Hollywood History, Part 4 - The Development of Silent Movies 1910-29

Zukor, Fox, Laemmle, Goldwyn and Lasky
Zukor, Fox, Laemmle, Goldwyn and Lasky

The two decades after 1910 saw rapid changes in every aspect of moviemaking. Each aspect will be discussed here.

Films as an art form

After the rapid technological developments in the early years of the century, the early filmmakers began to develop filmmaking as an art form. They were highly successful to the extent that almost every later filmmaking style and genre were first explored in the era of silent movies.

Acting technique changed dramatically during the period. Early silent movies saw considerable overacting with exaggerated facial expressions and body language. Directors such as D W Griffith used the new close-up techniques which required more subtle, natural acting. Griffith rejected exaggerated stage acting style, realising that every gesture and expression of the actors was magnified on screen. A prime early exponent of the new naturalistic style was Lillian Gish who exemplified the difference between acting onstage and on screen.

Technical development

Technical innovation and development continued , culminating in the creation of synchronised sound movies,in the 1920's which brought about the end of the silent era. Lighting techniques such as three point lighting, backlighting and continuity editing were developed, as well as the use of establishing shots and the increasing use of the camera dolly instead of the camera being stuck in one position.

Longer Films

Early movies were extremely short - just a few minutes in length. It was enough for the early audiences just to see the novelty of movement on screen. From about 1910 films grew more complex and lasted longer. D. W. Griffith's 'The Birth of a Nation' in 1915 was a twelve-reel feature and was a huge commercial and cinematic success.

Movie Palaces

From the turn of the century movies had mainly played to working class, immigrant audiences, attracted by the novelty of moving pictures and with no language problems with silent film. The industry quickly sought respectability by appealing to the emerging middle classes and by showing their movies in grander, more comfortable, purpose-built picture palaces, creating venues which were smarter, cleaner and safer than the early nickleodeons and vaudeville houses and which could be easily reached by the latest form of popular transport - the car.

An extreme example was the Roxy in New York, which had over 6,000 seats, but most of the new movie houses had a capacity of up to 500, still much larger than the nickleodeons which they replaced. It is estimated that by 1920 there were over 15,000 movie theaters in the United States. Most showed a mixture of live comedy, a slide show, a supporting film and the main movie.


As lighting and camera techniques became more sophisticated, the use of the close-up became an important stylistic device, creating a closeness and intimacy between audience and performer. Individual actors and actresses became instantly recognisable and popular, and the star system was born.

The stars' popularity was mirrored in the new fan magazines such as Photoplay and Motion Picture Story Magazine, both of which began in 1911. Images and stories, true and untrue, abounded of the new acting elite and performers such as Norma Talmadge, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, Lillian Gish, Rudolph Valentino, Mary Pickford, Theda Bara, Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks became household names.

Studio System

The years 1910 to 1929 saw 2 major events: Firstly, the transfer of power from New York to Hollywood accelerated until the West Coast became the dominant region not just of American cinema, but also of World cinema, and it remains so to this day. Secondly, the large number of small emerging studios reduced dramatically through mergers and amalgamations, until the nucleus of the future Studio System was left.

By the 1920's with longer, more expensive and more sophisticated films, the movie business became ever larger and more organised. The large number of small studios became fewer and fewer through takeovers and amalgamations and each of the large studios thus formed, combined every aspect of filmmaking - production, distribution, and exhibition - under one roof, a process which has become known as "vertical integration".

The five main studios were created during this period - MGM, Paramount, RKO, Fox and Warner Brothers. Picking up the scraps were the three smaller studios - Columbia, United Artists and Universal.

These studios would dominate and control every aspect of movie-making in Hollywood for the next 30 years. By marketing their movies ruthlessly - and all the main genres were present from early on – westerns, thrillers, comedies and romantic movies, the studios succeeded in generating a huge interest in their product. They also controlled their stars completely with long term contracts with harsh penalties. By the mid 1920's the template for the future of Hollywood filmmaking was firmly established.

Hollywood History, Part 1 - Early Technology 1888-1900

Hollywood History, Part 2 - The Movie Industry Evolves 1900-1910

Hollywood History, Part 3 - The Growth of Hollywood and of the Studios 1910-1920

Hollywood History, Part 4 - The Development of Silent Movies 1910-29

Hollywood History, Part 5 - The Rise of the Studios

Hollywood History, Musicals - pre 1940