Silent Films - Are They Worth the Watching?

The silent movie is, for the vast majority of audiences, even those that have serious interests in films, the pariah of the movie world. They are commonly viewed as quaint, old-fashioned, melodramatic, and technically immature. Worst of all, there's no sound, unless you happen to have an organ and a capable organist handy. (And how many of us do?) Those with serious interests in film are often willing to grant that certain silent movies are seminal works, films of importance that everyone should know, but they treat them about the same way that readers treat Moby Dick and Silas Marner.

There is, of course, a minority that champions silent films. They contend that silent films are artistic and entertaining; that a different, and perhaps superior, form of acting prevailed during the silent days ("We didn't need voices, we had FACES!", as Sunset Boulevard more or less put it); that, in fact, some of the best cinematography of all times is found in late silent movies; and that silent films have a freshness and newness lacking in today's films.

Of course, to a great extent the issue is one of taste, but, without entering an endless argument about whether any absolute standards exist in art, is either position simply based on errors? An impartial observer with no knowledge of silent film might suggest that the advocates are more likely to be in the right. After all, most of those who avoid silent films have seen few or none of them. What they have seen is rarely the cream of the crop, and is usually shown at the wrong speed, often from a bad print. And yet . . .

I've seen a lot of silent films, including most of the very famous ones. I've seen Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Ben Hur, The Crowd, The Big Parade, The Thief of Baghdad, Cabiria, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Broken Blossoms, The Wind, all of Chaplin's features, most of Keaton's, some of Lloyd's, The Battleship Potemkin, Die Nibelungen, Metropolis, Napoleon, Way Down East, Pandora's Box, Wings, Orphans of the Storm, The Sheik, Greed, The Merry Widow, and at least 100 others, probably more. How were they? Well, I sure saw a lot of them, so I must have liked them. But I'll watch almost anything, and I've been known to go to films that I'm pretty sure I wouldn't like, just because I felt I should see them. Actually, my feelings about silent films a bit complex.

As far as I'm concerned, there's some truth to the feelings of the detractors of silent films. Many of them are highly melodramatic, especially those made before the 1920's. "Quaint" is probably an accurate description of some of them. "Old-fashioned", too, is a truthful description, on the whole. And many of them indeed show technique that is very poor, by today's standards, or, for that matter, by the standards of the 1940's. If you made a list of the 100 silent films that are most frequently mentioned in articles, books, and lectures about film, I'd say that the majority of them would require the viewer to make some compensation for them. You couldn't go in just expecting a flawless entertainment, and come out fully satisfied. And I don't think that the same would be true of the 100 most famous films of the 1930's. By and large, they hold up pretty well.

The two most common problems that make silent films inaccessible for modern viewers are probably the dramatic style and the primitive technique. The latter is easily understandable. Films were young, techniques improved as they grew older. Comparing the technique of even certain silent films, early to late, makes it clear that the problem here isn't the lack of sound, but the state of the art. The Wind and The Crowd, both made towards the end of the silent era, are infinitely superior in technique to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Great Train Robbery, which were earlier. In fact, the late silents are pretty incontrovertably superior in technique to almost any sound film made in the first four or five years of the sound period.

So what does that mean? Well, if you're going to see a silent film, with some exceptions from 1923 or later, the chances are fair that the camera movement, the lighting, the special effects, the editing, the makeup, and so on, are going to look rather primitive. Not always. I don't think anyone ever edited a film better than Potemkin, the sets in Intolerance rival anything ever done on film, and the special effects of the silent Thief of Baghdad are really better than those of the sound version made in the 1940's. But generally.

As far as the second problem goes, again, the earlier the film, the greater the problem, with notable exceptions. Silent film originally started with theater as its dramatic model. Theater at the turn of the century was solidly melodramatic, with acting that would be laughed off the stage, today. And, since the obvious source of film actors was the stage, film acting started with much the same style. The better actors and directors quickly realized that the intimacy of the camera made large dramatic expressions and gestures totally ridiculous, but it did take a while for the bulk of the industry to follow suit. Douglas Fairbanks is really pretty silly in The Thief of Baghdad, swinging his arms wide and high, forever throwing his head back and laughing when he eludes his foes, and striking foolishly heroic poses. And the Carthaginian queen in Cabiria gnaws the exquisite sets in ludicrous imitation of Sarah Bernhard. The leopard she shares some of her scenes with is an infinitely better screen performer. At least it acted like a leopard, while she acted nothing like a real person.

The acting is not the only holdover from the melodramatic stage. Many of the early silents are staged as plays - static camera, cuts only between scenes, proscinium framing, and so forth. Few of these are shown nowadays, except occasionally in restrospectives of famous directors or performers. More insidious was the continuing use of somewhat maudlin stage conventions. D. W. Griffith was probably the best-known offender in this field. Despite technical flash, it's often a bit hard to take his films seriously, because they take themselves so very, very seriously. It's a tribute to his talent that audiences don't burst into laughter when a sinister man in black face stalks the innocent young Southern belle in Birth of a Nation, or when Danton makes a cowboy ride to rescue the Gish sisters from the guillotine at the end of Orphans of the Storm. Chaplin's sentimentality, which almost scuttles a few of his films, is a similar holdover from Victorian dramatic conventions.

Probably the films that suffer least nowadays are the comedies. The great screen comedians of the silent era weren't stage actors, but came from vaudeville. Vaudeville had its own artifices. The dumb clowning typical of Mack Sennett shorts has no more relation to reality than Bernhard histronics, and really doesn't play any better today than the dramas. But perhaps because they never thought of themselves as capital-A Artists, the great silent comedians were quicker learners than the dramatists. Chaplin may have fallen into traps when he tried to tug heartstrings, but he was a great, instinctual filmmaker when it came to sustained laughter.

Yet even the silent comedies do not always enthrall modern audiences. If they won't watch a thirty year old film because it's in black and white, what chance is there to please an audience with a film that's not only black and white, but also has no dialog or sound effects, but, at best, a musical accompaniment? And it's not just inertia. Even when they are persuaded to watch such an oddity, many modern viewers just don't like them. One can argue that their taste is poor, that they don't know masterpieces when they see them, but they still don't like them.

Silent film is a medium for a select few, I think. It requires a bit more effort to watch a silent film than a talkie. And the past of the silent era is becoming a bit too remote for most audiences. There are still many people alive who saw silent films when they were the only game in town, but they are getting older and older, and their world recedes daily from the world of today. Only those not only willing to make the effort of mind to comprehend a silent film, but also willing to take the step into the past, are today's audience. It is an audience similar in kind to the audience for ballet, opera, and Shakespearean theater, an audience that is able to appreciate the standards of the past, that will take the intellectual leap the medium requires.

I think that no one who cherishes the belief that he has a serious interest in film can afford not to be a member of that group, however. Alone among major art forms, almost the entire past of the art is there for its students to see. We don't know who performed the first play, in whatever primitive form. We can't see what the first recognizable ballet looked like, or listen to the early orchestras of the past. But cinema bares its childhood to any willing to see. Yes, much has been lost, but almost all of the seminal works of the silent era are still here, some of them almost in the same pristine condition as the first time that they flickered through a hand-cranked projector and danced across a screen to delight a virgin audience of a virgin art. How can the serious screen student resist watching the baby steps, the vitality of childhood, the awkwardness of adolescence, when it is all there, waiting for his attention? And if these early moments lack the polish of what was to follow, they have the charm of discovery and a vital excitement of artists suddenly realizing that there is a totally new way to express themselves. How can you love cinema without loving silent film?

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Last modified: Fri Sep 16 1994