Library of Congress recently issued a study that stated over seventy percent of silent films have been lost to the sands of time. For someone like me who has been watching silent pictures for a couple of years now, I don’t find this figure surprising. This is a reality that silent film buffs must contend with. We must celebrate the films that are not lost and search unfailingly for traces of films that are. But for someone who has never seen a silent picture, I doubt this call to action means anything to them. The majority of the film going community has probably never seen a true silent picture made in the silent era. And if they have, they probably immensely disliked it or treated it with indifference. These people don’t understand the impact of the figure quoted above and what it means for the study of the history of cinema or even the enjoyment of an obscure film buff. The film that you most recently watched wouldn’t have been possible if it hadn’t been for the silent era. This isn’t to say that silent pictures should be seen from a purely historical or technical aspect. Silent pictures are works of art unique to that time. There is a reason that directors try to make silent pictures even in our firmly sound time. If you are a member of the non-silent majority, let me have a moment of your time to argue for the beauty and the essential viewing of silent films.
Feature length silent pictures started around the turn of the last century. Until feature length silent pictures started to dominate the scene, the world saw films as just a novelty peddled by sideshow men looking to make a quick buck. Something that would just fade away with time. But a few key players worked tirelessly to justify cinema as an art and as a viable commercial product worth investing in. D.W. Griffiths, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, Mack Sennett, and mountains upon mountains of other people all shaped the rudimentary aspects of filmmaking into what we see today. They streamlined the process of filmmaking, invented new camera techniques, provided purely physical performances that also conveyed a complex range of emotions, and generally made a barren desert into the center of the world in terms of filmmaking. They took their inspiration from stage plays, minstrel shows, and great novels. They transcended language barriers, political differences and class divisions in order to entertain. Essentially, they started an artistic revolution.
This history is good and all but you must be wondering why I asked you for just a moment of your time and then give you a dry and incomplete history lesson. Many people approach silent film watching outside of context and thus give up on it early or dismiss it wholly. All they notice is the clowning around and the mouthing of words with no actual sound. They don’t understand that what they are seeing on screen has any depth to it at all. But it does. It has extraordinary depth that can only be seen with time. I will admit to you that when I first started watching film seriously, I hated silent pictures. It was only after I forced myself to sit uncomfortably through several pictures, did I truly grow to enjoy them. If you are up for the challenge, know now that it will take discipline. You must learn to forget everything that you consider should be in a film today. Most importantly, you must get used to having no sound to orient yourself. This is a more challenging obstacle than you might think. In modern times, we are surrounded by sound. People seclude themselves in a public setting by listening to their iPods. We watch television while eating at a restaurant. Some of us may even have those annoying friends that detest silence so completely that they will fill up every moment with their babbling about nothing. (I wouldn’t recommend watching a silent picture with those types of friends because you will miss almost everything that happens in them. Trust me I have tried. I hated every moment of it.) You must come to love silence. Being able to sit in one place silent and watch a picture that is truly only visual is the most relaxing thing that one can do. At first, it might be too relaxing and you might end up falling asleep. I suggest having a big cup of coffee handy. I also suggest not having a dog that radiates strong sleepy vibes near you.
As you make your way slowly through the first couple of silent pictures, you might notice a few things. Depending on what movie you decide to watch, you will notice the lack of camera movement and the prevalence of mouth moving with little relation to the actual titles that follow them. While the truly innovative directors were able to break the medium shot convention and tell their stories using purely facial expressions and physical action, most directors were still burdened with these handicaps. Don’t pay attention to the lack of camera cuts, but to the actual story.
Many of these stories will seem familiar to you. A ton of later directors have borrowed their story lines and translated them to appeal to more modern audiences. But the basic story conventions are there. I will take one of my favorite silent pictures as an example. The Phantom Carriage was made in 1921 by Victor Sjostrom in Sweden. This picture was one of the first example of the horror picture. The story is simple. The last person to die on New Year’s Eve is condemned to drive the death carriage that carries away all of the dead for the following year. Scythes, ghosts, and the idea of sin all play a major part in this early classic. Now if you replace carriage with train or airplane or ship, you get the premise of most ghost stories told today. This film is an excellent example of purely physical acting as well. We see the young dying woman writhe in pain as two older women watch over her. We understand through small motions that the favor she has asked of them is one that will cause her even more pain. This isn’t done through the title cards, but through quick cuts and knowing looks. Simple actions and emotions that require words today, need nothing but dramatic gestures in the time of silence.
If you reject silent pictures, then you are surely missing out. I revel in the times that I first saw Joan of Arc’s tear streaked face or Charlie Chaplin achieve the dancing roll trick or Nosferatu stalk along in the shadows right before he turns into a bat. Those moments are why I love watching film in general, not just silent film. If I have peaked your interest in silent pictures, but don’t know where to start, let me give you some quick suggestions.
My Favorite Silent Pictures:
The Phantom Carriage (1921, Victor Sjostrom)
Safety Last! (1923, Harold Lloyd)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919, Robert Wiene)
Nosferatu (1922, F.W. Murnau)
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927, F.W. Murnau)
The Crowd (1928, King Vidor)
The Gold Rush (1925, Charlie Chaplin)
The Man with a Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Th. Carl Dreyer)
The General (1927, Buster Keaton)
Seven Chances (1925, Buster Keaton)
The Cat and the Canary (1927, Paul Leni)
The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926, Lotte Reiniger)
Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein)