Silent Film: Quietly Changing the World

For someone who was supposedly such a great inventor, Edison has a lot of bad press circulating him. I feel like every time I open up a book about the early 1900’s (which isn’t often, but still) there’s some “fun fact” about what a gigantic jerk Edison was. Edison stole the design for the lightbulb! Edison tested the electric chair on an elephant! Edison peed on the White House lawn and then blamed it on Tesla!


The third one probably didn’t happen, but I can imagine it after all I’ve heard about him. I learned another fun fact the other day: Edison attempted to monopolize the early motion picture industry, effectively putting independent producers out of business and standardizing equipment to Edison’s own. He then proceeded to sue the tar out of anyone who attempted to make a motion picture with his cameras. By forming the Motion Picture Patents company (called “The Trust”), Edison managed to piss off yet another group of would-be innovators. Although the standardization of film equipment helped theaters and filmmakers, the formation of the Trust resulted in a huge crop of formulaic and quickly made films. Admittedly, this fact is less fun than the elephant one. Sorry about that.


Enter Carl Laemmle. Laemmle was an immigrant who used European film cameras in an attempt to break the Trust. The cameras were crappy, and Laemmle didn’t like that. So, he bought one of Edison’s cameras and started making films on the black market. Edison soon catches on; Laemmle is sued by the Trust 289 times. The Trust knew they were being broken by a couple of guys with black-market cameras, and they tried to fight back the only way they knew. But the results were simple; the Trust’s formulaic, cash cow films were being replaced by independent films that adopted the star system and were generally filmed in the middle of nowhere. That’s right: Hollywood, the iconic capital of weird boob jobs and huge sunglasses, was created by an immigrant with a dream to make great film and a generation of actors and producers willing to travel across the country to a tiny, scenic town in California to escape big business. How romantic does it get?


So now we have Hollywood, Laemmle’s newly opened Universal Studios, and a bunch of independents relying on a newly-formed star system rather than a plug-and-sell formula built for entertaining the masses. As it turns out, the masses loved it. Stars gave people an icon to hold fast to as a representation of all they hoped they could achieve. American films were no longer the equivalent of cheap Harlequin novels; they had depth, plot, and could even be considered art. Hollywood grew larger working with the government during WWI and entering a market of middle-class people who now saw movies as more than cheap entertainment. The 1920’s brought an era of city-versus-country messages, with swirling flappers and moral tales of the downfalls of booze filling the screen. As scandals grew in the early twenties, outrage began to blame Hollywood for the downfall of America’s morality. The industry knew that it had to have a new face, and Will Hays was the one they chose to represent them.


Now, Will Hays was not the kind of guy you’d see running around your cocktail party with a lampshade on his head doing Mickey Mouse impressions. In fact, he’s the complete opposite– a total bore who manages to censor all of the fun out of Hollywood. I don’t really blame him; without some sort of self-censorship, the industry likely would have been heavily censored by the government themselves at this early stage. The introduction of Will Hays is an interesting reflection of the “roaring 20’s” stereotype that permeates our historical memory. We often remember society in the twenties as being a tumultuous mess of alcohol, loose women, and few worries. What we don’t remember is the fact that most people were a lot more concerned with going to church, working hard to provide for their families, and being decent, law abiding citizens. My great-grandpa was probably a lot like Will Hays, and my great-grandmother probably did not appreciate the Fatty Arbuckle scandal or intense romantic scenes on-screen. They would have attended movies to be entertained within their comfort zone.


Even though Hollywood was growing as a glamourous cultural powerhouse, everyday people still wanted to be entertained in ways that spoke to them directly. From the country-versus-city themes that mocked the loose morals of the big towns to Charlie Chaplin’s hopeful depression-era messages of happiness through hardship, the lower and middle classes looked up to the movies as a way to have their fears, hopes, and ambitions expressed. While controversy about the responsibility of film as a media and scandal brought heavy censorship to the film industry, basic messages remained powerful enough to attract filmgoers throughout the rest of the silent era.