The Silent Era: Crash Course Film History #9

The Silent Era: Crash Course Film History #9


Hollywood, here we come! The glamor! The celebrities! The scandals! I’m not talking about Bennifer or Brangelina. Craig: Are they still things?
Nick: No…
Craig: I’m kind of out of touch. But I’m not out of touch with the Golden Age of Silent
Cinema, when stars rose and fell, studios perfected the mass production of films, and
American movies dominated the global film market. In some ways, it was very different from the
Hollywood we know today. Movie studios wielded enormous power. They kept stars and directors under tight
control. The movies they made were silent. And a ticket would set you back a whopping
10 or 25 cents. On the other hand, a lot of the patterns set
during this time still seem awfully familiar today. Studios marketed films on the power of their
stars. Genres like gangster movies and romantic comedies
took hold and flourished. And audiences craved gossip about the private
lives of celebrities. To understand the world as it is, sometimes
you have to go back to where it all began. And for Hollywood, that’s the Silent Era. [Opening Music Plays] Film was going in a lot of different directions after the First World War. In Germany, filmmakers drew on the Expressionist
movement to manipulate their film’s mise-en-scene, creating groundbreaking horror films. In Russia, Soviet filmmakers were using cinema
to perfect the arts of propaganda through revolutionary editing techniques. And in the US, the Hollywood studio system
was positioning itself to dominate the rest of the world. Within film studios, the entire filmmaking
process took place – from conceiving, writing, and shooting the films, to marketing and distribution. The studios had chosen California for its
film-friendly sunny weather, its proximity to all kinds of terrain, and … its distance
from Thomas Edison, who spent much of the 1910s fighting for control of the American
film industry from his base in New Jersey. In the early days of the Silent Era, three
film studios ruled them all: the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, which would eventually become
Paramount Pictures – Loew’s Inc., which began as a theater chain – and First National
Pictures. Not only did these three dominate the marketplace,
they exercised near complete control over the creative and personal lives of their stars,
writers, and directors. Filmmakers often had to choose between following
the studio’s orders or abandoning their careers. Then, four of the most powerful figures in
early silent cinema came together to create their own film studio. In 1919, two directors – Charlie Chaplin
and D.W. Griffith – and two stars — Douglas Fairbanks
and Mary Pickford – founded United Artists. Their goal was to give filmmakers more control
over their films and a greater percentage of the profits. CHA-CHING! Is what I assume they would say. Of course, not many filmmakers could afford
to go out on their own like that, so the contract system would continue for several more decades. In 1924, the most powerful studio emerged
when Loew’s purchased Goldwyn Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Productions to create Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, better known as MGM. Which lead to MGM studios which lead to Tower of Terror, and have you been on Tower of Terror? That’s a pretty fun time. This is a process that would get repeated
throughout the 1920s and 1930s, as studios merged or sold or split apart. Probably because of prohibition and they didn’t have anything else to do. By the end of the era, most American films
were being made at studios whose names you might recognize from the multiplex today:
not only United Artists and MGM, but also Warner Brothers, Fox, Universal, and Columbia
Pictures. Now while the corporate structure of these
companies kept changing, the process by which they were making films was becoming remarkably
stable and efficient. Unlike me. The major studios became very good at churning out large-scale, commercial movies with mass
appeal. One of the leading innovators in setting up
the way studios worked was a man named Thomas H. Ince. Like D.W. Griffith, Ince came to film as a failed actor. He directed his first film in 1910, and by
1913 he was making as many as 150 two-reelers a year! His biggest impact on film came by applying
the lessons of mass production to the actual making of movies. Prior to Ince, most films were overseen by
a director-cameraman – a single person who conceived the story, worked with the actors,
and operated the camera. Ince broke those roles into separate jobs: A screenwriter to conceive the story and write the script. A director to make creative decisions on set
and work with the actors. An editor to assemble the footage. A producer to supervise the project from inception
to final cut. And a studio head to oversee the entire studio. While other filmmakers had played around with
these roles, it was Ince who standardized them into a system – a system still used
today. By 1912, he’d earned enough money to buy
a ranch west of Hollywood where he built his own studio, a place he called Inceville… Yep! It was here where the first permanent exterior
sets were built, made to resemble far flung locations, like a cowboy saloon, a little
Swiss street, or a Japanese village. And as Ince worked to define the roles and
streamline the means of production, he was able to triple the output of his studio. Though he died quite young in 1924, Ince’s
impact on film production was as thorough, widespread, and lasting. Now, Mack Sennett, another early film mogul
and one-time partner of Ince, was responsible for discovering a whole slew of film legends,
whose names you might recognize. People like the Keystone Cops, Fatty Arbuckle,
Gloria Swanson, Carole Lombard, W.C. Fields, and… the great Charlie Chaplin. Let’s talk a little bit about Charlie Chaplin. He was born into poverty in England
in 1889. He went into acting, signed with a prestigious
Vaudeville touring company, and set off for America at age 19. A film talent scout spotted him there, got
him hired by Sennett, and the rest is history. That we’re gonna talk about because we’re talking about Film History. Smart, curious, and driven, it didn’t take
long for Chaplin to develop his iconic Tramp persona and begin directing his own films. After finishing his first film contract, Chaplin
struck an extremely lucrative deal with the Chicago-based Essanay Studios to make 14 short
films. While at Essanay, he found ways to combine
his finely tuned sense of empathy and his recognizable Tramp character with a growing
ability to make audiences laugh – through both physical comedy and increasingly clever
storylines. In fact, he was so popular that by the time
his Essanay contract was up in 1915, he negotiated an almost unprecedented salary of $10,000
per week with another studio, the Mutual Film Corporation. They also paid him a signing bonus of $150,000
– the equivalent of about $3.5 million today. CHA-CHING! Is what they would have said at the time. The movies Chaplin made with Mutual brought
him international stardom. They marked the first time his focus on the
poor verged into social criticism, a place silent comedies rarely, if ever, went. True to his roots – and despite being one
of the highest paid people in the world – Chaplin’s films often focused on the gentle, accidental
heroism of the downtrodden. Time and again, he made the powerful the butt
of his jokes and displayed tremendous empathy for the poor and the humble. Then in 1919, at age 30, he co-founded United
Artists in an effort to exercise greater control over his films. I’m 36… I better get moving. What followed was a string of classic movies
that rank not only among Chaplin’s best, but among the best film comedies of all time:
The Kid – his first feature film and a smash hit – The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern
Times, and his controversial take-down of Adolf Hitler, The Great Dictator. His later career would be hampered by legal
problems and socialist sympathies, which would land him on the infamous post-war blacklist,
and keep him from making films. But at his height, no one benefited more from
the Silent Era studio system than Charlie Chaplin – as a director, making a lot of
films quickly and efficiently; and as an actor, commanding enormous salaries and unheard-of
creative control. And he wasn’t the only one to turn this
system to his advantage. Actor-directors like Buster Keaton, “Fatty”
Arbuckle, and Harold Lloyd achieved great success making their own short and feature-length
comedies. Stars from Mary Pickford to Gloria Swanson
parlayed their celebrity into tangible behind-the-scenes power. Now, as film became more and more central
to popular culture, some people started to get nervous. They worried that movies posed a real threat
to public morality. They saw films promoting materialism, cynicism,
sexual license. This would be a debate that would
come up again and again in American culture – about movies or music or video games. Until now when we’ve solved all those problems. Is the medium causing society’s problems, or just reflecting them? A few real-life Hollywood scandals at the
time tipped the scales, bringing on the first real self-censorship of American cinema. The gossip press fed readers stories about
stars dealing with addictions, affairs, and worse. The most famous of these centered around Fatty
Arbuckle, who was accused of the rape and accidental death of an actress named Virginia
Rappe. Although he was ultimately acquitted after
three highly-publicized trials, the scandal itself all but ended Arbuckle’s career,
and left an opening for a government crackdown on immorality in films and the film business. Rather than wait for Congress to get involved,
the major players in the film industry banded together to form the MPPDA – the Motion
Picture Producers and Distributors of America. They hired a retired Postmaster General named
Will Hays, a conservative Evangelical, to prove they were serious about cleaning up
their act. And that’s exactly what Hays did in 1930,
putting together the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, a catalogue
of things filmmakers could and couldn’t show on screen. …fun. The Code also suggested a strategy called
Compensating Values. The idea was that films could show characters
engaging in vice for most of the film, as long as virtue triumphed in the end. No one employed this technique better than
director Cecile B. DeMille. He was a master at giving the audience all
the vice and excess they could handle for the first three quarters of the movie, before
virtue came out on top. Other filmmakers found their own ways around
the Hays Code. German director Ernst Lubitsch came to Hollywood
in 1922 and made a successful series of witty sex comedies that relied on suggestion and
innuendo rather than skin. For many of these filmmakers, however, the
Hays Code was about to become the least of their worries. A seismic event was poised to shake up Hollywood,
and not every filmmaker of the Silent Era was going to come out the other side with
their career intact. The world was about to get its first taste
of synchronous sound. And it tasted good… maybe, I don’t know. Today, we explored the Silent Era, the first
golden age of Hollywood filmmaking. We learned about the innovations of Thomas
Ince and the rise of the American film studio. And we discussed some of the most important
Silent Era filmmakers and how their scandals – both real and imagined – led Hollywood
to institute industry standards governing the content of their films. Next we’ll tackle the biggest shift in the
history of film yet, as movies find their voice… es… Crash Course Film History is produced in association
with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel to check
out a playlist of their latest amazing shows, like The Art Assignment, Gross Science, and
PBS Infinite Series. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in
the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Studio with the help of all these Industry Standards and our amazing
graphics team, is Thought Cafe.

Only registered users can comment.

  1. I think Craig Benzine should help the advance of the Electronic Video by getting involved in a juicy scandal. How about it Craig? I can see you as a smuggler of prairie dogs to Europe or Chyna coming out in the press about your mal treatment of alligators – making them obese by uppling clone production….Anyone else have any thoughts?

  2. I'm disappointed you made no mention of the Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio case of 1917. In that decision, the US Supreme Court declared that film had no right to First Amendment protection, because film was considered only a "business." That threw the medium of film to the censor wolves and made the Production Code all but inevitable for decades until 1952 when the decision was overturned in Joseph Burstyn, Inc v. Wilson (aka The Miracle Decision) in which the Supreme Court declared the film was entitled to protection under the First Amendment.

  3. Craig, as you wrap up this crash course series, can you please do a bonus video of behind-the-scenes how crash course is made? That is, if this course eventually gets to TV and YouTube.

  4. Poor Roscoe Arbuckle. Not only was he acquitted, but the jury of the third trial apologized to him for what he'd been through. It didn't matter, though, because his career in front of the camera was finished. The really sad part of the story of Roscoe Arbuckle, though, is that he was actually poised for an on-screen comeback, but died just a day or so after finding out that it was going to happen.

    Incidentally, this year marks the 100th anniversary of Buster Keaton making his first movies.

  5. please tell me one line is not all they are going to give to cecile b demille. he was one of the defining directors of film history, second only to Spielberg in overall importance. it would be a great disservice to film history.

  6. UGH, Roscoe Arbuckle, please… He hated the nickname "Fatty," and his friends never used it. Calling him that makes me cringe.

  7. I hope crash course film history covers Mae West. Considering that we are going to cover censorship in film in future episodes.

    The censorship back then hated her guts, and that hate only made Mae West more popular.

  8. "A seismic event was poised to shake up Hollywood, and not every film-maker of Hollywood was going to come out the other side with their career intact."
    This was the 1930's, right? They must be talking about World War 2. What event could possibly compare to that war in scale?
    "Synchronized sound."
    …Fair point.

  9. Major movies talked about:

    A Trip to the Moon
    The Birth of a Nation
    The Cabinet of Dr. Calagari
    Metropolis
    Battleship Potemkin

    Have I missed any?

  10. The thing I love about crash course is the amount of detail they put into every video. I have a feeling that I've seen vids on cinema history where this would be in the first episode, here it's number 9! Good job!

  11. I love this series! I'm actually in an Art 101 class right now for generals, and we started learning about film history just after this series started! We watched "A trip to the Moon" and "The Gold Rush" (Charlie Chaplin) It's just been really cool to learn about it, so thank you!

  12. Every week I'm left weighing how much I enjoy and am interested in film and how much I dislike the cadence and sound of Craig's voice. I'm sorry but personally I find it just very grating.

  13. The "distance from Thomas Edison" line was hilarious, but is it just a joke, or was it a legitimate reason?

  14. Thomas Edison was really a thug. In his attempt to dominate the film industry, he would send muscle to other film companies' sets and break them up and beat up the people there. THAT is why the industry moved to California.

  15. So team Forty Two got almost 5 000 subscribers!!! only 999 995 more! Science rocks we will make it just like CrashCourse did it 6 times!

  16. You should done some silent movie gag in this video. Cut to black and white and you run around frantically pointing to things

  17. another interesting way silent films for away with vice on screen is if it was in a biblical context. If the story was about Sodom and Gomorrah, Adam and Eve, or Samson and Delilah – you could be there would be some raunchy scenes that escaped censorship

  18. From the look of movies like Sin City, 1984 and others, I'm guessing that the Hays Code didn't last very long

  19. Making the screen go blinky- blinky on your audience, is not really a sensible move. I quit watching afterwards.

  20. I know all of these Silent Film actors because of Turner Classic Movies. I always love watching Silent Sunday's on TCM. Harold Loyd, Charlie Chaplain, and Buster Keaton are my all time favorite comedic actors along with The Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges

  21. Sorry to be the picky one, but, Charlie Chaplin certainly didn't make films quickly and efficiently. He worked slowly, meticulously, and with no regard for anything but the movies he was making. Also, the way it's phrased, it sounds as if he never made a picture after The Great Dictator, which is certainly not true, and films like Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight don't deserve to be forgotten. Obviously you're talking about silent films so they can't be brought up too much, but, would it have hurt to namedrop?

  22. I can not wait until you get to the point where you have to talk about Kubrick, Kurosawa and Scorsese.

  23. Thank you for setting up your chess board correctly. I can name 10 films where they set the board up sideways including The Seventh Seal!

  24. i opened this video with my speakers unplugged and thought i was being ironically trolled for two minutes >:(

  25. I'm quite surprised by the chose timeline. The Jazz Singer is from 1927 and the Hays Code doesn't really start getting applied before 1933/1934. So that's quite weird that you chose to speak of the later first, since by 1930 virtually all silent films had stopped (except for Chaplin of course).

  26. Funny how Hollywood formed to get away from greed and unreasonable control of IP. How times have changed.

  27. If you are going to talk about film in the early 20th century there should be mention of the whole breaking of social norms set by older generations going on. You talked about the Hays code but never mentioned some of the movies that came before that code that couldn't be made after.

  28. One or two words about how silent movie portrayed dialogues through transitional writings on screen, wouldn't have hurt. Or maybe in the next episode.

  29. Now I get why I feel weird watching this series: Craig barely ever blinks on camera. Don't get me wrong, I like the series but damn…

  30. funny NO mention that it is all run by jews, the same jews that are behind every type of subvervion, perversion, anti christian and anti white propaganda. looking at modern media, one would assume most everybody in the USA is dark skinned and gay. Jews have always been anti family values. But you won't believe any of this, because it might make you uncomfortable, and that is exactly how they want you to feel. Propaganda and social engineering.

  31. please can you make russian or Ukrainian subtitles for videos about biology, anatomy ,A&P, astronomy, physics, chemistry

  32. I'd really been looking forward to this episode since the beginning of Crash Course Film History! There's so much to talk about.

    It's too bad Buster Keaton didn't get a bigger role in the episode. If you do an episode on movie stunts, I hope he gets a little more spotlight. Watching that scene where the front of a building falls and just barely misses him always blows my mind.

  33. So basically, whilst Germany was shaken by mysticism, Russia moved by ideology, the US pursued… money

  34. 8:00

    I heard that film makers got around a lot of the Hay's codes restrictions by making films about Bible Stories. The Bible is actually filled with a lot of sex, vice, and violence, particularly in less commonly talked about stories, such as the tales of Samson. Normally the sex, vice, and violence would have been a Hay's code violation, but as it was sourced from the Bible it was seen as inheriently more moral and was given a pass.

  35. A Crash Course on Theater History/Criticism would be a great lead-in/supplement to this course in the future.

  36. Shame that this glosses over the European silent era so much. German cinema was so much more than expressionist horror films, and several of the best were made in France.

  37. could you please make one about Silent Comedy! i need it sooo much! thanks for making these, you're awesome!

  38. The hayes code is where the trope of queer people always dying comes from. A character could be gay but had to either repent or die in the end.

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