Let’s talk a little bit about the terms that are bandied about silent film circles. This is just a brief overview, nothing too heavy. I will probably write some more in-depth articles later but I wanted to provide a handy glossary for readers who may be new to silent film viewing. Here are some important terms:
These are just generalizations used for easy reference. No two film historians seem to agree on what exact dates these eras began or ended. I like the dates used by the University of California Press’s History of the American Cinema series and they are the ones I borrow for my writing.
Early Cinema (Invention-1907)
There is debate over just what can be considered the first motion picture. (You may have noticed that film historians cannot agree on anything.) Here are the facts: The Lumiere brothers showed a projected film to a paying audience of more than one person in 1895. To me, that counts as the start of movies as we know them. This is open to debate but it works for the purposes of discussion.
Movies were seen as low-class entertainment. Nice girls did not go to movie theaters and respectable actors did not perform in these vulgar little pictures. Gracious! **fans self*** Most films ranged in length from a few seconds to a few minutes. They were often vignettes, news footage, dancing sequences, brief scenes from famous plays or books and even home movies. Later in the period, films got longer and the plots got more elaborate.
Check out Domitor, the international society for the study of early cinema (they go up to 1915), if you want more information on this time period.
The Nickelodeon Era, or, the Pre-Feature Era (1907-1915):
You pay a nickel and you get to see a collection of short subjects, ranging from about 10 to 20 minutes each, in a cheap, chintzy theater. Movies were still not respectable but the ubiquitous nickel theaters were extremely popular. This is when the motion picture industry as we know it began to form and when movies started to migrate en masse to California from New York and New Jersey. Fan magazines were becoming popular and actors were starting to be credited. (They were not allowed screen credit early on because producers feared they would ask for more money.)
You could further divide this era into 1907-1912 for the true Nickelodeon era and 1913-14 for the early feature era but that’s getting a bit fussy for our purposes.
Silent Feature Film Era (1915-1928):
This is what most people think of when they say “silent era.” While feature-length films had been made prior to 1915, this was the year when they well and truly cornered the market. Movies were potentially respectable family entertainment, actors were idolized, movie theaters were palaces. It also marked the ascendancy of Hollywood in dominating the international market, as their international rivals had been disrupted by World War One.
Pre-Code Era (1930-1934):
The motion picture code was a list of what behaviors were unacceptable in a “decent” motion picture. When people use the term “Pre-Code” they are referring to movies made after the introduction of sound but before the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code was strictly enforced. In the silent era, film producers would have to present their films to various regional censor boards for individual approval and was this process ever a pain! Plus, several Hollywood scandals had prudes everywhere calling for federal censorship. Will Hays was invited into the movieland fold in 1922 to try to make sense of the mess, create guidelines for good on-screen behavior and to prevent wholesale censorship. You only need glance at a few 1920’s films to realize that he was unsuccessful in getting Hollywood to behave.
I know some have the warm fuzzies about the Code but you should know that it did not just cover sex and violence. Oh no. The Code was quite racist, sexist and any good it did was counterbalanced by a large dose of the bad. You can read the whole thing if you like.
An early way of watching movies. These coin-operated boxes allowed the viewer to see a few seconds of film. A later advance was the Kinetophone, which added music via earphones. These machines fell out of favor when it became clear that projected films were the future.
Warner Bros. famously used this sound system for its popular talking pictures. However, it was initially used to add music and sound effects to silent films. It was Sound-on-Disc, which meant that the sound was on separate records instead on on the film itself. Some silent movies still have their Vitaphone scores but many have been lost. The Vitaphone Project is dedicated to reuniting films with their discs. (Fox Studios used Movietone, early sound-on-film, for some of its silents.)
Orthochromatic vs. Panchromatic
Without getting too far into the nitty-gritty, earlier orthochromatic film made blues “blow out” and reds show up very dark. This meant that silent era performers had to employ heavy makeup (lest they look blotchy) and be careful of blue eyes (which could look white and dead).
Panchromatic began to replace orthochromatic film in the early ‘twenties.
Colors were painstakingly added frame by frame. Imprecise but beautiful.
A much more precise color process. Using stencils, film frames were individually colored. This process created the illusion of color film. Some of it is truly stunning.
Check out the glorious shades found in Cyrano de Bergerac.
Tinting and Toning:
Used to add mood to a film. Amber for daytime, rose for romance, blue for night, green for mystery and so-forth. A very popular process in the silent era. Tinting changed the “whites” while toning changed the “blacks” of the film.
Here is a small sample:
Technicolor only recorded red and green in the silent era. It was also incredibly expensive and hard to work with. A few high-budget silent films used color for the whole movie but most used color sequences lasting a few minutes.
Film Marketing Terms:
Movie lengths used to be referred to not in minutes but in reels. How many reels of film did the movie have? And how long was a reel? This is extremely general but a short film was usually one or two-reels long. A feature film was between five and eight, give or take. A reel (depending of projection speed) lasted about 11-15 minutes in the silent era. Again, give or take. Cameras and projectors were both hand-cranked, which meant there could be variation in the motion picture running time.
When sound pictures first became popular, many in the film industry were not sure if it was a fad or not. Besides, many theaters were not equipped for sound. As a result, movie studios hedged their bets. From 1927-1929, movies were sometimes shot silent and then had sound sequences added to improve to their box office appeal. Or a film may have been conceived as a part-talkie, a film that divided its time between sound and silent. Once it became obvious that sound was going to stay, the part-talkie was abandoned.