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Saving the Silents

By Janis Johnson | HUMANITIES, January/February 2005 | Volume 26, Number 1

In the darkened movie theater, the heroine is risking her life, showing amazing feats of physical strength and agility. The action picks up speed, the energy of the music accentuates the mounting tension, and the audience faces one surprise after another--and whew!--the helpless are rescued just in the nick of time.

The film is episode twenty-six of The Hazards of Helen starring Helen Holmes. The series, which ran for more than one hundred weeks during 1915 and 1916, is one of fifty silent films being revived in a new DVD anthology produced by the National Film Preservation Foundation.

The three-disk set, More Treasures from American Film Archives, 1894-1931, offers nine and one half hours of film with on-screen commentary and a 208-page catalog. It is intended for classrooms, libraries, and home theaters.

The films demonstrate how the first four decades of American filmmaking were technologically innovative and unexpectedly modern. In fact, they were not all "silent." The anthology includes the first sound film, produced in 1894.

The films show women in an unexpected light, says Jennifer Bean, assistant professor of cinema studies at the University of Washington, who provided voice-overs and educational commentary for episode twenty-six of Helen. What was particularly engaging to her was not only the early importance of female action figures but also the emergence of the concept of the film star.

"As a movie star," Bean comments, "Helen Holmes and her characters epitomized the modern new woman with stamina--'nerve strength' as courage was known at the time--and unbelievable physical action." In one sequence, as Helen is racing to stop a runaway train, she catapults her motorcycle over an open drawbridge and plunges into the water, performing her own stunt and surviving unscathed.

Annette Melville, director of the National Film Preservation Foundation, sums up the significance of the early decades: "In this period of time, filmmaking in the United States grew from a laboratory experiment to a polished project for entertaining and educating audiences all over the world." The motion picture industry developed from a peep-show curio to the nation's fifth largest industry, and American cinematic themes of prosperity, individualism, and social mobility emerged. Hollywood was born.

The selection includes documentaries, political spots, social advocacy films, product ads, cartoons, newsreels, Hollywood promotional shorts, and avant-garde works. There are also films that were technical tests and six previews of films believed lost.

One of the treasures is the first surviving film of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from 1910. Fourteen minutes long, it mirrors the touring stage show of Baum's 1900 novel.

The archivists, historians, critics, musicians, and other scholars who collaborated on this project hope that by making these films more accessible--and by packaging them according to contemporary DVD standards--they have provided a context for both study and popular enjoyment. Film director Martin Scorsese, for instance, researched the sets and costumes for The Age of Innocence by watching the 1904 documentary The Streets of Manhattan.

While the films conform generally to what was known as the "silent era," the synchronization with sound was a goal from the start, whether on the film itself or in live performance. "When these films were made, no one would have stood for seeing them in silence," says curator Scott Simmon, professor of English at the University of California at Davis. Instead they would be accompanied by live music or by an audience sing-along used to discourage chatting during the film.

Many of the films were thrown out when sound came in because they were thought to be too old-fashioned. Of the relatively few surviving, even fewer are available outside archives. "It's an archaeological dig, really," explains Melville. "Only about 20 percent of the silent features survived." Most have been lost. "We're not talking only small films either--many were nominated for Academy Awards."

In making selections for More Treasures, Simmon worked closely with five American institutions that specialize in the preservation of silent film: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

"People who don't see this material think it's a lot duller than it really is," Simmon says, "but they are surprisingly modern and entertaining. We also have tried to use material beyond the short comedies and features most commonly linked with this period." In fact, many of the themes were contemporary--child labor, relationships between ethnic groups, and satires of presidential candidates.

"You also find other film types a lot earlier than people would have guessed," says Simmon. An example is The Suburbanite of 1904, a nine-minute social satire by director/producer Wallace McCutcheon that is a prototype for the family sitcom. Another, The Invaders, a Western made in 1912, used American Indian actors "in starring roles rather than just as a rampaging hoard," Simmon notes. "And there are films that are surprisingly hard-hitting about labor issues and working people that were forbidden during the classic Hollywood era." He cites Children Who Labor, directed in 1912 by a self-styled radical named Ashley Miller and written by his wife, the actress Ethel Browning. The film opens with a crowd of faceless children trudging into a factory under the gaze of Uncle Sam, as smoke in the dark sky forms the word "greed."

Some of the films have been known only to archivists. One of them is Cockeyed: Gems from the Memory of a Nutty Cameraman, circa 1925, a three-minute travelog that manipulates scenes of New York into visual fantasies. Another is the five-minute sequence in Fieldwork Footage taken from writer Zora Neale Hurston's travels through the South in 1928 on a fellowship with the anthropologist Franz Boaz.

Archivists also located a surviving 1925 Rin Tin Tin film Clash of the Wolves in South Africa. It was repatriated to the United States through a collaboration between the National Film Board of South Africa and the Library of Congress. Although "Rinty" was one of the top box-office stars of the 1920s, none of his films had been available in the United States on DVD or videotape.

"Film grew out of many forms of entertainment, including magic lantern shows and vaudeville," Simmon says. Before the development of film projection in 1895, films were viewed in phonograph or kinetoscope parlors, amusement parks, and bars through single-person machines started up by attendants. "What became known as nickelodeons began in 1905 as the first spaces built for showing only movies," he says, "and most theaters in the teens and twenties mixed live shows and silent films, so there were entire evenings of vaudeville and movies mixed together."

Film animation grew out of that impulse, says Don Crafton, who is professor of film, television, and theater at the University of Notre Dame and chair of the department of music. "Animation films started as a novelty attraction at the turn of the century. Some were magic films; others were very much influenced by the American comic strip. "The first genius of animation was Winsor McCay, and his most famous film was Gertie the Dinosaur in 1914, which shows him bringing his drawings of the dinosaur to life. It was labor intensive--each drawing had to be retraced by hand hundreds of times." Soon cartoons became part of the typical newsreel package, and "the quality ranged very greatly," he says. Films in this anthology include Now You're Talking from 1927, David and Max Fleischer's nine-minute project combining animation and live action into a whimsical instructional film about the telephone and its etiquette, and their Tramp, Tramp, Tramp of 1926, a sing-along with the familiar "follow the bouncing ball" to encourage audience participation.

Only in the past few years have archivists been able to demonstrate the importance of sound in these early decades. The difficulty was in the technological limitations of synchronizing sound and film speed. The fifteen-second Dickson Experimental Sound Film, made around 1894, and produced by the Edison Manufacturing Co., underscores that film was initially conceived as a way to add pictures to sound. "I would put this film in the realm of scientific experiment," Crafton says. A hilarious example is Gus Visser and His Singing Duck, circa 1925, an old vaudeville act in which Gus would sing and then prompt his duck to quack on cue. The five-minute Greeting by George Bernard Shaw in 1928, part of the Movietone newsreel collection, was praised at the time as a "true talking picture." This was an important advancement in technology. Unlike the earlier films, which required the projectionist to attempt to synchronize with a phonograph disc of the sound, the Shaw film recorded sound optically on the same strip of film that carried the image.

Music formed an essential part of a silent film show, and most of it was live. "We want to relieve people of the notion that most of the music was honky-tonk piano," says music curator Martin Marks, a specialist in the history of film music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a frequent accompanist for silent films. "Ever since Scott Joplin's music in The Sting, it's been thought that every thing in that silent era was ragtime, but it wasn't." Musical styles ranged from spectacular theater organs and orchestras in large downtown theaters to pianos in smaller and suburban venues.

These films rarely included scores, so musicians could be in.ventive in their accompaniments so long as the material appropriately punctuated or accented what was on screen. Different music was typically performed for different genres of films, and library repertoires eventually developed to fit each picture. Nonetheless, hearing live music was "something very fresh at the time," Marks says. "Audiences heard pieces they didn't know and were thrilled to hear it live as part of the entertainment. It really was a different experience every time, and that encouraged people to go back to the movies more than once." This began to change when features became the norm and scores would be written particularly for use in big cities. D.W. Griffith was important to this innovation and began making copies of scores available for reuse starting with Birth of a Nation.

Because none of the films on the anthology had records of scores, Marks prepared and performed thirty-six of the selections. For fifteen of the films he brought in colleagues from MIT and instrumentalists from the Boston area to perform. Four films have new scores by contemporary composers. "With a new score, they become brand new," he says.

Musical performance was central to the silent era. "There was a triangular relationship between the screen, the audience, and the musicians," Marks says. "The arrows were going in all directions, not just from the film to the audience as in sound films. During the silent era, musicians were watching the screen to synchronize with the film but also getting feedback from the audience, whether auditory or psychological, as to how well the music was working. Although we are used to precise synchronization now, in the silent era there were probably as many misses as cues. When it's live, you can accept a little approximation."

The collaborators on this anthology are fierce advocates of continued film preservation from materials that are disintegrating. "This anthology represents that tiniest fragment of the tip of the iceberg," Crafton says. "We have millions of feet of film that have been preserved by the archives and many millions more-- every piece of nitrate film--that have been stored but not preserved and are deteriorating very rapidly. It's very much a race against time--a process happening faster than global warming."

About the Author

Janis Johnson is a writer in Playa Vista, California.

Funding Information

More Treasurers from American Film Archives 1894-1931, a DVD set and a 208-page catalog, was funded by a $200,000 NEH grant.