What Are the Silent Movie Cliches That Drive You Nuts? (Or at least amuse you)

Yesterday, I posted a little collection of 1918 moviegoers’ complaints about the movies, the mistakes and cliches that drove them crazy. Now it’s your turn.

Pointing out cliches and overused narrative devices was a hobby throughout the silent era and so resurrecting the activity is not only fun, it’s historically accurate! I’ll start.

Bird smooching. What the heck, silent movies? Every time they want to show their heroine to be a virginal miss, they have her cuddle and smooch some poor birdie who was just minding its business.

A cuddling example from Ben-Hur:

And a smoochier one from Way Down East:

Wanna kiss, sweetheart?

By Charles J Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54788427

Oh sure, kiss the pigeons and the doves but ignore the Marabou Stork. I see how it is.

I don’t know if it still is required reading in the fifth grade or so but we were treated to Mark Twain’s glorious takedown of James Fenimore Cooper and I am thrilled to have an excuse to quote it:

Cooper’s gift in the way of invention was not a rich endowment; but such as it was he liked to work it, he was pleased with the effects, and indeed he did some quite sweet things with it. In his little box of stage-properties he kept six or eight cunning devices, tricks, artifices for his savages and woodsmen to deceive and circumvent each other with, and he was never so happy as when he was working these innocent things and seeing them go. A favorite one was to make a moccasined person tread in the tracks of a moccasined enemy, and thus hide his own trail. Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick. Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was the broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn’t step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn’t satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can’t do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the Leatherstocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.

This is all coming from a place of love, it’s affectionate ribbing so please take it in that spirit. I look forward to your insights!

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21 Replies to “What Are the Silent Movie Cliches That Drive You Nuts? (Or at least amuse you)”

  1. It seems to me like a lot of silent characters didn’t think the audience would quite understand how distressed they were unless they did their darnedest to rip all their hair out.

  2. Here’s one that has always amused me more than annoyed: Fluttering Hankies (lace edging recommended)! Wave them hello or goodbye to indicate your utter femininity, drop them strategically on the carpet for the handsome stranger introduction, forget them here or there (also strategically) to power a “meet cute,” wave ’em around while talking for lady-like effect (and so the fellas get a whiff of your come-hither perfume), tuck ’em in the bosom of your dress for quite another kind of effect- perfume also recommended here 😉

    Luckily silent comedies from slapstick to drawing room have skewered this one right into the ground since the very beginning!

    1. I’ve always wondered about the point of those long, fluttering pieces of fabric women in silent and classic films always carried. Yes, nothing was safe from the eagle eye of comedians!

  3. I’ve wondered how it is possible for a character to call out and gesticulating wildly to someone not ten feet distant and remain unseen. A perfect example can be found in “Her sister from Paris” I which we discover that one’s appearance can be completely altered by simply putting on a fake “beauty spot”.

  4. The cliche where a father puts some bizarre condition on marrying his daughter – for instance, in Out of the Deep, the father says the hero can marry his daughter if he finds the lost treasure his family has been searching for. Usually the hero readily agrees, but most rational people would be saying “Now wait just a minute…”

      1. But the search for the treasure and subsequent winning of the fair maiden is one of the basic tropes of folk/fairy tales everywhere and in every age.

  5. I can’t find the quote, but didn’t Buster Keaton say that one his principles was to set the audience up to anticipate an action or result (which I could/would read as creating a ‘cliche’) and then undercut them?

    Otherwise: see a soda fountain, expect to see it used fairly soon after.

    And see a gun, it will be fired.

  6. Don’t know if this qualifies as a trope, but it really bothers me when I see parents and children kiss each other on the lips (not just in silents, even in 1930s and 40s films.) Did people really do that? Yuk!

    1. Umm…Sharl’s comment make me VERY glad that my otherwise un-demonstrative parents did this, since it’s apparently so dated and evokes the silent-era and so forth.
      Never mind all the “my kid is amazing” posts that I see on social media, and which are much more cringe-worthy. Yeah, 2018 parenting is superior, for sure…

  7. Romantic love between non-siblings that have grown together from early childhood. For example in La Roue, Sisif adopts a daughter who is raised as if she was a sister to Sisif’s son. Later, they fall in love, but hide their emotions because they believe they are siblings. According to Westermarck effect, it doesn’t matter whether they are genetically related or not, they should not easily fall in love together if they have been grown up as siblings.

  8. I can’t believe we forgot the most obvious one – if there is a banana, eventually someone will slip on the peel.

  9. Wasn’t it Keaton who had the hero avoid the banana peel and then fall into an open manhole? Domino’s Pizza did a take on that in their commercial where the guy rescues his pizza carton from the wrecked car only to slip on snow and have it go flying.

  10. I wonder if there are any extant silent westerns that flourish a title card containing the seemingly ubiquitous early talkie line–“He was shot [suspenseful pause]…in the back.” Oh, I hope so!!

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