The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview

culminating The Kid Brother ( 1927) and Speedy ( 1928), were among the biggest-earning comedies of the 1920s, even outgrossing Chaplin's films.

Harry Langdon's output was smaller and more uneven than the others; but he merits his place in the pantheon of great clowns on the strength of three features, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, The Strong Man (both 1926), and Long Pants ( 1927) -- the first scripted by Frank Capra, the others directed by him. Langdon's screen character is quiet, cute, and rather weird. His round, white face and podgy figure, his tight-fitting clothes, and his stiff slightly uncontrolled movements give him the look, as James Agee pointed out, of an elderly baby. This childlike, guileless quality gives an eerie edge to his encounters with the grown-up world of sexuality and sin.

In this enchanted age of comedy, the reputation of other comedians has been unjustly eclipsed. Raymond Griffith emulated the sartorial elegance of Max Linder and encountered catastrophes and peril with insouciant ingenuity; his masterpiece Hands Up! ( 1926) cast him as a Civil War spy. Marion Davies's fame as the mistress of William Randolph Hearst has eclipsed her contemporary celebrity as a comedienne of particular charm whose fun was seen at its best in the films in which King Vidor directed her, Show People and The Patsy (both 1928). The Canadian-born entertainer Beatrice Lillie left her mark in a single wonderful silent comedy, Exit Smiling ( 1927). Migrants from Europe, the Italian Monty Banks ( Monte Bianchi) and the English Lupino Lane enjoyed successful if brief starring careers; Banks subsequently turned director. Larry Semon, with his distinctive white mask like a Pierrot lunaire started the 1920s as Hollywood's highest-paid comedian, but his later features met with diminishing success, and hardly bear revival today. W. C. Fields and Will Rogers made sporadic forays into silent films, though their essentially verbal style of comedy was only to come into its own in the era of talking pictures.

The extraordinary flowering of silent film comedy in Hollywood was not to any great extent reflected anywhere else in the world -- perhaps indeed because American comedies enjoyed such huge international distribution and popularity that there was no chance of competing with them. In Britain, Betty Balfour, who made two feature films in her character of Squibs, was the nearest to a star comedienne: attempts to put popular music hall comedians on the screen lacked both skill and success. In Germany the child star of 1909, Curt Bois, grew up to be the bright star of a few comedies, the best of them The Count from Pappenheims. In France René Clair brought the comedy style of the French stage vaudeville to the screen with The Italian Straw Hat (Un chapeau de paille d'Italie, 1927) and Les Deux Timides ( 1928). But screen comedy was distinctly an American art form.

It was to remain so, although the golden age of silence was abruptly extinguished with the coming of sound. The causes were manifold. Some comedians were disoriented by the fact of sound itself ( Raymond Griffith was an extreme case, having a severe throat defect which restricted his power of speech). The new techniques -- the microphones and the cameras enclosed in sound-proof booths -- suddenly restricted the freedom of film-makers. More important the escalating costs and profits of film-making led to much closer production supervision, which generally proved inimical to the independence which had been vital to the working methods of the best comedians. Rare ones, like Chaplin and Lloyd, were able to win themselves freedom of operation for a few more years, but others, including Keaton and Langdon, found themselves employees of huge film factories which had no place or concern for individualists. After 1929 Keaton never directed another film, and Langdon vanished into obscurity. A new art had been born, had flowered, and died in little more than a quarter of a century.


Kerr, Walter ( 1975), The Silent Clowns.

Lahue, Kalton C. ( 1966), World of Laughter.

------ ( 1967), Kops and Custard.

McCaffrey, Donald W. ( 1968), Four Great Comedians.

Montgomery, John ( 1954), Comedy Films: 1894-1954.

Robinson, David ( 1969), The Great Funnies: A History of Film Comedy.



The term 'documentary' did not come into popular use until the late 1920s and 1930s. It was initially applied to various kinds of 'creative' non-fiction screen practice in the post-First World War, classical cinema era. Originating films in the category have typically included Robert Flah erty 's Nanook of the North ( 1922), various Soviet films of the 1920s such as Dziga Vertov's The Man with the Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom, 1929), Walter Ruttmann's Berlin: Symphony of a City (Berlin: die Sinfonie der Größstadt, 1927), and John Grierson's Drifters ( 1929). Yet 'documentary' cinema has roots that lie further back in the reworking of a vital and long-established form that had flourished


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The Oxford History of World Cinema
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Contributors ix
  • Contents xi
  • Special Features xv
  • List of Colour Illustrations xvii
  • General Introduction xix
  • 1 - Silent Cinema 1895-1930 1
  • Origins and Survival 6
  • Early Cinema 13
  • Transitional Cinema 23
  • The Hollywood Studio System 43
  • The World-Wide Spread of Cinema 53
  • The First World War and the Crisis in Europe 62
  • Tricks and Animation 71
  • Comedy 78
  • Documentary 86
  • Cinema and the Avant-Garde 95
  • Serials 105
  • French Silent Cinema 112
  • Italy- Spectacle and Melodrama 123
  • British Cinema from Hepworth to Hitchcock 130
  • Germany- The Weimar Years 136
  • The Scandinavian Style 151
  • Pre-Revolutionary Russia 159
  • The Soviet Union and the Russian émigrés 162
  • Yiddish Cinema in Europe 174
  • Japan- Before the Great Kanto Earthquake 177
  • Music and the Silent Film 183
  • The Heyday of the Silents 192
  • 2 - Sound Cinema 1930-1960 205
  • The Introduction of Sound 211
  • Hollywood- The Triumph of the Studio System 220
  • Censorship and Self-Regulation 235
  • The Sound of Music 248
  • Technology and Innovation 259
  • Animation 267
  • Cinema and Genre 276
  • The Western 286
  • The Musical 294
  • Crime Movies 304
  • The Fantastic 312
  • Documentary 322
  • Socialism, Fascism, and Democracy 333
  • The Popular Art of French Cinema 344
  • Italy from Fascism to Neo-Realism 353
  • Britain at the End of Empire 361
  • Germany- Nazism and after 374
  • East Central Europe before the Second World War 383
  • Soviet Film under Stalin 389
  • Indian Cinema- Origins to Independence 398
  • China before 1949 409
  • The Classical Cinema in Japan 413
  • The Emergence of Australian Film 422
  • Cinema in Latin America 427
  • After the War 436
  • Transformation of the Hollywood System 443
  • Independents and Mavericks 451
  • 3 - The Modern Cinema 1960-1995 461
  • Television and the Film Industry 466
  • The New Hollywood 475
  • New Technologies 483
  • Sex and Sensation 490
  • The Black Presence in American Cinema 497
  • Exploitation and the Mainstream 509
  • Dreams and Nightmares in the Hollywood Blockbuster 516
  • Cinéma-Vérité and the New Documentary 527
  • Avant-Garde Film- The Second Wave 537
  • Animation in the Post-Industrial Era 551
  • Modern Film Music 558
  • Art Cinema 567
  • New Directions in French Cinema 576
  • Italy- Auteurs and after 586
  • Spain after Franco 596
  • British Cinema- The Search for Identity 604
  • The New German Cinema 614
  • East Germany- The Defa Story 627
  • Changing States in East Central Europe 632
  • Russia after the Thaw 640
  • Cinema in the Soviet Republics 651
  • Turkish Cinema 656
  • The Arab World 661
  • The Cinemas of Sub-Saharan Africa 667
  • Iranian Cinema 672
  • India- Filming the Nation 678
  • Indonesian Cinema 690
  • China after the Revolution 693
  • Popular Cinema in Hong Kong 704
  • Taiwanese New Cinema 711
  • The Modernization of Japanese Film 714
  • New Australian Cinema 722
  • New Zealand Cinema 731
  • Canadian Cinema/Cinéma Canadien 731
  • New Cinemas in Latin America 740
  • New Concepts of Cinema 750
  • The Resurgence of Cinema 759
  • Index 785
  • List of Picture Sources 823


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