Skip to main content

A Tsardom Of Shadows

June 2024
1min read

Seductive Cinema
The Art of Silent Film

by James Card, Knopf, 304 pages, $35.00 . CODE: RAN-21

The first film James Card remembers seeing was The Birth of a Nation , and during his childhood in the 1920s he took in five pictures a week in Cleveland, Ohio. He soon had his own Moviegraph projector, and he went on to become a film collector, historian, and founder of the George Eastman film archive.

He argues that great films were made only after the advent of the close-up, but he doesn’t credit that innovation to D. W. Griffith, as Griffith and others have. In fact, he is refreshingly unsentimental about Griffith and Erich von Stroheim, preferring the critical second tier of DeMiIIe, King Vidor, George Nicholls, and F. W. Murnau. He also corrects a misconception of video-age viewers “that there exists a correct standard ‘silent speed’ of sixteen frames per second.” Directors’ instructions to projectionists often advised them to speed up parades and slow down funerals. Box-office running times were fluid: Douglas Fairbanks’s 1922 Robin Hood might take two and a half hours at “slack times” and less than two hours at night. At the modern cineast’s sixteen frames per second, Fairbanks tramps through Sherwood Forest for three hours.

Card writes knowledgeably about the era and illustrates his book with period stills. He even has hopes for new silents with the power to mesmerize modern audiences. “Yesterday I was in a Tsardom of shadows,” Maxim Gorki wrote in astonishment after seeing his first film in 1898. “You can’t imagine how strange it was there.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.