Silent Movie Myth: Silent movies are just sound movies with a few intertitles

It’s a reasonably popular internet meme: Take hit modern film, desaturate it, add a few intertitles and a tinkling piano score and voila! You have a silent movie. That’s all silent movies are, right? Movies without sound and with those title cards placed at intervals.

While I have to admit that some of the more well-done videos can be  funny, they do create rather the wrong impression about silent movies. They can present a cartoony, cliched view of silent cinema.

Now I know that this is all in good fun but the problem is that too often this is the only form of silent movie that the general public will ever see. I mean, The Artist didn’t do that well at the box office.

Since this is a pretty in-depth subject, I am just going to talk about what intertitles add to a silent movie. They are not just dialogue substitutes!

Well-crafted intertitles give access to the character’s inner thoughts and narrate invisibly

I hate voiceover narration. Boy, do I hate voiceover narration. It’s cheesy, intrusive and it just sounds so corny. I’m not talking about a spoken intro (though those can be dreadful as well), I am talking about a character or narrator talking over the action. It is almost impossible to do without sounding awkward. (The Princess Bride gets a special dispensation.)

Well-written intertitles, on the other hand, tell the story and do not seem at all intrusive. I have said before that silent movies lie somewhere between sound movies and books. Like a good novel, a silent movie can draw you into the inner thoughts of a character without narration, talking to the mirror, having a long conversation with a headstone or any other tired trope that sound movies must employ.

I keep saying well-written or well-crafted. That is because badly written intertitles spoil a silent movie just as surely as bad dialogue will sink a sound film.

For a good example of titles done the right way, watch Go West starring the wonderful Buster Keaton and his best leading lady to date, Brown Eyes the Jersey cow. No, really, I mean it. They are a splendid screen team!

Intertitles can do more than tell the story, they can set the mood

Silent movie intertitles can also be animated and illustrated to further enhance the story they are telling. So a silent movie is not just like a novel, it can be like a graphic novel! Later in the silent era, intertitles became simpler but many films still got imaginative with the title art and animation. The best example of this would be the classic 1927 film Sunrise.

Silent movies fit a whole lot of story into their runtime

In the 1960’s epics were in fashion. 3-4 hour monstrosities (though Lawrence of Arabia remains my favorite sound film) with all the spectacle you can imagine. Big and long seem to be the style once more, with many epics and franchise films clocking in at 2.5-3 hours.

Some silent movies were long. In the case of Intolerance, very long. Very, very, very, very long. Very, very, very, very, very, very– help me. Ahem.

My point is that because clever intertitles save time, silent movies usually zip along at a healthy clip. I know there is no scientific way to measure this but minute for minute, more stuff just seems to happen in the average silent movie. That’s why a silent feature  movie could have a complete runtime of, says, 55 minutes and still seem completely satisfying.

Pure opinion, I know. But compare and see if you can feel the difference.

For a good example, try the excellent 1927 film Barbed Wire. (1927 seems to be the year for this article) It stars Pola Negri and Clive Brook and manages to tell a marvelously understated wartime love store in a brisk 67 minutes.

Thank you and happy viewing!