Early & Silent Film

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Early and Silent Cinema

silent-cinema-illus1Early and Silent Cinema          A teacher’s Guide by Keith Withall

Auteur Publishing 2007. 172 pages, with illustrations.


The guide offers an overview of the first thirty years of cinema, with the primary focus on Britain and the USA, i.e. Hollywood. There is also discussion of the European cinemas, and some from farther afield, like Japan, are treated briefly. There are also a number of individual case studies on key films from the different periods.


  • 1. The Birth of Cinema deals with the pioneers and their inventions. The key people are Thomas Edison in the USA and the Lumière Brothers in France. The supporting case studies discuss the first Lumière programme and an early film by Georges Méliès.
  • 2. The Growth of an Industry covers 1905 to 1914. The industrial development of cinema is studied in France, the USA and UK. The section also discusses the rise of narrative films and the emerging star system. The supporting case studies are the early British film Rescued by Rover [1905]; and two films by D. W. Griffith, A Corner in Wheat (1909) and An Unseen Enemy (1912). There are also some notes on the BFI DVD of early ‘Silent Shakespeare’ films.
  • 3. The Teen Years of Cinema covers 1914 to 1918, the year of the First World War. This saw the rise to dominance of the USA film industry, now based in Hollywood. The seminal work of Griffith in this period is discussed. And there are brief sections dealing with the important European industries, all of which suffered from the European war. The extensive supporting case study is D. W. Griffith’s famous [or infamous] The Birth of a Nation (1915). And there is a shorter study of Mad Love (1913) a Russian film directed by Yevgeni Bauer.
  • 4. The Mature Silent Cinema deals with the industry from 1919 to 1927, the year that saw the widespread introduction of sound films. The main focus is the Hollywood studio system and its genres and star system. There is discussion of the UK, suffering under Hollywood dominance. And also discussion of the German film industry, which was the largest and most successful in Europe. The supporting case studies deal with Hollywood’s two greatest clowns: Charlie Chaplin in The Kid (1921) and Buster Keaton in Our Hospitality (1923). There is also the very successful German film, Der Letze Man [1924} and a late Hollywood silent film, The Crowd [1928].
  • 5. Alternative Cinemas studies the Soviet cinema, left-wing film in Europe and the USA, including the early film societies, and China, mainly the prolific Shanghai Studios. As an alternative to Hollywood there is a section on Afro-American Cinema [known as ‘race movies’] and shorter sections on Documentary and Animation. The case studies are Strike (1925) by Sergei Eisenstein and Within Our Gates (1920) by Oscar Micheaux. The latter film was a conscious riposte to The Birth of a Nation.
  • 6. The Wider Context deals with Censorship, especially that in Britain: and also Music, which generally accompanied most screening of early film. There is a survey of the wider world picture with brief references to countries beyond the transatlantic states, including India and Japan. And a final section deals with the arrival of the sound film. The case study is A Cottage on Dartmoor (1920} a British film, directed by Anthony Asquith, which used both silent titles and sound on film.


There is a resource list with notes on helpful documentaries, suggested films and references to books and articles.

There is also a tribute to the work of archivists, restorers and researchers who seek out and preserve early film. Much of the book is based on the results of their work that I have enjoyed at the major archive festivals of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone and Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna.

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