Questions from the Google: On silent movie title cards, sound effects and visual storytelling

The search engine queries that bring people to my site are often enlightening. They show me what people actually wonder about silent film. In spite of our best efforts, the average modern moviegoer still sees the silent era as a time full of squeaky-voiced stars and women imperiled by mustachioed villains.

Continue reading “Questions from the Google: On silent movie title cards, sound effects and visual storytelling”

Questions from the Google: Why do people like silent movies?

Welcome to another installment of Questions from the Google, a periodic series in which I attempt to answer some of the search engine queries that bring people to my site. This time around, I will be discussing some basic queries about famous silent films and the time period itself.

How does the 1925 Wizard of Oz end?

You couldn’t finish it either, huh?

Me? I only wish I hadn’t finished it.

Were there color silent movies?


Yup. Hand-colored, stencil-colored, Technicolor, tinted and tone. Name your poison, kid.

What is the music in Charlie Chaplin’s show A Night at the Show?

Whatever the accompanist chooses to play.

The Battleship Potemkin, content and contest?

(via Wikipedia)

Theory A: Someone wants the answer to a homework question and their autocorrect misspelled “context”

Theory B: There is a Battleship Potemkin contest! Whoever takes over the most Czarist battleships wins! Onward, большевики!

I think I’ll go with Theory A.

A Trip to the Moon vs. The Great Train Robbery


This is a bit of a tough one. You see, A Trip to the Moon has a bigger cast but they are mostly decked out in heels and satin hot pants. Most powerful weapon? An umbrella. On the other hand, The Great Train Robbery has a smaller cast but they are armed with revolvers and dynamite and are sensibly dressed for adventure.

My guess is that the cast of Train will dominate for the first three quarters but will finally be worn out by the sheer numbers and goofiness of the Moon crew. Melies for the win!

What did they call movie theaters in 1916?

They called them theaters or moving picture theaters.

Why do people like silent movies?

I don’t know. Why do people like to Google about people liking silent movies? Maybe you could try watching one and see for yourself.

Dialogue from silent movies

I should be merciful. I really should be.

Be really nice.

La la la la.


I’ll let Norma Desmond finish things off.


Questions from the Google: How can I make a silent movie? Make your own silent movies?

Silent movies are not really dead. People are making them all the time. Whether they are film students, solo artists or just having a bit of fun, amateur silent movies are everywhere.

I get a lot of search engine queries about how to make silent films. A silent movie can be made on most any topic but there are a few mistakes that modern day filmmakers tend to consistently make. Here is my guide to avoiding the most common ones:

Title cards are not a dialogue replacement


The #1 mistake that amateur silent movie makers make is to assume that title cards are a one-to-one replacement for dialogue.

We are used to sound movies. So when we see a silent movie, some viewers tend to think of dialogue as something that is missing. However, silent era filmmakers and audiences would not have seen dialogue in this manner. Pantomime (using body language to convey emotion and story) was the language of films, not talk. The best silent movies used title cards when they were needed but were able to convey enormous amounts of information using their bodies. Simple phrases like “yes” or “no” would only be titled if they required dramatic impact.

Remember: A silent movie is not just a sound movie without voices. It is an entirely different and unique visual art.


Title cards were also used to provide humorous descriptions and character introductions. Clever title cards were always in demand and they can add a great deal to a silent movie. No need to always be serious! But, again, even clever title cards must be carefully rationed.

Too many title cards ruin the pacing of scenes and are distracting. The acting in a silent film must be strong enough to stand on its own without superfluous title cards. And, most of all, the filmmaker must trust his or her audience.

Pantomime is an art


Silent movies are often accused of having hammy acting. While silent performers would play slightly broader due to the constraints of their art, they definitely were not simply overacting.

Watch Clara Bow. She was lively and demonstrative and she always was able to convey what her character was thinking. Watch Sessue Hayakawa, who was able to project a world of emotions using only his eyes. Watch Lillian Gish, whose operatic performances remain the gold standard in silent acting.

I have seen too many amateur silent films fall into the trap of emoting like mad. It rings false because the underlying art of pantomime is not present.

To make a proper silent film, you need to respect the art of the performers who made the silents famous. There are several books written in the silent era that may help you get things right.

Piano is not essential


Tinkling piano is heavily associated with silent films. While piano was a common instrument for accompanists during the silent era, there were other options available. Organs, orchestras and records were all used to accompany the silents.

It’s also worth noting that some silent folks did not like the piano. At all. In fact, Harold Lloyd forbade the screening of his films in theaters that intended to engage a pianist instead of an organist. He simply did not like silent films + piano.

So, think outside the box and don’t consider piano to be an essential component.

Stop tying your heroines to train tracks and sawmills

It was super uncommon and was so outdated in the silent era that it was considered ripe for parody. In the few cases where it was used as a serious plot point, men were just as likely to be the victims as women. (My readers know that I harp on this topic a lot but it is one of the biggest silent film myths and it really needs to die.)

If you do insist on using this trope, well… I shall be most displeased…


Digitally, of course.

Please watch some silent movies

Show People, Marion Davies, William Haines, King Vidor, Silent Film review
I just want to make silent movies, I don’t want to watch them.

Most of these issues can be avoided by simply watching silent films and paying close attention to how they use music, lighting, titles, actors, etc.

As a veteran of writers’ groups, it always astonished me how many would-be authors did not read themselves. They felt they had a story to tell but their references were all related to television and movies. As a result, their  writing craft was poor and they grew frustrated.

The same is true if you want to make a silent movie without watching any silent movies. The art of the silent film must be experienced to be understood. You cannot get the feel of the artform by watching silent sequences in sound films or (worse) relying on other amateur silent films. If your plan is to make a snarky melodrama that makes fun of the era, well, I really have no interest in helping you. In short, scram. If, on the other hand, you wish to make a respectful film using silent era techniques, you must absorb the films of the era.

For an idea of where to look, try the six silent films that inspired Michel Hazanavicius to make The Artist.

Getting the right look

If you are setting your film in the 20’s, there are a few things you should know.

Fashion in the twenties looked like this:

What? They didn't wear beaded headbands 24/7?
What? They didn’t wear beaded headbands 24/7?

Not like this:

If you wore this in the 20's, you would get tossed in the funny farm.
If you wore this in the 20’s, you would get tossed in the funny farm.

Best way to solve this issue: Watch more silent movies. And for Pete’s sake, don’t get your costumes from a Halloween clearance sale.

Recommended Reading:

Screen Acting

How to make your own motion picture plays

Amateur Movie Making

Motion Picture Photography

Motion Picture Directing

Photoplay Writing

Questions from the Google: No, I will not do your homework for you

Milton Sills and I take a dim view of cheaters. (via

Sometimes during school year, I get search engine queries that are less about silent films and more about “oh no! my report is due tomorrow and I haven’t even read the book/seen the movie/researched the topic!”

Let me just mention one thing before we begin: I have helped students with projects and have answered their questions or directed them to resources. I’m glad to do it. What I object to are queries that are probably intended for the Copy/Paste/Turn In/Pray the Teacher Doesn’t Check For Plagiarism types.

Here are some of the more egregious examples:

Describe Jimmy Valentine with the information from the story. Use these words and expressions and your own ideas.

See what happens when you plagiarize term papers? (via

Oh boy.

Do you know how long the original story of Jimmy Valentine is? Eight and a half tiny pages. If you can’t manage to read that, you have a lot more problems than failing a class.

I certainly hope this student’s instructor was using Turnitin or some similar service.

How does Byke try to kill Snorkey?

I dare you to read those names without laughing! It actually refers to the 1867 play Under the Gaslight, which is best remembered for coining the tied-to-the-tracks cliche. In this case, Byke ties Snorkey to the tracks (mwahahaha) but the hapless fellow is saved by a brave young lady.

What are the themes of the Great Train Robbery 1903?

Robbery. Oh, and trains. Great ones.

Why does Don Jose join the smuggler band of gypsies?

I think I will let Charlie Chaplin tell the story.

First, there was this:

Hey there, big boy.
Hey there, big boy.

Then this:

Some 'splaining to do.
Some ‘splaining to do.

And this:



I killed him. Whoopsy.
I killed him. Whoopsy.

And, finally, this:

A dumped smuggler.
A dumped smuggler.


Tone of the author Anthony Hope in The Prisoner of Zenda?

Anthony Hope himself. (via Wikipedia)

Well, his stiff collar, waistcoat and wool coat make it impossible to know for sure but he looks pretty fit and toned to me. There seem to be no shirtless pictures of Mr. Hope floating around the internet so I will withhold judgement until they surface. Oh, and I am not sure if this picture was taken when he was writing Zenda.

Questions from the Google: On the Boyds and the bees


William Boyd and his films have been cropping up in my search queries lately so I figured I had enough material to write a whole post on the topic.

For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Boyd, he was the hero to a whole generation of children: Hopalong Cassidy! And I make no secret about my appreciation for his silent work.

Here are some of the queries I have received:

William Boyd in silent films? Early films of William Boyd?

Biography of William Stage Boyd

In which movies was the theme of the Volga boatmen used? Was William Boyd in The Volga Boatman?

Did William Boyd work exclusively for Paramount Pictures?

So, take out your cap guns and your black hats because we are going to be taking a look at William Boyd.

(via Time Magazine)

William Boyd in silent films? Early films of William Boyd?

Yes, William Boyd was indeed in silent films. In fact, you can catch glimpses of him in some early Cecil B. DeMille titles like Why Change Your Wife? and The Affairs of Anatol. He also had bit parts in some Rudolph Valentino vehicles such as Moran of the Lady Letty and The Young Rajah.

(via Doctor Macro)

After spending much of his early career at Paramount, Boyd followed DeMille when the director jumped ship for his own production company. DeMille had taken a liking to Boyd and gave him his big break, a two-fisted minister in The Road to Yesterday. That was followed up by the biggest hit of Boyd’s silent career, The Volga Boatman.

Boyd continued to work for DeMille Pictures, starring in such nautical fare as Eve’s Leaves and The Yankee Clipper. He also starred in D.W. Griffith’s last silent, Lady of the Pavements. He successfully jumped over to sound and was Carole Lombard’s leading man in High Voltage, one of her early starring roles.

Biography of William “Stage” Boyd

William Stage Boyd
The other William Boyd

The name William Boyd is and was quite common in the entertainment industry. William “Stage” Boyd took his middle name to emphasize his stage experience and to differentiate himself from the William Boyd who was making a name for himself as a leading man.

Unfortunately, the press did not make such distinctions and when “Stage” was caught in the midst of scandalous doings, the papers printed a picture of the wrong Boyd. Both Boyds suffered career damage as a result and William Boyd started to go by Bill Boyd to avoid further confusion. Stage Boyd died in 1935 from ailments related to his alcohol and drug abuse. The same year, William Boyd was hired to play the role that would define his career, Hopalong Cassidy.

Not a lot of information is available about Stage Boyd. If he is mentioned at all, it is usually in relation to William “Hoppy” Boyd. Sorry to leave you empty-handed but there it is.

In which movies was the theme of the Volga boatmen used? Was William Boyd in The Volga Boatman?

volga boatman

The Song of the Volga Boatman has been used in dozens, maybe hundreds of films. Even if you don’t know it by name, you will recognize it immediately.

It is sometimes used to create Russian flavor but is more commonly used comically to accent a character toiling. One of my favorite uses of this song is in the opening credits of the 1966 comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, where it used as part of a medley of patriotic American and Russian songs.

And yes, William Boyd was indeed the star of The Volga Boatman. It’s a silly DeMille spectacle but quite enjoyable. Unfortunately, the only high-quality release it received in the USA was on VHS. (It was available as part of a bargain basement DeMille box set but that product has been pulled from the market.)

The Volga Boatman (film)
The Volga Boatman (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Did William Boyd work exclusively for Paramount Pictures?

No. While he spent a large part of his career at the studio, he also signed on with RKO, DeMille Pictures, and United Artists, among others.

Questions from the Google: A Potpourri of Odd and Unusual Queries

In this series, I take search engine queries that led people to my site and try to answer them as best as I can.

While my previous entries had themes to them, this time I will be answering queries that were either odd enough to be intriguing or insulting enough to be infuriating. I hope you enjoy!

Marion Davies in the Great Gatsby?


Secretary homely and married

Like this?
Like this?

I don’t think I can help on this one but I am absolutely dying to know what caused someone to search the internet for it.

Hopalong Cassidy television show, silent or talkie?

Silent, of course! All the best television shows were silent. Everyone knows that.

Bessie Love first silent movie star?


Movies about lost boy who meets girl.

Basically every movie ever made.

Classic feminine movies.

I’m female and when I’m not watching silent movies, I’m watching this:

yojimboSo, I guess “Japanese sword movies” would be the answer.

Ah, the most feminine of classic movies!

Silent movies that have breastfeeding.

Wow! I actually know the answer! Tol’able David.

How did Hopalong Cassidy get shot?

With a gun.

How did they do the eye movements in Ella Cinders?

A very famous sequence. It was done with a split screen. (This technique was very refined in the silent era, sometimes better looking than in sound films.)

Reason for the creation of silent movies

Same reason for the creation of sound movies. Because they wanted to.

Films about depravity

Go away.

Kinetoscope hand cranked?

Yes, it was.

Marion Davies was an awful actress

Why you… Ok, that’s it.


And stay out!

Questions from the Google: What’s a silent movie?

Pearls Before Swine What's a silent movie?

I’m back with more search engine queries! This time, I am going to be answering questions related to silent films themselves.

Who are the people in silent film?

Number of silent movies presumed lost?

Exaggerated silent film acting?

How to get into silent films?

How to make a silent film.

Let’s get started!

Who are the people in silent film?

Who's who in Hollywood 1928

A lot of people worked in silent film and it would be impossible to list them all in a single post. However, if you are curious, the venerable Silent Ladies & Silent Gents is a fabulous resource, as is Silents Are Golden.

Number of silent movies presumed lost?

There are whole books about this.
There are whole books about this.

A lot of silent films are lost. Some put the percentage as high as 90%. However, it is impossible to say for sure since there is no exhaustive catalog of every single silent film print in the world. Sometimes, a missing film has simply been sitting in an archive in an unlabeled canister. Film preservation was not a priority in the early history of film and we are still suffering from the aftereffects of that neglect.

So, it would be impossible to give an exact number of lost films. If you want more details on how films are lost and how they can be found again, here is my introductory article on the subject.

Exaggerated silent film acting?

I’m actually uncomfortable using that word to describe silent film acting. You see, a few generations of people snickering at the silents has meant that, to most people, silent movie acting involves, well, this:

You must pay the rent! Etc. etc, etc...
You must pay the rent! Etc. etc, etc…

Never mind that this is Victorian stage melodrama acting and never mind that silent films were often spoofing this style.

Silent film actors engaged in the very challenging art of pantomime and the best ones could get their message across with astonishing accuracy. Yes, the emotions are portrayed more powerfully but that was due to the nature of the craft.

Of course, there were stage holdovers in the silents who insisted on overdoing it. And there were actors who were purposely camping it up. And, finally, there were indeed some bad actors in silent movies. Like today. You got movies? You probably have a few bad actors. That’s how life works. However, it would be unfair to judge the entire art by a few hams and turkeys.

How to get into silent films?

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid
You can’t go wrong with an acclaimed silent comedy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It can seem a bit daunting. Silent movies are very different from sound films and take more concentration to watch. I usually recommend starting with comedies from one of the masts like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaon, Harold Lloyd or Harry Langdon. If you want more details, I have a list of tips and recommendations for first-time watchers.

How to make a silent film.

Do you have what it takes?
Do you have what it takes?

Amateur filmmaking is not a modern hobby. It was a pretty popular hobby in the silent era and there were multiple books published on the subject. I actually collect them and have reviewed quite a few of them. Check out my book section for reviews.

In the meantime, here are a few tips that will make your silent film more accurate:

The ratio is not one line of dialogue to one intertitle

Silent movies expected their audiences to read lips. This was for a few reasons. First, many fillmakers felt that onscreen titles spoiled the flow and rhythm of a film and tried to minimize them. Others found audience lipreading was a way to include dialogue that would otherwise be censored.

Please do not tie women to tracks

Or I will be forced to hit you with a trout.

Don’t neglect the great outdoors

Silent films did not have to worry about sound equipment and outdoor scenery was cheap and plentiful.

I hope these answers were helpful and get you started on the right track with silent movies.


Questions from the Google: Who was the silent era villain who tied women to train tracks?

New feature! I like to read over the search engine queries that bring people to my site. Lately, I have been noticing the same sort of queries cropping up again and again:

Who was the silent era villain who tied women to train tracks?

Snidely Whiplash in silent films?

Silent star tied to train tracks.

I have previously posted about the origins of this cliche but let’s take a look at these search engine queries and see if we can finally put this ridiculous myth to rest.

(Oh, and in the spirit of generosity, let me advise you never, ever to bring this up among silent film fans as a serious topic. You will be ruthlessly mocked for your ignorance and you will deserve it.)

The Questions:

Who was the silent era villain who tied women to train tracks?

No one.

Let me repeat for emphasis.


No Hollywood executive said “We need that fellow who does the railroad track thing! Get him at once!” There was no such man because the cliche was simply not used that much in motion pictures.

The footage of the train track cliche that usually gets trotted out is from one of two Sennett comedies, Teddy at the Throttle or Barney Oldfield’s Race for Life. Both films were making fun of the cliche, which was seen as dusty, clueless and so last century.


The gentlemen playing the villains in these films were Wallace Beery and Ford Sterling, respectively. However, both men were better known for their other comedic skills. This is not how they regularly spent Saturday night.

The play that originated this trope, Under the Gaslight, was written in 1867. The victim, by the way, was male. There was a real-life copycat incident in 1874. Again, the victim was male.

Snidely Whiplash in silent films?

Dudley Doright
Not a silent movie.

Snidely Whiplash is a send-up of Victorian melodrama villains, the same target that inspired the Sennett comedies. If he is based on a silent era character, it is likely one of these Sennett comedians.

Silent star tied to train tracks.

Again, no silent era studio executive ever said, “That girl who gets tied to the tracks all the time! Fetch her for this film.”

In the films mentioned before, the victims were Gloria Swanson and Mabel Normand. I am going to repeat this one more time: These were comedies! The peril was meant to make fun of the over-the-top melodramas that had been in style a few years before.

In the 1916 serial A Lass of the Lumberlands the hero, Leo Maloney, is tied up and stumbles onto train tracks and then is rescued by Helen Holmes. Not exactly a perfect fit. Pearl White, to the best of my knowledge, was never victimized in this manner and any purported footage of this has yet to turn up. (The trope was used in the ridiculous sound remake of The Perils of Pauline.) Please note too that American serials were not regarded as the pinnacle of fine film writing.


In one of the few examples of this trope presented seriously in a mainstream silent feature film, the leading man of Blue Jeans (which I wrote an article about) was nearly sliced in half in a sawmill before being rescued by leading lady Viola Dana. Contemporary reviews praised the film but noted its old-fashioned source material. The train tracks/sawmill thing was just not something a modern film circa 1917 would use.

Blue-Jeans-Viola-Dana-John-Collins-1917 (2)

I have run across comments that talk about wanting to make a “1920 silent movie where a woman is tied to the train tracks.” I should mention that I have never found an example of this cliche in studios films made after 1919.

So now we know that the trope was rare, that men were just as likely to be victims and that the whole thing died before the twenties let out a single roar, well except for amateur films like this one:

Home videos are totally the same as studio releases! (And, again, the victim is a man.)

This fixation on railroad tracks is especially strange when you consider how long the silent film era lasted. Saying that silent movies (the era stretched between 1895 and 1929) regularly featured women tied to the train tracks would be like looking at the Home Alone movies and their ripoffs and then declaring that all films made in the 1990’s to 2010’s regularly featured small children beating up dimwitted burglars with elaborate booby traps. Avatar? Jurassic Park? Independence Day? The Artist? Men in Black 1-3? They all had that in them, right?

Other film sites have written on this oddly specific misconception but the queries keep on coming in. It’s a myth that really needs to die.