Questions from the Google: What’s a silent movie?

Pearls Before Swine What's a silent movie?
(via gocomics.com)

I’m back with more search engine queries! This time, I am going to be answering questions related to silent films themselves.

Who are the people in silent film?

Number of silent movies presumed lost?

Exaggerated silent film acting?

How to get into silent films?

How to make a silent film.

Let’s get started!

Who are the people in silent film?

Who's who in Hollywood 1928

A lot of people worked in silent film and it would be impossible to list them all in a single post. However, if you are curious, the venerable Silent Ladies & Silent Gents is a fabulous resource, as is Silents Are Golden.

Number of silent movies presumed lost?

There are whole books about this.
There are whole books about this.

A lot of silent films are lost. Some put the percentage as high as 90%. However, it is impossible to say for sure since there is no exhaustive catalog of every single silent film print in the world. Sometimes, a missing film has simply been sitting in an archive in an unlabeled canister. Film preservation was not a priority in the early history of film and we are still suffering from the aftereffects of that neglect.

So, it would be impossible to give an exact number of lost films. If you want more details on how films are lost and how they can be found again, here is my introductory article on the subject.

Exaggerated silent film acting?

I’m actually uncomfortable using that word to describe silent film acting. You see, a few generations of people snickering at the silents has meant that, to most people, silent movie acting involves, well, this:

You must pay the rent! Etc. etc, etc...
You must pay the rent! Etc. etc, etc…

Never mind that this is Victorian stage melodrama acting and never mind that silent films were often spoofing this style.

Silent film actors engaged in the very challenging art of pantomime and the best ones could get their message across with astonishing accuracy. Yes, the emotions are portrayed more powerfully but that was due to the nature of the craft.

Of course, there were stage holdovers in the silents who insisted on overdoing it. And there were actors who were purposely camping it up. And, finally, there were indeed some bad actors in silent movies. Like today. You got movies? You probably have a few bad actors. That’s how life works. However, it would be unfair to judge the entire art by a few hams and turkeys.

How to get into silent films?

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid
You can’t go wrong with an acclaimed silent comedy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It can seem a bit daunting. Silent movies are very different from sound films and take more concentration to watch. I usually recommend starting with comedies from one of the masts like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaon, Harold Lloyd or Harry Langdon. If you want more details, I have a list of tips and recommendations for first-time watchers.

How to make a silent film.

Do you have what it takes?
Do you have what it takes?

Amateur filmmaking is not a modern hobby. It was a pretty popular hobby in the silent era and there were multiple books published on the subject. I actually collect them and have reviewed quite a few of them. Check out my book section for reviews.

In the meantime, here are a few tips that will make your silent film more accurate:

The ratio is not one line of dialogue to one intertitle

Silent movies expected their audiences to read lips. This was for a few reasons. First, many fillmakers felt that onscreen titles spoiled the flow and rhythm of a film and tried to minimize them. Others found audience lipreading was a way to include dialogue that would otherwise be censored.

Please do not tie women to tracks

Or I will be forced to hit you with a trout.

Don’t neglect the great outdoors

Silent films did not have to worry about sound equipment and outdoor scenery was cheap and plentiful.

I hope these answers were helpful and get you started on the right track with silent movies.

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5 Replies to “Questions from the Google: What’s a silent movie?”

  1. I’ve recently found your blog and I LOVE IT! I love the quirky small posts that I can read in a flash and the hilarious GIF’s that keep me giggling all day. But most of all I love the information you distribute like this post. I’m still finding my way around silent movies but with your help, I think it will be a wonderful trip! Keep up the great work!

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