Welcome back to Silent Movies 101, a series of articles aimed at helping silent movie newcomers learn to love the art. This time, we are going to be discussing one of the most common traps that trips up silent movie newbies.
“Which version are you watching?”
This may seem like a really geeky question reserved for Blade Runner and Star Wars fans. Some films get special editions, extended editions and director’s cuts but most movies are pretty much the same every time they are released on home media. Sure, there will be a steady uptick in quality between VHS, DVD and Blu-ray (we hope) but the content is basically the same.
This is not the case with silent films. You know those extended editions or director’s cuts? Well, imagine trying to shop for a beloved film and imagine that VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, bootleg theater footage, director’s cuts, television cuts and extended editions were all for sale but none of them were labeled. Which version would you buy?
Welcome to the world of silent movie shopping.
A little copyright law
Films released 1923 or later are usually still the property of their original studio or whoever purchased the rights. These films are generally safe to buy when released by their home studio. But remember that the era of projected silent films began in 1895. What about those other twenty-seven years of cinema?
1923 is the cutoff year for U.S. copyrights and some silent era studios have allowed the copyright to lapse on later films. As a result, a majority of all the silent films produced are in the public domain. There are advantages and disadvantages to this.
Advantages: Anyone can release a film on home media if they have access to a print.
Disadvantages: Anyone can release a film on home media if they have access to a print.
Case Study: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Here are two screenshots from the German silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. One is from the new 4K Blu-ray, which showcases painstaking restoration. The other is from a cheap public domain disc. See the difference? Which version would you rather see?
(You can snag that beautiful restoration of Caligari on either DVD or Blu-ray and it’s really the only way to see it.)
And those are just the visuals. We’re not even starting to talk about music. (Silent movie music really needs its own post but just know that most silent films have to have new scores arranged by modern accompanists. A great score can save even a bad film. A bad score can kill a masterpiece.)
You will soon become familiar with quality players on the silent movie home video market. Names like Flicker Alley, Kino Lorber, Warner Archive, Milestone and the Criterion Collection guarantee quality. Smaller concerns like Grapevine Video and Reelclassicdvd don’t have the budgets for major restoration but they do release gloriously obscure goodies.
It should also be noted that while films released earlier than 1923 cannot be copyrighted in the United States, scores and translated title cards do fall under copyright protection. (This is the same case with public domain books. I may download a public domain translation of Tolstoy anywhere but if I want a recent translation or an edition with new illustrations, I will have to buy a copy.)
This leads to some unscrupulous companies or individuals taking a high-quality release, stripping it of its soundtrack, cutting title cards and removing color (yes, silent films had color, more on that later) in order to dodge copyright claims. The result? Less cash for the legitimate business that released the film in the first place and a lower quality release for unwary buyers.
Isn’t a bad release better than no release at all?
If there are no other options then, yes, a lower quality release is what we have. But when there’s a choice between an awesome print with a great score and some faded scratchy thing? Heck yeah, get the good one. It’s like chocolate: buy the best you can afford.
Case Study: Battleship Potemkin
One of the most famous silent films ever made and almost certainly one of the most watched, Battleship Potemkin is a fixture of art history classes and Movies 101. The problem? You’ve probably been watching it wrong.
It’s a super long story (you can read the full details here) but basically, the film has been cut, censored, reworked and, worst of all, slowed down to fit a re-release score. So what you likely saw (and were bored by) in class was a silent film in slow motion. Boring as heck.
I don’t blame anyone who sees Potemkin under these circumstances and comes away with a negative view of the film. I had the same experience. I mainly bought to new restoration out of a sense of duty and watched it with great reluctance.
(Here’s a preview for the restoration to give you a taste.)
What a revelation! What had been plodding and dull was now snappy and dynamic. The genius of the film was finally on display for the first time since its initial release. I learned a valuable lesson about how much presentation can make or break a silent film.
There are still plenty of public domain copies of the slow-mo Potemkin available but why bother? The restored edition is the only you’ll ever need unless you’re studying state censorship or something.
(We’ll have a deeper look at different cuts, versions and re-releases of silent films later. Sorry to keep putting things off but I am trying to keep this article bite-size.)
The YouTube problem
YouTube is a valuable resource for silent film fans but it is also full of hidden dangers. Remember what we said above? People will take a legitimate silent film release, strip it of its score and sometimes its title cards and then release it on YouTube.
This can have terrible results. As we stated in the introductory article, silent films are more correctly called mute films. They are designed to be seen with music. When their scores are removed and they are posted online with either canned music or, worse, nothing at all, this is disastrous to the viewing experience. Combine this with missing title cards, low resolution uploads and heaven knows what else and we have hot mess.
Watch out for: A tiny but very vocal minority that thinks silent films without music are the only way to enjoy the “pure” cinema. Frankly, they’re nuts.
Please remember that silent movie producers often work on a shoestring and even a few pirated copies can be enough to put them in the red. You know what that means? Fewer silent films for the rest of us. These producers are doing something important and risky and supporting their efforts by buying their releases seems like a fair trade.
However, I must emphasize that there are also plenty of legitimate and valuable videos uploaded to YouTube. The Library of Congress has its own channel and posts treasures from its vaults but I’m not just talking about archives. Accompanist Ben Model scores and uploads lots of good stuff with particular emphasis on forgotten silent shorts.
I guess the main point of this section is to beg that you don’t judge a movie by its YouTube video unless you’re sure of its pedigree.
Not all silent movie releases are created equal. If a film seems to be too fast, too slow or badly scored, follow your instincts and look for a different release. And don’t get trapped by false economy. You’re not saving a dime when you choose a $5 version over a $25 version if you end up with unwatchable junk.
While my site focuses on films themselves (with the occasional unboxing), I am always willing to answer questions about the quality of releases I have viewed. However, if you want a more analytical comparison of the various releases available, check out Silent Era, which weighs the pros and cons of home video releases and explains why some are better than others. They get a lot more technical than I ever will regarding transfers and compression, so if that’s your thing, check it out.