SILENT ERA CINEMA
- The beginnings of cinema Westerns is an exciting story considering that there was still a lot of untamed frontier in the western United States when filmmakers started making Westerns back East. It all began in 1903 when the first Western, and the first narrative film, was made—The Great Train Robbery. Perhaps because of the success of Western novels such as Owen Wister’s bestseller The Virginian(1902), film Westerns quickly proliferated. Legendary figures from the historic old West such as Al Jennings, a real outlaw, and Ben Tilgman and Wyatt Earp, real lawmen, became part of the film industry. Those earliest Westerns were mostly onereel shorts such as The Battle of Elderbrush Gulch (1913). Later, more sophisticated full-length features were produced by early directors like James Cruze and Thomas Ince. The Pony Express (1925) and The Covered Wagon (1923), both directed by Cruze, were some of the first big-budget, epic Westerns. Early silent actors such as Broncho Billy Anderson, William S. Hart, and Tom Mix became some of the first real movie stars from Hollywood. By the late 1920s the silent era was fading away; starting in about 1927, both a silent version and sound version were made of each film. The Light of Western Stars, released in 1930, was the last silent Western. Westerns thrived during the silent era. They were full of action and intense but simple plotting. Not much had to be said in a Western. So when talkies became a realistic change of medium, there was considerable concern that Westerns might not make the transition. And indeed the earliest Western talkies were little more than silent Westerns with a smattering of essential dialogue. Fortunately, the singing cowboy came along and music saved Westerns in the early sound era. One of the earliest experiments with sound in film was with a Western. Thomas Edison developed a synchronization process whereby sound, played separately, was synchronized with film. He had tried it with some one-reel shorts, but in 1918 Metro Pictures issued The Claim in which Edith Storey sang “Annie Laurie.” Unfortunately, theaters found the system too complicated so they usually just ran a silent version of the film.Just as later periods of cinema Westerns have their own characteristics based on the cultural assumptions of their periods, so silent Westerns were made within definite cultural contexts reflected in the films themselves. Traditional American values were being attacked as the early silent Westerns moved into, if not maturity, at least adolescence. Early filmmakers saw their role as affirming these values. Thus, they developed Westerns that examined new ideas about malefemale relationships and about the transformative powers of nature. The “new morality” of post–World War I began to develop out of ideas stemming from Freudian, Darwinian naturalist, socialist, and feminist concerns.In Western fiction of the period, Zane Grey, B. M. Bower, Clarence Mulford, and Max Brand explored all aspects of the new morality and humanity’s relationship with nature. Particularly for Grey, the West served as a rejuvenating natural force for character development as opposed to corrupt civilizing influences of the East. Heroic relationships between men and women served to make meaning out of an otherwise meaningless universe. Violence thus served a regenerative purpose in purifying harmful corruptions derived from eastern influences. For other Western writers such as Mulford and Brand, nature served no particularly noble purpose and thus violence in their Westerns rarely serves any regenerative purpose. Thus the influence proved negligible until the sound era of the 1930s. William S. Hart’s films owe a great deal to Zane Grey’s sentimental vision of the moral power of nature, especially nature in the West. Perhaps a greater cultural influence on films of the later silent era was the early novels of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, which explored the possibility of tragedy in an amoral universe. Westerns, though, easily passed from tragedy quickly to melodrama. In reasserting traditional American values at a time when others were questioning them, silent Western filmmakers developed a primitive vision in which heroic action serves to preserve traditional gender roles. There are many parallels, then, between William S. Hart’s characters and such Zane Grey characters as Lassiter in the 1912 novel Riders of the Purple Sage.
Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. Paul Varner. 2012.
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