Why do you like silent films?

“Silent movies? You like silent movies?”

It’s a conversation that I’ve had all too many times in my career as a silent movie fan. Many modern filmgoers just can’t comprehend why anybody would willingly watch a silent movie, let alone multiple silents.

My reasons for liking silent films have to do with obscurity, rooting for the underdog and the fact that a good silent movie is an entirely unique experience. Because we as viewers are required to supply so much of our imagination, a good silent movie will root itself in our brains far deeper than a sound film. At least that has been my experience.

Also, I really dig intense, brooding fellas.

What about you? What is it about silent movies that appeals to you?

Naturally, this is all going to depend on your point of view and if your answer is, “I like grown men hitting one another with cotton clubs” well, that’s fine by me!

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27 Replies to “Why do you like silent films?”

  1. Because the enemy of art is the absence of limitations. A sonnet is great because there are so many rules — 14 lines, set rhyme scheme, set symmetrical pattern, set stanza pattern. A string quartet is more difficult than a symphony because the toolbox has been deliberately limited. Thus film can be more truly film when it cannot rely on synchronized sound to do the heavy lifting. It is a more intense and internal experience, more like dreaming than sound film.

  2. First off, I like Kerr Lockhart’s comment. Lillian Gish once said something to the effect that she wished movies had begun with color and sound and then worked their way back to being silent, instead of vice versa. She, too, knew something of the art of limitations. Secondly, it is sheer fun to watch adults, at the beginning of an art form, squeezing every crazy image they could get out of a camera (e.g., Buster Keaton’s SHERLOCK JR.). For me, it beats multi-million-dollar CGI spectacles any day!

  3. As you wrote, a silent film is a different form and experience than a sound film, regardless of the similarities. To view a silent film as a deficient version of a sound film, as if it’s lacking something, is missing the point. Should a painting or a photograph have a soundtrack? A silent film allows film artists to express their art in a moving image; sound is not a requirement and can often be a burden, since viewers often neglect the image for the sound. And, by the way, people still listen to music and the radio without needing accompanying visual images. Thus, as with any “new” art form, the viewer needs a bit of patience and exposure.

  4. The answer to “Why do I like silent films?” is the same as my answer to “Why do I like films?” To me, the “silent” part of silent films is pretty much irrelevant. I’m not going to ignore two whole decades of movies just because they didn’t yet have sound recording. Good movies were made in every decade, including in the “silent film” years. Plus, there’s a joy of discovery in finding “old” things that are completely new to me.

  5. For me silent films are visceral, like a physical embodiment of the George Pratt book title Spellbound in Darkness. Even when simply viewing them at home the past truly overwhelms me: somewhere a theatre’s lights went down, a hush fell, the velvet curtain slowly rose as the pit orchestra began an overture…and The Sea Hawk (fill in the blank with your favorite) began to be projected. I am transported into the audience of that film. Bliss!

    As the SF Silent Film Festival always notes, True Art Transcends Time.

  6. As Chauncey Gardiner said in BEING THERE (1979), “I like to watch.” Discerning truth through nonverbal signals telegraphed via body language, gestures, facial expressions, and that oddly spiritual transference of thought through the eyes, has always been one of my favorite pastimes, and silent movies handily embrace all such nonverbal signals. Stories told purely through motion picture images are an amplification of this pastime to sublime, and sometimes life-changing, proportions.

  7. Just remembering back to my early years, when they used to run 1930s talkies on Sunday TV. I found them excruciating painful to watch. Even my parents, who grew up with these films, hated most of them. Curiously, I can watch silents that almost date back to the Stone Age. Could the answer be that we have nothing today, with which to compare them?

  8. Why I like silent films I like history were else can you see what the world looked like 100 years ago . And the great actors and actresses like lon chaney mary pickford , charlie chaplin and the list go on

  9. Agree 100% with Kerr regarding limits and art.

    My interest is in the important part silent film played in creating the language of film. It’s far from an original observation that synchronised sound set that language back for a long period and still has a deleterious effect on many modern films.

    But having some idea of silent film syntax and style lets today’s audiences enjoy that unique way of telling stories, even when they may be unaware of techniques founded 100 or more years ago.

  10. I love silent movies because I love sound and visuals in movies so much. I really enjoy the impact or lack of impact of sounds in movies. And, I like that watching a silent movie requires you to actually to WATCH them. I learned over 50 years ago that lack of sound makes you notice things you wouldn’t otherwise need to notice. And yet a decent organist or soundscape can provide just enough sound to make it even more interesting without being distracting.
    As an interesting parallel, I love Jacques Tati films and I am guessing a lot of other silent movie fans do too. If you think about it, there is a similarity between a Tati movie and watching a good silent comedy. Tati used the most subtle sounds to deliver the funniest gags in what were more-or-less a silent movie.

  11. When I first started watching silent films, I was pleasantly surprised to find how beautiful, comical, and exciting they could be. I used to think they were just crude, blurry, pictures and that people moved annoying fast! Wow, was I ever wrong! I enjoy them way more than movies with sound now.

  12. I tend to agree with floodmouse. I like film (and the related art forms of theatre and, on a good day, television). If a film is good, I don’t care whether it has sound or not, is in colour or black and white, is live action or animated, is documentary or fictional, is realistic or fantastic, is in a language I speak or one I don’t … I’d rather enjoy good cinema than miss a good film because of its category. I think a lot of silent films are good, and a lot aren’t, though those that have survived this long are (on average, probably) likely to be good rather than bad.

  13. It’s a bit like people telling me, you can write, why the hell do you write fantasy stories?

    Personally, I think that a good story is a good story. Period. The media is secondary. There are good silent films (and I love those) and bad silent films (and I don’t like those) the same way there are good modern films (and I like those) and bad ones (and I don’t like those).

    People who ask, why on heart do you ever…. it’s because they don’t know what they’re talking about. If they tried, they knew better.
    Just my two cents 😉

  14. I can hear the “dialogue” in my head. Does that make me slightly crazy? I love the look of the silent film actresses. Definitely got IT.

  15. I like them because of how visually imaginative and impressive so many of them are. I also like how the acting is more about letting us feel the characters emotions. I also think that if a story is good, and the characters come across as believable then who needs dialogue to follow the story?

  16. I love silent films because they’re just as entertaining as talkies, sometimes even more so. I love the color tints, the musical scores, and of course, the stories and characters.

  17. Hi guys! Sorry I’m not replying to all of your excellent comments but I had a stomach bug relapse and I’m not 100% right now but I have been enjoying everybody’s perspective on this topic. 🙂

  18. After watching silents for a few years, it strikes how much time “talkies” literally do just show people talking. I suppose that’s true to how people spend their lives, and sometimes movie dialog can be interesting or witty. But plenty of time you know what they’re going to say anyway. Every action/adventure movie has a scene where the hero is told he/she can’t do what you known they’re going to do because they will die or it’s impossible or they need to think of their family, but he/she insists they have to because of a promise they made or the earth or the free world depends on them. I don’t really mind these tropes, really (if I did I wouldn’t watch that kind of movie!) But it seems like they could be summed up pretty well by a couple of title cards, and we could get back to the action!

  19. I have been interested in silent films since 1976.In the mean time I have built up a collection of classic silent film titles on 16mm including “sunrise “(1927)and “the crowd “(1928).I have personally always found silent films to be very interesting although over the decades I have become more objective in my appraisal in that I consider all film genres to have their good and bad films

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