It’s been said by film-snob purists and pundits that real cinema “died” with the introduction of sound…which makes this year’s Oscar nominee The Artist either a glorious resurrection of a long-deceased art or the greatest walking-dead magic trick the moving pictures have seen in decades. Regardless, French director Michel Hazanavicius’s scrupulous recreation of vintage movie tropes is a wonderful tribute to the pioneers of pre-talky moviemaking—as well a great gateway drug. For those who’ve now caught the silent-flick bug and want to dig deeper, here’s a primer of 10 filmmakers who didn’t need the spoken word to wow us.
An employee of Thomas Edison’s production company, Porter was an early adopter of innovations such as the close-up (The Gay Shoe Clerk) and spatial establishment via editing (The Life of an American Fireman). Then came his 1903 adaptation of the Western stage play The Great Train Robbery, and in one fell swoop, Porter set the template for every streamlined film narrative that followed. It was the medium’s first phenomenal success, capped off with a meta-gunshot fired “at” the audience; if anyone can lay claim to being the true godfather of the blockbuster, it’s him.
This former stenographer is credited as the first female film director, though to single her out solely for chipping away at gender barriers is to give this groundbreaker short shrift. Her one-reeler The Cabbage Fairy (or The Cabbage-Patch Fairy, credited between 1896–1900) was among the first examples of cinematic storytelling in the age of actualités; shorts such as Pierrette’s Escapades and At the Floral Ball (both 1900) experimented with color-tinting; and her work with Gaumont’s “Chronophone” system in works like Dranem Performs ‘The True Jiu-Jitsu’ (1905) synced sound to images decades before the Talkie revolution. Simply put, cinema as we know it would not exist without her.
If this stage magician-turned-moviemaker had done nothing besides create the iconic image of a bullet lodged in the moon’s eye, Méliès would still have earned a place in film history. Yet this French filmmaker had already helped integrate a sly sense of humor and fantasy to the fledgling art form by then, as works like The Vanishing Lady, Sea Fighting in Greece (both 1897) and Excelsior! Prince of Magicians (1901) took advantage of film’s illusion-creating abilities—figures disappearing and reappearing, a ship tossing its hapless crew members about (via a moveable set), characters who could remove body parts or fly up into the sky. When Méliès finally made his 1905 masterpiece A Trip to the Moon, he took the art of film trickery to a new level (see Kevin B. Lee’s video and essay on Hugo and the First Movie Magicians), and anyone who’s manipulated imagery in the service of making the “impossible” possible owes him a serious debt.
DeMille could display any number of scandalous, salacious and sleazy things so as long as characters paid for their moral transgressions by the closing credits.
Long before Mr. DeMille became the object of Norma Desmond’s delusions, this totemic movie director helmed a number of silent feature films, notably the proto-oater The Squaw Man (1914 version, uncredited; 1918 version, credited) and The Cheat, a tabloid-drama tale of adultery and murder. The latter in particular gave DeMille a surefire method for success: You could display any number of scandalous, salacious and sleazy things so as long as characters paid for their moral transgressions by the closing credits. He’d use this formula to great effect in later silent epics such as his original version of The Ten Commandments (1923), which helped DeMille establish his reputation as a master of big-screen spectacle and ballyhoo marketing.
This French filmmaker tried his hand at a variety of genres, from comedy (A Very Fine Lady, 1908) to costume dramas (The Roman Orgy, 1911). It was the crime film, however, that he would end up revolutionizing, notably via a series of features and serials starring the villainous genius Fantômas. The first, Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine (1913), established the tone from the get-go: claustrophobic mise-en-scenes, fantastic scenarios, the pleasure of wallowing in paranoia and the glorification of bad behavior as social rebellion. (A young Fritz Lang was clearly taking notes.) By the time Feuillade made the ten-part Les Vampires in 1915, he’d become an auteur-hero to anarchists, surrealists and pulp-fiction aficionados alike.
6. Mack Sennett
Nicknamed the “king of comedy,” Sennett started out as an actor before founding Keystone Studios and, essentially, giving birth to the art of on-screen slapstick. His first discovery, Mabel Normand, was a heavy-lidded ingénue who he turned into a star, but it was a bit player in her 1914 short Mabel at the Wheel— a former vaudevillian named Charlie Chaplin—who’d truly help Sennett make his name. The producer-director would also kick-start the careers of Fatty Arbuckle (The Knockout), Harold Lloyd, the Keystone Cops, Billy Jacobs (Little Billy’s Triumph), Charley Chase and others—a virtual who’s who of first-wave silent comedians.
There were, in fact, feature-length films made before Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915)—but none of them came close to matching the technical sophistication or narrative ambitiousness of this Civil War epic. This performer and would-be playwright had already demonstrated his genius behind the camera in impeccable early shorts such as A Corner in Wheat (1909) and The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), yet even those landmarks didn’t suggest what was on the horizon. And if Griffith’s gamechanger about Southern reconstruction and racist hatemongers established a de facto film language, Intolerance (1916) proved that cinema’s vocabulary was also capable of poetry: His drama cross-cuts four different stories into a lyrical ode to human beings encountering (and overcoming) their own worst characteristics. The adolescence of the Seventh Art officially starts with him.
8. Dziga Vertov
From the moment Denis Arkadievitch Kaufman adopted his cinematic pseudonym (a rough Ukrainian translation of spinning top), Russia may have lost a promising medical student—but it gained of one the silent-cinema’s most revolutionary whirling dervishes. Having learned the art of montage while editing Kino-Nedelia newsreels, Vertov started developing the notion of a “camera eye” that perceived more intensely than its human counterpart; both ideologies would be combined for Stride Soviet! and A Sixth of the World, two 1926 film essays that turned the everyday into the extraordinary. They would be trial runs for his masterpiece: Man with a Movie Camera (1929), a cut-crazy document of a typical Moscow day that doubled as a poetic look at the human experience. “Spinning top” indeed!
9. F.W. Murnau
Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau not only adopted German Expressionism’s techniques and visual templates; he helped them evolve, infusing them with class critiques and a deeper sense of supernatural dread. His most famous movie, Nosferatu (1922), is a strong contender for the most shadowy movie ever made, as well as the first movie to popularize the concept of vampires as primo screen monsters. Murnau’s Phantom (also 1922) associated upward mobility with the psychological effects shame and desire—a potent cocktail he’d explore even further in The Last Laugh (1924), a devastating look at a doorman stripped of his service-industry rank. He was one of the first filmmakers to uproot the camera and truly make it mobile, freeing the cinema from static shots and sole splice-reliance; watch Laugh or his Hollywood debut, Sunrise (1927), and you see why they called them “moving pictures.”
David Fear is film editor and critic for TimeOut New York.