On the Pleasures of a Well-Made Silent Film

Whether it’s motivated by snark or genuine curiosity, silent movie fans are often called upon to explain why they enjoy these films. I’ve discussed the whys a few times already but this time we’re going to dig a little deeper into the pleasures that silent films offer.

You are fully engaged

Lip reading in “The Canadian”

I like to say that silent films occupy a twilight realm between talkies and novels. While we are fed visual information, a considerable amount of the story is left to our imaginations. Further, most silent films made after medium shots and closeups were embraced expect audiences to read lips.

With a sound movie, you can get up, look down and generally take your eyes off the screen briefly without missing too much. Silent films provide constant visual information and require an engaged audience to succeed. Anybody who thinks they can talk through a silent movie has clearly never properly seen a silent movie.

Hello, may we haunt you?

What all this means is that silent films have the power to burrow deep into your subconscious and stay there, much more so than sound films. Of course, there are plenty of haunting and memorable talkies but silent films take up residence in your brain more easily and permanently. If this sounds a little creepy, it is but it’s also wonderful.

Expect the unexpected

Silent movies invented cinema and just about every genre and technique you can think of had its start in the silent era. Because they were inventing the movies, silent era filmmakers often displayed off-kilter plotting and delightfully left field plot twists that keep their films modern even today.

Yes, there were tropes in silent films. (The ever-popular “calling for help via telephone during a home invasion robbery” comes to mind.) But silent films in general, even programmers, were willing to jump off the rails and embrace nutty plot twists. And since what is old is new, a trope that was a little dull in the silent era can seem fresh and exciting to modern eyes.

A tongue-in-cheek list of tropes from 1922.

In fact, if you spend any time at all skimming old film magazines, you will see that fresh plots were demanded by audiences and that “something entirely new” was a common boast when a silent movie was released. I mean, watch something like The Cruise of the Jasper B or The Cameraman’s Revenge and tell me that you’ve seen anything like it before.

“The Cameraman’s Revenge” is a tale of jealousy and vengeance told entirely with stop-animated dead insects.

Further, many newcomers are surprised by the sheer number of powerful women in the silent film industry. Producers, directors, writers, editors, designers, colorists… women really could do it all in silent films. It’s so refreshing.

Artisan cinema

These days, marketing departments are in love with words like “artisan” and “hand-crafted” which are particularly odd when applied to things like fast food chicken sandwiches. Well, silent movies really were hand-crafted. Huge, gorgeous sets, detailed matte paintings, real on-location shoots, hand- and stencil-colored frames and elaborate costumes… I could go on but the point is that these films are works of art.

The studio system and the talkie transition streamlined production, locked movies inside sound stages and generally made filming more efficient but there is something wonderful and impressive about movies like Hell’s Hinges. They needed to have an apocalyptic inferno engulf a western town so they had an apocalyptic inferno engulf a western town. That’s worth a million computer-enhanced stunts or elaborately choreographed nightclub dance scenes in my book.

Underdogs

Silent films don’t get much respect these days. Your average movie fan may have seen a bit of Chaplin or a Keystone Cops clip, maybe even a silent horror film or two, but most people view silents as creaky relics that are valuable only as something to riff. Even dedicated film buffs can fall into this trap.

I support the underdog almost every time. “Nobody watches silent movies” is an irresistible challenge in my book and I suspect that I’m not alone. A remark that I hear again and again is that even though the majority of silent films are lost or held in archives, new fans are amazed by the sheer quantity and variety of available material.

Why should talkies have all the attention? Silent movies are fresh, exciting and beautiful.

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12 Replies to “On the Pleasures of a Well-Made Silent Film”

  1. SO well said- thank you for this post!

    The intensely immersive quality of silent films was what first grabbed me back in the day, and that has never changed. Again late last night while watching UnderCrank’s new release, Before The Thousand Faces, I “fell into” those films and lived there for a little while. No other words come to mind for the experience. And, I’m still going over those three films in my mind today; as you pointed out, they do stick with you in a wonderful way πŸ™‚

  2. Love what you wrote and I love the beetle! I must see that movie now. There is so much wealth in silent cinema and it is a shame more people do not relish in these gems

  3. You’re correct about keeping your eyes on the screen, that visual information is flowing constantly. Look down to pour a cup of tea and you’ve missed something.Some modern sound movies (and more so TV programmes) allow you to go the kitchen, make a whole pot of tea and still follow the plot.

  4. I love that the rules of genre are not firmly set, and, as you say, anything can happen. We have such a genre-ridden culture, I think some younger viewers have trouble with this — they want to know what the rules are, but often they haven’t been written at the time the film was made.

  5. One of the many things I love about silent films is they give you a peek into what life was like back in the teens and twenties, particularly in a film shot outdoors or on location. A typical film shot in downtown Los Angeles gives you a peek into the clothing, automobiles, storefronts, advertising, etc, that you don’t get in a film shot in a closed studio; and something that is virtually impossible to replicate nowadays. It’s one of the reasons I love films shot on location in New York and other places back in the seventies – they’re little time capsules (as well as proof that many of the cliches we hear about concerning both eras are not necessarily true).

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