On the big screen: Silent Cinema

Silent films have recently been in the public eye due to the success of The Artist, which won Best Picture at the 84th Academy Awards on Sunday. The only other silent film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards was Wings at the 1st Academy Award ceremony in 1929. The question that everyone was asking before Sunday evening was could a silent film in 2012 win the Oscar for Best Picture?

Although very often controversial, the Academy Award winners give us an indication of how Hollywood is feeling about itself, and Hollywood certainly loves a film about itself. The Artist can be seen as a parallel to the Hollywood film industry now, with constant advancements in technology and the need for ‘Fresh Meat’ as head of the studio Al Zimmer, played by John Goodman, explains in the film.

As with the change over from silent to sound films in the late 1920s, the more prominent use of 3D in the cinema nowadays is increasing the production of films made wholly for the 3D effect, such as Avatar, currently the highest grossing film of all time. What has now come to be known as ‘the silent era’ of 1894-1929, this was an extremely creative time for Hollywood films, as by the early 1920s, Hollywood were releasing 800 films annually, contributing to 82% of the films being released globally every year. By the late 1920s, most of the Hollywood studios had dropped silent films and were producing talkies, although many critics were arguing that their appeal would not last. The Jazz Singer, released in 1929 by Warner Bros, although mostly silent but with some dialogue and songs, was a huge financial success, and is now known as the film which began the talkies.

Douglas Fairbanks Sr, one of the most famous actors of the silent era, and known as ‘The First King of Hollywood’ in the 1920s, rapidly lost his career after talkies had begun being produced by the Hollywood studios, and retired from acting in 1934. Arguably, the only person to maintain their success in the move from silent to talking films was Charlie Chaplin. Throughout the 1930s, Chaplin resisted making talkies for his studio, United Artists. His film Modern Times, released in 1936, is a silent film, but does contain sound from objects such as the radio. As 1930s audiences were no longer used to hearing silence, this was included to help the audience adjust. It is now known as one of Chaplin’s greatest film achievements. Chaplin’s first talkie wasn’t until the release of The Great Dictator in 1940. Chaplin himself describes in his autobiography the issue of the new talkies; “I felt that to make myself another silent film would be giving myself a handicap – also I was obsessed with a depressing fear of being old-fashioned. Although a good silent film was more artistic, I had to admit that sound made characters more present.”

The 1952 film Singing in the Rain, as with The Artist, looks at the transition from silent films to talkies, and the fall of silent actors in the process. When Singing in the Rain was released, the growing popularity of television caused a fear that cinema would soon be out of fashion. There is also a current fear that cinema is threatened by our technology driven generation, with a strong reliance on the internet.

However, the overwhelming success  of The Artist certainly defies this view, and if nothing else, The Artist has at least created a re-interest in the silent era of Hollywood, and may lead to more people opting to see a silent film with the same enthusiasm as a modern film.

Published 5th March 2012

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About writingsuzanne

History graduate. Freelance writer and reviewer. Passionate about film, theatre and music (film soundtracks!).
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