Back to the Basics: On Silent Cinema

Man with a movie camera

The other day I had a sudden urge to watch Vertov. I was sitting on the train, reading Of Mice and Men (because lately my brain is smoking something) when all I wanted to do was watch Man With A Movie Camera. When I was in college, Man With A Movie Camera was required viewing in the first weeks of every film class I ever took. I watched it. I liked it. I analyzed it. I moved on. But I have never experienced having an overwhelming urge to watch Vertov.

Maybe I shouldn’t be too surprised by this. Lately I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night (thanks to my muddled brain) and in an attempt to fall back asleep, I’ve been watching silent films. On YouTube. With my phone no less. Even though I can hear P. Adams Sitney’s voice lecturing my seminar class: “There’s a special place in hell for YouTube.”

I am not really a fan of silent cinema. I always dreaded when I had to watch a silent film. Yet I am finding myself drawn to silent cinema more and more. Especially early Hollywood silent cinema from the 1910s and 1920s, which I have never been that interested in period. I disregarded them because they weren’t “avant-garde enough” like Un Chien Andalou or Entr’Acte.

Something has changed. I’m watching anything and everything.

In the last couple of weeks I have plowed through the early films by the Lumiere Brothers and D.W. Griffith. I’m watching silent comedies with Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. I’m looking at films starring Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish more closely than ever. I go on these long silent film benders where I will start with the Odsessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin and the next thing I know I’m watching Thomas Edison’s The Kiss.


So what have I finally grasped?

That silent cinema is everything. That modern art and cinema were literally born at the same time in the 1890s. Silent cinema is the foundation for all filmmaking. The first Hollywood productions set into motion everything about the star system. Meanwhile an avant-garde production like Man With A Movie Camera emphasizes the mechanics of filmmaking. Early American cinema emerged at a time of intense moral, social and cultural changes in the United States and in turn, cinema ushered in cultural and social changes. Early cinema established high culture versus mass culture, which is one of the most fundamental elements of art and culture.

Silent cinema is the bones of every and any movie we watch today.

Realizing this helps me and my muddled brain.

My film watching habits are changing. (Again.) I sense it happening. It’s strange yet it is also liberating. It is pulling me out of this rut I’m in. So I’ll stick with going back to the basics for right now.

modern times

The Short Career of Baby Marie Osborne

Until recently I had never heard of Baby Marie Osborne, a child star from the silent era who died on November 11.

I admit that my knowledge of silent cinema completely lacks. While I do enjoy the occasional silent film, sometimes I’m just not interested, That is why I have never opened the book on American cinema of the 1910s my parents gave me as a gift last year. But something about Baby Marie Osborne sparked a mad Google search.

Osborne’s career began in 1913 when she was three years old. Until 1918, she appeared in 29 films when she retired at eight. Today her films are mostly lost. One, Little Mary Sunshine (1916), is available on DVD. One critic commented on her performance in this film: “She never overdoes the saccharine stuff … her utter unself-consciousness … is a revelation in art.”

Little Mary Sunshine was written specifically for Osborne and was directed by Henry King, who discovered Osborne. King would later help Osborne find work at RKO studios. After her brief movie career, Osborne lived a fast life. King later helped Osborne find work at RKO studios where she was everything from Ginger Roger’s stand-in to Elizabeth Taylor’s costumer on Cleopatra. There is an insightful interview on NPR with Jean-Jacques Jura, the author of Balboa Films: A History and Filmography of the Silent Film Studio. Jura interviewed Osborne late in her life for the book.

Perhaps more interesting is that Osborne’s career took place at Balboa Studios in Long Beach, CA. Established in 1913, Balboa Studios became the most productive independent studio for five years. Fatty Arbuckle and William Desmond Taylor began their careers at Balboa. Then for various reasons – bankruptcy and scandal – production stopped and Balboa Studios closed its doors.

I am not entirely sure why I am fixated on Osborne’s short-lived acting career and her life afterwards. Perhaps it has to do with the fact with how she is someone whose impact on cinema was brief and she was quickly forgotten. We take for granted this notion that things – movies, objects, everything – will be around forever. That is why there is a certain mystery surrounding silent era stars. Their films have not survived and once their day in the spotlight ended, they were cast aside. We know that someone like Baby Marie Osborne existed, that she performed, but will her legacy ever really be felt? Does she even have a true legacy to be remembered?

This is not the first time that I have become fixated on how stars and celebrities exist in public memory after their deaths. I’ve come to realize that film and television are just two mediums that we use to remind us that there is a possibility of life after death.