Silent Era Snark: “Things We Seldom See in Movies”

I was looking through old magazines and ran into this little piece in a 1921 issue of Photoplay: Things We Seldom See in Movies. So, basically, tropes and cliches from the day. Enjoy!


Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but movies have always rather infamously indulged in “glow-ups” even when a more average appearance was called for. But who can blame them considering the complaints if the leads were less than gorgeous? For example, you wouldn’t believe the remarks (both retro and modern) about Mia May for daring to appear on the screen past the age of 35 and wearing something larger than a size 10. And she was lovely!

The Enchanted Cottage featured the very attractive Richard Barthelmess and May McAvoy with undereye bags and a putty nose, respectively, and Charley Chase and Vivien Oakland sported funny teeth and… a putty nose in Mighty Like a Moose but all four soon ditched their makeup and were their old gorgeous selves before the end.

Also, regarding this caricature: Johnny Hines probably felt attacked.

Yep, pretty guilty there. Even later in the 1920s when bobs were in full roar, the ingenue character usually kept those long curls.

I have to admit this one is pretty true as well. (Eliminating historical baddies and westerns, of course.) Are you even a villain if you aren’t dressed for either a cotillion or a fox hunt?

Kinda True

This is a shame because an initial defeat increases suspense and makes the audience more sympathetic to the hero. Now, there were quite a few cases of heroes losing fights (John Barrymore seemed to do more than his share of that) but defeats usually involved being overwhelmed by numbers, not losing a one-on-one battle. (Naturally, there were always exceptions.)

Well, you must admit that would defeat the object.

Sad endings weren’t impossible but, yeah, we take their point. Vamp pictures would have unhappy endings, some of the darker westerns would be melancholy with the antihero riding off alone or dying, and works based on tragic lit, stage plays or opera would often retain the sad ending. (Carmen, for example, is well and truly stabbed in a murder-suicide every single time.)

We Have Some Caveats

Considering the fact that bigger stars were regularly mobbed, stalked and threatened, it’s hardly surprising. These aren’t the good old days in Fort Lee, New Jersey!

And how else will you direct your thousands of extras, I ask you?

The bill of a hat would interfere with looking through the camera’s viewfinder, so it would be strange if the cameraman DID have his hat on straight. (Though I should mention that camerawomen were a thing during the silent era as well.)

Well, that was fun! And, as you can see, kvetching at cliches was by no means a modern invention.


You can look up lots of swell clippings like these at the Media History Digital Library.


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One Comment

  1. Cari Julis

    Yeah, it would be cool to see more of this stuff! Having said that, the reason why we don’t is probably because people were – and are – afraid of changing a popular image, which, in my mind, is a bit of a shame. Everything is clichéd – but then again, hasn’t it always been…?

    Great article as always Fritzi!

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