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Silent Films of Early Cinema

Silent films: The dawn of the silver screen (1895-1920)

Between the months of December 1895 and January 1896, the Lumiere Brothers put on the first known example of a public screening of what we now consider ‘cinema’ for an audience at the Grand Cafe in Paris. The era of silent films had begun.

Silent films: a new form of entertainment

The exact date is in dispute but what happened on that night transformed the entertainment industry for years to come. Those first flickering moments passing before their eyes would start a trend that would reverberate across the globe right up until the present day.

Film quickly spread around the world over the first year, playing in all the major cities around the world.

Interestingly the very first silent film screening in London was on Regent Street in a building which has recently been transformed back into the Regent Street Cinema after 35 years as a university lecture hall as part of The University of Westminster.

The Lumiere Brothers: pioneers of silent movies

Of course, the very first films pre-date the first silent cinema screenings, with films like Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894) but it is the work of the Lumiere Brothers which people most associate with the birth of movies.

The most famous silent film of theirs is undoubtedly Arrival of a Train (1896), which was in their first batch of short films. Running for less than one minute, it details the arrival of a train in a station and all the people who have come out to meet it.

Incidentally, there are some claims (probably false), which tell of people running from the cinema as they believed a train was coming towards them into the auditorium!

The Lumiere Brothers were not what we would class as filmmakers today. They were scientists who were more intrigued with the ability to make pictures move rather than what the movement involved.

Their space was filled by magicians and entertainers. The most notable from this time right at the beginning are George Melies from France and R.W Paul from the UK. In fact, the UK and France led the market for film production for the first 15 years.

Mini silent film studios were set up all over the place, many in places which we would not associate with the glamour of moviemaking which was to come. It was the need for more natural light whilst filming that encouraged movie makers to look for somewhere better to film and the path led to California, or to be more precise, Hollywood.

Charlie Chaplin of Early Hollywood
Charlie Chaplin – the most famous silent movie actor of all

Finding Hollywood: enter Charlie Chaplin

Actors from vaudeville (variety theatre shows) flocked to California looking for work in this new medium and, very shortly, the movie star was born.

Between 1910 and 1920 names were created which audiences around the world worshipped. In these early days of silent film, language was not a barrier; a quick change of the intertitles sorted that problem, so the stars were truly global, and they would be recognised far and wide.

The most famous of which is undoubtedly Charlie Chaplin, a young vaudeville actor from London who started working in Hollywood in 1914 and never looked back.

His character of the little tramp, first seen in Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), is still widely recognised to this day. The character appeared in films for 20 years and would be defined as cheeky, yet lovable by large swathes of the people who flocked to see these films.

Actors of the silent movies era

Other names of note, the silent film stars of yesteryear, must include Mabel Normand and D.W Griffiths, the two most important directors at this time, along with the likes of Lionel Barrymore (Drew Barrymore’s great uncle), Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.

Of course, there were many other great names, however, these are the ones who are still widely recognised today with large amounts of their work still in existence.

Some actors have been less fortunate.

Theda Bara was one of the biggest stars of silent cinema. The image of her taken from Cleopatra (1917) is an iconic shot of early cinema. Therefore, it is a surprise that this silent movie is lost and nearly all her work has completely disappeared. How could such an important piece of work be allowed to simply disappear?

Sadly this is not such an exclusive situation.

Many of the earliest silent films are now lost to history, some estimates put it at 75% of silent cinema is gone forever.

How old film stock disappeared

The film stock on which these films were printed has decayed, in many cases making a number of the earliest films ever made unwatchable and highly dangerous due to the material from which they were made. The flammable nature of these films also resulted in several vault fires in Hollywood, which proved quite a significant loss.

The most common reason was, however, destruction by the film companies themselves. With no media outlets beyond cinemas, old movies were considered a waste of space, even more so when sound was introduced and silent films were no longer wanted. Large swathes of silent films were simply destroyed. This means we really need to celebrate what we still have.

Fortunately there are some films still being rediscovered: from the first Sherlock film to the work of Harry Houdini. Mislabelled film stock in various archives has unearthed a number of important gems which luckily we can now enjoy today.

The Lumiere Brothers: part of early cinema history
The Lumiere Brothers: part of early cinema history

Were silent films really silent?

It is wrong to assume that films from this time were entirely silent. Movies were anything but silent. Music played a large role in the performance of these films.

The small cinemas would accompany the film on a piano and, as cinemas started to grow in size and popularity, so did the musical accompaniment.

Few of these original movie palaces still survive but if you search hard you may come across a couple of them.

We’ve mentioned the Regent Street cinema in London has recently returned to showing films; the Electric cinemas in Portobello Road, London, and Birmingham are, likewise converted theatres which opened their doors at the turn of the twentieth century, and still operate to this day.

The oldest purpose-built cinemas in the world

However, if you want a cinema which was purpose built for showing these flickering gems then you can find the Plaza (1907) in Ottawa, Kansas or the Duke of York’s (1910) in Brighton, UK. These are two of the oldest purpose-built cinemas open to the public and are well worth a visit.