The Early History of Silent Movies

While there were earlier devices such as the zoetrope to display motion pictures, the motion picture was really born when Edison developed motion picture mechanism, the kinetoscope by 1892 and George Eastman a new photographic material which was flexible enough to use in Edison's new machine. Edison called this new material 'film.' An earlier motion picture was produced in 1888 by Louis Le Prince, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1890. The early Edison device was a peep-show like device. Edison's causal view of the device can be seen when his attorney suggested that it be patented abroad for $159, to which he answered, ' No, it isn't worth it.' This led to much future legal wrangling as other inventors discovered the device was not patented and made their own copies of the device.



 The earliest surviving  motion picture, the Roundhay Garden Scene of 1888 by French inventor Louis Le Prince. On September 16, 1890, while about to patent his invention in London and to perform his first official public exhibition in New York, Louis Le Prince, director, mysteriously vanished in a train between Dijon and Paris.



 Early Edison Vaudeville short 1901

 Camera is positioned as if in the audience at a vaudeville or burlesque show. Two men with long hair and beards in rough clothing appear to be eating and talking in a box on the left as a female aerialist sits on a trapeze over the stage and its painted backdrop of trees. Fully dressed in street clothing, the trapezist removes her jacket and hat before performing a flip. She stands to remove her skirt and then sits back down on the bar as she takes off her corset and throws it to the country bumpkins in the box, who fight over the undergarment. The trapezist continues to disrobe, removing her shoes, stockings, and garters, again throwing the latter to the men, and then seemingly hangs upside down (with her feet anchored off-camera) as she slips off her petticoat. Thus clad only in tights, trunks, and a camisole, the woman performs her trapeze act to the increasingly excited men.


According to author Irving Zeidman, a popular stunt in female minstrel shows--a precursor to burlesque--"was swinging out over the heads of the audience in trapezes and swings in midair, sometimes undressing in the process"


Anna Held, a Polish-born stage performer watching an early

mutoscope, an early motion picture device similar to Edison's

Kinetoscope and had a viewing time of about a minute



 Some of the early shorts were considered risque  

such as the Birth of the Pearl, American Mutoscope 1903

 Frame enlargements showing women in tights opening a curtain, an oyster shell with a sleeping woman in a flesh colored body suit, and the woman standing in the shell.


The Edison peep shows went public at the Kinetoscope Parlor in 1894 on Broadway in New York and they were a sensation. there was a growing demand for a projector to display pictures to a whole audience at once, instead of the one at a time peep-show method. One of the first devices to do this was the Armat Vitascope made in 1896.The early picture shows were early Vaudeville acts lasting but seconds. Some examples were The Passion Dance, a hoochy-koochy from the Chicago World's Fair, the Spanish dancer Carmencita wearing a short skirt and toasting onlookers with a glass of champagne and of the growing turmoil in Cuba, which would lead to the Spanish American War. The early vitascopes became itinerate shows playing at carnivals .  One of the earliest men to use the device to tell a story with narration was The Life of an American Fireman by Edwin Porter in 1903.  His next tale was The Great Train Robbery also made in 1903 and is considered the first feature film at 12 minutes long and was produced for the Edison company.Porter wrote,directed and produced the film. The Great Train Robbery brought Porter, a former Edison Studios cameraman, overnight fame. The movie was showed to packed store shows, called Nickelodeons, because admission was five cents.


The scene of a robber shooting at the audience shocked many. Audiences at the time, for whom moving pictures were still very new and unfathomable, would usually scream in fear, then laugh in relief


The Great Train Robbery 1903



 The 1903 Silent Film by Edwin Porter


 George Melies

 ( 1861 - 1938 )

Melies was a Frenchman and was a popular magician and specialist in electromagnetic marvels . He bought a camera and went about filming . As he was filming a truck, his camera jammed. By the time he had it started again, a hearse was passing by. When projected on to the screen, the truck turned into a hearse.He invented a many of the motion picture techniques used today: stop motion,double exposure,time lapse photography, animation,fade,fast and slow motion and others . Melies films astonished movie goers of the time and he made hundreds of films, from children's tales,horror and science fiction ..He was a genius with the new medium, but he was not a businessman. The war ended his career in 1914 and many of his films were melted down for the war effort and many of the early films were lost forever . In 1925 he lost his theater and vanished . Years later he was found selling newspapers on the Paris streets. He was hailed as the founding father of French cinema and awarded the Legion of Honor. He died in 1938.


A Trip to the Moon   Melies   1902





 Hand colored version. In this restoration the music is performed by the French duo Air, from their studio album Le Voyage dans la Lune.


The film was extremely popular at the time of its release and is the best-known of the hundreds of fantasy films made by Méliès. A Trip to the Moon is the first science fiction film, and utilizes innovative animation and special effects, including the well-known image of the rocketship landing in the moon's eye and the exploding Selenites (inhabitants of the Moon).


The ever playful Melies (R) with his family



 Georges Méliès: The Conquest of the Pole (1912)



 A Trip to the Moon served as an inspiration for the music video for The Smashing Pumpkins 1996 single, "Tonight, Tonight."




The Birth of a Nation 1915

One of the most important films in the evolution of the screen and won overnight respect for the film medium.it contains many new cinematic innovations and refinements, technical effects and artistic advancements and pioneered such camera techniques as deep focus, jump-cut, and facial close-up, which are now considered integral to the industry.. It had a formative influence on future films and has had a recognized impact on film history and the development of film as art. In addition, at almost three hours in length, it was the longest film to date. The movie dramatizes events leading up to the Civil War.Directed by D. W. Griffith. Set during and after the American Civil War, the film was based on Thomas Dixon's The Clansman, a novel and play. It was the most profitable film in history until Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937.


 Confederate officer Cameron (Henry Walthall) in The Birth of a Nation



Cameron is turned away from the polls in the

post War South by a carpetbagger and black soldiers


Intolerance 1916


Also Directed by D. W. Griffith and is is considered one of the great masterpieces of the Silent Era. Intolerance was a colossal undertaking filled with monumental sets, lavish period costumes, and more than 3,000 extras. The film consisted of four distinct but parallel stories that demonstrated mankind's intolerance during four different ages in world history in fall of Babylon, crucifixion of Jesus, the French Renaissance and America of 1914.Actual costs to produce Intolerance are unknown, but best estimates are close to $2 million (approximately $41 million in 2008 dollars), an astronomical sum in 1916. The movie was by far the most expensive made at that point. When the movie became a flop at the box-office, the burden was so great that Griffith's Triangle Studios went bankrupt.


The Babylon set from Intolerance



Broken Blossoms 1919

Directed by D. W. Griffith and starring Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess and Donald Crisp.Cheng Huan is a missionary whose goal is to bring the teachings of peace by Buddha to the civilized Anglo-Saxons. Upon landing in England, he is quickly disillusioned by the intolerance and apathy of the countryThe most-discussed scene in Broken Blossoms is Lillian Gish’s “closet” scene. Here Gish performs Lucy's horror by writhing in the claustrophobic space like a tortured animal who knows there is no escape.


DW Griffith 1875-1848

D.W. Griffith was called 'The Master' by his contemporaries after the groundbreaking blockbuster Birth of a Nation and other feature films. However, his later films such as America (1924) and Orphans of the Storm (1922) never achieved the impact of his earlier works. His patriotic and social themed films with their emphasis on realism were out of step with the audience of the fun loving Jazz Age who had lived through World War I. By the 1920s his films were considered 'dated.'


Griffith was one of the founders of United Artist, but was forced to leave UA after Isn't Life Wonderful? (1924) failed at the box office, and returned to Paramount as a director. He made two talkies, Abraham Lincoln (1930) and The Struggle (1931). Neither was successful, and he never made another film. For the last years of his life, Griffith lived as a virtual hermit in Los Angeles and died alone in his room at Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles in 1948.


One of the first color silent movies

The Toll of the Sea   Starring Anna May Wong





When young Lotus Flower sees an unconscious man floating in the water near the seashore, she quickly gets help for him. The man is Allen Carver, an American visiting China. Soon the two have fallen in love, and Carver promises to take her with him when he returns home. But Carver's friends discourage him from doing this, and he returns to the USA alone. By the time the two of them meet again a few years later, much has changed: Lotus Flower has a young son by Carver, but he has returned to China with a wife. Lotus Flower is reluctantly persuaded that her son would be better raised with his father in America. After they leave with the boy, she wades into the sea and drowns  .