Silent Movies 101: Presentation is everything (and how to know if you are watching a dud)

Welcome back to Silent Movies 101, a series of articles aimed at helping silent movie newcomers learn to love the art. This time, we are going to be discussing one of the most common traps that trips up silent movie newbies.

(You can catch up on all my Silent Movies 101 articles here.)

“Which version are you watching?”

This may seem like a really geeky question reserved for Blade Runner and Star Wars fans. Some films get special editions, extended editions and director’s cuts but most movies are pretty much the same every time they are released on home media. Sure, there will be a steady uptick in quality between VHS, DVD and Blu-ray (we hope) but the content is basically the same.

This is not the case with silent films. You know those extended editions or director’s cuts? Well, imagine trying to shop for a beloved film and imagine that VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, bootleg theater footage, director’s cuts, television cuts and extended editions were all for sale but none of them were labeled. Which version would you buy?

Welcome to the world of silent movie shopping.

Oh, it makes our lives a barrel of laughs, let me tell you.
Oh, it makes our lives a barrel of laughs, let me tell you.

A little copyright law

Films released 1923 or later are usually still the property of their original studio or whoever purchased the rights. These films are generally safe to buy when released by their home studio. But remember that the era of projected silent films began in 1895. What about those other twenty-seven years of cinema?

1923 is the cutoff year for U.S. copyrights and some silent era studios have allowed the copyright to lapse on later films. As a result, a majority of all the silent films produced are in the public domain. There are advantages and disadvantages to this.

Advantages: Anyone can release a film on home media if they have access to a print.

Disadvantages: Anyone can release a film on home media if they have access to a print.

Case Study: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Here are two screenshots from the German silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. One is from the new 4K Blu-ray, which showcases painstaking restoration. The other is from a cheap public domain disc. See the difference? Which version would you rather see?

From Kino Lorber's Blu-ray
From Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray
Bargain DVD of unknown origin
Bargain DVD of unknown origin

(You can snag that beautiful restoration of Caligari on either DVD or Blu-ray and it’s really the only way to see it.)

And those are just the visuals. We’re not even starting to talk about music. (Silent movie music really needs its own post but just know that most silent films have to have new scores arranged by modern accompanists. A great score can save even a bad film. A bad score can kill a masterpiece.)

You will soon become familiar with quality players on the silent movie home video market. Names like Flicker Alley, Kino Lorber, Warner Archive, Milestone and the Criterion Collection guarantee quality. Smaller concerns like Grapevine Video and Reelclassicdvd don’t have the budgets for major restoration but they do release gloriously obscure goodies.

Screenshot from Flicker Alley's beautiful release of "Chicago"
Screenshot from Flicker Alley’s beautiful release of “Chicago”

It should also be noted that while films released earlier than 1923 cannot be copyrighted in the United States, scores and translated title cards do fall under copyright protection. (This is the same case with public domain books. I may download a public domain translation of Tolstoy anywhere but if I want a recent translation or an edition with new illustrations, I will have to buy a copy.)

This leads to some unscrupulous companies or individuals taking a high-quality release, stripping it of its soundtrack, cutting title cards and removing color (yes, silent films had color, more on that later) in order to dodge copyright claims. The result? Less cash for the legitimate business that released the film in the first place and a lower quality release for unwary buyers.

Isn’t a bad release better than no release at all?

The quality of the original 1925 cut of "The Phantom of the Opera" does not survive in the best shape but it's all we have.
The original 1925 cut of “The Phantom of the Opera” does not survive in the best shape but it’s all we have.

If there are no other options then, yes, a lower quality release is what we have. But when there’s a choice between an awesome print with a great score and some faded scratchy thing? Heck yeah, get the good one. It’s like chocolate: buy the best you can afford.

Case Study: Battleship Potemkin

One of the most famous silent films ever made and almost certainly one of the most watched, Battleship Potemkin is a fixture of art history classes and Movies 101. The problem? You’ve probably been watching it wrong.

It’s a super long story (you can read the full details here) but basically, the film has been cut, censored, reworked and, worst of all, slowed down to fit a re-release score. So what you likely saw (and were bored by) in class was a silent film in slow motion. Boring as heck.

I don’t blame anyone who sees Potemkin under these circumstances and comes away with a negative view of the film. I had the same experience. I mainly bought to new restoration out of a sense of duty and watched it with great reluctance.

(Here’s a preview for the restoration to give you a taste.)

What a revelation! What had been plodding and dull was now snappy and dynamic. The genius of the film was finally on display for the first time since its initial release. I learned a valuable lesson about how much presentation can make or break a silent film.

There are still plenty of public domain copies of the slow-mo Potemkin available but why bother? The restored edition is the only you’ll ever need unless you’re studying state censorship or something.

(We’ll have a deeper look at different cuts, versions and re-releases of silent films later. Sorry to keep putting things off but I am trying to keep this article bite-size.)

The YouTube problem

YouTube is a valuable resource for silent film fans but it is also full of hidden dangers. Remember what we said above? People will take a legitimate silent film release, strip it of its score and sometimes its title cards and then release it on YouTube.

There's a word for that. Dearie me, what could it be?
There’s a word for that. Dearie me, what could it be?

This can have terrible results. As we stated in the introductory article, silent films are more correctly called mute films. They are designed to be seen with music. When their scores are removed and they are posted online with either canned music or, worse, nothing at all, this is disastrous to the viewing experience. Combine this with missing title cards, low resolution uploads and heaven knows what else and we have hot mess.

Watch out for: A tiny but very vocal minority that thinks silent films without music are the only way to enjoy the “pure” cinema. Frankly, they’re nuts.

Movies need music!
Movies need music!

Please remember that silent movie producers often work on a shoestring and even a few pirated copies can be enough to put them in the red. You know what that means? Fewer silent films for the rest of us. These producers are doing something important and risky and supporting their efforts by buying their releases seems like a fair trade.

However, I must emphasize that there are also plenty of legitimate and valuable videos uploaded to YouTube. The Library of Congress has its own channel and posts treasures from its vaults but I’m not just talking about archives. Accompanist Ben Model scores and uploads lots of good stuff with particular emphasis on forgotten silent shorts.

I guess the main point of this section is to beg that you don’t judge a movie by its YouTube video unless you’re sure of its pedigree.

Recap

Not all silent movie releases are created equal. If a film seems to be too fast, too slow or badly scored, follow your instincts and look for a different release. And don’t get trapped by false economy. You’re not saving a dime when you choose a $5 version over a $25 version if you end up with unwatchable junk.

Recommended Resource:

While my site focuses on films themselves (with the occasional unboxing), I am always willing to answer questions about the quality of releases I have viewed. However, if you want a more analytical comparison of the various releases available, check out Silent Era, which weighs the pros and cons of home video releases and explains why some are better than others. They get a lot more technical than I ever will regarding transfers and compression, so if that’s your thing, check it out.

23 Replies to “Silent Movies 101: Presentation is everything (and how to know if you are watching a dud)”

  1. Always a joy to read this blog! But in “Films released in or before 1923 are usually still the property of their original studio or whoever purchased the rights”, you mean “after 1923”, right?

  2. Great stuff, as always.

    BTW, the 2013 Kino release of F.W. Murnau’s 1926 Faust has a great DVD extra documentary all about the multiple versions of any given silent film. They put them up side by side (sometimes 4 at a time) to show you the differences, which include shots from slightly different angles when directors would have two cameras running simultaneously to produce multiple negatives. It even shows how some lesser markets (in Faust’s case, non-Germans) would get versions that included stuff you’d see in blooper reels today.

    Paolo Cherchi Usai’s “Silent Cinema: An Introduction” has a really good section (if a bit technical) on the multiple versions of silent films.

    And that’s all BEFORE the issues of nitrate film immolation, piracy, and cheapo reproductions that we deal with now just to see the treasures of the past.

    1. Thanks so much! Yes, once we get into foreign release prints, we have really fallen down the rabbit hole. And that, dear readers, is why it’s not unusual for silent film fans to hold onto several DVD, Blu-ray and even VHS versions of a particular film. I’m still holding onto my Paramount VHS release of The Sheik because it has different title cards and a brief scene (likely added for the benefit of censors) that tries to convince us that no hanky-panky occurred.

  3. The big problem with silent film presentation is that so many who score them do not view them as motion pictures but as I do not know what. As a result the films often look hammy. Before I score a silent film I let it speak to me. Some scenes require no music. When that happens I let them run in silence. If the director made sound films I look at how s/he used sound.

    1. Yes, silent film scores can make excellent use of silent stretches to create a mood. A good score (silent or sound) has to understand a balance between loud and quiet moments. I think that’s my biggest problem with original Vitaphone scores, they never know when to shut up and let the movie speak for itself.

  4. The biggest problem for me is when they REPLACE the score for another one with GUITARS, for example. It’s terrible, and even worse when the copy is good and we have to turn off the sound.

    1. Well, anyone who would pirate a transfer is likely not too concerned about quality. I have no problem with unorthodox instruments and modern scores (I prefer them, in fact) but when someone just plays random music in the background of a silent film with no thought to matching the action, it is really annoying.

      1. I would have liked very much to have had films like the silent BEN HUR, THE BIG PARADE and others with the original scores that were used on the sound re-issues as those were very, very good in addition to the Carl Davis or whomever scores. The score on the new version of VARIETY is simply awful. As for “pirates,” Pirates were the people preserving these films when the studios thought them worthless as well as making them available to others. We owe them a great deal of thanks (which they are not likely to receive).

      2. This is where I disagree. There is an enormous difference between German collectors spiriting around Nosferatu ahead of the estate of Bram Stoker and people who take a widely released DVD, strip it of its score, remove watermarks and upload it to YouTube. These people are making silent films LESS accessible, not more so. There is no danger of the DVD release disappearing without piracy but there is a good chance that many silent films will never see the light of day because piracy makes it financially impossible. Just because something was beneficial in the past does not make it beneficial today.

        Edit to add: Let me be clear: I will not allow comments that encourage or cheer on film piracy or any illegal activity. Anyone who advocates such behavior will be banned.

  5. What’s your opinion of the selection available (limited, I know) of silent movies on Netflix and Hulu? They don’t have a lot but generally I have been happy with the quality of their releases, especially on Hulu since they feature selections from the Criterion Collection. Youtube is a mixed bag. I’ll admit that I do go there from time to time but I won’t watch any low-res uploads or films without scores.

    1. I know Netflix licensed some films from Flicker Alley and Kino Lorber. In general, though, their selection is pretty thin. I mostly use Fandor to stream silents as they have the best selection by far.

  6. Totally agree about Vitaphone scores, though I did enjoy the one used for Colleen Moore’s “Why Be Good.” At least the jazzy tracks there meshed with the flapper parties and Charleston contests.

    1. Yes, Vitaphone scores generally work better for more modern films but for historical films or movies set in foreign lands or covering serious events, painful! No, we do not need to see our hero going mad to a jaunty tango. But keep in mind that I also like very, very few scores from the 1930s and 1940s (there are notable exceptions) as they are given to Mickey Mousing every darn thing and being too string-happy.

      1. The worst travesty I have seen on Youtube is a truncated version of Griffith’s ISN’T LIFE WONDERFUL. Actually there are a few uploads of this but they all seem to come from the same source. Only 1/3 or 1/2 of the film is available, the print is quite battered and the “score” features jaunty horns, automotive sound effects and applause! (Judging from the sound quality, it could be a Vitaphone soundtrack for a comedy short.) To add insult to injury, one upload has a 1 hour 15 minute running time, but it merely repeats the edited version from other uploads. I have made comments indicating that they should be removed, since this treatment does a huge disservice to a fine movie, one of Griffith’s best in my opinion.

      2. I’m sure you already know but in case you missed it, Flicker Alley is reissuing the Blackhawk version of “Isn’t Life Wonderful” with a recording of the original 1924 score performed on piano and violin.
        https://www.createspace.com/453081

        I haven’t viewed it myself but I am certain that the quality will be impressive. And 117 minutes. (The current Grapevine edition is only 97 minutes but I’m not sure if this difference is due to projection speed or extra scenes)

      3. PS, For a while, the only in-print version of “Little Annie Rooney” was a bargain disc that lifted its score from the sound reissue of “Way Down East” which meant Mary Pickford was mourning her father’s death to the sound of Jingle Bells. I am not making this up.

  7. Actually, I didn’t know about the new release of ISN’T LIFE WONDERFUL. Thanks for the info! Also, I didn’t know that pirates were taking out the music from legitimate DVD releases to post online. Yet another reason to be very selective of what I watch. Much appreciated!
    By the way, of all the silent movie blogs I have seen, yours is my favorite and by far the best! Great writing, research, design, everything. Keep up the good work!

  8. I am possibly the laziest fan alive because I’m all not all that picky about versions. I mean, I want whatever version I’m watching to be as complete as possible with correct title cards, but beyond that I’m pretty much up for anything. The laissez-faire attitude probably comes from years of watching transfers from VHS and TVs and just becoming accustomed to subpar video and audio quality. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate HD—that restoration of Dr. Caligari looks spectacular and so does the Battleship Potemkin—I am just not the most discerning person in the world, which I realize is kind of strange for a silent movie fan.

    However, I really appreciate this article because I have a feeling that part of my “whatever” attitude has to do with my relative newness to silent films. It’s likely that I will start caring more as I watch more—I experienced a definite change in how lenient I am about sound quality when it comes to music over the years, for example. You’re informative without being condescending and Movies Silently is fast becoming my favorite movie blog.

    1. I do think there’s a line between trying to find quality releases and being one of those people who picks apart a release for tiny little complaints, real & imagined. For example, I own several different releases of “The Phantom of the Opera” because so many versions have a lot to recommend them. I do admire viewers who can get past surface flaws like faded prints and bad music to appreciate the film underneath.

      Thank you so much, I’m glad you’re enjoying. My goal with this blog is to make silent films fun and accessible to newcomers and not make them feel intimidated so I am very happy that you feel this way.

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