Hollywood, Epic Documentary Chronicles the Early History of Cinema

Most peo­ple who saw Mar­tin Scorsese’s Hugo will recall its brief drama­ti­za­tion of a screen­ing of the Lumiere Broth­ers’ 1896 silent film  L’Ar­rivée d’un Train en Gare de la Cio­tat (pop­u­lar­ly known as Arrival of a Train at the Sta­tion). This short film doc­u­ments, quite sim­ply, a train arriv­ing at a sta­tion, but it sup­pos­ed­ly both thrilled and ter­ri­fied its first audi­ences, so much that they scram­bled from their seats as the loco­mo­tive bar­reled toward the cam­era, as though it might trans­gress the screen and plow into the the­ater. It’s hard to imag­ine a film hav­ing that much pow­er to phys­i­cal­ly shock an audi­ence out of its seats today, even with the cur­rent glut of 3‑D spec­ta­cles on IMAX screens, the beau­ti­ful Hugo includ­ed.

The medi­um may have lost its nov­el­ty, but its his­to­ry con­tin­ues to fas­ci­nate. Scors­ese’s love-let­ter to silent film won sev­er­al Acad­e­my Awards this year in tech­ni­cal cat­e­gories, and the cov­et­ed best pic­ture Oscar went to The Artist, the first silent film to win that award since 1927’s Wings, star­ring Clara Bow. (Wings actu­al­ly received the Best Pic­ture equivalent—Best Production—in 1929). 1927 is also the year the “talkies” came to town; Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer put silent film effec­tive­ly out of busi­ness. Hol­ly­wood: A Cel­e­bra­tion of the Amer­i­can Silent Film, a 13-part doc­u­men­tary series released in 1980, begins its first episode, “The Pio­neers” (above), with sev­er­al aged silent film­mak­ers’ reac­tions to Jol­son’s film, reac­tions which are almost uni­form­ly neg­a­tive, as one might expect giv­en their pro­fes­sion­al com­mit­ment to a medi­um that trans­formed overnight and left most of them behind.

How­ev­er, the stars and direc­tors inter­viewed in the film don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly seem bit­ter over the loss of silent film. Instead, they dis­play a wist­ful rev­er­ence for the “inter­na­tion­al lan­guage” that film was before it learned to speak—in dozens of dif­fer­ent lan­guages. Nar­rat­ed by the inim­itable James Mason, Hol­ly­wood revis­its the grandeur of the silent film era and dis­abus­es view­ers of the stereo­typ­i­cal idea that all silent films were “jerky and flick­er­ing and a lit­tle absurd, mov­ing at the wrong speed with a tin­kling piano.” Instead, each episode of the doc­u­men­tary walks us through a series of incred­i­bly dra­mat­ic movies with elab­o­rate (often out­landish) sets and cos­tum­ing, and actors skilled in the “high art of pan­tomime.” It’s a riv­et­ing jour­ney, and an era well worth revis­it­ing what­ev­er one thought of this year’s Oscars.

The full doc­u­men­tary series is avail­able here. And don’t miss our col­lec­tion of Silent films avail­able online … for free.

H/T @brainpicker

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