Silent Movies 101: So you want to watch a silent movie (and what to do about it)

Since day one, my goal at Movies Silently has been to make silent films accessible to casual viewers. However, the topic is so massive that it can be intimidating for newcomers to even get started.

I am going to test out a new feature. Basically, I will be creating a road map for people with little or no previous knowledge to learn to enjoy the art of the silent film. I will be gathering these articles on this dedicated page.

The plan is to take the silent era and break it down into bite-size chunks with the complete newcomer in mind. I will aim for about 1,000 words per post with minimal jargon and maximum user friendliness. (In contrast, my About Silent Movies articles tend to be longer and aimed at people with some knowledge of silent film.)

First, we’ll break things down to their most basic components:

What is a silent film?

A silent film is a motion picture with no audible dialogue. The phrase is a misnomer (other countries more accurately call them “mute films”) as silent films were accompanied by suitable music and sometimes even synchronized sound effects, just no dialogue. (Think of the Pink Panther cartoons for a more modern example of this.)

Silent singing? Perfectly normal!
Silent singing? Perfectly normal!

What, you mean there are silent movies in which doors slam, cars honk their horns and telephones ring but people don’t talk?
Yes, I mean precisely that. Sometimes there are even gibberish vocal sounds (people shouting incomprehensibly, etc.) and songs with sung lyrics in films that are otherwise silent.

How to watch ’em

Here are some tips to make your first silent movie viewings easier:

It’s not all pie fights and melodrama

When emulating a silent film, modern people most often rely on coarse and overdone melodrama or over-the-top slapstick. Actually, critics complained about those types of films back when they were new, discounting such pictures as vulgar and tasteless. (Pie fights, by the way, were incredibly rare in the silent era. I mean, there were maybe two. Besides, they were expensive and dangerous. Solo pies, however, were another matter but only with an extremely specific type of comedian.)

At their best, silent films are visually stunning and their sophistication and/or frankness about controversial topics may take you by surprise.

mystery-of-the-leaping-fish-cocaine

There will likely be an acclimation period

Silent movies engage the imagination much more than sound films. Watching a silent can be described as halfway between seeing a talkie and reading a novel. In short, you will be stretching your brain.

Your brain will get a workout.
Your brain will get a workout.

Like any exercise regimen, this may take some getting used to. It’s not unusual for a new viewer to dislike their first silent film. After a few films, you should be all acclimated and ready to be entertained. Just know that this is not unusual. Stick with silent movies. They’re worth it.

The silent era lasted for thirty-five years

For the purpose of this article, we will mark the silent era in the United States as lasting from approximately 1895 (when films were first projected rather than viewed as peepshows) to 1930 (when talkies completely took over). Other countries (Japan, for example) made silent films deep into the 1930s.

Basically no difference between the culture of 1895 and the culture of 1930.
Basically no difference between the culture of 1895 and the culture of 1930.

Would you take someone seriously if they said this: “I hate modern American movies and believe me I know what I’m talking about. Why, I saw half of Desperately Seeking Susan!”

Probably not. You might point out that the movie is decades old, that not all films are in that particular genre and that it’s hardly representative of American cinema of the last three-plus decades.

There's no end of variety available.
There’s no end of variety available.

So, watch silent films from a variety of decades and an assortment of genres. Maybe the charming French fantasies of the 1890s-1900s will be your thing. Maybe you’ll fall in the with the anarchic early Keystone comedies of the 1910s. Perhaps the wildly creative German films of the 1920s will be your poison. You’ll never know if you stop at just one silent film. (And if you don’t know any of these references, never fear. We will discuss them all in future articles.)

Dialogue is not something that is missing

Asking why people in a silent movie don’t talk is sort of like asking a ballet troupe why they don’t just jog across the stage. So much more efficient than leaping and twirling, no?

Communicating visually? Is this done?
Communicating visually? Is this done?

Silent films were designed to tell their story through pantomime, that is, gestures and facial expressions. And the acting is considerably more subtle than spoofs of the era would lead you to believe.

But isn’t it strange to see characters interact entirely without voices?
When watching films, audiences are constantly asked to accept artificial elements. We don’t walk around accompanied by a rousing score in the real world, nor do we see a sign that says “two years later…” and skip two years of our lives. Black and white films are described as “glorious” and accepted without question by classic movie fans. The absence of dialogue is simply another artificial element, albeit one that we are no longer used to.

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This is just basic orientation. In future articles, I will discuss specific stars, directors, films and some helpful hints to give you the best possible silent film experience, including recommended key films and tips for avoiding common pitfalls. Stay tuned, we’re going to have a great time!

12 Replies to “Silent Movies 101: So you want to watch a silent movie (and what to do about it)”

  1. What an amazing post! (more than usual…) I’m sharing this with my friends and readers who had lots of questions about the silent period during my Q & A after my book launch the other day. This will give them a place to start.

  2. It is funny that people seem to need a guide ร  la “How to watch a silent film”.
    I guess the most important thing is to be willing to watch a silent movie at all and to approach it without prejudice or fear. An open mind is what it takes. And for this your post prepares the ground very efficiently.

  3. Excellent explanation! I’ve always had an active imagination. Maybe that’s why I like silent films! You do have to be engaged & actively watching them.

  4. A great idea, Fritzi! I already have a head-start on silent film watching, having cut my teeth on Harold Lloyd shorts (his movies, not his pants) back in the 1980s, but will still look forward to learning more about and appreciating the silents with each new post! And by the way: if you’ve already mentioned this in the past, I apologize, but what was the first “I’m going to purposely sit down and watch a silent movie” movie that you ever watched? Mine was ‘Wings’, which was also my first silent movie purchase, on Beta back in 1985.

    1. Glad you’re enjoying! My first conscious silent film viewing experience (funny, it never occurred to me that Mutt and Jeff were silent) was Mary Pickford’s Sparrows. The print was in awful condition and I hated it (a pity as the movie itself is excellent) but I decided to try again with Chaplin’s City Lights. Loved that and have been a dedicated Chaplin fan ever since.

  5. This is a great idea, Fritzi!

    I’ve been trying to get my kids into silent movies, and it has generally worked. I even wrote about it over at my blog. We need to get ’em while they’re young, right? I’ll have to share this with my 10-year-old.

    I think my first silent, fortunately, was Metropolis when I was in junior high, and I’ve been hooked by silents ever since. I probably dig the German films the most, but it’s so hard to pick.

    1. Thank you! Yes, it’s good to introduce them early before pop culture’s idea of what a silent movie “really” is soaks in. I think that’s one of the biggest issues. People think they know what silent films are when they are really basing their image on cartoons and spoofs.

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