The Sound Revolution: 1920-1930
EXT. DAY. A BUSY STREET.
Your HOST approaches you, waving amiably while being jostled by the crowd.
Intertitle: “I’m glad you could join me!”
Your host waves you inside a quieter building…
I’m sure, in the 20’s, people just assumed that all movies were going to be silent forever. If a time traveler approached a person and said, “So guess what! In my time, all movies have sound and they keep rebooting Spiderman!” The person would go, “What’s a spider man? And why would they need sound?? We can understand films just fine!”
But then, once they SAW a film with sound, jaws hit the floor en masse and the idea of a silent film became as passé as Baroque architecture pretty much overnight. Cinema changed irrevocably, and only looked back when it wanted to spoof or wax nostalgic about the genre.
But before this game changer exploded everyone’s brains, silent films reached their grandest, funniest, scariest, and most incredible heights.
This decade was AMAZING.
Charlie Chaplin, legendary funnyman, got his start at the end of the last decade, but it was in the 20’s that he was really able to blow everyone away. In his early film career, he was churning out something like a film every week at some points. They were two-reel affairs, nothing spectacular. But audiences saw something in him that just drew them back to theaters again and again, so when he made the transition to feature-length films (once Americans realized it was OK to have a film longer than two reels) with The Kid (1921), his popularity was so well established that he became a legend. He reached pretty amazing heights in The Gold Rush (1925), a comedy which featured his iconic tramp character in his most memorable role. You may never look at shoes the same way…
While we’re on the subject of comedy, one can’t ignore the sheer geniuses that are Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. If you haven’t seen Sherlock Jr. (1924) or Safety Last (1923), you are missing out on some pretty incredible comedy that is STILL hilarious today. A lot of the very early silent films, pre-1920’s, had a stiff quality to them as actors got used to the different needs of the camera as opposed to a needs of a stage audience, but by this point, actors knew how to work that camera. Safety Last is one of those movies that makes you cackle with hysteria while screaming in terror as the bumbling hero ends up scaling the side of a building and very nearly plummeting to his death on several occasions.
Sherlock Jr., my favorite Buster Keaton film, has a poor projectionist failing to catch a robber and then dreaming himself into a Sherlock Holmes film that he’s showing. He’s such a sad-faced guy, but he expresses EVERYTHING with his stance and gestures, and, as this wonderful article points out, the whole thing has a Wes Anderson-esque symmetry to it, which is crazy pleasing to the eye. It’s so delightful, and the stunts are pretty insane. Keaton seriously injured his neck while performing this one scene involving a water tower and a train, which is pretty metal. If you like Keaton (and you should!), you also need to check out his Civil War era comedy The General (1927).
There’s a lot of amazingness that happens in American film at this point (like the rise of Cecil B. deMille, Gloria Swanson’s and Greta Garbo’s compelling relationship with the camera, Lon Chaney’s iconic horror roles, the beginnings of Walt Disney’s animation studio, etc.) but we’re going to make a jump to some other stuff.
It’s nearly impossible to find these films, but during this decade, African Americans, long kept out of the film industry except as background actors here and there, started creating their own films on meager budgets (they didn’t have the support of any studios, mind you) and there’s some good stuff that was made, despite the limitations. One such surviving film is Body and Soul (1925) by Oscar Micheaux, a psychologically twisty film about two people, one good, one evil, who are played by the same actor. But the evil one ends up being revealed as the nightmare of one of the women. It’s nearly impossible to find now, but it’s a testament to all the many films that WEREN’T preserved during this time. It would be a LOOOOONG time before black filmmakers were able to make the films they wanted to make with the support of some sort of studio, but these early folks should be remembered.
Also, while American cinema was doing its thing, Swedish, German, and Soviet cinema was pushing boundaries as soon as they popped up. There’s this dude named Victor Sjöström who is most well known for his film The Phantom Carriage (1921), which featured the cool use of double images to convey moving between the world of the living and the dead, but he made several films during the 20s that displayed a real understanding of what film could be, especially in regards to his more naturalistic approach.
Sadly, not many of his films were ever shown in America (now the undisputed home of the film industry as WWI basically blew up Europe) until later on when he began making American films under the name Victor Seastrom. One GREAT film of his that I really like is The Wind (1928), a silent film featuring the legendary Lillian Gish as a woman living alone in the frontier, facing down irrational fear and brutal windstorms and coming to understand her own inner strength. It’s great, but people remember this one for Gish and not for the Swedish director who was way ahead of his time. Swedish cinema wouldn’t be REALLY noticed until later, sadly. Germany, on the other hand, grabbed America’s attention earlier on.
There’s a misconception that German films at this time were expressionist. The truth was that the films that Americans noticed had a surreal quality to them that people responded to. Think of Nosferatu (1922) directed by F. W. Murnau, a creepy take on the Dracula story that’s hindered by the fact that none of the night scenes were shot at night. But nonetheless, the exaggerated visual style is super cool and folks across the pond loved. The other was Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (1920), whose bizarre sets stemmed from restrictions on materials and power set down by the German government at the time. To save money, they went for a cardboard theater look, accidentally creating an aesthetic that folks liked because it felt fresh. At this point, modernism was in full swing, and the search for something new was all that mattered. But there were many German films made during this time that weren’t expressionistic/surrealist.
The thing that really makes this era and place cool is that filmmakers were reacting to a time of crazy change in Germany. The country had gone from falling apart after WWI to fighting to reassemble itself with the help of a political party that, by the 1920’s, would be led by a scary fellow called Adolf Hitler (you may have heard of him). During this time, there was this false sense of success that pervaded German life. Their defeat could be blamed on the Jews, but since they wouldn’t be a part of the picture soon (according to the propaganda) they figured Hitler could make Germany great again. So there was this weird contrast between the hedonistic joy of those who were celebrating Germany’s revival as a great nation and the reality of what was really going on. German filmmakers had a lot of material to explore.
This leads me to Metropolis (1926), a crazy cool film by legendary director Fritz Lang, that works because of its layers of metaphor and meaning. It was very obviously commenting on current events, but the Nazi’s didn’t mind it because the evil mad scientist at the center of it was portrayed as a Jew (or at least suggested to be a Jew as the Star of David features into his decor). Man as a piece in a heartless machine, robot women, overt sexuality that would make modern audiences squirm, unrest of the worker class facing replacement by machines, corruption of the wealthy class, crazy sets, and a nightmarish visual quality make this one a fun film to unpack. There’s a lot going on, and what makes me both happy and sad is that this film continues to be relevant to current events.
You’d think we’d learn, but whatever.
It’s a huge magnificent movie, and is one of the greatest silent films of all time (even though many critics would disagree, saying it’s too heavy-handed and focused on visuals instead of story).
Before we move on to the movie that broke the Silent Era, I need to mention Bronenosets Potemkin (the Battleship Potemkin), a Soviet silent film from 1925 directed by a fellow named Sergei Eisenstein (who is AMAZING). It’s a brutal depiction of an unsuccessful pre-Revolution uprising that of course casts the monarchy and their soldiers as the brutal unfeeling villains while the revolutionaries who are slaughtered are depicted as heroes. It’s an exaggerated take on history, marinating in propaganda, but it does capture the spirit of those in Russia who were tired of being treated poorly by those in charge. Eisenstein blew everyone away with his editing style, which created character and mood by cutting together quick and powerful shots in epic montages. The most devastating scene is the famous Odessa Steps scene where women and children are gunned down by Imperial soldiers. It could easily be a chaotic mishmash of closeups and long shots, but it works really well and moves the story along with brutal efficiency. It’s an intense film that definitely deserves a watch.
Alright, so with a film about revolution, we’ll move on to the film that changed everything with a sort of revolution of its own.
Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer (1927) changed everything when its title character says, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothing yet!” Studios had experimented with sound before, but it was difficult to get the sound and film to synch up. It wasn’t until film that could record sound was invented that things really took off. After The Jazz Singer, Walt Disney made the first cartoon with synchronized sound, Steamboat Willie (1928), that refined the film-sound relationship. Then Alfred Hitchcock got in on the game with Blackmail (1929) (and since it was Hitchcock, it was amazing).
Also of note is the film Applause (1929), directed by Rouben Mamoulian, which got around a lot of the technical necessities that made many early talkies feel sort of flat. Normally, the new microphones were locked into a single place, so for the dialogue to be picked up, the actors had to stay near the microphone, which sent films back to the early film days where everyone acted as though they were on a limited stage space, losing so many of the amazing film innovations that silent film directors had pioneered. But Applause actually allowed for a moving camera once again by using early looping and sound editing. Another amazing film was Hallelujah (1929), notable for featuring an all-black cast, which expanded further the limits of sound technology by creating a whole sound landscape, not just with dialogue and some music.
After that, film was never the same. The speed by which people embraced sound, sometimes at the expense of the stars who were unable to adapt to the changing requirements of talkies, was so abrupt and jarring that it’s become a film trope, showing up in movies like Sunset Boulevard (1950), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and The Artist (2011).
But we’ll get there later!
This has been a crazy decade, so thank you for putting up with this extra long post. There’s a LOT that I had to leave out.
See you next week!
Gabler, Neal. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.
Shipman, David. The Story of Cinema.
Sklar, Robert. A World History of Film.
And This Article by Noel Murray, Keith Phipps, Nathan Rabin, and Scott Tobias