The Artist and the silent film heritage

Michel Hazanavicius’s recent film The Artist has garnered acclaim from critics and audiences for, among other things, carrying the tradition of silent film forward into the 21st century. While contemporary silent films are uncommon, this area is crucial to film history.

Several groups and individuals are working steadily to preserve and promote silent films. The Film Foundation, founded by director Martin Scorsese, is one such organization. Film preservationist Kevin Brownlow has also dedicated his career to preserving the silent film legacy; one of Brownlow’s most ambitious projects has been the restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, a new version of which has recently been re-released in California to much acclaim. Brownlow’s books, such as The Parade’s Gone By, also provide an interesting overview of this era in film history.

Some other contemporary silent films, like The Artist, include Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain! and the H.P. Lovecraft adaptation The Call of Cthulhu. Other films made in the sound era also pay tribute to the unique nature of silent film: Jacques Tati’s celebrated comedies such as Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and Playtime rely heavily on physical comedy of a primarily visual form, and classics including Singin’ in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard reflect on the legacy of the transition from silent film to sound.

UIUC’s Library holds many resources of interest for anyone who’d like to learn more about silent film. The online catalog lists over 500 silent titles on video and DVD, and the Library acquires new titles of this sort all the time: for example Wings (other than The Artist, the only silent film to have won Best Picture at the Academy Awards), or the famous French serial Les Vampires.

Works on early cinema (including silent film) can generally be found in LOC classification under PN1995.75, and a subject search for “Silent films – history and criticism” also yields many titles of interest. Searching in International Index to Film Periodicals for “Silent Cinema” as subject, or in International Index to Performing Arts for “Silent films” as subject, can also lead you to scholarly articles on the field in general.

The Media History Digital Library offers a wealth of primary sources: this collection of digitized film magazines from the early 20th century provides an invaluable glimpse at film culture in the pre-sound era.

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