Of course, movies got their start without sound. The actors of those days would typically be folks off the street, rather than stage actors, who looked down on the cinema. If they needed a butcher, the director went to the butcher shop.
I am fortunate to live within a short distance of the Betzwood Studio of Siegmund Lubin. Lubin had studios in other states, Florida being famous as Oliver (Babe) Hardy's first employer in films. Babe made about 65 films for Lubin before Hal Roach snapped him up. Lubin's office in Philadelphia was on Arch St., but didn't have much room for location shooting. He did most interior shots on the roof of this building, outside for light, with painted canvas backdrops. Some of his early Philadelphia movies contain recognizable locations around the city. He also had a studio at 20th and Lehigh, which was near Shibe Park (later Connie Mack Stadium).
The Betzwood Studio was active from 1912 to 1923, but Lubin went into bankruptcy in 1916. One of his original storage buildings is newly renovated and is being rented as office space. It can be seen if you drive West on Route 422, and look down from the Betzwood Bridge over the Schuylkill River. After Lubin left, the studio was used by others, and the old Toonerville Trolly series of shorts was made there and on location in Phoenixville, PA. IMDB credits Lubin with 1,948 films from 1897 thru 1916.
On May 1, 2010, my wife and I attended the 38th (I think) annual Betzwood Film Festival at Montgomery County Community College in Bluebell, PA. They showed Lubin films from 1904 to 1916. It was interesting to see how movies grew up in just 12 years, with the later films showing much more polish.
My favorite part of the festival was the organist, Don Kinnier. He has been doing the festival for many years and he knows how to put music with each scene, to bring life to these old movies. I spoke with Mr. Kinnier after the show and he was very nice. That is what I like about these old movies and the folks who enjoy them...everyone is knowledgeable AND approachable.
At the festival we saw a 1916 Lubin film, A Ready Made Maid, with Billie Reeves. Reeves played a drunk who put on a found maid's uniform and was hired to help at a dinner party, with predictable results. Before movies, Reeves was with the Fred Karno troupe in England, along with Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. He used to do a bit for the English music halls where he was a drunk heckler in a box near the stage. When Reeves left Karno to go out on his own, Chaplin took the role of the drunk in that skit. It was a part that he did so well, he became famous.
According to a source on the Internet (so it must be true!) Reeves was asked to play a drunk later in his career, and imitate Chaplin's performance. He was indignant about that and said that he was the Original Drunk!
Check out MCCC's silent film site at:
Maybe I'll see you there next year.