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Art for the Silent Screen

The term “Silent Movie” from the era before synchronised recorded sound arrived with The Jazz Singer in 1927 is perhaps something of a misnomer. From the 1890s to the late 1920s the films were pretty well always accompanied by live sounds – a pianist, theatre organist even a small orchestra in the more sophisticated theaters in the big cities. Occasionally someone would even actually narrate the inter-title cards for the audience. Before the ‘talkies’ took over some of the silent movies were getting very sophisticated indeed although it has been estimated that over 75% of movies from the silent era have been lost partly because of the unstable and flammable nitrate film used at the time.

Movie posters for the silent films were often more innovatory, humorous and worldly than the work produced in the sound era – when artists ‘toiled in large publicity departments and had to comply with strict restrictions on the size and prominence of stars’ images and their names’. Dwight M. Cleveland author of Cinema on Paper: The Graphic Genius of Movie Posters wrote that the artists tried to “captured the soul” of the films they represented – “The best posters in my mind are those that reduce the entire essence of a movie into a single, vivid sheet.” Many of these posters were nothing short of a beautiful art form produced in an extraordinary time of commercial lithography.

As seen silently at Gorgeous and Exquisite Movie Posters from the Silent Era which reproduces many more.

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  • Hyland June 21, 2022, 8:15 AM

    If you’ve got nothing else to do today, this link, and several others reviewing movie posters of bygone eras, will consume you. Hey… what’s with Douglas Fairbanks in “The Black Pirate?” That sexy little black dress accentuating his breast implants was, I thought, the kind of stuff verboten by the film commission of the time. https://poulwebb.blogspot.com/2013/05/film-posters-1913-1929.html

  • AbigailAdams June 21, 2022, 2:55 PM

    There is a very good documentary film, “Dawson City: Frozen Time” (on YT still, I think) about the discovery of over 500 silent films that had been buried in the abandoned swimming pool of a sports club in Dawson City at some point because they were too volatile to store elsewhere. Here is a link to the story: https://thenewbev.com/blog/2018/02/the-yukon-film-find/ (The Yukon Film Find). Often times Dawson City was the last stop for many of the silent films, and it was not really expected they would be sent back to the distributor. In fact many of them were simply put on a raft of ice on the Yukon river and sent adrift downstream. Between the destruction of these films in Dawson and the fire in the New Jersey(?) film vault, it is a wonder any survive. It’s a shame, too, because there was so much history on those reels. I imagine it would be very difficult and expensive to warehouse and insure a large quantity of them because of their extreme fire hazard.

  • KCK June 22, 2022, 6:08 AM

    American illustration is wonderful stuff. These are fun to see.