The Silent Film Era: Silent Films, NAD Films, and the Deaf Community's Response

By Schuchman, John S. | Sign Language Studies, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

The Silent Film Era: Silent Films, NAD Films, and the Deaf Community's Response


Schuchman, John S., Sign Language Studies


OLDER CITIZENS who are deaf or hard of hearing recall the years of silent films (1893-1929) as a "golden era" in the cultural history of the American Deaf community. It was golden for several reasons.

First, this period represents the one brief time that deaf and hard of hearing citizens had comparatively equal access to motion pictures-a cultural and popular medium that the United States and Hollywood have exported to the rest of the world. It was the only time that deaf and hard of hearing citizens could sit with a hearing audience in a darkened movie theater and enjoy the drama or comedy without the need for third-party interpreters, special captions, elaborate sound systems, or any other assistive devices. Throughout these years Deaf community publications routinely discussed the movies. When Hollywood abandoned silent films in 1929 and 1930 in favor of the new sound technology popularly known as the "talkies," the movie industry also severely limited the ability of deaf and hard of hearing consumers to participate in the movie theater audience with persons who could hear.

The second reason this period was golden was that motion picture technology demonstrated a new tool for those deaf people who used sign language. Sign language depends on movement and facial and bodily expression. Before the development of motion pictures, deaf people could depict sign language only in static forms of communication: text, drawings, and photographs. As a result, it was very difficult for hearing people unfamiliar with sign language to grasp the power and beauty of what is today called American Sign Language (ASL). This was crucial because the era of silent films (1893-1929) happened at the same time as an intense campaign against sign language in America. The Deaf community perceived this attack as an assault on their right to exist as a linguistic minority. So-called oralists demeaned the use of sign language and in some instances supported legislation that banned its use in schools for deaf students. By the onset of the Great Depression in late 1929, those who opposed the use of sign language had significantly reduced the number of signing deaf people who were employed as teachers and administrators in deaf education in the United States. One of the ways that the Deaf community challenged this assault on its language was through the use of motion picture technology.

Created in 1880, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) was the major U.S. consumer organization for the Deaf community that advocated the use of sign language. Armed with a tool that would allow it to demonstrate the beauty and complexity of sign language and to preserve it for future generations of deaf people, the NAD collected funds to produce a series of films. Utilizing the services of both Deaf and hearing masters of sign language, the association produced several films from 1913 to 1920 that featured poetry, lectures, memories, and stories told in ASL. Shot with 35 mm film and a stationary camera, the NAD rented these films throughout the United States, primarily to local Deaf community organizations and clubs. Subsequently, the films were converted to 16 mm safety film and deposited with the Library of Congress and Gallaudet University, where they may be seen today.

Although the NAD films represented the most widely used and recognized movies, members of the Deaf community produced other films as well. The invention of safety film and cameras designed for the amateur home film market enabled numerous Deaf persons to film important events in the Deaf community. The Eastman-Kodak company designed the Cine-Kodak 16 mm system in 1923, the Standard-8 system in 1932, and Kodachrome in 1935. Newspapers in the Deaf community regularly reported on and sometimes advertised these films. Football games between rival schools for deaf pupils were a popular movie event shown at clubs for Deaf adults as well as other Deaf organizations. In addition to sports activities, some films featured events in the life of the Deaf community-local picnics, state or sometimes national meetings of Deaf organizations, as well as masquerade nights or plays at the local Deaf club. …

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