Silent filmmaking in England

In England, the key film genres rapidly codified themselves into the colonial romance, parody films, melodramas, and domestic comedies. Following Cecil M. Hepworth’s success with Rescued by Rover (1905), the English film industry rapidly sought to emulate the American production-line method, with generally unsatisfactory results. Quantity was not the problem; originality, and even basic quality in production values, was. English producers rapidly realized that in order to create a significant quantity of films, a “series” formula was essential. Thus the Lieutenant Daring series was extremely popular from 1911 on, detailing the exploits of a dashing military officer in service to the empire, as exemplified by Lieutenant Daring and the Dancing Girl (1913) and Lieutenant Daring and the Plans for the Mine Fields (1912).

As films became longer and more ambitious, such directors as Graham Cutts created convincing melodramas, including Woman to Woman (1923), starring Clive Brook

(who would later go on to a solid career in American sound films) and Betty Compson, as well as The Rat (1925), with matinee idol Ivor Novello. Maurice Elvey, director of Nelson (1918), was more typical of the English silent cinema, however, creating a film that was slow moving, poorly acted, and unconvincingly staged. Such productions were no match for American competition, and it was not until the late 1920s and the ascent of Alfred Hitchcock that the English film would truly begin to establish a national identity.

Hitchcock, known to audiences throughout the world as the master of suspense, began his career in 1919, when he got a job creating title cards for Paramount’s London branch. By 1922 he was an assistant director, and he finally got his chance to advance to full director on The Pleasure Garden (1925), a German film shot in Munich with English financing. Working in Germany, Hitchcock picked up touches of the visual style known as Expressionism, a dark and moody approach to lighting and camera placement that he soon utilized in his first true suspense film, The Lodger (1927), the screen’s most accomplished

Jack the Ripper story, with Ivor Novello in the title role. Rapidly adapting to sound films with Blackmail in 1929, Hitchcock actually shot most of the film twice: once as a silent and then the key sequences again with dialogue, just as silent films were vanishing from the screen. Such early sound features as Murder! (1930) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) established Hitchcock as a clever director who used bold visual tricks to embellish his works. Hitchcock’s considerable influence continued to manifest itself in England and America.


In the Scandinavian countries, Holger-Madsen’s Danish film Morfinisten (The Morphine Takers, 1911) was a controversial hit of the period, but the Danish film industry collapsed with the onset of war in 1914 and never really recovered. In Norway, such films as G. A. Olsen’s Kaksen på Øverland (The Braggarts of Overland) and Rasmus Breistein’s Fante-Anne (The Lady Tramp), both 1920, were domestically successful but failed to achieve sufficient production value for exportation. Later productions, such as Walter Fyrst’s Troll-Elgen (The Magic Leap, 1927), had more polish and professionalism, but on the whole the Norwegian cinema in the silent era was a modest affair.

Sweden, of all the Scandinavian countries, probably had the greatest worldwide impact, with such films as the Danish director Benjamin Chris-tensen’s Häxan (Witchcraft Through the Ages, 1922), which was shot in Sweden, and Victor Sjöström’s Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage, 1921). Sjöström’s long career would take him to the United States as well, where he directed an adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter with Lillian Gish in 1926, The Divine Woman with Greta Garbo in 1928, and his masterpiece The Wind, also in 1928 and with Lillian Gish. This last film, though a silent classic, was ultimately screened with synchronized music and effects and an alternate ending, much to Sjöström’s displeasure. (Even the director’s name had to be Americanized into “Seastrom” to please his Hollywood bosses.) Unhappy in California, Sjöström returned to Sweden, working as an actor and advisor for the giant national film company Svensk Filmindustri. He later appeared in Ingmar Bergman’s Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries, 1957) as an aging professor who returns to his alma mater to receive an award for his academic career and is beset by memories of his youth along the way. Mauritz Stiller was another major Swedish director, whose sophisticated comedies, including Den Moderna suffragetten (The Modern Suffragette, 1913) and Kärlek och journalistik (Love and Journalism, 1916), demonstrated a subtle, Continental style that allowed him to blend comedy and melodrama in a deft mixture of slick entertainment.

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Silent filmmaking in England