Silent Film and the Socialization of American Immigrants: Lessons from an Old New Medium

By Kleinman, Sharon S.; McDonald, Daniel G. | Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Silent Film and the Socialization of American Immigrants: Lessons from an Old New Medium


Kleinman, Sharon S., McDonald, Daniel G., Journal of American & Comparative Cultures


Many people today are voicing concerns about the potentially deleterious social effects of media such as television and the Internet. The turn of the twenty-first century provides an interesting vantage point from which to look back one hundred years and examine people's concerns about the impacts of an earlier communication technology - silent film. This kind of historical exercise reminds us, first, that each major communication technology has had its proponents and its critics, and second, that the social influences of communication technologies are more profound than their developers could have anticipated.

The turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century marked the beginning of a communications revolution that was to have a major impact in defining social life in the United States during the twentieth century. That move first began to take shape in devices developed in the late nineteenth century but not finding a strong social place until the twentieth; audio recordings, radio broadcasting, and motion pictures were some of the technologies developed during the last decades of the nineteenth century that were to be characteristic of the twentieth.

In addition to changes in communication technology, vast social changes were occurring as a result of urbanization and immigration. The rise of the large American city and its attendant social problems became a major concern of social workers and social commentators. Increasing immigration became a national issue during the 1890s and early 1900s. Millions of people, primarily those from European countries, poured into New York City and settled in areas that seemed most familiar and affordable to them-those made up of other recent immigrants-- forming ghettos and neighborhoods defined by country of origin.

This article traces the early development of motion picture technology and examines the roles that motion pictures and the moviegoing experience played in communicating "American" values, sensibilities, and emotions to immigrant populations. The silent motion picture provided an inexpensive and accessible form of entertainment for America's new immigrants. The lack of spoken language was an advantage in that actors in the early cinema used body language and facial expression to their full impact. Unhindered by the complex plots and characters that were to appear with sound films, silent films, as well as the moviegoing experience, provided immigrants with a glimpse of this new country, including what to expect, how to behave, and what to feel. As a new medium at the turn of the twentieth century, silent film helped transform individuals, institutions, and the relationships among people and between social groups.

U.S. Immigration in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

United States immigration history is often divided into waves-the "Old Migration" from approximately 1820-1880, the "New Immigration" from approximately 1885-1930, and the modern era, which began around 1930. The Old Migration period was stimulated by steamship and railroad transportation and encouraged by the midwest states, where local governments were attempting to build a larger population base. The Old Migration consisted primarily of Europeans during the early stages and Chinese and Japanese later in the century. Economic difficulties in their home countries and the promise of a new start in the United States was the impetus for many to leave their homes and head for America. The immigrants of the Old Migration were primarily from rural areas; many had lost their place in their newly-industrialized homeland. Many were farmers or artisans who came to this land and found work in large coastal cities or along the rapidly developing highways of westward expansion (Handlin; Morris and Morris).

Immigrants of the second wave, the New Immigration period, were also primarily of European origin, with many from eastern and southern Europe. Around the turn of the twentieth century there was a heavy influx from Russia, Poland, and Austria-- Hungary. …

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