“But you have to see it on the big screen!” and Other Silent Movie Problems

Are people with access to theatrical silent film screenings better fans than those who rely on home video? It’s an issue that has cropped up periodically over the years and since I just attended a screening of Metropolis, I thought it would be fun to chew over this topic.

For the record, so this article is not misconstrued, I absolutely support theatrical screenings of silent films. Live music is a pleasure that greatly adds to the experience and being able to pick out detail on a theater-sized screen is fun. My particular bone-picking is with the idea that people have not really experienced a silent movie if they watch it at home. So if you like to share your theatrical experiences, please continue! Many people enjoy the recaps and it’s always nice to hear about silent films getting some TLC.

Ceteris Paribus

It has been my experience that when people wish to read an article on silent films, they prefer it to include a hefty dose of economic theory as well.

What’s that? They don’t at all? Oh bother.

Well, I took a ton of economics units and I am going to use them, darn it! (Prisoners Dilemma: I sold out my classmates in a hot minute. You have been warned.)

Ceteris paribus is an important concept in economics. Basically, it means that we are comparing apples to apples, all things are equal. In practical terms, that means simplifying our model so that we can compare just a few factors without being distracted.

 

Many people living in urban areas of the United States during the silent era had access to a movie theater that screened silent films. Many people living in urban areas of the United States today have access to theaters that screen silent films

Many people still have access to theatrical silent film screenings. Ergo, people should watch silent films in the theater.

However, we need to bring in outside factors before we can make the statement that people “should” see silent movies in theaters. Economist Alfred Marshall wrote about one of the problems with applying ceteris paribus willy-nilly: “The more the issue is thus narrowed, the more exactly can it be handled; but also the less closely does it correspond to real life.”

As the demand for silent films dwindled– crashed, really– screenings became rarer. Nostalgic revivals  are not too common as the people who experienced these films first-hand when they were new are shuffling off this mortal coil. But other factors have increased demand: television screenings, home video, the internet, etc. Still, there are fewer silent film screenings per capita than there were during the silent era.

There’s even more to the story. Many people have access to such screenings but cannot afford to attend. Or the nearest screening is hundreds of miles from their home. Or they have a fear of crowds. There are multiple factors that effect a silent film fan’s ability to watch silent films.

Long story short: It’s best not to presume that everybody is in a position to attend a theatrical screening.

Metropolis: Maria Looks for a Union Steward

I was able to see Metropolis at the Copley Symphony Hall in San Diego. The venue has an original pipe organ and it is a beauty! In fact, it was a big reason for me to make the trip down south.

Metropolis itself… Yeah, not my favorite. It’s beautiful, the design is superb but I find Thea von Harbou’s story to be simplistic and the symbolism to be a bit too self-congratulatory. (This is, incidentally, why I have not yet reviewed the film on this site. How many times can I make jokes about forming a union?) If you like the film, wonderful! Enjoy! It’s just not for me.

“But have you seen it on the big screen?”

Yes, indeed! And after the screening… I thought that the film was beautiful, the design was superb but I found Thea von Harbou’s story to be simplistic and the symbolism to be a bit too self-congratulatory. (This was the restored version with the 16mm elements recovered in Argentina and released on Bluray by Kino. I jokingly call it the Fritz Rasp cut.)

I did come out of the screening with a newfound appreciation for organ scores. (I had only heard piano, chamber and ensembles scores live before this.) On home video, they can sound like a baseball game but the pipe organ has a physical rumble and a surround sound effect thanks to pipes being built into the theater walls. Wonderful! But the film? I enjoyed myself, admired the sets and costumes but my opinion is pretty much what it always was.

On the opposite end of the scale, Lawrence of Arabia has long been my favorite movie and I first saw it on VHS. (Oh dear!) I jumped at the chance to see it on the big screen and seeing the sweeping scale was absolutely breathtaking. It was a wonderful experience and I am glad I did it but I was able to fall in love with the film on VHS viewed on a pretty small TV screen.

Not me.

Did the theatrical screenings add flavor to the films? Yes, indeed. Were the films so different that my opinion changed? Not really. The same thing goes for seeing Casablanca on the big screen (love!) and The Rat with live score (meh as ever but loved the music).

I guess what I’m driving at is that I don’t like the idea that seeing a movie at home somehow invalidates somebody’s opinion. Obviously, some restorations can completely change a film (Battleship Potemkin, for example) but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

Theatrical screenings of silent film are fun, educational and well worth the effort to attend. That being said, I view them as more of an amplifier than a game changer. Somebody else’s mileage may vary, obviously, but the presumption that all doubting hearts and minds will be changed with one super organ score doesn’t reflect reality for me.

I’m sure some opinions HAVE been changed by live screenings but everyone is different. Life is messy, no matter how much economists try to make sense of it.

***

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43 Replies to ““But you have to see it on the big screen!” and Other Silent Movie Problems”

  1. The only classic film I’ve seen in a theater is Casablanca. It was a real treat to watch it as part of a packed house.

    That said, the first silent films I ever saw were on a website, paired with generic ragtime, and not in the best condition. Didn’t stop me from falling in love with them.

    I’d love to see a Chaplin film on a big screen one of these days, particularly The Gold Rush. I can’t help but think of a book I read about him, though. The author wrote that the general feeling of film’s early days (he called it “springtime”), when cinema itself was new, is gone forever and can’t be recaptured.

    I suppose he’s right, in a sense.

      1. Sometimes I think it would be cool to travel back in time and go to a nickelodeon. Then I realize how lucky I actually am-I can *collect* movies and watch them any time I want in the comfort of my home.

        The ability to vote isn’t bad, either 😉

  2. Well, I can sit on both sides of the aisle. I enjoy seeing silent films at home, solo, without distraction. It allows to really concentrate and get into the experience and the film. That said, I can never forget my experience in 2012 seeing the Brownlow restoration of Gance’s Napoleon with Carl Davis conducting his massive (and classical pastiche) score. Napoleon is a film I did not really enjoy on VHS. Seeing it in a venue with 1999 (give or take) other people is an experience I count as the single greatest cinema event I have attended, so far. I love seeing films in the theater, the screen is SO BIG and if there is a great and attentive crowd along with it, nothing better. To appreciate a silent film, no, you do not need to see it on the big screen, but if you can it’s a helluva a lot of fun.

  3. Im a huge silent movie fan and I like watching them at home and on the big screen. I live in Massachusetts and there are countless independent movie theaters in New England that screen silent films on a regular basis (especially near Boston) so I get to see them in theaters about once or twice a month. It is really a great experience for fans, but it is also a lot of fun to watch them privately at home.

  4. I recently went to see my first ever screening of a silent film at a local arts centre, in the Midlands, England, (Arsenal 1929).

    It was accompanied by live music and there’s no doubt that added to the atmosphere. I wouldn’t recommend it as a first silent film to see however! It was a small venue but completely sold out. It was also nice to watch a silent film with an audience.

    I really enjoy watching films at home though and find if I’m not distracted it’s almost like being in a dream and very absorbing. I find watching silent films requires a higher level of concentration (being at home helps with that) and therefore is to me more enjoyable than talkies in some way. I think it’s perfectly ok to enjoy films at home and have valid opinions on them.

    1. I often have a movie or show playing as background noise. Can’t do that with a silent, though. You have no choice but to sit and watch. I’ve found that it’s done wonders for my attention span. Maybe others my age and younger could benefit as well?

  5. I have never seen a silent film in a theater, but I have seen them projected on screens and sheets via 16mm. I never expect to see a silent film in a theater, I live 100 miles from an urban area, and have never heard of their film festivals running silents. Now, my father used to tell me of his watching silent movies when a boy; he was of the age to enjoy Tom Mix. It would be an exaggeration to say that the screens of his boyhood are the size of today’s tvs, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration for today’s wall units. It’s true I will miss the fun of the audience in a great theater, but I’m happy for what I’ve got.

    1. Most definitely! And you make a good point: modern television screens with good sound systems easily surpass small rural theaters of the silent era. Now if we can just engage a pianist…

  6. I just found two cents in my glovebox so here they are. Watch silent movies wherever, whenever, and how ever you get a chance. I’ve seen The Black Pirate on the big screen at the great Paramount Theater on Broadway in Oakland, all the while in the midst of some creatively garbed moviegoers who yelled Arrrrrrrr! in proper response to the doings on the screen. I’ve traveled thirty or so miles south of there and seen an offering from William S. Hart, Lon Chaney, Charlie Chase and Harry Langdon, the other Charlie and Buster and Harold, that being in the old Edison Theater in the still-tiny hamlet of Niles, where Gilbert Anderson first brought his character Broncho Billy to life and to worldwide acclaim more than a hundred years ago, where Chaplin introduced the Tramp to the world and Ben Turpin achieved movie stardom just by having a funny way of staring at the the old Bell & Howell,, ensconced as it is just steps from where the Essanay Film Manufacturing Co. Inc.once did its fine work. I’ve watched Les Vampires on the big flat screen in the family room, The Parson’s Widow on the small flat screen in the garage, and One Week on my cell phone, way more than once. Just watch. So says my two cents worth. Just watch.

  7. There is the question of what format the film being shown ‘up big’ takes. I’m pretty sure our local semi regular silent film people use Blu-ray where available and sometimes DVD if not. I’d guess that domestic Blu-ray doesn’t measure up to commercial DCP files used in mainstream cinema, but on the other hand better quality reproduction often means better quality scratches, cinches, and dirt in silent films.

    Regular screenings from these generous folk usually employ fairly compact theatres, so picture reproduction is not strained by screen sizes.

    I’d run, not walk, to see a DCP screening of BFI’s ‘Napoleon’ and suspect that their prestige theatrical showings utilise that format.

    Im not aware of any nitrate films screened in Australia, maybe the national archive does.

    All up, it’s the live music that draws me to theatre screenings, as they are presented here.

    Footnote: In the last 6 months I’ve seen ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ and ‘Dunkirk’ in new 70mm prints in a large cinema. One outstanding aspect is the capacity of a large room to make big music scores and FX really work.

  8. I live in a very rural area where is no silent film festival or screenings for hundreds of miles so if it weren’t TCM and home video I wouldn’t really be able to experience silent film. Also, I’m not really a huge theater fan. I don’t like the crowds, I can watch movies at home anytime I want being able to pause whenever without missing something which I can’t do at a live screening(if I have to get up then I am going to miss part of the plot), there is a lot of distraction at a movie, and well films look so good on video and TV nowadays.

  9. I’ve seen many silents in a theatre. In fact, on March 24 I will be going to the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles to see “The Three Musketeers” with Douglas Fairbanks.

  10. Hi Fritzi. Watching a silent movie in a theater with live music and watching the same movie at home are two different experiences. I was lucky to be able to see silent movies every Friday night for several years, accompanied on the Mighty Wurlitzer. That was a great experience. Watching a silent movie on dvd or blu ray that I thought I would never get to see, like William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes is also a great experience. Family life makes it hard for me to get to theaters nowadays, so thank heaven I have the option to watch things at home. Some movies, especially comedies, seem to work better with an audience, but I can watch Chaplin or Keaton or Lloyd all alone and enjoy them. We have to allow for people who want to watch silent movies to do it in any way that works for them.

  11. Kay Lapping’s reference to ‘being in a dream’ and ‘concentration’ echoes the expression ‘half dream, half concentration’ that I just read in Fritzi’s review of ‘City Lights.’ That does sum up how most of us probably do relate to silent films, which is why, for me anyway, either the theater experience or home viewing is equally enjoyable.

  12. I first saw The Maltese Falcon on a big screen outdoors with an audience and I LOVED it – and have subsequently loved the movie just as much when I’ve watched it at home. I think a live audience is the most important part for me – but it only enchances my experience of watching the film, not my opinion of the film itself. (Counter experience – I saw Easy Rider in the same venue, had fun being there, hated the film.)

    Metropolis was my first feature length silent drama that made an impression on me. Prior to I’d only seen scratchy, badly scored shorts and an awful print of Phantom of the Opera (actually that one did leave an impression – I thought Lon Chaney was a tremendous actor and that Mary Philbin was pretty). But Metropolis was fully scored, restored, and gorgeous to look at (if a little long). You’ve made this point before, but big screen or small I think it’s the quality of the print that makes a huge difference. You could have a masterwork, but canned synthsized classical midis playing in the background can ruin it, just like washed-out film.

    I don’t really know if I liked Metropolis so much because I just liked it as a film or if I was surprised that a silent could feel so complete and fully-realized as a storytelling platform. Having seen more silents since, I realized there are a bunch of incredible films out there that just need a to be showcased properly. (And I’ve seen most of those on television or DVD.)

  13. My never-ending love and admiration for The Sea Hawk began when viewing it on a moviola screen, of all places. No music cues, heck, no music, period. This particular machine (owned by a good friend) was a 1950s model with the usual smallish screen, maybe 8 in. square. Through all the moviola’s stops and starts, I just couldn’t take my eyes off that film! Later in life, watching a screening of The Sea Hawk at University of Toronto on a big screen with live piano accompaniment, I found the film simply breathtaking. I remember wondering at the time about the amazing wardrobe dept. that could crank out such detailed, rich costumes, the details in things like mullioned windows and furnishings, the scope of the ships in the sea battles. Thrilling!

    But a big screen, great music score, and enthused audience reaction didn’t make the film an all-time favorite of mine. The Sea Hawk did that all by itself, stopping and starting soundlessly on an old moviola!

    1. It really is a magical movie! I am also reminded of Michael Strogoff (1926), which was only available as a 9.5mm condensed version for years but people fell in love with it all the same.

  14. I’d love to see all classic movies in theaters, if I could. The only nearby venue I have is the Packard Campus. I looooove going there!!! but the movies are not always at a good time. It’s a problem when a movie is on at 7:30 on a weeknight and you have wolf down something at home and jump in car for an hour’s drive right after work.

    About silent movies in particular: I utterly reject the idea that there’s something so different about silent films that they need a communal experience to fully appreciate. I’ve seen silents on DVD alone at home from beginning to end and been completely transfixed by the experience. For comedy, it’s important for me to have company, but no more than with talking comedies. My wife is all the crowd that I need to watch a great comedy, silent or talking.

    However, I do think that the difference between liking and disliking a film can be affected by the quality of the print. Restoration has made a huge difference in how I feel about some films, depending on what type of film it is. A scratchy print of a Chaplin or Keaton film will most likely still be effective, but maybe not an epic like Ben Hur.

  15. I’ve been to several silent over the years, usually in nearby Brum (you know where, Kay Lapping ) and I have perfected the art of blocking out the interference of people who only come to make mock of the film.
    I’ve seen live orchestra accompaniments and small combos as well as sound track recordings and live organ.
    I wish there were more venues willing to take a chance! !

  16. Silent films can be enjoyed both at home and in a theater, but in a choice between the two I would always take the theater. There are two reasons for this, and neither has to do with screen size. First and foremost is the live music. That really accentuates the experience. I have seen silent films accompanied by piano and also by theater organs and both are wonderful experiences. The second reason is the audience. It is a communal experience and adds to the “event” status of the film. Now, having an audience can cut both ways. I have seen Metropolis live and also Lon Chaney where some in the audience thought they were comedies. As much as I hate to admit it, a crowd reaction of laughter in those movies ruined it. Now to home viewing. There seems to be release after release of silent films coming through these days that I greatly enjoy watching at home. I have a home theater set-up, and I make sure to check my smartphone at the door. So, in a sense I have the theater experience of attention to the movie and get all of these wonderful choices coming from Flicker, Kino, Milestone, Fritzi, Ed, etc.

  17. There are times when seeing a silent in a theater is the only way to see a particular movie. A couple years ago, I was lucky enough to see Colleen Moore’s Her Wild Oat at a screening with live organ accompaniment. Since this film has yet to be released on DVD or Blu-ray, I consider myself fortunate to have seen it at all.
    Seeing a film in a theater is a wonderful experience, but it doesn’t one you don’t like a better film – for instance, I saw Phantom of the Opera on both VHS and in the theater, and both times I thought the production values were amazing and Chaney was good as he always is, but I still felt that the plot was rather trite and I had trouble working up any sympathy at all for the characters.
    It works that way with sound films, too – I still think Citizen Kane is a tad overrated, even though I first saw it in a theater that had not been significantly updated since Kane was first shown there back in 1941.

  18. Hi Fritzi! This was such a well-done post, and I really appreciated reading the diverse experiences of movie fans all over the world. The first silent films I saw were on a VCR and/or Turner Classic Movies. At one point in my life I lived 90 miles from a major city that did not often show silent films so home viewing was my only choice. I learned to love the films of Buster Keaton that way!

    Once I went to my first theatrical screenings with musical accompaniment and enthusiastic crowds, well, I was hooked! I agree with the folks here that say seeing films on the big screen enhances the experience. A thoughtful musical score makes the experience richer. I’ve been lucky enough to hear original scores for silent Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons, and most recently saw two 1920s era Felix the Cat cartoons with new scores created specifically for the films. What fun to hear “cartoony” music played live!

    Also, it took a very special live screening to convert me to being a die-hard fan of Harold Lloyd. Years prior, I had been to a film show with 5-6 different short films. Harold Lloyd was in one of them, and it was one of his 2 reelers. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t life changing for me (!) Then, I happened to be working in San Francisco on a business trip for 3 weeks. I knew the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto showed repertory films, and I saw that there was a Harold Lloyd double feature—“The Freshman” and “The Kid.” My boyfriend and I took a 45 minute train ride to Palo Alto, and we entered a packed Thursday night theater to see “The Freshman”. Oh, that crowd thoroughly got a kick out of the film. I laughed along with the rest—shared laughter is such a great feeling—and when Harold urged the football coach to let him into the game in the last remaining minutes, the entire theater cheered and ovated him! It was so wonderfully moving—that an 80 year old moving image could still arouse such feelings in people. Harold would be proud. Well, that did it! I have been a teeny-bopper like fan of Harold’s from that day forward!

    I’ve had so many other pleasurable experiences in theaters seeing Marion Davies in “Show People” at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, viewing “Metropolis” with a huge orchestra at the Kennedy Center, and watching Marion Davies (again) in “The Patsy” at home via TCM. I feel lucky that are many ways to see such a variety of silent films—some sublime and some not so much. I appreciate all of them!

  19. I had a shared experience with a group, although not at a silent film but the 1968 Bogdanovich/Karloff thriller ‘Targets.’ When I saw it at a Harvard festival about 30 years ago, snipers and mass shootings were not as common as they’ve sadly become. I felt genuine terror, more than from any monster film I’ve ever seen, and the little audience instinctively drew closer as we all seemed equally affected.

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