Silent Films: A Quick Guide for the Perplexed (Frequently Asked Questions Answered!)

I like to read reviews of silent films that were written by people who are unfamiliar with the art. It helps me remember what it was like to be a newcomer, which things seemed confusing or odd to me. On that note, I have decided to post a quick and handy answer to some common questions.

How do you watch a silent movie anyway?

Remember, these questions come from a place of genuine curiosity. We all have to start somewhere so don’t feel bad about any confusion or questions you may have if you are a newcomer. (On the other hand, if the writer has the “let’s laugh at old stuff because it’s old” attitude, I have no sympathy and actively wish for them to sit on a tack.)

So, what’s up with that tinting thing? Why are silent movies yellow or blue or whatever? Was this common?

Yes, tinting was very common in silent film. It could be used two ways.

Literal Tints: blue for night, yellow for sunny days, red for fire, etc.

Symbolic Tints: purple for royalty, rose for romance, lavender or green for eeriness and anything in between.

Wow! This movie is old! Is the music I’m hearing as old as the film?

It depends. Some silent movies had synchronized scores and these scores still survive. Most silents are accompanied by modern scores but many accompanists make it a point of pride to use music that would have been available when the film was first released. Others take a modern approach. The most important thing is whether you enjoy it.

squaw-man-piano-music

I don’t hear any music! Why are silent movies so silent?

Some bargain releases and many silent films on YouTube have no music at all but they were intended to be shown with suitable musical accompaniment. Musical scores are expensive and so when private collectors share their films online, it is often mute. (We’re just fortunate to see these rare films!) In the case of bargain releases (those $2-5 discs), the distribution company is trying to maximize profits and you would do better to seek other options.

I saw a silent movie but it was scratchy and blurry. What gives?

Some silent movies have been restored to such pristine quality that they look like they were filmed yesterday. Other silent movies have been transferred from battered old prints. Generally speaking, you get what you pay for. In North America, brands like Flicker Alley, Kino Lorber, the Criterion Collection, Olive Films and Warner Archive generally promise the best quality. And you can usually safely buy discs released by the film’s original studio. For streaming, I recommend Fandor, which has the best selection of silents in both quantity and quality.

caligari-image-quality-comparisonI strongly encourage newcomers to silent film to view the best quality they can afford. After all, would it be fair to judge beloved blockbusters like Star Wars or Titanic by crummy VHS tapes that have been through the VCR a few too many times?

2 Replies to “Silent Films: A Quick Guide for the Perplexed (Frequently Asked Questions Answered!)”

  1. “How do you watch a silent movie anyway?” It’s a fair question, really, because it’s different from how 21st-Century people often “watch” their media:
    You Have To Keep Your Eyes On the Screen. We’re so accustomed to looking away to check texts, email, go get a snack, play a video game or just generally do something else while a TV blares in the background that this takes a certain amount of discipline. If you look away from a silent film, you miss something. Even a few seconds can confuse you, and a minute or more may cause you to lose the thread of the plot.
    Just my two cents on a very important subject.

    1. Very true. I have had good success showing Melies films for that very reason. In the first place, people recognize the images if not the name. In the second place, we have a short running time and (often) narration.

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