Hollywood’s Turbulent First Century: A Glimpse at the Beginning Decades of Our Silver Industry

This post comes from Gregory, cinephile and BookPeople manager.


“A good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theatre; a good movie can make you feel alive again, in contact, not just lost in another city. Good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again.” – Pauline Kael

Cinema’s silent era was a stellar forty five years or so (1889 – 1936) of trips to the moon, startling vampires, totalitarian metropolises, political assassinations on city steps, somnambulists, epics spanning multiple time lines, Lulus, Garbos, Great Stone Faces, and Little Tramps. When sound hit the scene in 1927 many stars and filmmakers fell to the wayside.

Charlie Chaplin shrugged off sound for as long as he could, so much so that he made his most iconic silent pictures, City Lights and Modern Times, after sound was dominating the industry. Modern Times, specifically, was a gutsy move by Chaplin: It premiered in 1936, the same year as Swing Time, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire’s fifth musical collaboration. And it was with Modern Times, ending with The Little Tramp, locked arm-in-arm with Paulette Goddard, the both of them walking into the sunset, that Chaplin retired his signature character and punctuated the end of the silent era in Hollywood eighty years ago this year.

Chaplin went on to make several other great pictures after capitulating to sound, films like The Great Dictator and Limelight, but the same cannot be said of his silent contemporary, Buster Keaton. Keaton, cinema’s patron saint of physical comedy and arguably creator of the action genre with The General, struggled into the sound era and eventually disappeared from the silver screen. Keaton passed away fifty years ago this year. But his legacy is undeniable, Jerry Lewis, Michael Richards, and especially Jackie Chan owe a great debt to Keaton.  

The silent era of cinema gave way to The Golden Age of Hollywood with stars such as Marlene Dietrich, Clarke Gable, and The Marx Brothers as well as giving us dancing gold diggers, giant apes, maniacal gangsters, Draculas, Frankensteins, and wicked witches. With sound, accompanied by the advent of color film stock and a national isolationist foreign policy, Hollywood fulfilled its self-prophecy of becoming a “dream factory.”

The global silent era and 30’s Hollywood were periods of great liberation for the medium. It was a time between wars and before censorship codes. 2016 marks more than a few milestones from Hollywood’s turbulent first decades. To celebrate these eras, BookPeople is proudly displaying a selection of film books exploring the time period and its figures. You will find a delightful encyclopedia on The Marx Brothers; an in depth look at the turbulent life of Hollywood’s first sex symbol, Clara Bow; or Hollywood’s first great African-American director, Oscar Micheaux. These titles, will give you a glimpse into just what made these eras great, and how the motion picture industry was shaped into what it is today.


Cinematic Overviews

Film Isms…: Understanding Cinema by Ronald Bergan

The Movie Book

Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture by Peter Kobel, Martin Scorsese, the Library of Congress and others

Hollywood Frame by Frame: The Unseen Silver Screen in Contact Sheets, 1951-1997 by Karina Longworth

How to Watch a Movie by David Thomson

The Movie Book

Studying Early and Silent Cinema by Keith Withall


The Directors

Sergei Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict by Ronald Bergan

Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille by Scott Eyman

The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War by Dick Lehr

Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only: The Life of America’s First Black Filmmaker by Patrick McGilligan

It’s the Pictures That Got Small: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age by Charles Brackett and Anthony Slide


The Funnymen

Comedy is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies by Alan Dale

Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life by Peter Ackroyd

Buster Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down by Tom Dardis

Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat by Edward McPherson

The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia by Glenn Mitchell

Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence by Lee Siegel


The Leading Ladies

Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star by Stephen Michael Shearer

Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives by Karin Wieland

Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks

Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild by David Stenn

The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America by John F. Kasson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s