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Silent Movies to Talkies: The Evolution of the Cinema

By Edited Nov 15, 2013 2 3

Silent Movies Update  photo courtesy of Don O’Brien

Despite economic troubles, the movie industry remains healthy because let’s face it, people love to go to the movies; even in the days of the silent move.  There are many reasons millions of people attend the theater to see their favorite actor on the big screen.  Movies give us a way to escape the real world and live out our dreams or fears through the plots of the scripts.  We laugh, we cry, we cringe and scream; we leave the theater thinking about something to which we’d ordinarily not give a second thought. Where did it all begin? 

Birth of the Motion Picture 

As with many things, the inventor of the motion picture is debatable.  One could argue each inventor advanced the notice of the motion picture.  Often the Frenchman, Louis Lumiere is credited with the invention.   In 1895, he invented the Cinematographe which was a portable motion-picture camera, film processor and projector all in in one.  However, other inventions pre-date his machine.  The first actual moving picture is often credited to British photographer Eadweard Muybridge in 1872.  He set 24 cameras in a row along a race track to snap photos in rapid succession of a running horse. In 1882, Etienne Jules Marey was the first to develop a multiple-image shooting camera.  Marey’s camera was able to take twelve photographs in one second.  

In 1888 Thomas Edison, an American inventor and businessman, pursued the concept of the moving picture as a visual companion to his phonograph. Around the same time, George Eastman unveiled Celluloid film for his Kodak cameras.  Edison hired researchers and William Kennedy Laurie Dickson eventually invented the camera and projector for which Edison took credit as his employer. The films were recorded onto a Kinetograph and viewed through a Kinetoscope, both of which were patented by Edison and Dickson in 1891.  The dates of the recordings vary from 1889-1890; however, a year prior, in 1888 a Frenchman working in England, produced motion pictures using two “receiver,” each with a single lens and a take-up spool for paper negatives.   Edison’s machines are considered the first Celluloid motion picture camera and continuous-film projector. 

With the patent of the Kinetograph and Kinetoscope, there was a rush to invent and patent advanced versions of the moving picture.  Edison stayed abreast of his competitors and in 1894 the first Kinetscope Parlors opened in New York City.  Called, “Peep Shows” patrons were ch

The Silent Movie  photographer unknown
arged from five to twenty-five cents to view the movies. 

These early films were mostly shot in Edison’s studios, “Black Maria.”  They featured vaudeville acts and scenes of tricks from traveling shows.  When the boxing bout between Jim Corbett and Pete Courtney was captured on film, filmmakers quickly realized the potential for advanced film entertainment.  By 1896 the interest in the Kinetoscope was fading and filmmakers needed to find a way to project the picture on a wider screen for a larger audience.  Enter the Lumiere brothers.  The brothers created a lightweight, hand-cranked machine able to record photography and throw the images onto a large screen using the concept of the magic lantern.  It was called a Cinematographe. 

The Lumiere brothers produced thousands of films to show patrons; each seconds or minutes long of mostly everyday occurrences with no narrative involved.  Meanwhile, in the U.S., Edison continued to try to stay abreast of the industry and with an agreement reached between him and Thomas Armat and Charles Francis Jenkins who had invented the Phantoscope; Edison manufactured a projection machine under his name which incorporated their invention.   Edison called it the Vitascope and premiered the machine in New York in 1896. 

The First Movies: Silent Movies 

1896 marked the explosion of the popularity of movie. Filmmaking became more complex and experimental. Melies was one of several filmmakers who began to experiment with new ways to incorporate narrative into the movie.  Edwin S. Porter, a projectionist viewed Melies “Le Voyage dans la lune” (“A Trip to the Moon”) and determined it was possible to continue from scene to scene while telling a story with continuity.  Hired by Edison, Porter released his two most important films in 1903; “The Life of an American Fireman,” considered the first film to exhibit a different form of temporal continuity; and “The Great Train Robbery,” considered the first actual movie as we think of it today and often credited with establishing the Western genre of “story” film.  The latter film was the foundation for the opening of a multitude of theaters across the country and for the advancement of the film industry.  

Since silent films had no synchronized recorded sound, dialogue was transmitted through mime, gestures and title cards.  During showings of silent movies, live music was almost always part of the performance, usually with a pianist.  In the mid-1910s large city theaters began to use organists or a small ensemble while the larger theaters sometimes used a large orchestra. 

Silent film actors used a melodramatic style to emphasize body language and facial expressions to impart interpretation to the audience.  However, by 1914 American audiences began to make known a preference for more natural expression on the screen.  Silent movie icons such as Mary Pickford, Janet Gaynor, Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo made the transition well and their performances made restraint and acting natural a virtue.  

Silent films had no standardized projection speed; they varied between 12-26 frames per second.  Cameramen of the era insisted they hand-cranked at exactly 16 frames per second, but close examination reveals they often cranked faster.  Some scenes were intentionally cranked slower during shooting to accelerate the action.  In the actual showing of the film, a slower projection carried a risk of fire.  In addition, theaters sometimes varied speeds of projections depending on time slot and popularity of film in order to maximize profits.  Projectionists often received gener

Tints used in the Silent Movie  photographer Hanns Lippmann (??? - 1929)
al instructions or sometimes cue sheets to present the films.  For silent movies to be truly enjoyed today, it is important to show them at their intended speed which doesn’t often happen.  

Silent movies were frequently dyed various shades and hues to or represent time of day or as a signal to the mood of the scene.  Toning was also used as a special effect, with sepia-toning the most common in silent films.  Some films were hand-tinted. 

The Addition of Soundtrack for Movies 

Throughout the evolution of motion pictures, inventors have attempted to create synchronized sound, but the technology only became well-developed in the early 1920s.  Initially, films incorporating synchronized dialogue, known as a “talking pictures” or “talkies,” were exclusively shorts. The invention of the Phonofilm and the Tri-Ergon sound system led to further inventions.  In 1926 Theodore Case teamed with Fox Film which was Hollywood’s third largest studio at the time, to found the Fox-Case Corporation. Case and his assistant Earl Spnable developed a sound system they called Movietone and this became the first viable sound-on-film technology controlled by a Hollywood studio. 

In 1925 Warner Brothers experimented with sound-on-disc system they called the Vitaphone.  In 1926 the studio premiered “Don Juan,” which was the first feature length movie with any type of synchronized sound.  The soundtrack for the movie consisted of a musical score and sound effects, but no dialogue. The Warner Brothers film, “the Jazz Singer,” released in 1927 is the first commercially successful sound film.  There is some debate as whether or not the film could be called a true “sound movie” because most of the film does not include live-recording audio.  Also included in the debate is the popularity of the film relying more on Jolson’s acting rather than the movie having sound.  

By 1929, the modern

Silent Movie Icon Mary Pickford photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
film with sound fully incorporated began dominating the industry.  By the early 1930s, the talkies were global. The silent movies were fading into history, but some countries still resisted the talkies. Japan had a popular tradition of integrating silent movies and live vocal performances, thus talkies were slow to take root there.  In Europe, sound movies were met with initial resistance and suspicion; the worry being a focus on the dialogue would take away from the other artistic values of the film. However, in other countries, such as India, sound transformed the industry tremendously.  

The majority of the theaters in the U.S. were not equipped for sound.  In 1929 silent movie theaters outnumber the sound equipped theaters, 22,544 to about 800. Studios, still not completely sold on talkies universal appeal produced movies in dual version—talkie and silent through the mid-1930s.  In August 1929, Universal released the last purely silent feature by a major Hollywood studio: “Points West,” a Hoot Gibson Western.



  1. welcometosilentmovies.com (Accessed February 16, 2013)
  2. en.wikipedia.org (Accessed February 16, 2013)
  3. filmsite.org (Accessed February 16, 2013)
  4. http://history1900s.about.com/od/1900s/qt/trainrobbery.htm (Accessed February 16, 2013)
  5. about.com (Accessed February 16, 2013)
  6. http://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/film/review.php   Moving Pictures: The History of Early Cinema  (Released July 2011)  by Brian Manley   (Accessed February 16, 2013)


The copyright of the article Silent Movies to Talkies: The Evolution of the Cinema is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

The Great Train Robbery



Mar 17, 2013 4:48pm
Fascinating and well-researched! Congratulations on the feature.
Mar 18, 2013 10:52am
Thank you. Glad you enjoyed it.
Mar 20, 2013 8:41am
Excellent post weianow.
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