Treasures from Hollywood's silent era (Part 1)
The National Museum of American History is renowned for its collection of American cinematic treasures such as Dorothy's Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz (1939), but did you know that the museum also possesses an impressive collection of material related to silent films? Made from the 1890s through the late 1920s, silent films are movies without synchronized sound and dialogue. Instead, music was often played live in theaters to accompany and punctuate the action that took place on the screen, and dialogue was conveyed through intertitles, or shots of printed text. Our rich collection of silent cinema artifacts can give us a glimpse into the early days of the global artistic and entertainment medium we call "the movies." Below are a few highlights from our silent cinema collection.
Before John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, movie cowboy William S. Hart lit up film screens across the country during the first two decades of the 20th century. A Shakespearean stage actor, Hart was almost 50 years old before he began a career in motion pictures, however he almost immediately became a successful and much-loved screen personality. (By the time his career was over, Hart had acted in over 70 films and directed over 50 films.) Although he worked as a producer, writer, and director, Hart is best known today for his career as an actor in silent westerns, in which he often portrayed moral lawmen or villains-turned-good.
A passionate fan of western history and a stickler for historical detail, Hart made films that attempted to capture the gritty realism of the American West during the 1800s. An example of Hart's dedication to historical accuracy is this functional Colt 1851 Navy Revolver, which was used by Hart as a prop in a number of his silent westerns. According to our collection records, the gun's "chamber is engraved with [a] scene showing the Texan-Mexican naval Battle of Campeche in May 1843." Inside the gun's wooden case is a plaque that reads "'Owned by Wm. S. Hart and used in all early day picture work. Saw service in Wagon Tracks [(1919)], The Testing Block [(1920)], White Oak [(1921)], and other pictures.'" This historic artifact-turned-movie-prop offers a glimpse into the career of a silent cinema pioneer and the history of American silent movies.
Nicknamed "The Great Stone Face" for his trademark deadpan facial expressions, Buster Keaton is considered one of the greatest screen comedians of all time. Keaton started his career in the entertainment industry as a child vaudevillian, performing with his parents, Joe and Myra Keaton, in their three-person act. After making the transition to motion pictures in 1917, Keaton combined his physical dynamism with his stoic disposition to create memorable comedic masterpieces such as Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Jr. (1924), and The General (1926). Keaton continued working into the sound era and even made appearances on television, however the peak of his career was firmly rooted in the silent era.
This velocipede is an original prop from Keaton's Our Hospitality, in which a young man (Keaton) finds himself stuck in the middle of a long-standing family feud. In a notable sequence from the film, Keaton is seen riding this velocipede, which was built specifically for the film to resemble an early 1800s dandy horse or "gentleman's hobby horse," a pedal-less bicycle. Keaton himself donated the velocipede to the Smithsonian in 1924, where it remains one of the National Museum of American History's most prized silent film artifacts.
To see Keaton in motion on the velocipede, take a look at this clip on YouTube from Our Hospitality courtesy of the Marin Museum of Bicycling.
During the silent era, there were few opportunities for African Americans to break into the mainstream film industry. As a result, smaller studios specializing in making films by African American filmmakers for African American audiences sprang up around the country. Called "race films," these resulting motion pictures often boasted all-African-American casts and storylines that, unlike most mainstream films of the time, did not rely on racial stereotypes but rather attempted to explore important issues facing complex characters.
Founded by filmmaker Richard E. Norman in 1920, Norman Studios was an example of one such studio that specialized in producing race films. The Bull-Dogger (1922) was Richard E. Norman's first feature-length film and followed the exploits of real-life African American rodeo star Bill Pickett. Pickett was a bulldogger, or steer wrestler, an act in which rodeo cowboys wrestle steer to the ground with their bare hands. Now considered a lost film, The Bull-Dogger is an example of an early race film created by a notable silent-era studio that strove to present alternative images of African Americans to cinematic audiences. An original poster for The Bull-Dogger resides in our collection, where it serves as a significant reminder of not only the racial barriers erected in early Hollywood but also of the tenacity and determination of African American filmmakers and performers who strove to attain fair representation on cinema screens around the country.
These are just a few of the many treasured artifacts related to silent cinema in the collection of the National Museum of American History. Stay tuned for updates on our popular culture exhibition, which will open in the next few years, and for part two of this blog series, which will focus on objects in our collection related to movie fan culture during the silent era.
Anjuli M. Singh is the Roger G. Kennedy Memorial Scholar and project assistant in the Division of Culture and the Arts. Read the second part of this blog post for more silent film history.