Monday, June 24, 2013

Silent Screens in the Late 30s and Beyond


In 1938, Edward Harrison’s New York Times article “Silence is Still Golden” argued that, “the silent film has never died” (209).[1] In fact, silent films were not only still widely released in foreign countries but also thriving in non-traditional US venues such as schools, churches, and living rooms. “Audiences of millions” still viewed silent films domestically, and silent comedies like Charlie Chaplin were especially popular in rental libraries catering to families with home projectors (209, 210). Silent comedies were also especially popular as hotel entertainment into the 1940s (218).

Silent screenings continued to be prevalent among small Manhattan theatres, and with the opening of a new Museum of Modern Art building in 1939 came the donation of a film library and the beginning of silent showings in its new theatre. Audiences were captivated by the nostalgia of silent era cinema; as Florence Fisher Parry exclaimed in her article praising the release of the “The Movies March On” (1939) in Pittsburgh, “let us have back some of our old beloveds, to laugh at, to weep over, to show us what innocents we were not so long ago!” (212).

In the late 30s, silent film revivals were launched across the country, from the Miami Playhouse showing cheap movies with witty piano accompaniment starting in 1939 to The Casino theatre in Pittsburgh where silents were shown daily during summer 1941 (210, 215).  MoMA’s Film Society revivals sparked others, such as the Washington DC Film Society's highly successful silent screenings in the late 1930s (218).

Even with millions of viewers in the late 30s, silent films were still only seen by a minority of Americans, in part due to Hollywood’s ability to disseminate “a conventional view of silent cinema as embodying a primitive, risible past” rather than being “an accomplished, mature art in its own right” (219). There was little incentive in Hollywood to continue to produce silent pictures, and even Charlie Chaplin who had been the “greatest, most unbending advocate of silents” released his first talking picture, The Great Dictator, in 1940 (220). When Hollywood began releasing vintage film for TV in the 1950s, the silents were ignored (220).

Funnily enough, the longest effort to show silent pictures was actually a Los Angeles theatre known as “The Movie.” Converted to a theatre by John and Dorothy Hampton in 1940, The Movie successfully screened silent films until 1980. The Hamptons made their own posters, played musical accompaniment on two phonographs, and showed silent pictures in a “dignified manner” that never played to the scornful or nostalgic sentiments associated with “the old time movie show” (223).

Not only was their theatre a “major enduring landmark” in Hollywood, with its popularity peaking after WWII, but it also served as testament to the unique power of silent film to capture the imaginations of audiences “almost exclusively through images and enacted by players utilizing to the fullest the language and gestures of facial expression to convey thought and emotion” (222, 225, 227). John Hampton observed that despite assumptions, youth tended to be more caught up in silents, and less likely to laugh at the wrong times when watching an old drama that might have been ridiculed in the late 20s and early 30s. He felt that silent film appeals “more to the emotions, less to the intellect,” making its message more universally accessible and enchanting than talking pictures (223). "The Movie" is truly a testament to the timelessness of silent film that still interests audiences today despite its marginalization in American culture after the 1920s. 

Learn more about early silent film revivals in the 1930s here.

Read more about how the shifting role of silent film in American culture in the 1930s helps us think about Buster Keaton's journey in Barbarous Nights here.



[1] Drew, William M. The Last Silent Picture Show: Silent Films on American Screens in the 1930s. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2010. Print.

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