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History of silent cinema

At its birth, the cinema is silent; the language barrier does not exist since the image is universal. However, the cinema will experience major changes during this period.

Thus, one of the first to consider cinema no longer as a testimony but as art is Georges Méliès. He uses the tips and tricks used in the world of illusionists and adapt them for the cinema. If the Lumière Brothers invented the cinematograph, Méliès invented the cinematographic art. In 1902, he signed the first Science-fiction film, Voyage Dans la Lune. Méliès directed more than 500 short films, often painted by hand, between 1896 and 1913. Besides Méliès, the other big names in silent cinema are the burlesque Max Linder who will later be the source of inspiration for Charles Chaplin, and Louis Feuillade director of the first Gaumont series: Fantômas et Les Vampires with Musidora. The Great Train Robbery was the first American silent film that was released in 1913.

We keep today a few films from this heroic period which was nevertheless prolific. The film was often scratched and reused, sometimes several times, forever erasing many works. Méliès himself acted like this.

The origin of the cinematography

December 28, 1895, is the official origin date of the cinema. The credit goes to the invention of the brother's Auguste and Louis Lumière, a machine that allows both filming and projection, and which has speeded up many other similar attempts, in particular, that of Thomas Edison. In the USA, the impact of this first public projection on the big screen is such that it encourages all competitors to develop the commercial aspect of their device.

The first films are still shots and cannot exceed 50 seconds, that is to say, the length of a reel. This does not prevent the Lumière brothers from sending, all over the world, operators responsible for bringing back images that constitute the first documentaries and the first news. By placing his camera on the platform of the small French station of La Ciotat, one of these operators produced what can be considered as the very first “real” film, at least the first in which the games on perspective and change appear. The scale of shots as travelers walks past the camera. It is also the first to scare the spectators, one of the great engines of the cinema to come!

The cinematography is developing and diversifying.

By putting several reels end to end, by deliberately interrupting the shooting and by constructing his sets himself, the French Georges Meliès very quickly understood that the Lumière brothers' machine also made it possible to make inventive films, based on special effects and complex scenarios, which will influence filmmakers around the world. For their part, Americans prefer to develop action films and, in 1903, with Attack of the great train ( The Great Train Robbery ), Edwin Porter incorporates a hold-up, natural settings, prosecution and horse brawl with a character (a dummy!) thrown off the train. There is also the first example of an alternating montage, a panoramic, and a tracking shot when Porter places the camera on the roof of the moving train. He thus realizes, in just 12 minutes, the prototype of all action films.

In Europe, on the other hand, artists are taking over the cinema with the ambition of reaching a more demanding audience. In 1908, the new production company “Le Film d'Art” called on actors from the French comedy for the reconstruction of The Assassination of the Duke of Guise. Like a play or an opera, the film is considered worthy of criticism in Le Temps, the reference newspaper of the time, and the original score written by Camille Saint-Saëns is considered as the first film score.

The First World War caused a slowdown in film production in Europe, and the United States took advantage. In 1915, the film Birth of a Nation, which deals with the Civil War and its consequences, achieved considerable success, despite the overtly racist content of its screenplay. Its exceptional length for the time, the quality of the image and the discoveries of the staging consecrate the talent of its director, DW Griffith, but also the supremacy of the Hollywood production system.

Trends in some countries

Cinema now occupies a major place. In large cities, halls with several thousand seats are built, veritable palaces dedicated to this art. Almost all countries have created a film industry, with their own specificities. IN Germany, expressionism, already present in the painting and in literature, finds in black and white and silent cinema a particularly appropriate field of action which gives an original form to the first works of great directors: Murnau, Pabst and above all, Fritz Lang, whose commercial success is considerable.

Motivated by the desire to educate and convince, the Soviet Russian filmmakers invented a new cinematographic language which plays on the framing, the camera movements, the superimpositions and above all, the editing, responsible for transmitting the emotion and creating a part sense. The most famous example is a film by SM Eisenstein, Battleship Potemkin (1925), constructed in five movements, like a symphony.

In France, the critic and director Louis Delluc brings together a few young directors who constitute the first French “new wave”. For them too, it is a question of renewing the cinematographic language by using its similarities with music, but also with literature, painting and architecture. Just as painting frees itself from representation, it is the inability of cinema to be totally realistic that appeals to certain creators.

For its part, the United States is gradually securing a commercial hegemony, by transposing the comic recipes of burlesque shows, very popular with a popular audience, to the cinema, and by creating characters easily identifiable by spectators around the world. Certainly, the forerunner was the Frenchman Max Linder, but the considerable success of Buster Keaton, The Tramp and several others testifies to this phenomenon which will hardly survive the arrival of the speaking.

End of the 1920s, final bouquet and disappearance of the silent

As early as 1927, the process for synchronizing image and sound was practically developed, but cinemas were not yet ready to equip themselves with the necessary equipment. In addition, the mastery of the image by cinematographers and directors reaches an exceptional level. The material is less bulky and allows all the daring. It is, therefore, the period of the greatest silent masterpieces: Metropolis by Fritz Lang, Joan of Arc by Dreyer, La Foule by King Vidor, Napoleon by Abel Gance, Le Mécano de la General by Buster Keaton, L 'Man with the Camera from The City Lights by Charlie Chaplin.

However, due to the economic crisis of 1929, attendance at movie theatres fell, and only something new could bring audiences back there. In addition, the democratization of radio and 78 rpm records has familiarized the population with the presence of recorded voice. Hearing the actors speak becomes a necessity. At first, the invasive presence of dialogue fascinates, as much as it "tires" the viewer, and musical films are therefore very popular. But the movement is irreversible, resulting in the systematic destruction of copies of silent films, which have become obsolete, useless, cumbersome and dangerous. Fortunately, some enlightened amateurs manage to save doomed copies. They will be at the origin of the creation of film libraries. In 1929, in Hollywood, the first Oscars ceremony rewards, for the one and only time, the “best intertitles” and it will be necessary to wait until 2012 so that another silent film.

CHARLIE CHAPLIN'S ROLE IN SILENT CINEMA

Charlie Chaplin, one of the first complete artists of the cinema and probably the most famous, made his first film in 1914 and the last in 1967. It was nevertheless silent cinema that brought him international fame and fortune. Born in England, Chaplin began very early on the boards, in pantomime, and was noticed in America during a tour in which he participated. Hired by Mack Sennett, the king of burlesque cinema and slapstick, Charlie Chaplin little by little refines his character of The Tramp, and the public of the whole world recognizes himself in this eternal marginal, nevertheless sentimental, who does not fear to attack stronger than him. Very quickly Chaplin made his own films, and then completed his independence by ensuring distribution, promotion and so on, production within the “associated artists”, of which he was one of the co-founders.

Charlie Chaplin's contribution to the history of cinema is not limited to the creation of The Tramp. In 1923, he temporarily abandoned the character that brought him fame and produced public opinion. This drama confuses the usual audience of The Tramp, but the play of the actors, particularly natural, revolutionizes the direction of actor and certain visual effects are very innovative. On the other hand, Charlie Chaplin attaches great importance to music. He composed airs which he then entrusted to an orchestrator, which he would continue to do until his final sound film, The Countess of Hong Kong.

With the switch to talking movies, Chaplin is much less comfortable. Aware that his success lies in the gestures, he dreads this cinema which gives the beautiful role to the dialogues. While, for the rest of film production, the transition from silent to talking takes a little over a year, it takes three films and almost ten years for Chaplin to take this step:

-The first of the three films, Les Lumières de la Ville, was written and produced in 1930 and constitutes one of the peaks of silent cinema. The main character is a young blind florist who finds her way through touch and above all through sounds, which Chaplin manages to integrate into her script without making them heard!

- The second film, Modern Times, shot in 1935, should have been entirely sound, but Charlie Chaplin gave up synchronous dialogue at the last moment and even reintroduced intertitles. However, he builds a soundtrack where sound effects and music prevail, but when the characters really speak, we do not hear them or the sound only comes through a machine. It is however in the penultimate sequence of this film that we hear for the first time the voice of The Tramp, singing in the restaurant.

- The third film, The Dictator, is entirely speaking but it was not completed until 1940 and ended with one of the longest monologues in the history of cinema!

Chaplin made four more films before a more or less forced retirementsilent cinema, but none can really compete with the best of his previous works.

Author: Vicki Lezama


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