Silent films were caught in the cross-hairs of all this.
Buster Keaton: Silent Film Visionary -- Too Much Imagination
Yet, that sort of nightmare world of industrialization both inspired and was depicted in silent film. The Lumiere brothers were innovative geniuses who devised a portable camera, better equipped for transfer than Edison's bulky machine, and photographed technological marvels (like that train engine) to entertain audiences. One of the great comics of the silent film era, Buster Keaton, would explore the fascinating technological world of the railway in his greatest cinematic work, the General. The General debuted in 1927, again, the same year as the first talkie, and served as a kind of farewell to the marvelous world of the silent film era. Described as a "Civil War farce" by New York Times reviewer Mordaunt Hall, Buster Keaton's portrayal of Johnnie Gray is viewed as "hardly the person who would be trusted with a locomotive" (Hall). The fact is, however, that not only is Keaton's Gray an engineering genius, he also manages feats of acrobatic skill and strategic cunning that allow him to single-handedly retrieve his stolen locomotive from a group of Unionists; destroy a bridge, several sections of railway, wreck an enemy train; and warn the Secessionists of a looming advance just in time to save the day for the South.
However, Keaton's methods were so imaginative that by 1927, the movie-going audience was too bored and over-stuffed with unimaginative silent films to really take notice. It took talkies to bring them back. As Hall slightingly observes in his 1927 review of Keaton's silent film magnum opus, "The production itself is singularly well mounted, but the fun is not exactly plentiful." Roger Ebert, writing decades later, and looking back over several eras of film, notes on the other hand that Keaton's General is "one of the supreme masterpieces of silent filmmaking" (Ebert), a point which should be carefully considered. After all, if silent film was meant to stimulate the minds and emotions of the audience, Buster Keaton is noted today as being a master of silent filmmaking -- and yet the General bombed at the box office and Keaton was compelled to give up his independence by signing on to do studio talkies -- a move that is now credited with destroying his career, which was founded on his creative abilities (Dardis 196).
The silent films of Keaton -- or of Chaplin, or Lloyd -- were not only comedic masterpieces, producing laughs with slapstick gags and tricks of physical humor; they were also (sometimes subtly) full of a kind of social commentary. Chaplin, of course, was the most blatant in his commentary -- but Keaton provided some of the most insightful looks into the human condition. As Ebert states, Keaton's "films avoid the pathos and sentiment of the Chaplin pictures, and usually feature a jaunty young man who sees an objective and goes after it in the face of the most daunting obstacles." Indeed, Keaton's films depict him in all sorts of wild predicaments, having to face "tornadoes, waterfalls, avalanches of boulders and falls from great heights" (Ebert). Keaton's silent films required more from the audience than perhaps the audience, according to the New York Times at least, was prepared to give. It is no wonder then that talkies replaced the "silent film" era: the audience had lost the ability to be affected by greatness in film -- and now needed more spectacle and more noise to fill the void in its own empty head. Times' reviewer Hall says as much when he writes of the General in 1927 that "this is by no means so good as Mr. Keaton's previous efforts. Here he is more the acrobat than the clown, and his vehicle might be described as a mixture of cast iron and jelly" (Hall). Truly, no one was ever further off base about a film than Hall in his New York Times review.
The fact is that by 1927, audiences had tired of the kind of fare delivered by studios -- the kind of films in which Florence Vidor turned ever so slightly and gave the audience a momentarily thrill, a glimpse of neck, of sparkling jewelry and the like. The same medium that once inspired panic in the basement of a French cafe in 1895 now failed to produce any effect whatsoever when the same subject (a train) was taken to new soaring heights (by Keaton in the General) and splashed on the big screen. The only problem was that in the intervening decades, a generation had gotten wise to the nature of the cinema and no longer cared to be inspired by the same old, same old: it wanted more -- and the Jazz Singer provided more: it provided noise. If Keaton could wreak havoc on an entire town and give thrills (without ever once showing the natural disaster that was doing the mischief) in Steamboat Bill, Jr., the audience did not care. Imagination was, in a sense, dead -- and when it died, so too did the silent film era, for it depended on the audience's ability to bridge the gap between the visuals on the screen and the reality that it meant to depict. The audience could no longer do so, and instead it opted for noise as a stop-gap -- the talkies were introduced and no one ever looked back -- except for a few movie lovers, like Ebert, who could still appreciate the imaginative powers of the silent film gems of men like Buster Keaton.
In conclusion, the silent film era was an era in film that not only triggered the imagination of the public and allowed them to bridge the gap between moving photographic images and real-life experience (as the Lumiere brothers in Paris in 1895 demonstrated with their short film of a train pulling into a station), it also was an era in film that depended on the public's ability to use its imagination. When the public finally abandoned this practice en masse, the talkies were introduced, and a new era of filmmaking got underway. The result was that it left genius filmmakers like Keaton no option but to pursue their careers making second-rate films where dialogue and sound replaced audience participation through the use of the imagination. Mindless spectacle displaced mindful contribution.
Abel, Richard. Silent Film. UK: Athlone Press, 1996. Print.
Dardis, Thomas. Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down. NY: Scribner, 1979.
Ebert, Roger. "The Films of Buster Keaton (1923 -- 1928)." Chicago Sun-Times. 10
Nov 2002. Web. 6 Mar 2012.
Hall, Mordaunt. "The General: A Civil War Farce." New York Times. 8 Feb 1927.
Web. 6 Mar 2012.
Mast, Gerald. A Short History of the Movies. NY: Pearson Longman, 2006. Print.