The Move to Hollywood
The towering sets for scenes of ancient Babylon that Griffith built for Intolerance in an open Hollywood field became early landmarks of the new southern California movie community. Around 1910 Griffith and other East Coast filmmakers began to spend winters in California, and soon a number of film companies worked there year-round. Besides congenial weather, the locale offered varied terrains for filming: beaches, nearby mountains and deserts, and plenty of inexpensive land for building studio lots. A skilled workforce was available, and at lower wages than in other parts of the country. With no established older arts, in contrast to New York City and European film centers such as Paris, France; Berlin, Germany; and Rome, Italy; Hollywood became a movie “colony,” with a lifestyle that emphasized leisure, sports, and the outdoors.
Hollywood’s development also marked the triumph of independent producers over the attempted monopoly by the Eastern-based MPPC. While the latter’s producers had tried to limit production and film length, the independents moved into feature-length filmmaking and built up a star system to publicize their works. Among the independents, Universal Pictures set up its own incorporated town in the San Fernando Valley, north of Hollywood, called Universal City. Paramount Pictures and the Fox Film Corporation also emerged as prominent independent companies in the World War I era. These firms developed the Hollywood studio system in which a small group controlled the production, distribution, and exhibition of films. The studio system would eventually be challenged as another kind of movie monopoly.
A 3 Silent Comedies
Edit this section Despite the stylistic innovations by Griffith and others, which made narrative dramatic films more prevalent, comedy remained a staple of silent cinema. After the trick films and risqué comedies of the early years, a new comic style called slapstick emerged in one-reelers. This boisterous, physical comedy was named for the stick wielded by clowns in Punch-and-Judy puppet shows. Mack Sennett, who had worked as an actor and comedy director with Griffith, formed a new company, Keystone, in 1912 that played an important role in developing slapstick comedy. Keystone, home of the hapless Keystone Kops, employed a host of comic talents, the most notable of whom was English actor Charlie Chaplin.
At Keystone, Chaplin developed his signature tramp character. He soon went on to direct, produce, write, and star in his own independent productions. By the World War I era, such classic short comedies as Easy Street (1917) and The Immigrant (1917) had brought him international fame greater than that of any other movie performer. Chaplin’s poignant but indomitable tramp created universal comedy that was firmly rooted in common life. In the 1920s Chaplin began making feature-length comedies, including The Kid (1921) and The Gold Rush (1925).
Two other performers in feature comedies during the 1920s, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, created more contemporary comic personas, young men coping with the mysteries of modern life. Keaton’s stone-faced character mastered machinery and his environment, most memorably in The General (1927), in which he gains control of a runaway railway engine. Lloyd portrayed an ambitious youth whose efforts to rise in life take physical form in Safety Last (1923), when his character climbs the side of a tall building, hanging precariously from flagpoles and ledges.
B European Silent Movies
After World War I circumstances of filmmaking in Europe greatly changed. American films by then predominated in a number of European countries, as well as elsewhere in the world. The once-powerful Italian and Danish film industries declined, while filmmakers in Germany and the newly founded Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) came to prominence. France, though no longer dominant, remained a center for theorizing about cinema and producing innovative and experimental works.
B 1 Germany
Throughout the 1920s Germany had the strongest film industry in Europe, even as American films made inroads there and Hollywood lured top talent. Although Germany produced commercial films strictly for entertainment, filmmaking in the country emphasized cinema as an art form, with particular attention paid to visual atmosphere, conveyed through cinematography (motion-picture photography), lighting, and set design. Because Germany was perceived as the aggressor in World War I, its films had to be particularly striking to overcome hostility in export markets. Expressionism, an artistic movement that used deliberate distortion to express emotion, influenced some notable postwar features, in particular director Robert Wiene’s Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1919) with its contorted abstract sets and narrative of a sleepwalking murderer who is controlled by a mysterious doctor.
Germany’s leading filmmakers during the 1920s included Fritz Lang, F. W. Murnau, and G. W. Pabst. Lang’s films emphasized extraordinary visions of the material world in mythology, contemporary life, and the future. His most famous silent film was Metropolis (1927), a stunning depiction of a futuristic city with railway bridges running between upper stories of skyscrapers, while workers toil at huge machines underground. Murnau made works of deep psychological complexity, including the classic vampire film Nosferatu (1922) and Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924), which visualizes the thoughts of an aging doorman who is demoted to washroom attendant. Pabst, known as a realist filmmaker, directed American actress Louise Brooks as Lulu in the sexual tragedy Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1928).
B 2 Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
In Russia the overthrow of the monarchy in 1917 was followed later that year by the Bolshevik Revolution, which established a communist regime that eventually took the name Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In the wake of these events, a young generation of filmmakers was eager to establish a new film art based on the revolution’s ideals. The state-controlled Soviet silent cinema became for a time a remarkable combination of politics and avant-garde aesthetics, until its experimental spirit was stifled by shifts in political ideology. Shaped by heated internal debates, the works of filmmakers such as Sergey Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov continue to pose challenging questions about the relationship of politics and art.
Eisenstein was an important theorist as well as filmmaker. His essays on montage (the French term for film editing) explored the way individual film shots can be juxtaposed and linked to create meaning and to elicit an emotional response from spectators. He put these theories into practice in such films as Stachka (Strike, 1924), Bronenosets Potemkin (Potemkin, 1925), and Oktyabr (October, 1928, also known as Ten Days That Shook the World). Perhaps the most famous montage assemblage in film history is the Odessa Steps sequence of Potemkin, with approximately 155 separate shots in 4 minutes and 20 seconds of screen time depicting a massacre of civilians by soldiers.
Vertov (the professional name of Denis A. Kaufman) was an advocate of documentaries over fictional narratives. He too emphasized montage and the importance of the film editor in organizing and shaping the raw material of film footage. He directed, edited, and produced a newsreel series, Kino-Pravda (Cine-Truth, 1922-1925), and made documentary features, including Chelovek s kinoapparatom (Man with a Movie Camera, 1929).