AN EVENING’S ENTERTAINMENT:
THE AGE OF THE SILENT FEATURE PICTURE 1915-1928
By Richard Koszarski 1990
Drama and Melodrama: The Genre Film
For the most part, silent dramatic features failed to take advantage of their added length in any but the most peripheral ways. Continuing to operate in the melodramatic tradition that had worked so well during the nickelodeon era, they simply added larger quantities of information on plot, locale, and characterization. The world thus created was far more dense than that suggested by the one-and two-reelers: the illusionistic power of the narrative was increased without altering the main ingredients of plot and characterization, which remained highly conventionalized.
There were good reasons for melodrama to take hold so firmly in the pre-1914 cinema. As a dramatic style, it dominated the American stage at a time when Ibsen, Shaw, and even Pinero were considered too radical for the mass audience. Less sophisticated filmgoers could hardly be expected to patronize more subtle entertainments at their local nickelodeon. In addition, the limited narrative capabilities of the silent short film severely restricted what might be accomplished in terms of characterization or thematic development. Early filmmakers inevitably turned to the melodramatic tradition for instant characterization of heroes and villains, simple dramatic confrontations that could be powerfully sketched in visual terms, and familiar thematic structures invoking traditional nineteenth-century ideals.
A film such as The Lonely Villa, directed by D. W. Griffith in 1909, makes effective use of all these elements. Only 750 feet in length, it plays on the audience’s familiarity with stock villains and heroes, the theme of the family endangered, and the ultimate victory of good over evil. The effective use of crosscutting in the final “race to the rescue” demonstrates Griffith’s ability to adapt or invent cinematic devices capable of increasing the emotional impact of such conventions.
The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, was twelve reels long, or sixteen times the length of The Lonely Villa. Nonetheless, the film could hardly be described as anything more than a super-melodrama, offering the same heroes and villains, the same image of the family endangered, and the same inevitable victory of good over evil, all driven by the filmmaker’s growing command of his medium. What Griffith did gain from this added length is a richness of detail that allows his narrative an almost Dickensian texture. We learn how his characters walk and talk, what their streets and houses look like, what they wear, and what they eat (the historical accuracy of the film is another matter). While Henry B. Walthall, Lillian Gish, and George Siegmann still play the conventionalized hero, heroine, and villain of a Biograph one-reeler, Griffith’s skilled assemblage of milieu detail provides their characters with great richness and resonance. The famous homecoming scene, in which “The Little Colonel” suddenly realizes how the war has devastated the culture of the South, depends on our knowledge and understanding of that culture, not on our recognition of this character as in any way emotionally or psychologically “real.”
Instead of psychological realism, what this film offers are characters who are true to type. Over twelve reels, Walthall’s character experiences a host of traumatic episodes, but the effect of these episodes is seen in his face, not his spirit. He does not and cannot change. The nobility of his character is a fixed point, like Siegmann’s duplicity or Gish s innocence. Yet this accomplishment on Griffith s part is a major achievement because he demonstrated that the most powerful effects of the short narrative form could successfully be amplified in a feature-length work. Many other early filmmakers, both before and after The Birth of a Nation, failed completely in their efforts to deal with the expanded form, losing plots and characters in a meaningless welter of extra footage.
Melodrama continued to represent the dominant stylistic mode in Hollywood all through the silent period. Only a few directors—King Vidor, Erich von Stroheim, and William deMille among them—attempted to offer a vision of life more complex and multidimensional than that to be found in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1918), Blue Jeans (1918), or Way Down East (1920).
The dominance of melodrama can be seen in the high percentage of genre films produced in this period. These films utilized recurrent situations, locales, and characters and were perfectly suited to an age that saw most of its dramatic conflicts in highly conventionalized terms. The most popular of silent genres was unquestionably the Western, which flourished throughout the period in shorts as well as features, in low-budget films as well as spectacles, and created some of the era’s greatest stars.43 Cecil B. DeMille s first film, The Squaw Man (1914), was the screen version of a popular stage Western, and DeMille soon followed it with The Virginian (1914), The Rose of the Rancho (1914), and The Girl of the Golden West (1914). William S. Hart, who had appeared in some of these shows onstage, made a career of presenting the screen westerner in what he considered a more accurate and realistic light.