Silent movies were like modern films in that there were distinct genres and acting styles that went with them. In the case of melodrama, most audience members understood that it was meant to be over the top. And considering the excesses of modern action films, I don’t think we have any room to talk about realism.
(And, needless to say, melodrama was not the only style silent era filmmakers knew.)
Here’s Ford Sterling sending up melodrama and melodramatic acting tropes in Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life. Nobody spoofed melodrama like Ford.
The Copper Beeches contains some of the most over-the-top acting I have ever seen and was certainly far hammier than most of its contemporaries. Unfortunately, I have seen some reviews label it as typical and proclaim that silent films only began to have subtle acting when D.W. Griffith entered the scene.
Ladies and gentlemen, D.W. Griffith! The soldiers in Hessian Renegades don’t seem to notice an older gent cursing them not three feet away. Much subtle. So acting. Wow. (Do see it, though. Mary Pickford disguises herself as a German mercenary.)
And here’s one of the ladies, specifically a vamp! Louise Glaum is not as famous a vamp as Theda Bara, of course, but her films have a far better survival rate and she’s pretty fun to watch. She was the resident old west vamp in William S. Hart’s films and she’s seen here in Keno Bates, Liar, in which she convinces his demure new girlfriend to shoot him in the guts.
Yoooooooou! Things get a little enthusiastic in the Thanhouser adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, though I suppose we all expect Dickens films to be a bit more… emphatic.
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