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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Silent Screens

Almost a century ago, Charlie Chaplin debuted his silent film classic, The Tramp. It was released by Essanay Film Manufacturing Company on April 11, 1915. If it hadn’t been for the weather, the Chicago-based studio might have made the Windy City a film center, rather than Hollywood. But the company eventually opened Essanay – West in California and closed the Chicago operation five years later. Essanay itself didn’t survive competition from upstarts such as Paramount, but the California connection was made.

Chaplin’s hapless but good-hearted hobo would become the actor’s trademark character even after sound transformed the film industry. He was introduced in the Keystone Cops comedy, Kid Auto Races at Venice, in 1914 and last seen 32 years later in Chaplin’s feature, Modern Times.

The silent movie era is a bit of a misnomer. The theaters were never quiet. Live music accompanied the films, played on pianos, organs and sometimes even by full orchestras. In the heyday of silent films, the industry was probably the single largest employer of instrumental musicians in the U.S.

For more about film’s early years, check out:

Silent Stars
by Jeanine Basinger.

Working Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America by Stephen J. Ross.

Seductive Cinema: The Art of Silent Film by James Card.

American Silent Film by William Everson.

Movies of the Silent Years by Ann Lloyd.

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