In This Article Silent Film

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Textbooks
  • Anthologies, Essay Collections, and Journals
  • Bibliographies and Source Guides
  • Film Guides
  • Production, Distribution, Exhibition, and Spectatorship
  • Sound and Music
  • Silent Genres
  • Silent Comedy
  • Silent Stars
  • Silent Directors
  • Studies of Individual Silent Films
  • African Americans and Silent Film
  • Women and Silent Film
  • Politics, Society, and Culture
  • Adaptation and Intermedia
  • The Transition to Sound and the Legacy of Silent Film

Cinema and Media Studies Silent Film
by
Donna Kornhaber
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0223

Introduction

The era of silent film encompasses the thirty-five-year span between the initial development of film technology around 1894 and the widespread adoption of synchronized sound around 1929. It was a vitally important period in film history, both for the artistry of the films it produced and for the societal impact of the various institutions that developed to produce and display those films. Numerous films from the silent era are regarded as landmarks of world cinema, just as some of the stars and filmmakers that dominated the period remain among the most beloved and influential in film history. Despite the era’s vitality, for decades many scholars took a primitivist view of all but its latest films, regarding the bulk of the silent years mainly as the period of the cinema’s nascence. An evolutionary reading of film history often prevailed, one that saw interest or merit primarily in those aspects of silent film artistry and production that directly anticipated later cinematic developments. Beginning in the 1980s, a new generation of scholars came to fundamentally question this approach and began to see silent film as part of a distinct historical moment worthy of attention in its own right and less as a series of progressive steps on a predefined evolutionary ladder. One impact of this reevaluation has been the periodization of silent cinema into a series of distinct historical stages, each with its own prevailing stylistic features and reigning social dynamics. The details of such periodization can vary significantly between scholars, but one overarching effect is that the term “silent film” has become less frequently used by academic film historians as a viable catchall, given the term’s potential to elide significant differences across cinema’s first decades. Yet the study of filmmaking across the whole of the silent era, or substantial parts thereof, remains an important facet of film scholarship, and in these contexts the idea of a transhistorical silent cinema is still regularly employed. This article looks at those studies that take a broad view of the silent era, both those that predate the trend toward reperiodization and those more contemporary studies that look across a substantial portion of the three and a half decades of the silent years and encompass multiple historical and stylistic periods. In so doing, it aims to offer a starting point for readers wishing to better understand the rich world of filmmaking that existed before sound.

General Overviews

Given the general academic consensus around the periodization of silent film into a series of distinctive stages as described in the Introduction, the kind of broad, single-author overviews spanning the whole of the silent era that once marked film scholarship have become relatively rare. (Far more common are anthologies and edited collections that bring together work by specialists in different temporal periods of silent film, as detailed in Anthologies, Essay Collections, and Journals.) Still, readers who are new to the study of silent film and looking for a place to start can find some useful titles, both new and old. Kobel 2007 offers what is arguably the most thorough overview of the silent era written since the 1990s; aimed at the general reader, the book is meticulously designed and illustrated with more than four hundred images from the Library of Congress. Robb 2010 provides a more concise introduction intended largely for students and can serve as a useful jumping off point for further study. Everson 1978, which focuses on the silent film in America only, also provides useful introductory material, although readers should be aware that Everson’s views on the evolution of silent film have been thoroughly revised by later scholars. Predating Everson, Brownlow 1968 was at one point the most prominent and important text on the history of silent film, arguing for its value and artistry at a moment when many still viewed the silent cinema as archaic. It remains useful for the sheer volume of original interview material that it includes, although Brownlow’s hagiographic work, like Everson’s evolutionary view, has been largely supplanted by later historicist and neoformalist approaches to film studies. More personal reflection than scholarly history, Card 1994 presents a loving look at the era of silent film by an archivist and film collector who dedicated much of his life and career to preserving the works of that era, many of which he first saw as an adolescent during the 1920s. Usai 2000 shares with Card a dual focus on film history and film preservation as it relates to the study of the silent era. For readers who wish to understand the way that academic film historians since the 1980s have come to divide silent era filmmaking into multiple historical and stylistic periods, Thompson 1985 offers a useful point of entry. Those readers looking for a more informally presented but still rigorous introduction to silent film should consult The Bioscope, a blog on silent film research and appreciation containing fourteen hundred entries searchable by topic and theme. Interested readers are also urged to visit other complementary articles within Oxford Bibliographies that provide further detail on specific topics and time periods that fall under the general rubric of “Silent Film.” These include the entry on “American Cinema, 1895–1915” and entries on various national cinemas, and the numerous entries on individual stars, directors, and films of the silent era from around the world.

  • The Bioscope.

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    Although it ceased being updated in 2012, The Bioscope remains one of the most readable, authoritative, and comprehensive silent film websites, first started as a personal project by the British Library’s moving-image curator. Particularly useful for its silent film FAQ and its lengthy guides to online and DVD resources.

  • Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade’s Gone By. . . . New York: Knopf, 1968.

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    A vivid, critical reflection on silent era films and filmmaking, at one time the seminal work on the subject. Brownlow’s work predates and is out of step with most current scholarship, but the personal interviews with over one hundred silent era directors, producers, and stars give the book an enduring value.

  • Card, James. Seductive Cinema: The Art of Silent Film. New York: Knopf, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    An engaging, richly illustrated, and amusingly argumentative survey of silent film colored by the personal reflections and recollections of a pioneering collector, archivist, and silent film enthusiast who was the founder and curator of the famed motion picture archive at the George Eastman House.

  • Everson, William K. American Silent Film. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

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    One of the standard texts of silent film history in the United States. While later scholars have significantly complicated its evolutionary narrative, Everson’s work remains in print and still provides a useful introductory overview, particularly of the classical silent era. Special topical chapters cover genres, production design, and the intertitle.

  • Kobel, Peter. Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture. New York: Little, Brown, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of the most comprehensive overviews of silent film to be released in recent decades, with dedicated chapters on stars, directors, genres, sound and color, the press, the film business, and silent film outside the United States. Lavishly illustrated with over four hundred rare images drawn from the Library of Congress.

  • Robb, Brian J. Silent Cinema. Harpenden, UK: Oldcastle, 2010.

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    An accessible guide for beginners, organized thematically rather than historically. Includes a dedicated chapter on silent comedy and one on silent era scandals; individual descriptions and analyses for some of the major silent films; and an overview of major print, online, and DVD resources for studying silent cinema.

  • Thompson, Kristin. “The Formulation of the Classical Style, 1909–28.” In The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. By David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, 245–472. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203358818E-mail Citation »

    Thompson offers a foundational articulation of the multiple historical and stylistic periods that make up the latter decades of the silent film era. While her periodization has been refined and further subdivided by later scholars, readers interested in understanding how film historians since the 1980s have approached the silent cinema might start here.

  • Usai, Paolo Cherchi. Silent Cinema: An Introduction. 2d ed. London: British Film Institute, 2000.

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    Revised and expanded from its original publication under the title Burning Passions in 1991. Provides a history of cinema’s first thirty years alongside information on the processes of film restoration and preservation that have been so central in enabling the study of silent era film.

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