Since day one, my goal at Movies Silently has been to make silent films accessible to casual viewers. However, the topic is so massive that it can be intimidating for newcomers to even get started.
I am going to test out a new feature. Basically, I will be creating a road map for people with little or no previous knowledge to learn to enjoy the art of the silent film. I will be gathering these articles on this dedicated page.
The plan is to take the silent era and break it down into bite-size chunks with the complete newcomer in mind. I will aim for about 1,000 words per post with minimal jargon and maximum user friendliness. (In contrast, my About Silent Movies articles tend to be longer and aimed at people with some knowledge of silent film.)
First, we’ll break things down to their most basic components:
What is a silent film?
A silent film is a motion picture with no audible dialogue. The phrase is a misnomer (other countries more accurately call them “mute films”) as silent films were accompanied by suitable music and sometimes even synchronized sound effects, just no dialogue. (Think of the Pink Panther cartoons for a more modern example of this.)
What, you mean there are silent movies in which doors slam, cars honk their horns and telephones ring but people don’t talk?
Yes, I mean precisely that. Sometimes there are even gibberish vocal sounds (people shouting incomprehensibly, etc.) and songs with sung lyrics in films that are otherwise silent.
How to watch ’em
Here are some tips to make your first silent movie viewings easier:
It’s not all pie fights and melodrama
When emulating a silent film, modern people most often rely on coarse and overdone melodrama or over-the-top slapstick. Actually, critics complained about those types of films back when they were new, discounting such pictures as vulgar and tasteless. (Pie fights, by the way, were incredibly rare in the silent era. I mean, there were maybe two. Besides, they were expensive and dangerous. Solo pies, however, were another matter but only with an extremely specific type of comedian.)
At their best, silent films are visually stunning and their sophistication and/or frankness about controversial topics may take you by surprise.
There will likely be an acclimation period
Silent movies engage the imagination much more than sound films. Watching a silent can be described as halfway between seeing a talkie and reading a novel. In short, you will be stretching your brain.
Like any exercise regimen, this may take some getting used to. It’s not unusual for a new viewer to dislike their first silent film. After a few films, you should be all acclimated and ready to be entertained. Just know that this is not unusual. Stick with silent movies. They’re worth it.
The silent era lasted for thirty-five years
For the purpose of this article, we will mark the silent era in the United States as lasting from approximately 1895 (when films were first projected rather than viewed as peepshows) to 1930 (when talkies completely took over). Other countries (Japan, for example) made silent films deep into the 1930s.
Would you take someone seriously if they said this: “I hate modern American movies and believe me I know what I’m talking about. Why, I saw half of Desperately Seeking Susan!”
Probably not. You might point out that the movie is decades old, that not all films are in that particular genre and that it’s hardly representative of American cinema of the last three-plus decades.
So, watch silent films from a variety of decades and an assortment of genres. Maybe the charming French fantasies of the 1890s-1900s will be your thing. Maybe you’ll fall in the with the anarchic early Keystone comedies of the 1910s. Perhaps the wildly creative German films of the 1920s will be your poison. You’ll never know if you stop at just one silent film. (And if you don’t know any of these references, never fear. We will discuss them all in future articles.)
Dialogue is not something that is missing
Asking why people in a silent movie don’t talk is sort of like asking a ballet troupe why they don’t just jog across the stage. So much more efficient than leaping and twirling, no?
Silent films were designed to tell their story through pantomime, that is, gestures and facial expressions. And the acting is considerably more subtle than spoofs of the era would lead you to believe.
But isn’t it strange to see characters interact entirely without voices?
When watching films, audiences are constantly asked to accept artificial elements. We don’t walk around accompanied by a rousing score in the real world, nor do we see a sign that says “two years later…” and skip two years of our lives. Black and white films are described as “glorious” and accepted without question by classic movie fans. The absence of dialogue is simply another artificial element, albeit one that we are no longer used to.
This is just basic orientation. In future articles, I will discuss specific stars, directors, films and some helpful hints to give you the best possible silent film experience, including recommended key films and tips for avoiding common pitfalls. Stay tuned, we’re going to have a great time!