Spill your guts: What’s the most idiotic thing you’ve ever heard about silent movies?

Normally, I try (and often fail) to keep this site on the sunny side of things. Unless, of course, we are discussing a certain director whose name begins with a D and ends with a W Griffith. However, there are times when people need to vent and this is one of them.

The single most frustrating thing about being a silent movie fan (aside from an utter lack of funds for film preservation and weird copyright tangles holding back movie releases) is having people who have never seen a silent film explain to you what a silent film is like.

Maybe they took a film history class a few decades back, maybe they saw one of those awful biopics set in the silent era. For whatever reason, we are overrun with so-called experts who don’t seem to know all that much.

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So, share your anecdotes, your least favorite articles, those times when you just had to punch the screen. And then you had to buy a new computer. You showed them.

(Clarification: There’s no crime in not knowing much about silent movies. We all have to start somewhere. I am referring to people who know nothing and still set themselves up as experts.)

My story involves a meme. There’s this “History of Film” infographic wending its way through Tumblr that makes some very interesting assertions about silent films vs. talkies. It’s been a while since I have read it so I may get a few details wrong but, hey, they do the same thing with silent films so I feel exactly zero guilt. Here are the claims:

  1. They claim that gangster films didn’t exist in the silent era. Apparently, audiences had to hear the tough talk and gunshots before the genre became popular. (This must be news to Josef von Sternberg and Raoul Walsh.) Of course, the gangster film has existed almost as long as the movies themselves. The earliest one I have seen is from 1906.
  2. They claim that comedy was all pie fights and pratfalls before sound came in with witty dialogue. Hmm. Someone has clearly never seen a silent movie. Title card writing is an art and a very clever one.
  3. They claim that women in movies didn’t get tough until the pre-Code dames. I’m sure Helen Holmes, Mary Pickford, Theda Bara and many, many others would have something to say about that.

Sigh. So much work to do, so little time.

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What’s your favorite tale of frustration? Vent here!

PS: Only provide links if you’re pretty sure the site in question is big enough to pay a staff. So linking to NPR, AFI, The Vulture, etc. is okay. Linking over the Chrissy Ann’s Swell Movie Blog should be avoided. I hold people to a higher standard once silver has crossed their palm.

(H/T: nitrateglow)

34 Replies to “Spill your guts: What’s the most idiotic thing you’ve ever heard about silent movies?”

  1. I think maybe the thing that comes to mind for me is so many people who miss the comedic aspects of early movies and make fun of them for being “dumb.” A great example is “A Trip to the Moon” by Georges Melies. I remember growing up seeing “history of sci fi” documentaries that made fun of it for all the “inaccuracies” about space travel. It was never meant to be accurate, but playful, fanciful, and above all funny! Too often, things that were meant to be funny then get laughed at now for the wrong reasons when an audience takes them seriously.

    1. You’re absolutely right. Unless a film is specifically described as a comedy, many people fail to realize that silent era audiences liked funny moments as much as modern viewers do today. Comedy relief in an an otherwise serious film? Spoofs? Meta humor? Silent movies did it all. What part of “the man in the moon gets the rocket stuck in his eye” doesn’t strike them as intentionally humorous?

      Come to think of it, the mistaking of comedy for drama also happens with very broad humor, including Sennett films. I can’t count the number of times a melodramatic scene in a slapstick comedy is dragged out as an example of serious silent cinema.

    1. Oh good lord, yes. Most of 1915 was spent rolling my eyes to the ceiling as people tried to tell me that “Birth” was the first feature film, the first blockbuster, etc. etc. etc. Never mind the Italian, English, Australian and French pioneers who are erased from the record when Griffith gets credited with inventing everything.

      PS, I am currently campaigning to change Griffith’s usual sobriquet from “Father of Film” to “Rancid Magnolia”

      PPS, The enormous success of the Nat Turner biopic, which intentionally appropriates “Birth of a Nation” as its title, has led to considerable smirking in my neck of the woods.

  2. I don’t have a story,because it’s happened too frequently for me to remember any single one, and it is something that you’ve posted about. It’s the idea that damsels in distress were frequently tied to railroad tracks by dastardly villains in silent movies. That’s a trope of Victorian melodrama, not silent movies! In fact, the only times I can think of it appearing in silent movies is when it is being parodied.

    1. We definitely share a pet peeve! The “iconic” silent movie people think of (villain, top hat, damsel, train tracks/sawmill, tinkling piano) never actually existed. I like to show them “The Mystery of the Leaping Fish” to change their minds. 😉

  3. I am kind of sick about all the DW love that he may not have invented “it” but he was the one who knew how to use “it” (close-ups, camera angles etc…)My biggest pet peeve are the average folk who don’t even give silent films a chance and call them boring, dull or funny when they are not supposed to be funny. Even my hubby is guilty of this-sigh…

    1. Yeah, people don’t have to watch them if it’s not their thing but they really need to stop going around and spreading strange opinions. Alas…

      Agreed! The cult of D.W. has lost a lot of ground in the past couple of decades and they are really grasping at straws. The “grammar” of film thing is one of those straws. We’re supposed to believe that no one else thought to combine multiple techniques? Puh-leez. I mean, he was a top-tier director for most of the 1910s, there’s no denying that, but there were plenty of other talented and creative men and women blazing new trails in cinema.

  4. Ugh the “all women were vamps or angels before pre-code” argument is just so silly and wrong. I have seen that on countless documentaries, such as Complicated Women, and it feels so terrible to build up your subject by downplaying the achievements of another.

    In fact, I was reading a book about pre-code Hollywood and when talking briefly about silent films, it said something along the lines of “However, nobody watches silent films. Those video tapes are unrented, thus discussion of them here is pointless.”

    You can just say you’re lazy, man.

    1. Oh good grief! I mean, that author needs to go back to class! It would be like a Shakespearean scholar refusing to discuss contemporary playwrights who influenced the Bard because “no one acts out those plays anymore.” Even if exactly no one watched silent movies, anyone who calls themselves a film historian is still obligated to watch them if they wish to discuss the period.

  5. My biggest problem is that I can’t get anybody to watch them with me. They don’t want to watch them because they are old, black and white, and don’t have any sound.

    I’ve conned my wife into watching a few of them with me, but she’s pretty apathetic about them. Her first husband was a Charlie Chaplin fanatic and she refuses to watch any of those.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

    1. Yeah, we are often thwarted by the cheapo releases that are shown on TV or are available on streaming services. (Let me take an opportunity to plug for the wonderful Fandor, which only has the best silent releases available for streaming. I’m a huge fan.)

  6. Whenever I tell someone I watch silents they look at me as if I just said that I collect deep ocean slugs or something like that. Many are kind and pretend interest, maybe even have heard of “Metropolis” or “Gold Rush” but most of them associate silents with flickering scratched black-and-white films with people acting in fast motion accompanied by funny piano music.
    Interestingly I found younger people to be more open to the subject than for example my parent’s generation who grew up with TV in the 50s and 60s.
    Nevertheless I experienced that silents are often dismissed as a funny curiosity from a time long, long ago.

    1. Yes, so many people feel that silent films belong in a museum. Like you, I have found that younger viewers are generally more open to the concept of silent film viewing. Perhaps the strange stigma against silent films is fading just a little.

  7. “Audiences must have been soooo simple back then. Throwing pies around and people falling on their butts made them laugh.”

    Have heard this or variations of it way too many times. Good Grief! I’ve seen a truckload of full length silent comedies and what seem like a bazillion comedy shorts- they feature so very FEW pies thrown. As for falling down (posterior-wise or any other-wise), it’s an absolute art! Modern comedians WISH they could make it look as wonderfully believable, as effortless as any of the dozens of hams (male and female) who worked on the Keystone or Roach lots!

    1. Yes, absolutely! Silent film audiences had enormous sensitivity and sophistication; they needed both in order to catch all the subtle nuances of the performance and story. And the pie thing is just plain weird. Silent comedians had milk, water, mud, cement and just about anything you could imagine thrown at them. Pies were NOT the only option.

  8. I would use “ignorant” rather than “idiotic” because I don’t think it’s willful, but the treatment of “silent” as a single genre. I have the same problem with the term “classic rock”. Anyone who reads about silent film for more than two seconds would quickly realize that silents had as much genre variation as talkies. I realize in this day and age that silent films are considered “niche”, but that doesn’t mean one should use “silent” as a blanket term unless they merely mean “not a talkie”.

    1. Well, if we’re going to argue semantics (and I place the activity slightly below having a root canal) I will say that not knowing a darn thing about silent film is ignorant. Accepting myths as fact? Ignorant. Refusing to check facts and proceeding full steam ahead? If that isn’t idiotic, I don’t know what is, especially if someone claims expertise in history or classic film.

      The term silent film is a convenient way of referring to pre-sound film, much as classic film is generally reckoned to cover the studio era and the last death throes of the code in the 1960s. I do feel that people tend to telescope film history, ignoring the fact that silent films were made from about 1895 (when motion pictures were first projected) up to 1930 in the United States. That’s a lot of history.

  9. I think we are in agreement. I would say that someone who refers to “silent film” as a singular genre is being ignorant. Likewise, I would say someone who willfully ignores facts is being idiotic (especially a self-styled expert, as you mention).

    I totally understand simplifying things for convenience, but I can’t help but throw a petty mini-fit when categories in, say, streaming services, will be like Horror, Sci-Fi, Western, etc. and Silent—especially if they include Old Hollywood talkies in the “normal” categories. Then again, it can be nice to have all the silents in one place. My laziness conflicts with my principles, lol.

    I thought of a couple more things that can descend into ludicrousness pretty quickly. One is whether it was Louise Brooks or Colleen Moore who sported the signature bob first. Another is who was the first true flapper. Was it Colleen Moore in Flaming Youth?! Olive Thomas in The Flapper?! Oh, lord.

    1. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree. I tend to mentally categorize things as macro to micro (which is likely why the Korean language is so appealing to me). For example, when I pull up something about THE SEA HAWK from my brain, I think of it as: Film > Silent Film > First National > Swashbuckler > The Sea Hawk. I slice larger topics down into their general pieces and keep dividing until I reach the level of specificity that I prefer. I have no problem with silent films being separated as I consider them to be a similar but ultimately different art.

      Yes, the question of “firsts” is full of pitfalls, in no small part due to the absolutely abysmal survival rate. There may be a “first” flapper who pre-dates them all but worrying about first tends to obscure the fact that all three actresses were important in their own unique way, which is ultimately more important than being the first.

  10. A personal note on terminology: my Great Aunt’s memories of pre-sound films were truly magical- could listen to her describe their plots for hours. Bless you, M’Tante Julie, for sparking my interest so long ago. Julie worked in a shoe factory around the turn of the last century, when film was young- for years she and her girlfriends attended picture shows every time they could afford it, and had time. They guffawed at the comedies, teared up at the tragedies, loved with a passion all those features, shorts, documentaries, cartoons as welcome hours away from work and home duties.
    She never called them anything but The Flickers, or simply The Movies (“We went to The Flickers that Saturday,” or “We went out to The Movies after the dishes were washed up.”). Never used the term Silent Movies, though she lived a long time into the talkies era and appreciated it robustly. To her they always were simply Movies. Maybe that’s what impressed me the most really, the way she capitalized the words when she spoke of them.

    1. Thanks for sharing! Yes, the “movies” and “talkies” would have been two very different things. However, the vast majority of modern filmgoers, historians and critics use “silent films” for sheer convenience. After all, just because my friend’s great-great-grandmother in Arkansas called cars “devil wagons” doesn’t mean the phrase can be used without explanation today. For another analogy, “Elizabethan English” would not have been a phrase used by actual Elizabethans. It was just English. However, it is a convenient way of describing the distinct flavor of language during that period.

  11. I certainly agree with you. Chaucer’s English, Shakespeare’s English, Queen Vic’s English, Eddie’s English, all are necessary descriptions to enable discussion. Silent Movies, Talkies, Digitalized, Analog, Potayto, Potahto…..let’s call the whole thing off!

    Comment was just a personal memory brought on by this thread’s discussion on terminology. Julie was a treasure- her memories unique, fascinating.

  12. Oh, I have some good ones from you: people talking about (those really old silent films… you know, the ones made a long, long time ago… in the 1970s, I think”.
    And someone who rated a silent film 3 out of 5 stars “bacuse it’s silent and has no color” Ha!

  13. That scene with Rudolph just slowly backing away from the cross like some sort of vampire never fails to amuse me.

    Of course, Italians are reverse vampires. They are tanned (vs anemic and pale), love garlic, and are diurnal. They have many other traits opposite to those of vampires as well.

    1. Yes, I once saw a South Korean movie involving vampires and was like, “Um, no.” I would think that vampires would avoid Korea, Italy, France and the Middle East in general, given the garlic preference. As I am also a garlic lover, I am pleased to say that my house is 100% vampire free. 😉

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