Silent Movie People Say, “Curses! Foiled Again!”

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.

Read my review here.

Available on DVD.

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.

Read my review here.

Available on DVD.

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.)

Read my review here.

Available on DVD.

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.

Read my review here.

Available on DVD.

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.

Read my review here.

Available on DVD.

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8 Replies to “Silent Movie People Say, “Curses! Foiled Again!””

  1. Many people of my acquaintance think this is how all silent film actors behave as they have never seen anything but comedies and heavy melodramas. They are surprised to be told that the silent era covers all manner of styles. I sometimes get miffed and shake my fists behind their back.

    1. As well you should! 😉

      Yes, silent film actors were versatile. As Kevin Brownlow put it in The Parade’s Gone By “The majority could not only act– they could act in at least two distinct styles.”

  2. Both under- and overacting must be acceptable styles, but they have to fit. However, because early cinema had the too well known problem, beginners of silent cinema may lack the trust that when they see overacting, it can be a well thought style. Anyone who likes the totally unrealistic sound effects of modern cinema should be careful when mocking silent cinema for overacting. And several Oscar statues have been given to actors that use their voice very theatrically.

    For example, The Crowd was recently broadcasted in television here, and there was a review in the daily newspaper. Unfortunately, it was completely written from the perspective of comparison to modern cinema. In particular, it complained about the acting in the film’s prologue section that describes John’s youth. Because the overacting was shown before the realistic story, the reviewer was clearly confused.

    Griffith’s direction is a real mystery, how can the acting vary so much between excellent (Gish, Marsh, Harron…) and, well, subtle like your example.

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