Moody, Dramatic, Shadowy Cinematography of the Silent Era

People who have never seen silent films tend to think of them as jittery and scratchy, generally lacking visual sophistication. How wrong they are! Silent cinema boasted some perfectly gorgeous cinematography. (I am personally partial to the moody style of the mid- to late-1910s.) Let’s take a whirlwind tour!

For extra fun, I’m doing this with nary a German! (Sorry, Germans, but I want to demonstrate that other people played with light and shadow too.) And, obviously, this list is not exhaustive, just a fun little selection of scenes I admire.

Charles Rosher’s skill with the camera is legendary. He created moody scenes without seeming affected, artificial or ostentatious. The scene above is a Dark and Stormy Night from the Mountie adventure Tiger Rose. Great stuff!

Read my review here. (I was rather pleasantly surprised by the film and Rosher’s talents are a big reason for this.)

One of my favorite silent showstoppers, this is the scene from DeMille’s The Cheat in which Jack Dean discovers that Sessue Hayakawa has been shot. The whole film is stunning thanks to cinematographer Alvin Wyckoff.

Read my review here.

A Fool There Was is a profoundly silly film but boy is it pretty. Cameraman George Schneiderman would go on to work with John Ford on 3 Bad Men, The Iron Horse and Hangman’s House.

Read my review here.

The Enchanted Cottage swings from dark and shadowy to glowing and romantic thanks to director John S. Roberts (who specialized in romance) and cinematographer George Folsey, whose long career lasted into the 1970s.

Read my review here. (I also cover the talkie remake, which is massively inferior. Yes, inferior.)

Yakov Protazanov is most famous for Aelita but The Forty-First is my personal favorite. Cinematographer Pyotr Yermolov creates a grim, gritty world with hidden moments of beauty.

Read my review here.

The Dragon Painter is a stunning picture thanks to the beautiful tints working in harmony with the delicate cinematography. Cameraman Frank D. Williams was a Chaplin veteran and director William Worthington would actually find a longer career as an actor in the talkies.

Read my review here.

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8 Replies to “Moody, Dramatic, Shadowy Cinematography of the Silent Era”

  1. I love the lighting in the silent films because they had to evoke a mood and really help the story along. It’s funny because on my blog I talked about Rembrandt Lighting(albeit very briefly…very briefly:)) I felt it was really used to such great effect in many films.

  2. Great choices. I’m also a big fan of Maurice Tourneur for light and shadow (don’t know who his D.P. was on “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” but that’s a good example), and Boris Zavelev in Russia for mobile camerawork at a time when people think there wasn’t any!

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