Europe comes to Hollywood: the silent era, 1912-1927

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Before the advent of sound, the American film industry was, to some extent, a place where talent could flourish and in economic terms was an industry that dominated the world market. In the absence of the spoken word, silent films were relatively easy to market across borders: all that required adjustment were the intertitles (Julie K. Allen 2012: 127-128). With no language barriers, the prospects of global fame seemed within reach for those gifted and determined enough. This can be understood twofold: firstly, German, British, and French silent features found their way to the screens across the Atlantic, to relish in great prestige. Tony Guzman (2005: 261) writes that continental film exhibition in the United States reached an unprecedented scale in the late 1920s, and the statistics only add validity to his claim: Film Daily estimated that out of 820 photoplays released in 1928, 24 per cent were foreign products (Street 2002: 14). Secondly, European actors and directors migrated to the United States. By the early 1920s, approximately 88 per cent of feature films screened all around the world were American; therefore, a success (by this migratory film personnel) in Hollywood translated into global stardom (Elsaesser 2000: 110).

This chapter looks at the cultural implications of this transatlantic exchange, concentrating on the perceived notions of Europeanness in the New World in the silent film period. It interrogates the discussions of foreign movie players in the American press, especially in fan monthlies, which were a major agent in the circulation of film discourse. What made European-born stars and their vehicles distinctively different from homegrown talent, and what paradoxes were embedded in their public personae? How were specific foreign nationalities constructed? Or, to cast the matter more broadly: what did it mean to be European in the United States of the Jazz Age? Whilst by no means extensive, the essay charts key developments in the circulation of on-screen Europeanness, suggesting further avenues for critical investigation.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Companion to European Cinema
EditorsGabor Gergely, Susan Hayward
Place of PublicationAbingdon Oxon UK
Number of pages10
ISBN (Electronic)9781003027447
ISBN (Print)9780367461850, 9781032136714
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • Silent film
  • European cinema
  • film studies
  • film history

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