debut in 1914 that really matters. The Squaw Man is the sweeping, six-reel drama of an Englishman, wrongly accused of embezzlement, hiding out in the American frontier. While there, he marries an American Indian woman and they have a son. With the overdramatics DeMille is known for, the Englishman is cleared of the charges and returns to his girlfriend and true love in England, along with his son since his wife killed herself.
That was followed in 1923 by DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, which was just as huge, expensive, and painfully long as his remake with Charlton Heston in 1956. Any grand, saturated, three-hour epic with a set larger than some European countries feels like a DeMille. I would wager the majority of what many of us know from the Bible we learned from a DeMille movie. And the stereotype of a screaming, tyrannical movie director, megaphone in hand, with only a horseshoe of hair left on his head? That’s DeMille.
It wasn’t Cecile B. DeMille who invented the historical epic film, however. It wasn’t DeMille who invented the close-up within a scene, either. D. W. Griffith claims to be the inventor of both. In very early films, scenes were shot from only one stationary point in the room. Moving a large, heavy camera by hand while steadily filming wasn’t possible. During a dramatic scene, however, Griffith made the decision to stop filming, get a close range shot of a woman’s grief-stricken face, and then return back to capture the scene again.
HERE COMES THE FUCKING BLACK FACE
In 1915, the unbelievably racist The Birth of a Nation was released. It’s considered the first blockbuster film, and boy was it ever. Over three hours long, the story depicts two post-Civil War families, one in the north and one in the south. Along the way, blackface slaves are stoked to be slaves, Lincoln gets assassinated, and The Ku Klux Klan was a heroic and driving force in making this country so damned great. I wish I was kidding. Even audiences in 1915 found that bullshit offensive and protested, so Griffith returned in 1916 with Intolerance. The narrative is comprised of four vignettes of—surprise—intolerance mostly, and how intolerance is a bad time.
Here comes silent film’s ugly racist cloud: characters in black face. 1903 brought us the first adapted screenplay, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and with it, we first see white actors with shoe polish make-up on their faces, being fucked-up racist stereotypes. Though this practice started back in the days of vaudeville and promptly dug in its hooves and stuck around through many talkies, silent films are easily picked on for being racist.
Now, I’m not about to defend Al Jolson and his jazz hands any time soon, but I will point out that unfortunately, then and now, a character dressed as another ethnicity for the stage or silver screen is common practice. If you feel inclined to scold and write off an entire era of filmmaking for using black face, then you better not have enjoyed the comedic stylings of Borat or have a tattoo of a woman in a feathered headdress. That said, there were a lot of different ethnicities represented in early films. Given, they were usually background characters, stereotypes or villains; there are cases where they were the leading man or the best friend to the leading lady.
Noble Johnson, for example, started the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in 1916. Lincoln Motion was the first all-black owned film company. The films they produced were all stories of black protagonists beating the odds and triumphing. Sessue Hayakawa, born Kintaro Hayakawa in Japan, still stands today as one of the most prolific and successful Asian-American actors. After appearing in DeMille’s The Cheat in 1915, he became a hugely famous heartthrob, and continued to act well into old age (he’s best remembered as Colonel Saito in Bridge on the River Kwai). He fought against being depicted as a stereotype, and in 1918 he formed Haworth Pictures Corporation. In the following three years, he controlled all content in the twenty-three films that were made and was a major influence in changing the American public’s perception of Asians.
Even the era’s most famous male sex symbols were minorities. Ramón Navarro—born in Mexico—fled to Los Angeles with his family to escape the Mexican Revolution in 1913. His sexy accent was very real. And Rudolph Valentino was actually born (brace yourself) Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla, in Italy, and was registered at Ellis Island in 1913. These few examples don’t excuse any racism, though. I’m talking about early films, not the sociological injustices portrayed and upheld in mass media. Racism is foundational to America, and the movies.
FILMS CATCH FIRE—LITERALLY
If there’s a main point to this article that I want to make, it’s this: Silent films are just as good, if not better, than any other film, even when viewed today. The silent era has something for just about anyone. Remember when the American Film Institute had that big to-do about their list of the 100 greatest films of all time? The 2007 revision of AFI’s 100 list included five silent films: Intolerance (1916), The Gold Rush (1925), The General (1926), Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), and City Lights (1931). Only five out of 100 may not seem like much, but for two major reasons it should be a big deal. The first is five different silent films are in the same category as Citizen Kane and Lawrence of Arabia, which, if you’ve caught on, is exactly where I think they should be.
And secondly, we are lucky to still have silent films. Remember, there was no home market for movies for a very long time. Not only was there no home market, there was little chance of a film being shown again after its initial run. You saw a movie and you moved on.
Film companies would make hundreds of short one- or two-reel films in a year to appease a public that stopped into movies houses at least once a week. Those early filmstrips were coated in nitrate, which is a highly flammable substance that grows unstable when stored improperly. Ever wonder why so many film vaults manage to catch fire? It’s dummies not taking care with all of that nitrate sitting around. Since there was also silver content that could be extracted from the film, a lot of it was recycled during World War II and the Great Depression. But it seems a lot of studios just didn’t want to pay to house all of those films, since it was pricey to have them kept cool and dry. Studios simply dumped them. Anywhere between seventy and ninety percent of silent films are registered as “lost.” The only reason we know so much about these lost films is because many of the screenplays and on-set photos survived in archives, since they thankfully don’t also unexpectedly burst into flames.
WOMEN, OFF SCREEN
Now—through historical efforts—we have proof of what a large, driving force women were during film’s early days. Women were everything from directors or costume designers to screenwriters or producers. No perimeters were being set with this relatively new industry being founded. Alice Guy Blaché was the first female director, starting in 1896. She wasted no time, making six hundred films, primarily in France. The Talmadge Sisters, Norma and Constance, were both successful actresses. However, their real successes came from producing films and they later founded studios bearing their names, along with their mother and younger sister Natalie (who, as a matter of cross-referencing, was married to Buster Keaton for eleven years).
One of Hollywood’s greatest businesspersons, however, was Mary Pickford. She was dubbed “America’s Sweetheart,” although she was born in Canada, and was the most popular actress of her time. She always insisted on higher pay and made sure she was the one making money off of her image and talents, and not any studio heads. Pickford, along with soon-to-be-husband Douglas Fairbanks, friend of Charlie Chaplin, and super-racist director D. W. Griffith, founded United Artists in an effort to better control their careers and works. She may have been an actress, but she called the shots and ran her own career and assets (in many cases, she managed her husband’s, too). She was shrewd and brilliant in business. She was also generous and kind. There’s a documentary about her, Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies, which I highly recommend.
RECOMMENDATIONS, EVEN “A GRASS SANDWICH”
Film recommendations would seem to be the next logical step in this guide. But this is where we run into a problem. There are a lot of silent films, in every genre, played by many talented actors. Let’s say you love comedies. Then may I present to you the silent era’s holy comedic trinity: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. These three men are film comedy. Chaplin as The Tramp was full of gags, heart, and sentimental appeal. Harold Lloyd was the go-getting, never-give-up hero who ended up in the funniest circumstances by happenstance. And then, my beloved Buster Keaton. I will start a church where Buster Keaton is our savior. He was the little, clumsy nice guy who would pratfall right into your heart. He wrote and executed a lot of his creative and hilarious sight gags, he did all of his own stunts, and was characteristically dead-pan through it all. Lloyd in Safety Last!, Keaton in Sherlock Jr., and Chaplin in The Kid are all great starting points.
If you prefer historical epics, I already mentioned the biggest and best, The Ten Commandments. If you prefer it to be even more dramatic and French, there is The Passion of Joan of Arc.
If you like adventure, there’s Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood or The Thief of Baghdad.
If you enjoy science fiction, nothing can quite compare to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
If classic stories are your thing, J.M. Barrie personally oversaw the production and wrote the adapted screenplay for 1924’s Peter Pan.
If you ache for love stories, watch Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik or Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms, depending on your preference of sexy lead, and lack of consent.
If you enjoy “femme fatale” movies, there’s Theda Bara in A Fool There Was, or Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil. Bara’s performance coined the term “vamp,” since her role in the film is that of a seductive vampire.
If you’re into horror films, there’s Lon Chaney, the horror icon, in Phantom of the Opera. Equally eerie is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a German Expressionist film about murder, insanity, and sleepwalking.
If you like picking apart propaganda films, go to town on Battleship Potemkin, a Soviet picture that is as amazing and revolutionary as it is communist.
If you like the “hooker with a heart of gold” story, there’s the lighter Sadie Thompson, with Gloria Swanson, or the darker Pandora’s Box with Louise Brooks.
If you’re the kind of weenie to fall for romantic comedies, there’s always Clara Bow’s It. Her role gave birth to the term “It girl” and was the blueprint for Betty Boop. Hell, if you want hardcore pornography there’s A Free Ride from 1915, complete with anonymous crew names like “Will B. Hard” and a urination scene.
Films today are dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants. Many of the archetypes, genres, stereotypes, framing shots, film techniques, and even beauty standards stem from the roots of the silent film era. Most can hold their own today as entertainment. Some may be set to a slower pace than what you’re used to, and others may seem choppy since hand-cranked film speeds didn’t convert well to the later standardized twenty-four-frames-per-second. But perfect technique isn’t what make silent films so great. In fact, they’re far from perfect. Early filmmakers didn’t know that, though. They were simply creating the greatest stories possible, using nothing but their own creativity, ingenuity, and passion.
Except Buster Keaton films. Those are actually perfect.
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