Silent Movies

The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture


By Peter Kobel

Preface by Martin Scorsese

Foreword by Kevin Brownlow

Formats and Prices




$24.99 CAD




ebook $19.99 $24.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around February 28, 2009. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Drawing on the extraordinary collection of The Library of Congress, one of the greatest repositories for silent film and memorabilia, Peter Kobel has created the definitive visual history of silent film. From its birth in the 1890s, with the earliest narrative shorts, through the brilliant full-length features of the 1920s, Silent Movies captures the greatest directors and actors and their immortal films.

Silent Movies also looks at the technology of early film, the use of color photography, and the restoration work being spearheaded by some of Hollywood’s most important directors, such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.

Richly illustrated from the Library of Congress’s extensive collection of posters, paper prints, film stills, and memorabilia — most of which have never been in print — Silent Movies is an important work of history that will also be a sought-after gift book for all lovers of film.


Begin Reading

Table of Contents

Copyright Page

In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author's intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at Thank you for your support of the author's rights.

Beau Geste, starring Ronald Colman (1926).


Martin Scorsese

The cinema is now more than 110 years old, and everyone is more or less in agreement about its value as an art form. Or so it would seem.

I am still shocked by the fact that 90 percent of the films made during the silent era have disintegrated. That means movies starring Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, and Conrad Veidt, and directed by King Vidor and F. W. Murnau—those films and countless others are now lost to us forever, and there are many others in danger of being lost. We can't afford to lose any more. When I look at a picture like Beyond the Rocks, the recently unearthed Valentino-Swanson film directed by Sam Wood, I marvel at the sheer beauty and sophistication of silent cinema. Yet, locating old and rare prints and transferring them to safety stock is not the only task of preservationists. More recent works are also in danger, victims of decomposing film stock, color fading, and other forms of deterioration.

We are constantly reminded of the glory of movies, the beauty of movies, and yet we continue to allow them to disintegrate; for every carefully preserved title, there is another that has been rescued from oblivion at the very last minute, ten more that are in danger of disappearing, and twenty more that are already gone. We have made progress, of course. There are many dedicated preservationists out there who have devoted their lives to the cinema's restoration and maintenance; to me, they are heroes. Moreover, we now have what I would call a "film preservation consciousness." But there is still a widespread assumption that movies will just take care of themselves, and nothing could be further from the truth.

As I was reading Silent Movies, I was overwhelmed once again by the wonder of cinema, and by the urgent need to preserve it on a systematic basis. I became a sort of time traveler through the lost and forgotten titles of the silent film era. After wandering through these pages of precious images, you may begin to wonder why the passion for film preservation has not grown. Drawing on the extraordinary collection of the Library of Congress, one of the greatest repositories for silent film and memorabilia, Silent Movies serves as an introduction to the early days of the film industry, both in the United States and internationally. The lobby cards, stills, and other images—some of them drawn from the Library's collection of paper prints and early titles—provide some of the few existing records of the earliest American films.

Many of the films featured in Silent Movies are part of the National Film Registry and provide a sampling of our rich and varied movie history. Saving these and other landmark pictures benefits everyone—the public at large, and the memory of their creators. Ongoing preservation of movies is really a tribute to all of us, for the arts—all the arts—are as necessary to us and to our well-being as the food we eat and the air we breathe.


Kevin Brownlow

It used to be the fashion to regard all progress as benevolent and to pity the inhabitants of the past who were denied it. Today we look back nostalgically to a world without pollution and express admiration for old-fashioned craftsmanship. What we would really like, of course, is all of today's advantages and all of yesterday's as well.

As far as silent films are concerned, few would give up wide screens, color, and Dolby sound for the fitful pleasures of the nickelodeon. But thanks to new technology, more and more silents are appearing on DVD, and in the best of them a new generation is discovering a surprising degree of skill, imagination, and sometimes genius. Turner Classic Movies in the United States and Arte in Europe show silents on television. Festivals devoted to silent films are held regularly in Europe and the United States.

When these festivals started, rare prints used to come out of the archives without intertitles, with reels in the wrong order, and with appalling image quality. One wondered what such organizations had been doing all these years. The worst were the so-called paper prints, primitive films so badly printed on 16mm that they suggested a shocking degree of incompetence on the part of the early filmmakers. Had they managed to capture only the sort of jiggling, blurred picture you get with a defective television? Of course not, but who would have believed the original image quality had been first rate and that it was only the copying that had been incompetent? (Ironically, the man responsible received an Oscar for his pains.)

The Library of Congress is gradually recopying these precious early films on 35mm, as had been tentatively done originally. The difference is amazing. Yet far too many silent films still survive in prints that make nonsense of the work the original technicians put into them. They took immense care with the photographic quality in the silent days because it was all they had. A silent film depended on its visuals; as soon as you degrade those, you lose elements that go far beyond the image on the surface. You remove the possibility of enjoyment. A film that seems dull in a poor dupe can leap to life in a first-class print.

This is being understood today as methods of viewing films improve, but ineptly produced videos and DVDs still set back the reputation of silent films. The very word silent suggests that something is missing. But if you see a silent film as it was meant to be seen, with live music, you certainly will not feel it is in any way inferior to a talkie. (A crashing chord from a symphony orchestra outdoes even Dolby stereo!)

I was associated with the public presentation of silent films, with David Gill and composer Carl Davis, for twenty years. It was thrilling to discover how the films were transformed when they were put back into their natural environment. And it was equally thrilling to hear unsolicited raves from members of the audience. It all cost a fortune, but we were sponsored by Thames Television and, later, Channel Four, and they got their money back by distributing the films around the world.

As far as modern audiences are concerned, admiration is most easily expressed for the comedies. People inevitably declare a preference for Chaplin or Keaton or Lloyd and imply that by liking one you have to dismiss the others. My late filmmaking partner David Gill used to counter this by saying: "In the eighteenth century, do you think people said 'I love Haydn, but I can't abide Mozart or Beethoven'? Hardly. They were privileged to have so many artists of genius."

Enthusiasm for dramas is more restrained. This is partly because so many silent dramas are unobtainable, shackled by copyright restrictions. The Library of Congress will not thank me for saying it, but the remaining copyright on silent films should be eliminated so that they can be made as easily available as the classics of literature. Otherwise they will perish—just as thousands did years ago at the hands of studios and distributors who had no further use for them.

Ironically, the very studios that destroyed the films invariably renewed their rights, so if you manage to find a print and want to use it in a television documentary, they blithely charge you six thousand dollars a minute.

The silent era was a period of immense creativity, and there seems to be no end to its surprises. But you have to be careful. The period produced just as many bad films as any other. The poverty-row studios churned out films cynically for theaters catering to "transients"—a term covering anyone from railroad passengers to tramps. Some were made with big names—a star would be hired for one day and a series of all-purpose close-ups would be taken and fitted into the plot, no matter how stupid that plot may have been. The object was to fill five or six reels as swiftly and as cheaply as possible. If you spot any of these, produced by companies with names like Aywon or Mastodon or Chesterfield, avoid them like the plague. With 80 percent of silent films lost, these films stubbornly survive. No one wanted them back. They often crop up at silent-film festivals presented with a respect they do not deserve. They are a curse on film history.

I am not talking about routine releases, for in that classification are some of the most beautiful films ever made. My love affair with silent pictures, which has lasted longer than the silent era itself, owes a great deal to a routine release.

I was born too late to see silents when they were new. I first saw them at a boarding school in Sussex just after the war, where the only enjoyable event was the film show given by the headmaster every third Sunday in the winter. He had no sound projector—he showed us the films of our parents' generation.

One evening I was in my usual place, squatting on the floor as close to the machine as I could get, when the projector jammed. In repairing the film, the headmaster tore off a few frames, and they landed next to me. As soon as the show was over, I rushed to the dormitory, picked up my flashlight, and held it against that scrap of film, expecting to see a theater-quality image on the wall. I was dismayed that it remained blurred until I was a few millimeters away. Nevertheless, the fact that you could convert a room into a cinema seemed to me a miracle.

I badgered my parents for a projector, and dutifully, they gave me one the following Christmas—a Pathescope Ace 9.5mm hand-cranked projector and two short films. I ran through these very quickly and set out to find more. By now we had moved to London, and with television just coming in, you could buy old films in junk shops. The first I bought still gives me a frisson of delight whenever I think of it—even though it was heavily abridged for home-movie release and its title changed. It was called The First Man. My parents had been keen filmgoers, and my mother instantly recognized Douglas Fairbanks. Even I had heard of Douglas Fairbanks, and the film was fresh and delightful, although judging by the cars, it had been made a good thirty years before. It combined parody of the nouveau riche with high adventure—gunrunning in the Mexican revolution. Fairbanks played an effete butterfly hunter, a ruse to investigate the gunrunning. The titles were witty—"I am Mrs. Budheiser—you know, Budheiser, the brewers?" "Please! We're distillers!"—and the cinematography was scintillating. Fairbanks used a hydroplane (an early version of a sea-plane) and drove a primitive-looking sports car. At one point his hat blew off. To impress the girl (Jewel Carmen), he leaped from the car, raced after the hat, and then sprinted back, jumping behind the wheel with that insouciant Fairbanks grin.

I went to my local library, imagining that I could take a book from the shelf and find out all about my film. There was precisely one film book: The History of Motion Pictures, by Brasillach Bardeche. As I took it from the shelf, it fell open at a picture of my Fairbanks film, giving it the correct title: "Fairbanks's biggest success came in 1916, when he made American Aristocracy, playing the part of a southerner of good family, who collects butterflies, becomes acquainted with some snobbish Easterners and gets involved with all sorts of melodramatic adventures. A lot of airplane work was entailed and even acrobatics on a hydroplane." My very first film was important enough to appear in a book! This was so remarkable I was compelled to find out more about it.

Someone told me about the British Film Institute, and in its library I found an index to the films of D. W. Griffith, who had nominally supervised the picture. It told me that Anita Loos had written the script, Lloyd Ingraham had directed, and Victor Fleming, the man who would direct Gone with the Wind, had photographed it. It also gave me the cast, which I can recite to this day: Charles Stevens, Arturo Ortiega, Lillian Langdon; the villain, Percy Peck, a malted milk manufacturer, was played by Albert S. Parker.

When I first joined the film industry, fifty years ago, I kept hearing of an actors' agency called Al Parker Ltd. Having a one-track mind, I knew this was my Albert Parker, and so I rang him up.

"Did you ever act with Douglas Fairbanks?" I asked.

"Act with him? Why, I directed him."

I had no idea that Parker had been responsible for Fairbanks's Technicolor swashbuckler The Black Pirate (1926). When I told him of my film, he asked me to bring it to his flat in Mayfair. As I projected it on the wall for Parker, his wife—the actress Margaret Johnston—came in. She was so enchanted by the vision of her husband as a young man, impeccably dressed in white ducks, that she asked me back to run the film at a dinner party.

Parker, now in his seventies, was a tough old bird who had been a close friend of John Barrymore's. He entertained me for hours with stories of Broadway and early Hollywood. When I found a 16mm print of another of his films, Eyes of Youth (1919), with Clara Kimball Young and a little-known actor from Italy, he invited his clients, such as James Mason and Trevor Howard, and told us all about discovering Valentino. On another occasion he arranged for me to meet Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who appeared in his first role, in American Aristocracy, as a chubby five-year-old selling newspapers, and who told me marvelous stories about the silent days.

I became a silent-film historian through finding that little film. It struck me that had I been a student of literature and Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway were still alive, I would have flown to America at the first opportunity. And so I booked a flight in 1964, and in ten days in Hollywood, I tape-recorded twenty-eight interviews with everyone from Buster Keaton to Gloria Swanson.

My excuse for meeting these people was that I was writing a book. I had no intention of writing anything, and a book was far too much like hard work. But one interview, with an associate of D. W. Griffith's, demolished so many myths, and revealed so much that was new, that it forced me to haul out the typewriter. The final result appeared in 1968, and I called it The Parade's Gone By…. It was dedicated to Abel Gance, a French director who had never been to Hollywood but who had made my favorite silent film, Napoléon (1927). He revered D. W. Griffith.

Griffith had been excoriated for the racism in The Birth of a Nation (1915). It is a tragedy that the American cinema's first great masterpiece should lionize the Ku Klux Klan. But those who removed Griffith's name a few years ago from the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Director's Guild betray their ignorance of his other films. In Rose of Kentucky (1911), the KKK is depicted as a group of villains, and the besieged civilians are saved by a black boy. Birth was based on a famous play and a couple of novels; Griffith toned down the racism considerably, although the film is still highly inflammatory. His Broken Blossoms (1919) dealt with racial prejudice toward Chinese immigrants and Intolerance with religious persecution, brutality toward strikers, and gangsterism. Griffith was a social reformer despite his avowed contempt for reformers.

I found that the veterans still venerated his name. When I pointed out that in film history Griffith's was the one name you heard repeated again and again, and that everything he did was supposed to be "genius," they gently explained how important he had been in leading the industry. The next generation of directors—King Vidor, Henry King—acknowledged all they had learned from Griffith, even as they surpassed him.

These veterans were the most remarkable people I have ever encountered. They were wonderful storytellers and witty conversationalists, and many became lifelong friends. I think they were surprised that an Englishman in his twenties should be so excited about what they had done half a century before. But by now I had progressed from 9.5mm to 16mm, and my respect for their achievements had increased as the range of their work became more apparent. And because I had tried filmmaking myself and had found out how difficult it was, I knew what they had been up against.

I was fascinated to find out that so many of the great figures of the silent era—Griffith, Sennett, Chaplin, Keaton, Garbo—with very little conventional schooling, had been self-taught, intuitive. "Uneducated but intelligent," as Peter Kobel puts it. (How ironic that their work is so often taught in an academic language that would baffle them!)

What excited me was that most of them had retained their enthusiasm for film. Occasionally, someone had been so long out of the business that it took an effort just to get them to remember. I found the best method was to show them their films. Thanks to a collector friend in California, I was able to bring Reginald Denny back together with his comedy Skinner's Dress Suit (1926), and I was taken aback at how surprised he was. A myth had built up around silent films that was parroted by my generation—they were jerky, flickery, poorly photographed, badly acted curiosities—and he had come to believe it.

They were jerky because, with the coming of sound, everything had to be projected at twenty-four frames per second. There was no standard silent speed, but early films were projected around sixteen frames per second, and to show these at twenty-four made them look ridiculous. By the late 1910s, many pictures were cranked at twenty to twenty-two and projected slightly faster. According to a senior engineer, when sound arrived, Western Electric took the average of theaters on Broadway—twenty-two to twenty-six frames per second—and decided on twenty-four.

They didn't flicker once it became apparent that three-bladed shutters were required for anything below eighteen frames per second. And as for poor photography, I have been amazed at the high standard of cinematography in silent films—so long as you see a print made from something close to the original negative. It was the endless copying that had produced the dreadful soot and whitewash we all associate with early Chaplin. But look at those films when printed from the original negative, and they are as sharp as a tack, with the full tonal range. This art did not sweep the world by using prints no one could see.

And as for the acting, look for yourself at the skill and subtlety. Yes, there was overacting—players responded to the story, and if it was melodrama, they would act in the style demanded. But in a realistic story—The Crowd or Are Parents People?—they were as naturalistic as Bogart or Bacall.

The silent era has never ceased to surprise me. Just when I feel I have seen everything, a film comes from left field that upsets all my assumptions. Sometimes the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy will act like an alcoholic's cure, and after a couple of days, you may see so many boring films you feel you never want to look at another frame. But persevere, and you will inevitably see something so extraordinary that your faith will be renewed and your enthusiasm increased.

This book is an ideal introduction to the silent cinema. It takes an incredibly complicated series of events, such as the first few years of cinema, lays them out so we can understand them, and then sails on, keeping our interest through a genuine enthusiasm for the subject.

As my idol Abel Gance told me in 1967, "The cinema is a flame obliterating the shadows. And let me add, it is essential to have enthusiasm. No great work can be achieved without enthusiasm."

Glass slides (or lantern slides, as they were originally called) were used as pauses when reels were being worked on or changed. They were also known as "etiquette" slides because of the lighthearted instructions for patrons' behavior when viewing the show.




Poster of Edison's Greatest Marvel, the Vitascope (1896).


Three things were essential to developing projected motion pictures as we know them today: a camera with a sufficiently high shutter speed to freeze motion, a filmstrip capable of taking multiple exposures swiftly, and a means of projecting the developed images on a screen. The race to achieve that goal reached a fever pitch in the 1890s, and the first to cross the finish line was France.

French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière's experimental breakthrough, the Cinématographe, had a mechanism like that in the drive device of a sewing machine. It was lightweight, compact, and versatile for shooting, printing, and projection.

On March 22, 1895, the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière gave a historic public showing of a projected film (the instrument did not yet have a name but later became known as the Cinématographe) at the Société d'Encouragement pour l'Industrie Nationale. Louis Lumière showed a number of slides, some of them colored. But the small audience was more interested in the brothers' short film, called Leaving the Lumière Factory. The wonder-filled audience demanded that the film, which depicted workers leaving the Lumières' Lyons factory at dinnertime, consisting of some eight hundred photographs and lasting one minute, be shown again.

The Lumière brothers' short film Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895).

One month later, on April 21, the first projected movie shown publicly in America was screened in New York City. Using a device originally called the Panoptikon and subsequently the Eidoloscope—the names of many of these early devices seem straight out of science fiction—the brothers Otway and Gray Latham showed a film to guests and reporters at their workshop on Frankfort Street. According to the New York Sun, it "portrayed the antics of some boys at play in a park. They wrestled, jumped, fought, and tumbled over one another. Near where the boys were romping a man [played by the Lathams' father, Woodville] sat reading a paper and smoking a pipe. Even the puffs of smoke could be plainly seen."

Thomas Edison, who had developed the Kinetoscope, a movie peep show for individuals, was furious and threatened a lawsuit. It would not be until a year later, on April 23, 1896, that "the wizard of Menlo Park" would publicly present projected films, which he did using the Vitascope projector at Koster and Bial's Music Hall at Thirty-fourth Street and Broadway. Macy's department store is located there now, and the event is memorialized with a plaque.

On May 20, 1895, the Lathams beat both Edison and the French when they opened a public exhibition space, at 156 Broadway, where for a few pennies, patrons could watch movies. And what could one see? According to a newspaper account: "You'll sit comfortably and see fighters hammering each other, circuses, suicides, hangings, electrocutions, shipwrecks…. Almost anything, in fact, in which there is action, just as if you were on the spot during the actual events."

So if the French were the first to project films publicly, the Americans were the first to create a business to make money from it. (The Lumières debuted their first projection theater on December 28, 1895, in the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines, featuring several films, and all of Paris was soon abuzz; they toured their films in London and New York the following year.) Still, from a broader historical view, these accomplishments seem like the equivalent of a photo finish. The elements that could make cinema a reality were falling into place, and many cinematic alchemists were turning them to gold. The Lumières, as it turned out, were not even the first in Europe to project films for a paying audience. The German Max Skladanowsky, who invented a motion-picture camera and a projector, which he called the Bioskope, inched them out with a film showing at the Berlin Wintergarten, on November 1, 1895.

An open Kinetoscope, 1891. Customers could start the machines for a nickel or a dime and watch moving pictures through a peephole.

Something was certainly in the air. The turn of the century was a period of tremendous technological development, firing imaginations with visions of speed. Marconi invented wireless telegraphy in 1895, and the Wright brothers would take flight in 1903—it's no wonder that even pictures had to move. And it's hardly surprising that early cinema was obsessed with trains and cars, powerful imagery of acceleration.

Still, in the run-up to film projection, no one really seems to have had a sense of the immensity of what was being created—the seventh art form, which would in many ways change the world. In part that was because film projection came about incrementally and would never have been possible without the multiple breakthroughs that preceded it. One such milestone was certainly when Edison first publicly demonstrated the popular and profitable Kinetoscope, which permitted individuals to watch moving pictures through a peephole, in 1891. But before Edison and his younger colleague, William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, a photographer and inventor who led the team that developed the Kinetoscope, came many others.

Thomas Edison.

Among them was the English photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who in the 1870s developed series photography showing animals in motion, using multiple cameras. In 1882, in France, French physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey, using a camera shaped like a rifle called the Chronophotographic Gun, shot the first series of photos taken by a single camera in order to study the motion of birds and bats in flight.

One could go back further, to the early developments in photography. In 1839, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre developed the photographic process of the daguerreotype. (Daguerre opened Dioramas in London and Paris, projecting his images on huge screens, sometimes accompanied by live music, which could legitimately be considered the ancestors of cinemas.) An Englishman, William Henry Fox Talbot, demonstrated a negative photographic process that allowed multiple reproductions from a negative. Obviously, without photography, there would be no cinema.

Flying ducks captured on paper film by Étienne-Jules Marey.


On Sale
Feb 28, 2009
Page Count
320 pages

Peter Kobel

About the Author

Peter Kobel is the former managing editor of Premiere magazine, and has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Entertainment Weekly.

Martin Scorsese is one of the most respected and influential directors working today. He also serves as president of the Film Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to film preservation.

Kevin Brownlow is a noted film historian and has written extensively on early film, including The Parade's Gone By and Behind the Mask of Innocence.

Learn more about this author