10 Lessons We Learned From Filmmaking in the 1920s

Star of many silent films, Mary Pickford made her "talkie" debut in 1929's "Coquette." Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Historical/Corbis

"We didn't need dialogue, we had faces!" In the 1950 film "Sunset Boulevard," Norma Desmond, a star of the silent screen played by Gloria Swanson, has faded into obscurity with the medium that made her famous. She lives in a fantasy world, plotting her impossible comeback and hosting card parties populated by other former stars like Buster Keaton and Anna Nilsson.

Desmond and her friends are the casualties of a watershed decade in the history of film. In many ways, "Sunset Boulevard" is an homage to the 1920s, a period that saw the transition from silent film to the "talkies," the development of epic cinema, and the birth of Westerns and other legendary genres.

In Hollywood, this was the era of Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino. Cecil B. DeMille ruled the box office, and Greta Garbo ruled the screen. In the Soviet Union, the Russian Formalists exploited a brief window of creative freedom to revolutionize filmmaking techniques, while visual artists around the world from Japan to France were finding new ways to turn the medium into a cultural force.

10
California Is Easier
Lives, money and time were lost on the Italian set of "Ben-Hur." John Kobal Foundation/Moviepix/Getty Images

"Ben-Hur" was an epic in every way possible. The new studio of Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) wanted to make its mark and chose to do so with a cinematic version of a hugely successful stage play that was itself an adaptation of a best-selling novel. Set in the time of Christ, "Ben-Hur" is the story of a wealthy young Jewish man who is enslaved by the Romans, crosses paths with Jesus and becomes a rockstar charioteer.

It was going to be a big, lavish production from the start, but to up the ante, MGM decided to film the entire movie on location in Italy. They didn't count on the country's new leader, Benito Mussolini, who was in a virulently anti-American mood when production began. Labor disputes, possibly fomented by Mussolini himself, delayed filming considerably. At one point, director Fred Niblo discovered that some of the Italian extras were planning to bring unwanted authenticity to a battle scene, having organized themselves into pro- and anti-fascist camps and sharpened the prop swords.

Several extras nearly drowned during a boat-sinking scene, a stuntman perished while filming the legendary chariot race and even the star, Ramon Navarro, escaped death by a hair's breadth. Astoundingly, more than a hundred horses also lost their lives for that cause, which was peopled by thousands of extras and shot by 42 cameras.

Even though the film was a box-office smash, it lost money because of cost-overruns. For more than two decades after the release of "Ben-Hur," Hollywood stayed home, preferring to build massive sets (even the Vatican!) on its own backlots rather than run the risk of foreign swords [source: Hagopian].

9
How to Montage
Filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein developed the montage as a way to create more powerful scenes. Bettmann/Corbis

One hundred fifty-five shots in five minutes. It's hard to exaggerate the impact of the famed "Odessa Steps" sequence in Sergei Eisenstein's groundbreaking 1925 work, "Battleship Potemkin." Conceived as a Soviet propaganda film based on a historical event, the story begins with the mutiny of the crew of the eponymous Russian Navy warship. Sailing into the port of Odessa, the crew goes ashore where local citizens gather to support them. Tzarist soldiers massacre the assembly on the Odessa steps. Among the most famous images in the scene, Eisenstein intercuts a shot of a baby carriage careening down the steps (baby on board) with harrowing footage of the carnage taking place all around it.

The "Odessa Steps" sequence is considered Eisenstein's most successful illustration of his theory of montage, which amounts to this: The sum of the parts is greater than the whole. Two or more images closely juxtaposed through editing could, Eisenstein theorized, create an impression beyond that which the images themselves represented. He was right. When it comes right down to it, everything from "Citizen Kane" to "Gangnam Style" is unthinkable without montage. Thanks, Sergei [source: Johnson].

8
Stars Fall, Stars Rise
In the film "Sunset Boulevard," Gloria Swanson played Norma Desmond, a washed-up actress who lamented the shift from silent films to talkies. Hulton Archive/Moviepix/Getty Images

"They took the idols and smashed them, the Fairbankses, the Gilberts, the Valentinos! And who've we got now? Some nobodies!" It's impossible not to quote from "Sunset Boulevard" again. Norma Desmond's statement refers to the legend that the stars of the silent era fell precipitously from near-godlike status to forgotten has-beens haunting their extravagant mansions.

And it's true the qualities that made one a silent star rarely translated to the "talkies." Acting in silent film was really a form of pantomime and required as much expressive physicality as possible. Actors moved freely around the set with the director shouting commands as the film rolled. Now, suddenly, the set was silent and gestures were restricted during takes. Kinetic actors like Douglas Fairbanks couldn't hurl themselves around the set, but had to remain practically motionless while speaking into a hidden microphone.

In a few cases, foreign or working-class accents got in the way, but more often the difficulty lay with the new mode of performance demanded.

As many of the old guard chose to retire or were shown the door, new acts from the world of theater and vaudeville filled their shoes. Formerly obscure performers like James Cagney and Barbara Stanwyck shot to fame in short order [source: Crafton].

7
Vertical Integration is Profitable!
Paramount was one of the "big five" studios that relied on vertical integration to generate revenue. Merkuri2/iStock Editorial/Thinkstock

In 1948, the U.S. government took Hollywood to court. To be precise, it took the "big five" studios to court under the Sherman Anti-Trust laws, alleging the movie behemoths were operating illegal monopolies. The government won the case, signaling the beginning of the end of the so-called "studio system" of Hollywood's Golden Age.

It all started in the 1920s when a small group of powerful studios began a process economists like to call "vertical integration" [source: Hansen]. This is a fancy way of saying they controlled the movie business from script to theater seat. One by one, producer-distributors began buying up theaters, and by 1929 the five majors (Paramount, Fox, MGM, RKO and Warner Bros.) who would rule Hollywood for the next two decades were established and vertically integrated from top to bottom.

When these five went about making a film, they used their in-house writers to craft scripts for their in-house directors to put their in-house actors on film that would be cut by their in-house editors into features that would then play in the theaters they owned across the country.

Vertical integration was hugely profitable for the majors, and while scores of classic films came out of the studio system, there was also a lot of dross. Part of the problem was that the studios used a practice called "block booking," whereby a theater would be obliged to buy a set of five films, one of them good and the rest not. It was a system Life magazine called "million-dollar mediocrity" in an article celebrating the end of the studio system [source: Hodgins].

6
Morality Matters
Modern-day morality clauses in stars' contracts came about because of the tragic scandal that surrounded one of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's parties. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It was 1921, and Fatty Arbuckle was riding high on his success as a regular in the Keystone Cops series. He was so popular that Paramount signed a three-year, $3 million contract with him. A few months later, his career was in ruins. At a party he hosted, a young woman was found dead in the bathroom, and Arbuckle was charged with rape and murder. After two mistrials, Arbuckle eventually was found not guilty — although he was fined $500 for serving alcohol during his Prohibition-era party.

It wasn't just Arbuckle who was affected by the scandal; public opinion turned against the movie business in general.

Watching Paramount flounder, Universal Studios decided on a radical solution to potential scandals. It introduced a "morality clause" into its contracts. The clause read, in part, "The actor (actress) agrees to conduct himself (herself) with due regard to public conventions and morals. ... In the event that the actor (actress) violates any term or provision of this paragraph, then the Universal Film Manufacturing Company has the right to cancel and annul this contract."

Variations of that clause have been with us ever since. When you hear of companies terminating contracts with Kate Moss for getting caught using cocaine, or Mel Gibson for his anti-Semitic rant, it all goes back to Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle [source: Pinguelo].

5
The Sound of Musicals
1927's "The Jazz Singer" was one of the first talkies -- and one of the first onscreen musicals. Silver Screen Collection/Moviepix/Getty Images

Love them or hate them, musicals form a vital genre of cinema, and it's hard to believe there was a time when film existed without them. But it goes without saying that the silence of silent movies hardly provided a happy medium for those brash singing and dancing spectacles that would come to rule the mid-century box office.

Filmmakers had been experimenting with sound for years before Warner finally brought out what is generally recognized as one of the first talkie features in 1927. "The Jazz Singer" is the story of a Jewish cantor's son who yearns to be a jazz performer rather than following in the family tradition. Starring Broadway sensation Al Jolson, it was a major hit, proving to the skeptics that "talking pictures" were financially viable. It also happened to be a musical.

It was the birth of a genre, and Hollywood quickly jumped on board. Just two years later, the studios were releasing "Broadway Melody," "The Hollywood Revue," "The Cocoanuts" and "On with the Show." As for "The Jazz Singer," while it continues to occupy an important historical position in the history of film, the fact that the most significant scenes feature Jolson in blackface tends to make modern audiences squirm [source: Gioia].

4
Dialogue Needs Writers
The demise of silent films meant dialogue writers were in demand in Hollywood. enriqueayuso/iStock Editorial/Thinkstock

Talkies need dialogue, and dialogue requires writers. Hollywood sent out its siren call, and East Coast writers went west. In 1926 the celebrated journalist Herman Mankiewicz arrived in Tinseltown and established himself as one of the most important screenwriters of the 20th century. In a now-famous telegram, he recruited his friend Ben Hecht to join him, stating that "millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around."

While some writers made out well, studio executives commonly viewed writers as hacks and gave them little recognition and even less pay. In 1920 an informal club of writers formed, calling itself the Screenwriters Guild. The Guild would eventually become an influential union, which today exists as the powerful Writers Guild of America.

As for "Manky," he did indeed make a lot of money, penning more than 40 scripts including his famous collaboration with Orson Wells on "Citizen Kane." But in the obituary he wrote for Mankiewicz, Hecht lamented his friend's success, believing that it had driven him to an early death [source: Rothman].

3
Talkies Won't Kill the Movies
It took microphone technology a while to catch up. At first, the stationary microphones of the time meant previously energetic stars frequently had to stand still near the mic. John Kobal Foundation/Moviepix/Getty Images

In his 1928 book, "Heraclitus or the Future of Films," the writer Ernest Betts despaired. He believed that the advent of talkies signaled "the most spectacular act of self-destruction that has yet come out of Hollywood, and violates the film's proper function at its source. The soul of film — its eloquent and vital silence — is destroyed. The film now returns to the circus whence it came."

Betts was hardly alone. Critics from Paul Rotha to Robert Herring were convinced that the talkies were cinematic poison. In the 1920s silent film had reached expressive heights with films like Murnau's "Sunrise" and Dreyer's "Passion of Joan of Arc." Bringing in sound, the skeptics argued, would sully the purity of the silent art-form.

Aesthetically speaking, they had a point: Because of the limitations of the new technology, early sound films are rarely considered works of cinematic art. Because the microphones were stationary, the performances were wooden and the camerawork static. As filmmakers adapted, however, they proved the critics wrong, creating the often extraordinary cinema of the 1930s.

In the meantime, early sound films might not have been made to stand the test of time, but they did rake in the dollars. The late 1920s saw profits for the major studios skyrocket. Warner, for instance, went from earning $2 million in 1928 to $14 million in 1929 [source: Gomery].

2
Documentaries Are Powerful
The Lumiere brothers are considered the first cinematographers. SSPL/Getty Images

Traditional histories of documentary films suggest a kind of natural evolution of the form as follows: When the Lumière brothers, who were among history's first cinematographers, started filming workers leaving their Lyon photography factory in the 1880s, they were making the first baby steps toward documenting the world as it existed around them. Then, in 1922, Robert Flaherty added narrative flair when he made the legendary "Nanook of the North" — and documentary film was born.

But in a closely argued essay, film theorist Bill Nichols argues that the documentary form really reached maturity in the 1920s because it was needed. This was an era when populations around the world were hard at work forging national identities. Documentaries, famously, give the impression that they're simply observing reality when, in fact, they're also shaping it. This quality made the medium an invaluable tool of state control by affirming certain cultural narratives and orthodoxies. By the same token, it made documentaries dangerous. If the medium could toe the party line and affirm a desirable reality, it could also disrupt it. That's why, Nichols argues, documentary film of the 1920s is closely aligned with our final subject: the modernist avant-garde [source: Nichols].

1
Cinema Can Be Art
In 1929, Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel collaborated with Salvador Dali to create "Un Chien Andalou," a shocking surrealist film. RDA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When the developing technology of film crossed paths with the modernist avant-garde movement, there were extraordinary results. While Russian constructivists like Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov were experimenting with film techniques under the guise of making Soviet propaganda films, the European avant-garde also began playing wildly with the medium.

The power of the documentary image together with the "radical juxtapositions of time and space allowed by montage" were irresistible factors for artists like Man Ray, Albert Kahn and Luis Bunuel [source: Nichols]. Perhaps the most famous work to come out of that period is "Un Chien Andalou," a 1929 collaboration between Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel. Nearly a century later, the surrealist film still holds the power to shock. A scene involving a razor and an eyeball has been called "the most notorious opening sequence in movie history" [source: Hoberman].

Made just a year later, its sexually explicit sequel, "L'Age d'Or," was so incendiary it provoked riots when screened and was quickly banned by the Paris police. If nothing else, the response serves as an early demonstration of film's power as an artistic medium [source: Hoberman].

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