The #1 FAQ: How did you get into silent films?

I’m not super open about silent films in the real world. It’s not that I keep my interest a secret, it’s just that mentioning a love of silent films often requires more explanation than I am prepared to give.

Usually, I just say something like “Oh, I like early film” and then nod politely as people gush about old movies like Back to the Future. The simple fact is that most people don’t care enough to discuss it, Chaplin (maybe) excepted.

(I’m referring to new acquaintances and random people, you understand. My friends know about my hobby and they’re cool with it because that’s what friends do.)

Sometimes, though, I get people who are genuinely curious. How does someone get into silent film? Well, genuine curiosity is a rare thing these days and deserves to be encouraged and so this is my explanation.

Gather 'round, my dears!
Gather ’round, my dears!

The first thing you should know is that I was born in 1981 but all of my pop culture touchstones are from an earlier era. My parents had children later in life than is usual in the United States and their movie memories were very much of the later Golden Age of studio cinema. My father had a particular love for the Warner Brothers studio style, Hal Roach comedies and cliffhanger serials but a strong dislike for religious epics. My mother was a Cary Grant and Erroll Flynn fan who had a strong dislike for musicals. But sets of tastes continue to have a strong influence on what I prefer to watch.

I have never lived in a house with cable television and so most of my viewing came courtesy of VHS. With the exception of Star Trek and Star Wars, almost all of my entertainment from pre-1950. (Music? All classical.) No wonder I was a little bit of an oddball in grade school.

What was the deal with this Valentino fellow?
What was the deal with this Valentino fellow?

So, in addition to being a rabid Trekkie, I was also a classic film fanatic. As I grew older, my taste changed and expanded. I went through a Bogart phase, a Powell/Loy phase, a Brando phase, a general noir phase, a post-WWII Japanese cinema phase.. You get the idea. But I kept noticing something: my knowledge of classic film was cut off at 1930.

My family had numerous history books with big pictures of silent film stars. Charlie Chaplin with spaghetti and dancing rolls, Harold Lloyd dangling from a clock, Rudolph Valentino smouldering over Vilma Banky, Lillian Gish on an ice floe… but they all seemed very abstract, like fashion stills. Silent films are best viewed in motion and I was about to receive a lesson to drive home that fact.

I decided that I would give silent films a try and (dating myself here) I went to Blockbuster and rented a copy of Sparrows. And I hated it. I didn’t realize it at the time but the tape was faded and warped. (I loved the film when I got a chance to see a restored version on DVD.)

city-lights-seat-of-the-pants

I decided to give silent films one more try and rented City Lights. Chaplin remains the most recognized figure in silent film and there has to be a reason for that, right? Right!

Chaplin’s great asset as a comedian is his grace. Even when he falls, even when his comedy becomes violent, there is a balletic quality to his movements, an absolute control over his body. I was enchanted, enraptured. I wanted more.

Rudolph Valentino was my next target and I bought The Sheik. The film was a hokey treat and I was in love! I watched Son of the Sheik soon after and then I saw a still of Sessue Hayakawa and tracked down The Cheat. This led me to the silent work of Cecil B. DeMille, which intrigued me with its lean, aggressive style. I revisited Mary Pickford and was delighted with My Best Girl and Daddy Long Legs. The Beloved Rogue was a simultaneous introduction to silent John Barrymore and Conrad Veidt, both of whom I was more familiar with in sound. My Veidt love led me to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Indian Tomb, which in turn led me to more German cinema.

I had been a silent movie fan for about six months and I was intoxicated. The stories were so different from Golden Age fare, the stars so vibrant and intriguing. The popular view of silent films as overdone relics was neatly disproved once the performers were released from the pages of history books and allowed to perform once again.

But how did I end up starting this blog? That’s another story for another day.

32 Replies to “The #1 FAQ: How did you get into silent films?”

  1. Silent films did not get my attention until I saw Buster Keaton in “The General” on PBS back in the 1970s. I was hooked immediately with a new appreciation of the genre, and over the decades it has only gotten stronger. Thank you Fritzi for your valuable blog; you are doing an enormous job of educating the public on the wonder of silent film.

  2. I give my dad full credit for opening my eyes to old films and silent films. My mom had no clue about any stars but my dad knew the films and the stars. I am one who likes reading about the stars and I would ask my dad a whole bunch of questions…Is she dead? What did she die of? Was she married? To whom? Who were they married to? What movies were they in? And so on. My dad started goi g to the movies very early….the 1920’s ! He saw Valentino, Garbo, Chaplin etc…all on the big screen. He was 51 when I was born in 1964 and I grew up watching all these films. He introduced me to the silents and we laughed u til tears came when Chaplin was being chased around the cabin in The Gold Rush. His favourite were Laurel & Hardy and we watched many that were on the TV. When I was young, so many old films were on the little screen and even some silents which I thought were great. My dad would tell me about seeing a film in Toronto with a big orchestra, in a beautiful theatre. He told me that sometimes, there would be vaudeville acts playing before the movie and after. I wish he was still here so I could ask him more questions about the great silent films he saw. He saw most of these films when he was young which was the 20’s and the 30’s

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your memories! Both my parents prefer the classics but my father was more interested in the silents by far. Hal Roach comedies, surprise surprise. 🙂

  3. watch TCM and PBS got me loving the classics. Some of the best memories of my father is watching them with him

  4. Thank you for sharing your beginnings with silents, and today of all days.

    Silent cinema in all its varied incarnations creates a magical world, doesn’t it?

  5. Spellbound in Darkness was the first book on the silents I ever bought long ago. Picked it up for a song at Dutton’s Used/Rare Books. I thought (still do) the title described it all, for me anyway…

  6. I ended up taking a Film Appreciation class in High school, while they showed no silents I saw Fatal Glass of Beer with W.C.Fields and loved it. I first go into Vaudeville because of Fields, I began tracking down a lot of Vaudeville performers in silent films, and I was hooked. A bit later I saw where not too far from me a Country Club was owned by an ex-vaudevillian who turned out to be Brooke Johns. I was lucky enough to get to meet him, and we became friends. He reminded me he made a couple of Silents, one of which was “Manhandled” with Gloria Swanson. I started to do some research to look for other films he had made, and then I got hooked into the research end, which continues after 40 years.

  7. You need a caption for the Chaplin GIF: “I was hooked” perhaps?
    BTW your hard work and that of a few other i/net denizens has revived my dormant interest in silents.

    Additionally, the restoration miracles that have made so many films so viewable in our times has impressed me.

    I saw (and screened) a few too many scratched poorly kept prints of films like “Caligari” and “Potemkin” in draughty cold halls at film societies years ago and had lost interest for a long time.

    Thanks Ms K

    1. My pleasure! Yes, Caligari and Potemkin in particular are absolutely sparkling now. What a treat, especially compared to what we used to see in the bargain DVD or VHS market.

  8. Sounds like we had similar childhoods! I spent the best part of my youth out of sorts with everyone else, watching Marx Bros and Laurel & Hardy films and listening to my dad’s 60’s record collection! 🙂

    My first exposure to silents was through Harold Lloyd. They used to show “Harold Lloyd’s World Of Comedy” which was basically two silent shorts redacted and tacked together in a 30 minute TV show. The first silent feature I saw would probably be Nosferatu.

    It’s really only been the past few years and the advent of Blu-ray re-releases that I’ve truly been able to appreciate silent films for the art they are (and sites like yours have helped too! 😉 )

    1. Thanks for sharing! Yes, home media has been such a boon to silent films. I’m not sure I could have seen even 1% of the available silents without DVD and Bluray.

  9. Hi Fritzi, I only started into Silent films last year. I’d always been a fan of black and white films from the 30’s and 40’s but didn’t give Silents much thought. However, I wanted to watch Metropolis with the extra restored footage. I really enjoyed it. I watched the Janet Gaynor films with Charles Farrell and also Sunrise. I then found your blog, was fascinated and excited by your forthright reviews, trying to watch as many as I could, I fell in love with Mary Pickford after seeing Sparrows, and now I’m hooked. My family thinks I’m mad, however, they do like Harold Lloyd and my daughter loves Ossi in The Doll. So it’s pretty much all down to you. Thank-you!
    Antony

  10. Buster Keaton got me into silent film… I thought, wow, if that’s what all silent films are like, I will *love* this whole era. I haven’t found anything I fell in love with that hard, but there’s plenty to love! I just love the ethereal feel that many of these films have.

  11. Got into silents in about 1964 at thirteen years old. Had no chance to see any apart from poorly presented comedies and Phantom of the Opera for many decades, then they showed a few on our Channel 4. Since then I have had access to many hundreds which I didn’t know were available. When I mention my fondness to most people they have no idea of the range of films made. Their instant reaction is invariably ” Oh, you mean Charlie Chaplin?” Gertcha !!!!!

    1. Although it could be worse. I mean, Chaplin was wildly popular and his films do stand up to modern scrutiny. Can you imagine if the go-to silent personality was, say, Norma Talmadge? Drippy melodramas for all! 😉

  12. By the way, and only just on subject, does anyone know what is being said by the chap at the start of Phantom of the Opera in the version which is most widely shown nowadays? I imagine it is one of the sound sections which were added.

    1. Yes, I believe it is the sound section. I will have to give my DVDs a quick listen as I do not recall if that section of the sound version survives.

  13. Well, I don’t think it’s on the original, but then, how original is the original??? Thanks for the quick response, it’s incredible, we must be thousands of miles apart!

  14. I’ve been a silent film fan almost my entire life. My dad lived in Hollywood during the heyday of silent film and my grandfather was a silent film actor. My dad took Barbara Kent to his high school prom at Fairfax High (they didn’t call it “prom” back in the day). So, I grew up with silent film stories galore…

  15. I forgot to mention in earlier posts on this subject, I am currently researching the history of the cinemas in my home town, Walsall, concentrating on the period 1910 to 1931, which takes me from the passing of the Cinematograph Act of 1909, whereby all venues showing films had to meet certain standards of safety and comfort (though this did not necessarily mean providing proper lavatories) until the conversion to sound of the last picture house to hold out. It is a fascinating subject which has kept me going for almost five fears to date!

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