Thursday, 18 May 2017

The Birth of an Institution: The development of the cinema art form, the building of its big business and the cultivating of its adoring audience

I have always held a soft spot for silent cinema and I was foretunate enough to indulge this passion completely in the penultimate year of my BA (Hons) in Creative Writing with Film and Screen Studies. First, by focusing on the silent comics (in particular Harold Lloyd) and, secondly, with the following 5000 word essay I had to undertake for my final submission of the Understanding Hollywood module.   

The research and writing of this essay took place between February and May of 2012 and it proved to be an especially trying process which required a number of deadline extensions in order to thoroughly finish up to submission standard. Back then I was not as motivated to write as much as I do now.

When I finally and exhaustingly submitted it!
Ultimately, The Birth of an Institution awarded a First and I am still very pleased with its final result. Dealing with the birth of cinema, The Birth of an Instition is very much a companion piece/prelude to my award-winning BA (Hons) theoretical dissertation, which deals with the development of cinema from the close of the silent era, then throughout the rest of the 20th century and finally speculates on the mass innovation of the future orientation of cinema. 

However, let's return back to the mass innovation of the early days... 

This essay will describe and account for the institutionalisation of cinema in the USA during the silent era. Providing an overview of the emergence of American silent cinema, both as a business and as an art form, the essay will assess how the evolution of the silent era film industry, from its beginnings as a peepshow to its eventual form in the picture-palaces, enabled it to become an American institution.

When Thomas Edison supplied the Kinetoscope: “a peepshow machine in which a short piece of moving film (less than thirty seconds) could be viewed by one person at a time” (Chapman, 2003:53), movies took their first step to being a commodity in the USA. The Kinetoscopes were to be found as sideshows in amusement parks and in parlours catering specifically for them:

“The first Kinetoscope parlor was opened with ten machines by the Holland Brothers at 1155 Broadway, in April 1894. For a twenty-five-cent ticket, a customer could watch films in five Kinetoscopes, and for fifty cents, he could watch all ten films (no discounts, apparently)” (Kobel et al., 2007:10).

The fact that there were no discounts and that a twenty-five-cent could equally buy you a ticket to a vaudeville house for more than thirty seconds of entertainment goes to show just how popular the Kinetoscope proved to be, because people would pay to view them anyway. 

The Kinetoscope.

The proprietors, after purchasing an individual Kinetoscope machine from Edison at the hefty price of $250, wanted to cash in on this new found popularity as much as they could: 

“Exhibitors, however, wanted to maximise their profits, which they could do more readily by projecting a handful of films to hundreds of customers at a time…and by charging 25 to 50 cents for admission” (Belton, 2005:8-9).

Thus it was that in 1905 the Nickelodeon was born; these were little more than converted vaudeville theatres and shops; however, these small picture theatres would spread out across the continent to become, essentially, America’s first cinema chain: “By 1907, there were upwards of 3,000 of them. Pittsburgh could boast a hundred, Chicago 300, for all a man needed to break into the picture business was a projector, a vacant store and a few chairs” (Brownlow, 1979:46). The relocation of motion pictures on to the high streets of the towns and cities of the USA was a major push for the integration of movies into the American lifestyle:

“The Nickelodeons, or Nicklettes, were centred in the urban areas. Properties had their eye on the middle class, and from the start, sites were selected close to middle-class shopping centres. Some proprieties were anxious to avoid too shabby a clientele for fear of discouraging their white collar customers.” (Brownlow, 1979:46).

The Nickelodeons provided a cheap form of entertainment and proved incredibly popular with immigrants and the lower class. However, they struggled to gain a footing with the middle class: 

“Nickelodeons were not regarded as respectable, any more than the penny arcades. As late as 1913, no motion picture theatre was permitted within 200 feet of a church.” (Brownlow, 1979:46).
A nickleodeon.

The poor conditions of the Nickelodeons were one factor of this: "nickelodeons were disdained by the well-to-do. But the workmen and their families who patronized the movies did not mind the crowded, unsanitary, and hazardous accommodations most of the nickelodeons offered" (Jacobs in Allen, 1979:2). However, in addition to improving the conditions of the Nickelodeons, another step to remedying this class divide would be in the types of films that the Nickelodeons exhibited: “The films themselves, in those early days, were…naïve. They were aimed at unsophisticated people” (Brownlow, 1979:52). Those initial films were little more than extended versions of what had been shown in the Kinetoscopes:

“The kinds of films shown were actualities (documentaries, views of famous distant places), recorded vaudeville acts, excerpts from popular plays, phantom rides (films shot from the front of moving vehicles) and trick films, which used the techniques of slow motion, reverse motion, substitution, and multiple exposure to perform tricks or acts of “magic”” (Belton, 2005:8).

Particular, and slightly more exceptional, films of note were those produced by Georges Méliès for Pathé (which were illegally distributed by Edison in the USA). Méliès’ films were immensely popular because they offered visual spectacles the likes of which American filmmakers could scarcely emulate: “Georges Méliès trademark style was filming the fantastic” (Merton, 2010). Although, American producers did try to emulate his style; one example is A Trip to Mars (Dir. Ashley Miller, USA, 1910) a much inferior version of Le voyage dans la lune (Dir. Georges Méliès, France, 1902). 

Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) - a classic! This is a restored hand painted coloured version from the silent period.

A Trip to Mars (1910) a duplication of Le Voyage dans la Lune as produced by Thomas Edison, he had a habit of stealing other people's ideas.

Méliès’ films boasted cinema’s first use and exploitation of special effects: “In 1898, the shutter of his camera jammed while he was filming a street scene. This incident made him realize the potential of trick photography to create magical effects, such as superimposition and stop motion” (Bergan, 2006:18). For the exhibitors Méliès’ films had the advantage of attracting the audience back for more. However, like American produced films they lacked any real narratives.

Looking at these films today they seem incredibly crude and it is hard to imagine how audiences maintained engagement with films that lacked stories. However, Cook points out that: 

“audiences experienced these films very differently than we do - as a kind of performative spectacle, or “attraction,” whose function was to present rather than to represent, to show rather than to narrate. Tom Gunning has called this phenomenon the “cinema of attractions”” (Cook, 1981:19). 

This goes a long way in explaining Méliès popularity; as well as the need for the American producers to try and emulate his style. The visual attractions of these early films are what kept the audiences invested in them and wanting to invest more: “As attractions films with self-deceptive titles like The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots (1895) or Electrocuting an Elephant (1903), presented or exhibited spectacles for viewers to admire” (Belton, 2005:10).

The Lumiere Brothers' Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, an actuality about a train arriving at a station. This film supposedly sent patrons running because they believed the train was going to come through the screen and run them down, this is where immersive cinema begins.

However, the cinema of attractions was only a passing fad: “Cinema is about novelty and once you’ve seen somebody put a duvet cover on you have to do something a bit different with it” (Merton, 2010); the only way it would gain a new and, as history has shown, seemingly inexhaustible appeal was by mastering the art of the narrative. At best the films that did boast “strong” narratives were staged and filmed in long shots as if they were theatre plays: 

“Early, pre-1906 cinema stressed showing rather than telling. Most films made in this period were actualities, which outnumbered fiction films until roughly 1906” (Belton, 2005:8). 

These films had very minimal editing which, when it did occur, was used to cut from one long shot to another long shot: 

“Neither Edison nor the Lumières could foresee that the movies would invent flashbacks; there are no flashbacks in Shakespeare.” (Cousins, 2011).
The first screen adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as produced by Thomas Edison; this film is a very clear example of an unsophisticated filmed stage play.

This evolution towards more complex presentations was key in order for the movies to be accepted in all the class structures of the USA. The movies needed to stop trying to be part of the theatre and needed to embrace the potential of the cinematic format, in order to tell visually engaging stories.

For the longest time it was agreed by film historians that this began in American cinema with Edwin S. Porter’s innovation with editing in his 1903 film Life of an American Fireman (Dir. Edwin S. Porter, USA, 1903). This is a film in which cross-cutting is employed to cut between the interior of a burning building with two characters in distress and the exterior of the burning building with the fireman going into the building to rescue them. Cutting these separate actions together as one event works to create suspense and, ultimately, to keep the audience engaged. However, as Cousins explains:

“Another print of the film exists in the archives, which shows all the street action in one continuous shot and then the interior action, similarly in one sequence. Film historians used to believe that this version was a “rough cut”, which Porter had yet to fine tune. However, it has recently become clear that this film was closer to the original release print. Only in later years, once intercutting was discovered, did Porter or someone else belatedly “improve” the more theatrical version by editing.” (Cousins, 2004:37-38).

Life of an American Fireman, this is the earlier version without the cross-cutting.

Therefore, Life of an American Fireman can not be considered American cinema’s first instance of employing editing to create an effect; rather this is evidenced in a later Porter film: The Great Train Robbery (Dir. Edwin S. Porter, USA, 1908). 

The Great Train Robbery

The Reception of this film was very enthusiastic: “The rise of the American film industry was largely due to this one twelve-minute film.” (Brownlow, 1979:35). The Great Train Robbery was instrumental in the creation of the linear storytelling technique that would soon be imitated by all the other filmmakers: 

“the most significant accomplishment for Porter was his conveying the story without overlapping action – repeating actions when moving from interiors to exteriors, as he’d done in Life of an American Fireman – allowing him to build narrative momentum.” (Kobel et al. 2007:20). 

It was through the building of this “narrative momentum” that Porter was able to install the film with a sense of jeopardy which the audience greatly engaged with:

“They ran it to get the reaction of a better class of audience… I was a little dubious about how it was going to go with that audience, which was a sophisticated, show-me type of audience. When the picture started they all started to get up as usual and walk out, but then turned back to look at it, and they all, slowly, as the picture went on, went back to their seats. And they sat there, stupefied. They didn’t yell, but they were mystified at it. And when it was all over, with one accord they gave it a rousing reception.” (Anderson in Brownlow, 1979: 35).

Thus it was the middle class began to accept this new type of sophisticated narrative film: “the middle class managed to appropriate and "uplift" the cinema to suit its own tastes and objectives as soon as it realized how big the cinema actually was” (Singer, 1995:6). 

What remains of a picture palace from long ago.

Certainly, the motion picture business, from the consumer’s side, seemed to be moving up a gear; in addition to having new: “grandiose, purpose-built theatres to accommodate the demands of middle-class audiences” (Maltby, 1995:118), the films that were shown in these theatres were vastly more sophisticated than they had ever been: “Cinema had learned to follow the flow of action from one space to another. This made chase sequences possible, liberated movies and emphasized movement” (Cousins, 2004:38). In short, these new innovations made movies more exciting and something that Americans were becoming more and more happier to integrate into their lives.

However, for the figures behind the motion pictures the evolution from a cinema of attractions to a cinema of narratives; together with the growing numbers of exhibition theatres brought with it new financial considerations: “In the mid 1900s American cinema was approaching a state of chaos with proliferation of production companies and film exchanges” (Chapman, 2003:73). In 1908 Edison set actions in motion that lead to the formation of the Motion Pictures Patent Company. The MPPC, or “the Trust,” was the first attempt to gain control over the filmmaking industry by Edison and eight other filmmaking companies: “It set out to control every aspect of the nascent film industry” (Kobel et al., 2007:40). It allowed them to have exclusive rights over the production, distribution and exhibition of motion pictures: “The trust was a blatant monopoly: trust films could be sold only to licensed distributors, which in turn could lease them only to licensed exhibitors. Only licensed exhibitors could use Trust projectors.” (Kobel et al. 2007:40).

While this arrangement worked out just fine for the members of the Trust: Edison, Biograph, Vitagraph, Essanay, Selig, Lubin, Kalem, American Star, American Pathé, it left the independent filmmakers in a somewhat precarious situation; as it was now illegal for them to make films, or at least to use film stock with sprocket holes - the sprocket holes were what Edison patented: “Anyone who wanted to use film with sprocket holes, which was everyone, had to pay Edison” (Cousins, 2004:41). However, the independents fought back by establishing the Independent Motion Picture Company, or the IMP, to counter-act the control that Edison was trying to exert on the industry.

The Trust, however, was still unyielding and resorted to hiring thugs to put the independents out of business: “either by destroying the camera, if they could get hold of it, or by burning down our studios, if we happened to have one.” (Dwan in Brownlow, 1979:55). As the majority of American motion picture production was based in New York the independents reasoned that if they were to continue making movies then they would need to do it elsewhere. Therefore, the majority of the independents ended up In California and, slowly but surely, the film colonisation of Hollywood took place: “the town became a metaphor for the industry if not always a studio’s exact location” (Kobel et al. 2007:43).

Aside from being far from Trust members, California had many practical advantages in terms of filmmaking. It had Sun all year round and, with electric film set lighting still a few years away, this proved to be a major advantage: ““The first film studios un America had been built in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, but weather conditions in those cities were soon realised to be too unpredictable” (Chapman, 2003:73). However, this was not the only advantage: “beside sunny climates there was a range of different landscapes, including ocean, desert, forests and mountains” (Chapman, 2003:73), they had a variety of naturally built film sets for any type of film. Hollywood it seemed had been built for film production and the film producers were quick to capitalise on this: “In a way, the Trust members became the dinosaurs of their era, and the independent film producers were the quick, small mammals that would eventually take over the industry and establish the big studios.” (Kobel et al. 2007:44).

A largely untouched Hollywoodland

The irony is, unlike the Trust as run by Edison, Hollywood became a oligopoly run by a group of studios and it was through this oligopoly that the competing studios gained control of the American film industry. The MPPC: “failed because it tried to dominate the industry by controlling production of movies but, as was already clear by 1915, the other branches of the industry, distribution and exhibition provided more effective ways of dominating the industry as a whole.” (Maltby, 1995:117). Thus it was that the studios and their attitudes as viewing: “the movie industry as a sort of retail business.” (Kobel et al. 2007:46), enabled them to gain full control by providing distribution and exhibition in addition to actually producing the films: “the resulting system was, as in other industries, called “vertical integration” and guaranteed a continuous production line.” (Cousins, 2004:63).

However, the studios would also go on to impose their products on the consumer through the exploitation of another system; namely the star system: “most studios at the time did not publicize their players, they were flooded with questions about actors. Fans wanted to know the name of the fat comedian, the dark-haired hero, and the “girl with the curls.”” (Barbas, 2001:10). The truth of the matter was the spectator had fallen in love with the figures they were seeing on screen and if the audience cared about particular performers (the first of these was Florence Lawrence) then they would keep coming back to see them In the movies: “stars had only a limited amount of power, in no way commensurate with their power to attract audiences at the box-office” (Maltby, 1995:141-42). The star system also provided a further means to integrate the movies into American life because it provided a means of familiarity through the performers who the public had come to love: “As well as being the most visible part of the industry, the star system was central to the standardization of the movie product, and to its interrelations with other consumer industries and advertising” (Maltby, 1995:141).

However, the quality of the products that Hollywood was selling, in terms of film form, still needed to be perfected: “Film had already come far. It was born as a sideshow, a novelty; quick fun, like fast food. But almost at once it became clear that it was also a language: a new language; a language of ideas” (Cousins, 2011); the filmmakers needed to learn how to use that language properly. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery had provided audiences with a few discernible sentences but films needed to be able to tell grand narratives in order for the motion picture to become its own highbrow visual literature and secure the viewership of the full spectrum of the class structure. The man who would ultimately do this was David Wark Griffith: “his sensibility was steeped in a literary tradition that of Dickens and Tolstoy, Frank Norris and Walt Whitman. Yet, while borrowing from nineteenth century literature Griffith was forging the new art of the Twentieth century.” (Scorsese et al., 1995).

The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) - an early example of Griffith's experimentation with film form.

Many of Griffith’s early films demonstrate his mastering and refining of film form: “Despite the claims of earlier film historians and his own publicist, D.W. Griffith did not invent any of the key elements of the language of cinema. He did, however, more than any other filmmaker, give films an interior human life. (Cousins, 2004:52). An example of this interior human life is in The Girl and Her Trust (Dir. D.W. Griffith, USA, 1912). The film concerns two thieves who steal some money from a telegraph office and then kidnap the telegraph girl as well. The film itself holds many parallels to Porter’s earlier The Great Train Robbery – both films concern the theft of money, both use trains to further the plot, both are very violent, both have a very significant chase sequences and both films put their characters in situations of jeopardy. However, to further the jeopardy in The Girl, Griffith has the two thieves kidnap the protagonist Grace; this adds the damsel in distress element to the film which makes the eventual race-to-the-rescue, a Griffith speciality, all the more powerful.

The Girl demonstrates that Griffith had a better grasp of the type of engaging narrative to tell in a film; as well as how to make that narrative more human and more real to the audience: “He applied greater emotional finesse to extant film techniques, collaborating brilliantly with actresses, minimizing their gestures and contrasting gentleness and ferocity” (Cousins, 2004:52). The Girl also demonstrates how Griffith tells its narrative in the best filmic form. Unlike The Great Train Robbery where each scene is told in a single uncut long shot, here Griffith presents the audience with a whole range of shot variations: “Perhaps Griffith’s single most important insight was that the shot rather than the scene should be the basic unit of film language. With this discovery came the possibility of varying the standard, stationary, head-on long shot” (Ellis, 1995:17). The use of medium shots and close-ups allows the audience to connect to the characters much more easily than they would through a long shot, where characters seem distant and indistinct. The interior human life of The Girl comes from Griffith’s ability to portray strong characterisations on the screen.

Likewise, he would also use the design of a shot to emphasise what was happening in that shot, such as the tracking shot that follows the speeding train as it chases the villains. The motion of the tracking shot is in sync with that of the train and therefore the feeling of hectic movement is emphasised tenfold: “These varied shots were then edited together to create the appearance of a continuous scene selectively viewed. Once understood, these options gave the film maker immeasurably greater control over the audiences emotional response, adding powerful connotations to the action itself” (Ellis, 1995:18). As such, this is exactly what Griffith does with the final chase sequences: he cuts back and forth between the thieves and the train; this hectic cutting style installs in the viewer a franticness of unease. It is not just the variety of shots but also the way in which the film was directed, performed and edited that makes The Girl into a much more engaging film than The Great Train Robbery. When Griffith had first started using these techniques he had: “had to fight his distributors who feared that audiences would be confused by this innovation” (Scorsese et al., 1995). While the distributors may have been worried, the success the films gained in the cinema proved that this new type of filmmaking was the new way forward.

The Girl and Her Trust (1912)

These innovations which enabled the audience to engage with the films they were watching, unquestionably, insured the audience’s presence in the cinemas of American: “Film directors like D.W. Griffith, who carefully crafted narrative personae for themselves, provided these new audiences with the kinds of narratives with which they were familiar in the theatre or in literature” (Belton, 2005: 13). Familiarity, in the sense of films having a standard style of presentation, was the key to keep the spectator coming back for more and familiarity, in the sense that the spectator could relate to the characters in the films, was key for the audience to enjoy the films.

All the elements that Griffin had experimented with and perfected in his earlier films came together in his seminal three hour film The Birth of a Nation (Dir. D.W. Griffith, USA, 1915). Up until this point feature films had seemed like a risky financial venture in Hollywood but The Birth proved that, ultimately, the way forward for Hollywood’s dominance of the American market was with the feature film: “The members of the MPPC lacked a weatherman to tell them which way the wind was blowing and resisted the concept of longer features – which would become the dominant movie format – while the independents embraced them.” (Kobel et al., 2007:44). The Birth showed that it was possible to make a feature length film that drew audiences in and did not bore them with its excessive length: “It was a history film, a state of the nation work designed to appeal not only to middle-class audiences in the tradition of Film d’Art, but to those who flocked to epic, exciting films too.” (Cousins, 2004: 52). The Birth was the blueprint the film industry needed to create a successful feature film: both for presenting a structured, coherent story and for drawing the crowds in.

This said, though, The Birth of a Nation was not the final cinematic element that Griffin would bring to the American film. He still had one thing to showcase, something that had been touched upon in The Birth and hinted at all the way back in the early days of the Méliès’ films - cinema’s potential to showcase an epic spectacle. Again, Griffith was not the first filmmaker to make a super-production, in fact, he felt compelled to make Intolerance (Dir. D.W. Griffith, USA, 1916) after viewing Cabiria (Dir. Giovanni Pastrone, Italy, 1914), an Italian super-production:

“To have made a film hailed as the world’s greatest masterpiece must have been exhilarating; but then to see a film like Cabiria must have been immeasurably depressing. Not that it exceeded the standard of The Birth in terms of story, but in terms of physical production and technical dexterity, it made The Birth look primitive.” (Brownlow, 1979:71).

Therefore, Griffith’s aim for Intolerance was to present both a riveting story and a lavish spectacle. However, when it came to presenting a cinematic narrative, Griffith went one step further and presented four separate, but parallel narratives in the film. In this respect Griffith moved slightly too far forward in terms of developing film form; cutting back and forth he would tell four different stories, from four different periods of history, about four different instances of human intolerance and cut these parallel stories together as one mammoth three hour plea for human tolerance: “This confused many of the audiences and the film did less well commercially than The Birth of a Nation for which, to some critics of the time, it seemed like an apology.” (Cousins, 2004:55). While the audience may not have understood what Griffith was trying to do with the structural editing in Intolerance they did, none the less, buy into the epic spectacle element of the film, which created a thirst for more American super-productions.

After The Birth of a Nation and then Intolerance, films had gained a new expectation: in addition to telling a fully rounded narrative they also needed to be spectacles. This was an expectation that was taken to heart in how the films were exhibited. Initially, what had just been an occasional luxury over the more dominant nickelodeons now became the standard: “the uncomfortable, small, makeshift nickelodeons gave way to luxurious movie palaces and other large theatres especially built for the showing of motion pictures” (Belton, 2005:16). The emergence of the picture palace as the dominant form of exhibiting films in the USA signified the point when cinema became fully accepted by the public: “By 1929 and the end of the silent era Hollywood films had become the most powerful medium of mass entertainment the world has ever known” (Brownlow, 1980), the institution had been established!

However, to fully understand the institutionalisation of silent cinema we must first ascertain to what extend it is an institution. The Oxford Dictionary defines an institution as: “an organization founded for a religious, educational, professional, or social purpose.” (Oxford Dictionaries). Certainly, if we are to follow Belton’s view of the institution of cinema as being: “an integral feature of the experience of being an American in the twentieth century” (Belton, 2005:4), then surely cinema is a fusion of a religious, educational, professional and social institution: “Going to the movies became as common place as going to school, to work, or to church. For earlier generations, it was familiar an activity as watching television has become today” (Belton, 2005:4).

Cousins claims that what drives films “isn’t box office or showbiz – it’s passion; innovation.” (Mark Cousins, 2011), however, this is an incredibly naïve view that only accounts for half of cinemas success as an institution. If cinema had never gained an audience and become an economically viable option, on the part of its producers, the institution would never have been established: “The cinema is an institution in a number of senses of the term. It is an economic institution, designed to make money. In order to do this, it established itself as an industry” (Belton, 2005:4). “Box office and showbiz” is as much the progenitors of the institution of cinema as “passion and innovation.” Therefore, cinema is a professional money making institution:

“It is a complex organization of producers, distributors, and exhibitors whose job it is to make and market motion pictures. To accomplish its goals, the industry developed a basic technology that facilitates the production and exhibition of movies. It also established various systems such as the star system… and the genre system-which are designed to ensure that individual films return a profit to the industry that produces, distributes, and exhibits them.” (Belton, 2005:4).

Cinema became a social institution when the projector was introduced because it allowed more than one person to concurrently view and indulge in the same film. Going to the cinema became a social event; the cinema became a place: “for people to come together to share a common experience” (Scorsese et al., 1995). It became even more of a social event with the introduction of the picture palaces and all their lavish accompaniments: “By this time, the entertainment program of the movie palace had expanded to include (in addition to the theatre orchestra’s overture and musical accompaniment of the silent feature) dancers, opera singers, and other performers in live skits” (Belton, 2005:17). Therefore, silent cinema can also be considered a social institution.

Cinema is an educational institution in the same sense that it is a religious one; figures like Griffith made cinema into: “a serious chronicler of the human soul.” (Cousins, 2004:61). In the opening to The Birth of a Nation Griffith put an intertitle with a response to the idea of censoring film: “we do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue” (Griffith, 1915). Griffin believed that film needed to remain uncensored in order to educate the viewer. Also Griffin’s mastering of film form enabled filmmakers to make films that could be understood by the audience and, therefore, audiences could be informed by the film. The Birth of a Nation claims a great many things about the reformation of America after Civil War, such as how the Ku Klux Klan were the “White Knights” who saved American from the degenerate African Americans. It’s not true, but an uneducated audience member in 1915 would have believed it. Therefore, films have the ability to educate even if it provides a false education and silent cinema can also be considered an educational institution because of this.

In regards to cinema being a religious institution in the sense that the viewer worships what’s on the screen – then it is very much a “religious” institution. As has already been shown silent cinema managed to gain a faithful audience who would consistently come back to worship their favourite stars, or idols, or ideologies (as with The Birth of a Nation), etc. The survival of American silent cinemas, like any religion, was reliant on people actually going to worship it:

“I believe there is a spirituality in films even it’s one that can’t supplant faith. I find that over the years there are many films that address themselves to the spiritual side of Man’s nature… It is as if movies answer an ancient quest for the common unconscious; they fulfil a spiritual need that people have to share a common memory.” (Scorsese et al., 1995).

A common memory or a common experience is a very adequate way to describe what an institution is and what it provides. Therefore, silent cinema was very much its own institution and what made it such a powerful institution was its ability to be a fusion of so many different things; not only of other institutions - professional, social, educational, religious - but also of other art forms: literature, theatre, music (orchestra in the picture palaces), etc. The institution of silent cinema was also a necessary component of the twentieth century because it allowed the consumerist world of the twentieth century a means to showcase and worship its opulence – opulence that needed to become a common memory.

Therefore, in conclusion, not only can silent cinema be considered a very intricate institution, but the process towards creating this institution can be accounted for as a result of two occurrences happening side by side and as a result of each other. The first: cinema discovering itself by refining film form and receiving ample investment from its producers. The second: the audience learning to understand film form and then buying fully into the spectacle of entertainment it provided. From peepshow to pictureshow, the institutionalisation of silent cinema in the USA came about through the dual processes of films establishing self-respect and gaining the respect of the class structures; only when both of these had transpired was the institution of silent cinema born.


Barbas, S. ‘From Reel to Real: The First Movie Stars’ in Movie Crazy: Fans, Stars and the Cult of the Celebrity. Palgrave Macmillan, 2001, pp.9-33.

Belton, J. ‘The Emergence of Cinema as an Institution’ in American Cinema: American Culture. Second Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Bergan, R. Film: Eyewitness Companion. London: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2006.

Brownlow, K. Hollywood: The Pioneers. London: William Collins Sons & Co LTD, 1979.

Chapman, J. ‘Early Cinema’ in Cinemas of the World. London: Reaktion Books, 2003, pp.51-75.
Cook, D.A. A History of Narrative Film. WW Norton & Co, 1981.

Cousins, M. The Story of Film. London: Pavilion Books, 2004.

Ellis, J.C. ‘Birth and Childhood of a New Art’ in A History of Film. Fourth Edition. Allyn and Bacon, 1995, pp.1-25.

Kobel, P. and The Library of Congress Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and The Triumph of Movie Culture. New York: Little, Brown and Company Hachette Book Group USA, 2007.

Maltby, R. Hollywood Cinema. Second Edition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Oxford Dictionaries [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 14/05/2012].

Singer, B. ‘Manhattan Nickelodeons: New Data on Audiences and Exhibitors’. In Cinema Journal, Vol.34, No.3. 1995. Pp.5-35.


A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies – Television Documentary; Dir. Martin Scorsese and Michael Henry Wilson. 225 minutes. United Kingdom: British Film Institute, Miramax Films. 1995.

A Trip to Mars – Film; Dir. Ashley Miller. 5 minutes. United States of America: Edison Manufactoring Company. 1910.

Cabiria – Film; Dir. Giovanni Paastrone. 148 minutes. Italy: Itala Film. 1914.
Electrocuting an Elephant – Film; Dir. (unknown). 1 min. United States of America: Edison Manufacturing Company. 1903.

Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film, Episode 1: The Pioneers – Documentary Television Series; Dir. Kevin Brownlow and David Gill. 60 minutes. United Kingdom: Thames Television. 1980.

Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film, Episode 2: In The Beginning – Documentary Television Series; Dir. Kevin Brownlow and David Gill. 60 minutes. United Kingdom: Thames Television. 1980.

Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages – Film; Dir. D.W. Griffith. 163 minutes. United States of America: Triangle Film Producing, Wark Producing. 1916.

Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) – Film; Dir. Georges Méliès. 14 minutes. France: Star-Film. 1902.

Life of an American Fireman – Film; Dir. Edwin S. Porter. 6 minutes. United States of America: Edison Manufacturing Company. 1903.

Paul Merton’s Weird and Wonderful World of Early Cinema – Television Documentary; Dir. Paul Merton. 59 minutes. United Kingdom: BBC Bristol. 2010.

The Story of Film: An Odyssey, Episode 1: 1895-1918: The World Discovers - A New Artform – Documentary Television Series; Dir. Mark Cousins. 60 minutes. United Kingdom: Hopscotch Films. 2011.

The Birth of a Nation – Film; Dir. D.W. Griffith. 190 minutes. United States of America: David W. Griffith Corp., Epoch Producing Corporation. 1915.

The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots – Film; Dir. Alfred Clark. 1 min. United States of America: Edison Manufacturing Company. 1895.

The Girl and Her Trust – Film; Dir. D.W. Griffith. 17 minutes. United States of America: Biograph Company. 1912.

The Great Train Robbery – Film; Dir. Edwin S. Porter. 11 minutes. United States of America: Edison Manufacturing Company. 1903.

Post a Comment