Lifelong Learning Institute: Sonoma State University

SILENTS, PLEASE: Spring 2004


So-called "silent" movies, those short and feature length films that prevailed as popular entertainment from the beginning of the last century through about 1930, were never shown in silence but always with musical accompaniment. Of course, there were no synchronized noises or dialogue in these films, but what powerful images they offered! And what wonderful stories they told: not just the slapstick comedies of the Keystone Cops, but also westerns, mysteries, science fiction films, melodramas, epics, and more.

In this course, we will revisit the silent era to discover how moving images learned to tell stories, using early techniques which still form the basis for our modern cinematic narratives. Along the way, we will cover the worldwide explosion of "primitive" filmmaking with giants like Edison, the Lumiére Brothers, and that fantastic Frenchman Méliès; the nickelodeon era, when the silence of the films helped integrate the burgeoning (and non-English-speaking) immigrant population into American life; the great silent clowns: Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd; the "father of film language," the great D.W. Griffith, who developed film's narrative form.

We will also look at the contributions of foreign countries to cinematic storytelling: Russia, Sweden, Germany, Britain; the stars of the silent era: Garbo, Valentino, Gish; and the coming of sound, the end of an era. We will screen many short films in class, as well as silent features such as THE BIRTH OF A NATION, whose release in 1915 provided the impetus for the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan, and BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, from legendary Russian director Sergei Eisenstein.

Course Handouts: