Silent Cinema


Tendencies already evident in the previous period grew more pronounced as firms became larger and films became longer and more costly. In particular, the production process became progressively more standardized, with division of labor and departmentalization of crafts refined even further to rationalize the process of making films within a large-scale studio system. Thomas Ince (1882–1924) and Mack Sennett (1880–1960), both early proponents of a centralized production process wherein a production chief oversaw the work of numerous distinct units, helped establish the model upon which Hollywood would build throughout the 1920s. The studio system aimed to achieve both efficiency and product differentiation; thus, as much as standardization was prized, it could not be promoted at the expense of a certain degree of novelty and innovation. The result was a modified version of Fordism: principles of mass production were observed wherever possible, tempered by a bounded creativity.

The standardization of the production process translated into the representational norms pursued by Hollywood studios as well. Control over all aspects of production ensured that a degree of uniformity would define how stylistic elements functioned within American films. Now commonly referred to as the classical style, by the late teens it had become an internalized set of norms followed by all the studios. At its center was the implementation of interconnected rules concerning editing, which ensured a smooth and coherent rendering of time and space. Not only did continuity editing guarantee the spectator's ongoing comprehension of the spatial coordinates of the represented action, it systematically broke down that action to guide the spectator's attention, with an eye to highlighting the narratively salient actions. For this reason, editing became much more insistently analytical from the mid-1910s onward, with establishing shots giving way to a series of closer-scaled shots designed to render the space narratively intelligible. In particular, editing worked to reinforce character psychology, so that shot-reverse shot sequencing and the point of view shot became cornerstones of the classical approach to cutting.

Sets of Hollywood films were sufficiently detailed to produce an effect of realism promoting believability; studio lighting molded figures and heightened dramatic moments as required; camera movement was judicious, typically employed to follow characters or readjust the framing to maintain stable and well-centered compositions. Hollywood classicism prized unity and self-effacement over bravura demonstrations of stylistic prowess, precisely because the system took priority over any individual product or practitioner. Overall, the Hollywood style functioned to draw as little attention to itself as possible, its primary role being to serve the prerogatives of the story. Because the tightly woven causal chains at the center of these narratives seemingly sprang from the motivations of the central characters, the actors playing them became fundamental to the success of Hollywood's films. Stars did more than help connect audience members emotionally to the potentially repetitive narrative formulas devised by the studio system: their function as cultural phenomena reinforced the fantasy associated with Hollywood, outstripping these performers' mere presence on the screen.

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