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FILM 20 - Film History I (Silent to Sound)

This is a course guide for FILM 20.

Course description

Detailed history of film from its origins to early sound films. Among the major topics to be addressed are: pre-cinematic devices and early cinema; the rise of the feature film; the tradition of silent comedy; the rise of the studio and star systems; European movements and their influence; the coming of sound. Prerequisite to the major in Film and Media Studies. Open to all classes.

[Source: ORC/Catalog, 09/16/2022]; DIST: ART; WCult:W

Please note: If you are looking at the history of cinema for a specific country, look at the National Cinemas guide also.

Defining silent cinema

1. In common usage, the period in which cinema first appeared and developed, from the mid 1890s through to the introduction of synchronized sound in the late 1920s; films produced during this time did not have a soundtrack, though, in fact, they were rarely shown in silence.

2. In film studies, silent cinema (films made from around 1904 until the late 1920s) is usually considered as a period of film history that follows early cinema (films made from the mid 1890s until around 1904).

In practice, the silent era is not fully distinct from the early cinema period, with a transitional cinema shaping film production between 1908 and 1917. It is in this period that a number of key changes shift the cinema of attractions towards a feature film-driven standard. Above all, World War I had a damaging effect on the film industries of France, Italy, and Denmark; this, combined with the rise of a vertically integrated studio system in the US, shifted the balance of power in the world’s film industries, with filmmaking conventions associated with the emergence of classical Hollywood cinema becoming increasingly prominent worldwide from 1916. In this period, the multi-reel feature film, increasingly screened in dedicated cinema spaces, or picture palaces, became dominant (see exhibition). The career of D.W. Griffith is indicative: Griffith’s early films, including The Lonedale Operator (1911), make increasingly sophisticated use of editing, narrative/narration, and continuity techniques; and in 1915, The Birth of a Nation brought together intertitles (see subtitle), an original orchestral score, location shooting, elaborate costuming, iris effects (see mask), unusual and innovative camera placements and angles, extensive use of colour tinting, dollying and panning camera shots, closeups to reveal intimate expressions, dissolves to blend images or switch from one image to another, high-angle shots, panoramic long shots (see shot size), and extensive parallel editing. Griffith also cultivated a naturalistic acting style, in contrast to the histrionic acting associated with early cinema. Griffith’s work functioned as a showcase for the filmmaking techniques associated with a truly ‘international style’ emerging in the major film-producing nations, as, for example, in the work of Abel Gance (Napoleon (France, 1927)), Alexsandr Dovzhenko (Zvenigora, (USSR, 1928)), Carl Theodor Dreyer (La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc/The Passion of Joan of Arc (France, 1928)), and Fritz Lang (Metropolis (Germany, 1927)) (see France, film in; Germany, film in; USSR, film in). This period of filmmaking is widely celebrated as an influential era of great artistic flourishing (see canon).   ...

Kuhn, A., & Westwell, G. (2020). Silent cinema. In A Dictionary of Film Studies. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2 Jun. 2023

In the Library's collections

Locating Library Resources for Early Films

The Jones Media Center has a collection of early films for viewing. To find them, you can do a subject search for "silent films" and limiting the search to "videos." If you have a title in mind, you can search the catalog for the title. You might look at books that talk about early sound films and use those as your guide for finding other titles.

We also have Silent Film Online which is a database of only silent films.

You can use one of these subject headings to start your research in the library's online catalog:

Introductory reading(s)

Selected book title(s)

Other library resource(s)

Selected silent film title(s)

Find more silent films in our collection, or search for a specific title in the online catalog.

Finding scholarly articles & journal title(s)

You can find scholarly literature for film history in a variety of journals. However, if you want to do targeted searching, you can use a subject specific database such as Film & Television Literature Index. You can also use the search box at the top of the page.

Silent film societies

Internet resource(s)

Citing and Tracking Your Bibliographic References

Use this guide to help you learn how to correctly cite and keep track of the references you find for your research.

Keeping up with Film Studies journal literature

Want an easy way to keep up with the journal literature for all facets of Film Studies? And you use a mobile device? You can install the BrowZine app and create a custom Bookshelf of your favorite journal titles. Then you will get the Table of Contents (ToCs) of your favorite journals automatically delivered to you when they become available. Once you have the ToC's, you can download and read the articles you want from the journals for which we have subscriptions.

You can get the app from the App Store or Google Play.

Don't own or use a mobile device? You can still use BrowZine! It's also available in a web version. You can get to it here. The web version works the same way as the app version. Find the journals you like, create a custom Bookshelf, get ToCs and read the articles you want.