Note: This article covers the origins of the trope, how it erroneously became associated with silent films and why the myth persists. For more details on the actors involved, the Snidely Whiplash connection and examples of this trope subverted, check out my follow up article. You can also check out real footage and vintage images in my video response.
I came across this caricature by de Bru in Photoplay magazine. How many movie stars of 1928 can you identify without peeking at the legend?
Unfortunately, many films of the silent era have been lost. This new series is going to list some of the more interesting ones. We are going to start with a comedy from the late silent era.
So, what kind of silent movie fan are you? In my experience, they usually come in three varieties:
Those discount trivia books that litter the shelves of chain bookstores have a lot to answer for. They state with great confidence that The Jazz Singer was the first sound movie, The Birth of a Nation was the first feature film, that The Great Train Robbery was the first film with a story…
It’s a reasonably popular internet meme: Take hit modern film, desaturate it, add a few intertitles and a tinkling piano score and voila! You have a silent movie. That’s all silent movies are, right? Movies without sound and with those title cards placed at intervals.
Hooo boy, is this an old one. It is actually as old as talking pictures themselves. The myth goes like this: So-and-so (often John Gilbert) was a famous film star in the silent era but what people didn’t know is that he sounded like Mickey Mouse! Hilarious!
All right, you like silent movies. In fact, you love silent movies. The problem is that your movie nights are, to put it nicely, a rather solitary affair. Let’s face it, we’re in the minority.
“Can anyone take those movies seriously?”
“Did they even make movies back then?”
“How do you know what’s going on?”
Well, no one said being a silent film fan would be easy.