The silver screen, a golden past: “Beyond the magic lantern”, Part 1 – A look at silent film

D.W. Griffith, “Intolerance”, 1916 (© Wikimedia)

Moving pictures were a sensational, new visual experience when first seen at the Grand Café in Paris on December 28, 1895. From the time the Lumière brothers pioneered the technology, cinema in its earliest years tried to reproduce the real world, exposing the public to places and people and science and news they could otherwise only read about or see in photographs.

But by 1908-9, fiction, stories and narrative took over. For film-makers this was more cost-effective and allowed them to reconstruct visual scenes of events people could not possibly experience otherwise, such as a posse chasing bandits. And it was all very much more real and sophisticated than the flickery black-and-white silent images we tend to associate with this era. Hollywood created a dream factory for masses of immigrants aspiring to a better, even glamorous, life. The Russian masters of montage created the first political propaganda art films, and the huge German film industry created the first conflictual, uneasy psycho-dramas of expressionism. There was something for everybody. And there was Charlie Chaplin.

Producer: Dheera Sujan

Broadcast: January 6, 1994