Silent Movie Myth: The Firsts

Those discount trivia books that litter the shelves of chain bookstores have a lot to answer for. They state with great confidence that The Jazz Singer was the first sound movie, The Birth of a Nation was the first feature film, that The Great Train Robbery was the first film with a story…

Actually, finding the first anything is a challenge. In the world of movies, this challenge is amplified. Nitrate decays and catches fire. Eyewitnesses forget exact dates and embellish on facts. In my opinion, any lists of “Movie Firsts” is suspect. There is even debate as to what can rightly considered the first motion picture ever made. It all depends on how you regard Eadweard Muybridge but that is another story.

The Great Train Robbery (1903)

Let’s give this 1903 film its due first: It was a step forward in the world of cinema. The editing and location shots were quite superior and the final shot of the outlaw (Justus T. Barnes) shooting directly at the camera is as iconic to early film as the rocket-in-the-eye shot from A Trip to the Moon. You can download the whole movie from The Library of Congress. It runs about 12 minutes.

However, just because the film was highly popular and influential does not mean it was the first movie ever made nor was it the first narrative movie ever made.

Movies had stories early on. Granted, they were of the kid-plays-a-joke-on-gardener variety of stories but they were stories nonetheless. If you want to say that The Great Train Robbery was unique due to multiple scenes and locations, I will have to direct your attention to 1902’s A Trip to the Moon, mentioned earlier. Multiple scenes, a narrative thread, a bit of violence, lots of lovely girls… The dawn of modern film, folks!

However, due to the problems of decaying evidence and the fact that no one can agree on how much story makes a movie a “narrative” we will probably never be able to say for sure what movie was the first narrative film. Further, many film historians twist and bend definitions in order to give the title of “first” to the nation or filmmaker of their choice. France had it! No, England! No, America! So the waters are muddied even further.

That being said, enjoy The Great Train Robbery when you have a spare 12 minutes. Its great fun.

Ditto for A Trip to the Moon, which is enjoying a resurgence in popularity in part due to Hugo. The good folks at Flicker Alley have undertaken a restoration. Hurrah!

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Almost 100 years after its release, I still cannot think of a more controversial film. The racism and the terrible aftermath of this film are very serious matters and I will discuss them in a later article. I will need at least that much space to examine this film’s complicated legacy. Right now, I am just focusing on the myth that Birth of a Nation was the first feature film.

Again, we come down to definitions. How long is a feature film? I am going to say for the sake of this article that 50 minutes is the threshold. This is considerably shorter than modern features but it was a common length in the silent era.

In the late 1900’s and early 1910’s, one and two-reel products (about 10-20 minutes) were popular both with studios and the public. They were cheap to make and easy to distribute. However, directors and stars were eager to move on to the more complex stories that could be told in a longer format.

Some of the early features:

The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) was a 60 minute Australian production. If it’s America you want, Vitagraph made a four-reel Les Miserables.

In 1913, Herbert Brenon directed a 48-minute Ivanhoe. A little under our threshold but are we really going to be that picky with something as awesome as Ivanhoe? (You can download a public domain copy of the novel from Project Gutenberg. Everyone needs to read Ivanhoe at least once.)  And can someone release this film, pretty please?

Cecil B. DeMille made the 74-minute feature The Squaw Man in 1914. In fact, there was a flood of feature-length films in 1914. A 4-reel version of Cinderella starring Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia starring Blanche Sweet both ran about an hour…

And then there was Cabiria, a 200-minute Italian epic. The current DVD release from Kino is a 148-minute cut. I am not usually in favor of cuts but OWCH that movie is long! Yes, I know it inspired Griffith to make Intolerance BIGGER and BETTER but are we sure that was a good thing? Forgive me, I have an Intolerance intolerance and Cabiria is not far behind. It’s just that both these movies get shoved down people’s throats in film appreciation class and they are simply not the best introduction to silent film for 99% of the population. (Rant, rant, rant) No wonder people think silent movies are long and dull!

But I digress.

So, as you can see, there were plenty of feature films prior to 1915. However, Birth’s attractive box office earnings did prove that audiences were hungry for feature-length entertainment. After 1915, almost all serious films were feature length and shorts were reserved for comedies and serials.

The Jazz Singer (1927)

This is the movie that killed the silent film. It popularized talking pictures. However, it was not a true talkie. It was a silent movie with talking sequences. This strange hybrid only existed for a few years but these talking sequences gave a sound-crazy audience a taste of what they wanted. The popularity of the radio was taking a bite out of box office receipts. Talking pictures dragged people back into the theaters.

However, it was not the first sound movie; recorded sound to go with recorded movement was an old concept. Edison made an experimental sound film in 1894-95. Warner Bros. experimented with sound-on-disc and began releasing films with synchronized soundtracks in the mid-twenties. So, no, not the first sound movie. And there were quite a few talkie newsreels and comedies before it too.

You see, there is a distinct difference between a sound film and a talking film. Many major studio releases had synchronized sound effects and even incoherent voices. However, they still used the language of the silent film. Talkies were a whole new breed.

It should be noted, though that the silent movie did not go down without a fight. The Jazz Singer by itself did not usher in sound. Profitable follow-up sound films that proved audiences wanted all-talking, all-singing-all-dancing for their entertainment.  Stars and studios questioned whether talkies were a fad that would be dead in a year or two. Of course, we all know how things turned out. The impressive haul of cash from The Jazz Singer and its successors were enough to bury the silent movie. Charlie Chaplin was the last major star to surrender and he did not give in to talking pictures until The Great Dictator in 1940.

Well, that covers the top three misnamed firsts in silent film. And, just for kicks, I should also mention that The Sheik was not Valentino’s first film.

Curse you, cheap trivia books!


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