I’m not super open about silent films in the real world. It’s not that I keep my interest a secret, it’s just that mentioning a love of silent films often requires more explanation than I am prepared to give.
Usually, I just say something like “Oh, I like early film” and then nod politely as people gush about old movies like Back to the Future. The simple fact is that most people don’t care enough to discuss it, Chaplin (maybe) excepted.
(I’m referring to new acquaintances and random people, you understand. My friends know about my hobby and they’re cool with it because that’s what friends do.)
Sometimes, though, I get people who are genuinely curious. How does someone get into silent film? Well, genuine curiosity is a rare thing these days and deserves to be encouraged and so this is my explanation.
The first thing you should know is that I was born in 1981 but all of my pop culture touchstones are from an earlier era. My parents had children later in life than is usual in the United States and their movie memories were very much of the later Golden Age of studio cinema. My father had a particular love for the Warner Brothers studio style, Hal Roach comedies and cliffhanger serials but a strong dislike for religious epics. My mother was a Cary Grant and Erroll Flynn fan who had a strong dislike for musicals. But sets of tastes continue to have a strong influence on what I prefer to watch.
I have never lived in a house with cable television and so most of my viewing came courtesy of VHS. With the exception of Star Trek and Star Wars, almost all of my entertainment from pre-1950. (Music? All classical.) No wonder I was a little bit of an oddball in grade school.
So, in addition to being a rabid Trekkie, I was also a classic film fanatic. As I grew older, my taste changed and expanded. I went through a Bogart phase, a Powell/Loy phase, a Brando phase, a general noir phase, a post-WWII Japanese cinema phase.. You get the idea. But I kept noticing something: my knowledge of classic film was cut off at 1930.
My family had numerous history books with big pictures of silent film stars. Charlie Chaplin with spaghetti and dancing rolls, Harold Lloyd dangling from a clock, Rudolph Valentino smouldering over Vilma Banky, Lillian Gish on an ice floe… but they all seemed very abstract, like fashion stills. Silent films are best viewed in motion and I was about to receive a lesson to drive home that fact.
I decided that I would give silent films a try and (dating myself here) I went to Blockbuster and rented a copy of Sparrows. And I hated it. I didn’t realize it at the time but the tape was faded and warped. (I loved the film when I got a chance to see a restored version on DVD.)
I decided to give silent films one more try and rented City Lights. Chaplin remains the most recognized figure in silent film and there has to be a reason for that, right? Right!
Chaplin’s great asset as a comedian is his grace. Even when he falls, even when his comedy becomes violent, there is a balletic quality to his movements, an absolute control over his body. I was enchanted, enraptured. I wanted more.
Rudolph Valentino was my next target and I bought The Sheik. The film was a hokey treat and I was in love! I watched Son of the Sheik soon after and then I saw a still of Sessue Hayakawa and tracked down The Cheat. This led me to the silent work of Cecil B. DeMille, which intrigued me with its lean, aggressive style. I revisited Mary Pickford and was delighted with My Best Girl and Daddy Long Legs. The Beloved Rogue was a simultaneous introduction to silent John Barrymore and Conrad Veidt, both of whom I was more familiar with in sound. My Veidt love led me to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Indian Tomb, which in turn led me to more German cinema.
I had been a silent movie fan for about six months and I was intoxicated. The stories were so different from Golden Age fare, the stars so vibrant and intriguing. The popular view of silent films as overdone relics was neatly disproved once the performers were released from the pages of history books and allowed to perform once again.
But how did I end up starting this blog? That’s another story for another day.