Silent Movies: why it’s hard to like them but why it’s worth it.

     I came across this post about silent horror films a bit ago on WordPress’s main page. I reposted it and you may’ve read it by now. The author hit the nail on the head…or rather hit the coffin nail into the coffin as her post dealt largely with the silent horror film Nosferatu. The blog is worth the read and the film is worth the watching and was the inspiration of this post.

    To those who know me or at least have read a few posts on this blog, you’ll gather that I love and adore old films. Specifically silent films. Silent cinema is my favorite artistic medium and I’ve even made one myself. But there is one thing that is interesting yet not all together surprising; people at large don’t generally like silent films. For the longest time I didn’t know why.  When I saw The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for the first time I was mesmerized.

Condrad Veidt's astounding in 'The Man Who Laughs', one of my favorite films of any genre

When I saw Buster Keaton’s The General, I was hooked for life. Interestingly it is a badge of honor among the artsier-and-fartsier-than-thou to say “oh I love silent film” yet for the average Joe and average Jane they’ll take Rush Hour over The Gold Rush any day of any week of any year.

one of silent film's finest: Buster Keaton's 'The General'

Silent movies are fatiguing though I don’t mean this is a negative way whatsoever. It’s a positive. They are fatiguing because they are engaging. They are engaging in ways that modern movies are not. For instance, you can go to the theater and chat with whoever is next to you, talk on the phone, watch the silhouettes of the people around you, check your email, send a tweet about being at the movies and still not miss a beat of what’s going on. No imagination is required either. It’s all done for you. A bunch of guys in white shirts and ties made sure that you’re spoon-fed every plot device and want to reduce the amount you’ll have to ‘work’ (i.e. think) to watch the movie. With silent film it’s a different story. There’s actually very minimal use of title cards in silent films. The filmmakers did not want to rely on title cards but rather they held fast to the “show, don’t tell” mantra. And that’s not to say that the characters in the films went around like mimes with their mouth shut trying to act out what they’re trying to communicate with broad gestures. It’s much more subtle than that. Often times characters will ‘speak’ on camera but, lo and behold, it’s up to you, dear watcher, to imagine what they’re saying based on the context and other visual cues. No title cards. For an hour or two of this, this can get fatiguing as the general public is not used to using their thinking muscles while watching Avatar. This fact, mixed with our culture’s ever-shortening 140 letter attention span, is a recipe for dismal result when you introduce thinking into one’s entertainment.

But I submit to you that this is a privilege, not a liability, for silent cinema. It’s an art form that takes, not merely gives. It’s an engaging exchange, a wordless dialog without words between the film and the film watcher. It’s an art form that commands attention like no other work of art can and it’s an art form in which you become part of the creative process. It’s entertainment that challenges you to take off your bib and put on an apron. The 3D movies that we are being force-fed come with the promise put the viewer inside the movie watching experience yet it appeals to no other senses than it did before.  Our brains can remain in the ‘off’ position from beginning to end but now we can see terrible movies in one extra dimension now! Another dimension of terrible!  How is that a privilege? How is this advancement?

Chaplin's moving final scene in City Lights

Silent film star Mary Pickford famously said, “It would have been more logical if silent pictures had grown out of the talkies instead of the other way around”. Many of the silent film stars of the 1920’s felt that pantomime was the highest form of art and that talking pictures, first widely accepted in 1927, was a devolution of the craft of film rather than an evolution of it. Pickford is famous for her complaints against the ‘new’ talking pictures, comparing them to, “putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo”. Iconic silent film hero Charlie Chaplin echoed this sentiment in a different way by saying in 1928, “Moving pictures need sound as much as Beethoven’s symphonies need lyrics. By sheer necessity, the craft of pantomime grew and grew and silent film had quickly become a universal language.

A scene from The Passion of Joan of Arc

Actors truly honed and sharpened their craft out and for the most part didn’t have dialog to rely on. And what’s interesting is that as film went on, the actors became subtler and subtler. It’s generally understood by people who’ve never really taken the time to watch a silent film they’re  all grotesquely over-the-top, over done, and over-acted with  mandatory jangly piano accompaniment. Admittedly that may be partly true, but only in part.  Early in the history of silent film most of the actors who acted in those silent films came directly from the stage and from vaudeville. All their years of experience taught them to how to communicate with the back row of a crowded theater. As the craft of film making grew, so did the act of film acting. The crude broad strokes of acting soon gave way to extremely subtle and nuanced acting. Very powerful and moving films, such as  The Passion of Joan of Arc (a film shot almost entirely with close-ups) were produced. Even in comedy where one might expect to find crude and broad humor and Keystone Cops frantically running through every scene was, by the early 20’s, rich with subtly and nuance of character. One of the most famous comedians of the time, Buster Keaton (‘The Great Stoneface’), was most famous for not so much as cracking a smile in his films. Charlie Chaplin was re-inventing comedy as we know it by introducing pathos and heart to his comedy. Harold Lloyd was wildly popular in his day and his gimmick was really…well, that he was just a regular guy. No over-sized shoes or garish comedic facial hair but an every-man, relatable to the audience. Yes, of course there were still pratfalls and base slapstick (which I love!) but still…

Cinematography also was just starting to grow by leaps and bounds because, as I mentioned, the medium was almost completely visual without the dialog to lean on and carry the film. It became the camera’s job to “show, not tell”. Again, I know a lot of popular conceptions about silent film is that the camera is static, the shots are clumsy at best but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Take 1927’s “Sunrise; A Tale of Two Humans” by Nosferatu director, F.W. Murnau which was released right as sound made it’s way to Hollywood. Beautifully long and graceful tracking shots, hardly any title cards throughout, and some very state of the art special effects. It is the silent film that you wouldn’t expect to be a silent film. It really is a shame that the ‘talkies’ came along so early on as I feel that it slowed down the innovative direction that cinematography was heading. George Lucas even admitted that he doesn’t think film, and particularly cinematography, still to this day, has fully recovered from film’s transition to sound.

the iconic 'maria' from metropolis

Another reason (or two) why it’s oftentimes a challenge for people to watch a silent film is the absolutely horrid soundtrack that usually follows them. As mentioned, there’s a misconception that by law silent movies have to have a jangly tack-piano accompanying these flickering images. Again there is some truth to this. Smaller movies and smaller movie-houses would have had a single piano to accompany any given film but larger films in larger theaters would’ve had a full orchestra with printed scores and maybe even a Wurlitzer organ. Often times, however, what’s available now is a low quality film transfer with either a soundtrack of arbitrary tack-piano or arbitrary classical music scores thrown over the top of the film that have absolutely nothing to do with the picture. The absolute best, unbeatable way to experience a silent film would be in a crowded theater with live accompaniment written specifically for the film, played by live musicians. There is an enjoyment in that that you simply unparalleled. Especially with comedies. Granted that’s ideal but not all that practical as events like this are hard to come by (though I’m going to see Harold Lloyd’s iconic Safety Last this June at the Orpheum!). But what is practical is and will help your appreciation of silent film is find one that has an appropriate soundtrack married with the picture. Kino just re-released Buster Keaton’s ‘The General’ (one of my favorites) on DVD and BluRay and it’s got a very fantastic and  nuanced score (its on Netflix too). I highly recommend it. The Harold Lloyd Collection and The Chaplin Collection are also boxed sets that have outstanding musical scores. Oh and one more – Kino’s newly restored and complete Metropolis by Fritz Lang is available (on Netflix as well)

Wow! I covered more than I’d intended to but I suppose my passion for these films is clear and that’s really what I wanted to communicate. These films are gems and I find them to be more satisfying to experience them and I hope that more and more people will explore these films for themselves. They are the great-grandparents of every single modern film you have ever seen or ever will see. They are time-capsules. They are engaging works of art that invite you to invest in their continual creation and interpretation. They might be hard to like but they are so, so, so worth your time.


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11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. lovelyshadesofnostalgia
    Apr 24, 2011 @ 13:15:39

    Great post! You touched on so many amazing movies.

    Reply

    • Daniel Jacob
      Apr 26, 2011 @ 16:08:55

      Thank you~! Have you seen ‘The Man Who Laughs’? That movie killlllls me. I’d love a new sweeping symphonic score to go along with that one one of these days.
      Oh and I started another little site just for fun that may or may not be of interest to you: http://www.silentla.wordpress.com

      Reply

      • lovelyshadesofnostalgia
        Apr 27, 2011 @ 19:44:11

        That is a great movie, sad, but Conrad Veidt gives such a moving performance. And I wonder how many people know that was the inspiration for The Joker! Good idea on the new site. The only place I know of that shows silent movies in San Diego is actually a bar. They have Silent Sundays, project silent films on the back wall, play jazz, and serve prohibition era drinks.

        Reply

  2. The Writer
    Apr 24, 2011 @ 17:31:09

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been meaning to get into silent film for a long while. I’ll definitely be adding some of the ones you recommended to my Netflix queue!

    Reply

    • Daniel Jacob
      Apr 26, 2011 @ 16:05:58

      Brilliant! I’d suggest a start with The General as it’s on instant queue. And be sure not to get the rubbish gothic-industrial version of Nosferatu that’s on there. Blech. There’s a version floating around out there (which I foolishly purchased) or Buster Keaton’s “Three Ages” with some awful techno by a surely good-intentioned Jeff Mills that does nothing but distract and remind you how old these films are. Steamboat Bill Jr. is another favorite of mine and it’s on instant queue on Netflix as well. The score isn’t a nice as The General’s but it was written specifically for the film and I give points for that alone. Enjoy! Tell me what you think of them!

      Reply

  3. Trackback: a modern silent: ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, 2005. A review «
  4. Jess
    May 24, 2011 @ 17:38:15

    I posted this on Twitter, haha. I’m trying to get my friends into silent movies.

    I’m a huge fan of Buster Keaton and The General is one of my favorites movies. I’m so glad I found this post.

    Reply

    • Daniel Jacob
      Jun 07, 2011 @ 09:57:11

      So glad you found me too! Aren’t silents absolutely amazing? I can never decided if I like Steamboat Bill Jr. or The General better. Both are nearly perfect films!

      Reply

  5. CD
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 19:53:48

    I just recently started getting into silent films. I was flipping through the channels a couple weeks ago and City Lights was playing on TCM. I didn’t think I’d watch more than 10 minutes of it, but I thought I’d give it a try. I ended up watching the whole thing and I loved every minute of it. It turned out I had a very crude idea of who Charlie Chaplin was. I’ve also watched The General and several shorts with Buster Keaton and Chaplin. I’ve seen Wings with Clara Bow. I can’t get enough.

    I tried sharing my new found love with friends and family, but they just don’t seem to get it. Which has made me kind of sad, and even a little angry. They won’t give anything I try to show them half a chance. They’re just like “What’s wrong with you?”. Which was a really surprising reaction to me.. I mean, these movies only influenced every movie you’ve ever seen!

    I was so frustrated that I found my way here and read your awesome article. It made me feel better. Now I need to go find more people who love silent movies. I’m hoping I can find a theater in my area that plays them. Thanks 🙂

    Reply

  6. Jessie
    Aug 06, 2012 @ 08:40:12

    Reblogged this on I write, you read..

    Reply

  7. Ellie Lambert
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 02:39:53

    I totally agree with everything you have to say here. I have passed my love for silents along to my children. How old are they? They are 19, 15, 11, twins who are 9, and the youngest is 7, and yes, each and every one absolutely knows and loves silent film. Buster Keaton is my youngest ones’ fave, as he is also my fave! I’m betting my youngest children are the only ones in the school who can walk into their elementary school classrooms and be the only ones who know who Buster is. Which is sad.

    Reply

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