American Film from the Silent Era to the “Talkies”
- Donna KornhaberDonna KornhaberDepartment of English, The University of Texas at Austin
The first forty years of cinema in the United States, from the development and commercialization of modern motion picture technology in the mid-1890s to the full blossoming of sound-era Hollywood during the early 1930s, represents one of the most consequential periods in the history of the medium. It was a time of tremendous artistic and economic transformation, including but not limited to the storied transition from silent motion pictures to “the talkies” in the late 1920s.
Though the nomenclature of the silent era implies a relatively unified period in film history, the years before the transition to sound saw a succession of important changes in film artistry and its means of production, and film historians generally regard the epoch as divided into at least three separate and largely distinct temporalities. During the period of early cinema, which lasted about a decade from the medium’s emergence in the mid-1890s through the middle years of the new century’s first decade, motion pictures existed primarily as a novelty amusement presented in vaudeville theatres and carnival fairgrounds. Film historians Tom Gunning and André Gaudreault have famously defined the aesthetic of this period as a “cinema of attractions,” in which the technology of recording and reproducing the world, along with the new ways in which it could frame, orient, and manipulate time and space, marked the primary concerns of the medium’s artists and spectators.
A transitional period followed from around 1907 to the later 1910s when changes in the distribution model for motion pictures enabled the development of purpose-built exhibition halls and led to a marked increase in demand for the entertainment. On a formal and artistic level, the period saw a rise in the prominence of the story film and widespread experimentation with new techniques of cinematography and editing, many of which would become foundational to later cinematic style. The era also witnessed the introduction and growing prominence of feature-length filmmaking over narrative shorts. The production side was marked by intensifying competition between the original American motion picture studios based in and around New York City, several of which attempted to cement their influence by forming an oligopolistic trust, and a number of upstart “independent” West Coast studios located around Los Angeles.
Both the artistic and production trends of the transitional period came to a head during the classical era that followed, when the visual experimentation of the previous years consolidated into the “classical style” favored by the major studios, and the competition between East Coast and West Coast studios resolved definitively in favor of the latter. This was the era of Hollywood’s ascendance over domestic filmmaking in the United States and its growing influence over worldwide film markets, due in part to the decimation of the European film industry during World War I. After nearly a decade of dominance, the Hollywood studio system was so refined that the advent of marketable synchronized sound technology around 1927 produced relatively few upheavals among the coterie of top studios. Rather, the American film industry managed to reorient itself around the production of talking motion pictures so swiftly that silent film production in the United States had effectively ceased at any appreciable scale by 1929.
Artistically, the early years of “the talkies” proved challenging, as filmmakers struggled with the imperfections of early recording technology and the limitations they imposed on filmmaking practice. But filmgoing remained popular in the United States even during the depths of the Great Depression, and by the early 1930s a combination of improved technology and artistic adaptation led to such a marked increase in quality that many film historians regard the period to be the beginning of Hollywood’s Golden Era. With a new voluntary production code put in place to respond to criticism of immorality in Hollywood fare, the American film industry was poised by the early 1930s to solidify its prominent position in American cultural life.