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Learning To Love Silent Films

Regular readers of this blog will know that I love me some Silent films. I’m very sad to have to confess to you all though, that it was not always the case with me. I saw my very first Silent film when I was in my mid teens, it was shown in a film class when I was studying at college. The film shown was Metropolis. I was intrigued to see the film because it was directed by the great Fritz Lang.

Lang was a director who was already well known to me because I was a fan of Film Noir. He directed such classic Noir films as The Big Heat and Scarlet Street. I liked his work, but I had yet to venture into his expressionistic Silent films. Little did I know that the German Expressionism found in some Silent films, was also a major influence on the Noir films that I was loving so much. The use of shadows and lighting in Noir is straight out of those early films, and I was so amazed when I first learnt about that. All Noir fans out there should show some love to those German Silents; without their direct influence, the look of Film Noir would have most likely turned out very differently indeed.  

Metropolis
Poster for Metropolis. Image source IMDb.

Before seeing Metropolis, I was already a huge fan of classic era films. I had never before had the slightest interest in seeing a Silent film though. I thought they would be boring and weird to watch. When this film started playing, there I was, still stubbornly convinced that there was no way this was going to be for me.

Then something happened that I can’t really describe. I just became fascinated by the images I was seeing on the screen. I was also extremely impressed with the scale of the sets, the overall look of the film and by Lang’s unforgettable depiction of the future. Before I knew what was happening, there I was, actually sitting there and enjoying a Silent film. 

I have to say that while Metropolis has never become a favourite of mine to the extent that I regularly watch it, I do love and admire it a great deal. The image of the future that it presents to us is an image which is impossible to get out of your head. It’s one of the greatest films that Fritz Lang ever made. Metropolis will always have a special place in my heart for being the film that made me a fan of Silent cinema.

From that point on I started to watch more Silent films. Then I started to laugh at myself for having held such stupid views about Silent films in the first place. Why had I been so hesitant about checking these out sooner? I  think it mainly had to do with the actors not speaking. It was such an alien concept to me after being raised on sound films. I think the lack of speech is still the main problem for people who are hesitant to watch these films today.

While hearing audiences may have difficulty with these films, I would imagine (would love to see some studies done on this)that Silent films can perhaps appeal more to deaf audiences. So often today the subtitles are not always that good on DVD releases, and this can make it difficult for deaf viewers to follow the dialogue. Some TV channels and programmes do not always offer subtitles either, which sadly means that deaf audiences are excluded from some content. Silent films don’t have those problems. In Silent films  you often don’t really need dialogue in many scenes, the actors convey all we need to know. I think it’s also very easy to follow what people are saying in Silent films because we have the title cards popping up displaying the dialogue. Personally I think that Silent films provide quite an inclusive experience to viewers who have hearing difficulties, or who perhaps don’t speak any languages other than their mother tongue and want to watch films from other countries(yes, I know DVDs of sound films have language dubbing :-)).

Now I am happy to say that I’m a huge fan of Silent cinema. I think that Silent films are incredible. It’s hard to dislike films where all the stunts are done for real; where all the special effects were done by hand or by using practical effects(no CGI to see here, folks), and where even the editing was done by hand. Making these films was a real labour of love and it shows. I also think that many of these films are like paintings brought to life due to a combination of beautiful costumes, colour tinting, uniquely designed title cards, lavish sets etc. You really don’t see films so visually beautiful anymore. I am a huge fan of tinting and especially love the use of blue in the Silent documentary The Epic Of Everest (1924). The blue tinting in that documentary makes me feel the cold of the location somehow. 

When you see these films today and know that what you see was all done by hand, it just blows you away. The stunning, jaw dropping visuals in these films, are leaps and bounds beyond anything that CGI gives us today. The directors and film crew working at this time were so innovative, and I find their fearlessness in exploring new and exciting ways of making films and creating film effects quite admirable.

Without these films we would most likely not even have films today. Film fans should be watching these films because it is where the medium began. We owe these films, and the filmmakers of this era, a massive debt of gratitude. I think it is vital that we get younger generations interested in these films. We need to preserve and honour these magnificent films. 

The more Silent films I watch, the more that I come to love and appreciate the different acting style. Some of the acting when viewed by us today looks quite theatrical, and I concede that this can be strange to get used to if you’re new to it. Having said that though, it’s important to note that so many performances in Silent films come across as very modern and fresh when viewed today.

Lon Chaney
The great Lon Chaney Sr. Image source IMDb.

I think that the acting in these films is all about the actors conveying emotions to us, and in doing so they really make us feel their pain or joy. These actors do not need dialogue because they have the ability to convey to us what’s going on through expression alone. In my opinion no actor of the era was better at conveying emotion than Lon Chaney Sr. Lon was a very unique actor. He created and applied his own make-up to play disfigured characters. I really can’t recommend his films highly enough. I write about him and his career in detail here.  He was such a fascinating man. 

Another thing I love about Silent films is the music. Music is very important in these films. You see despite there being no audible dialogue, these films are not actually totally silent(another myth busted). There is music playing throughout these films, and the music is very important for helping to establish and convey the mood and emotions of characters. I would love to go to one of those silent screenings which have a live orchestra accompanying the film. Has anyone ever attended one of these? What was it like? Silent films also have title cards, which appear at various points in the film, to display to us the dialogue being spoken by the characters. 

New To Silent Cinema?

Have you yet to dip your toe into the ocean of Silent cinema? What are you waiting for? There are dramas, historical epics, experimental films, short and long films, romances, comedies, horror,documentary, crime etc. Forget the damsel in distress cliche as well, because the Silent films provided very strong roles for women. They also had many women working behind the cameras as directors, producers, editors and writers in the Silent era.

Please don’t be afraid of these films. Pick one to watch and give this different film style a chance. Don’t simply dismiss these films as being old, outdated, or weird when you have never actually watched one.

If you don’t try these films, then not only will you miss out on some stunning visuals, powerful stories and memorable characters, but you’ll also miss out on some truly remarkable actors. People like Lon Chaney Sr, Douglas Fairbanks Sr, Lillian Gish, Louise Brooks, Ruan Lingyu, Rudolph Valentino, Buster Keaton, Clara Bow and so many others. You’ll also miss out on directors like F.W Murnau, Charles Chaplin, Fritz Lang, Buster Keaton, Cecil B. De Mille. 

Where To Begin With Silent Cinema?

You are going to watch your first Silent film, but you don’t know which film you should watch first. I would say forget all those famous titles; just go right ahead and pick a Silent film that is from your favourite genre. Don’t immediately try one of the very long feature films like Metropolis for example. You may get lucky as I did and end up really enjoying your first Silent, even if it is a long feature, but on the other hand you may well end up getting bored if your first film turns out to be a drag. So I’d say that you should maybe try something that appeals to your tastes before checking out the acclaimed epics.

Photo1593
Buster Keaton films are a good place to start for Silent newbies. Screenshot by me from Sherlock Jr.

A good place to start is to try and watch a comedy short. If you’re going to do that, then I would heartily recommend the films of the legend that is Buster Keaton. This comic genius made both comedy film shorts and feature films.

Buster was the master of physical comedy, and he had such perfect timing. He also performed some of the most jaw dropping film stunts ever captured on film. If you like comedy you can’t go wrong with Buster’s work. Charles Chaplin, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Harold Lloyd’s films also come highly recommended by me.

If you are interested in seeing the famous stunning visuals, epic running time and visual trickery of Silent films, then these films are ones that I would highly recommend that you watch for various reasons: The Phantom Carriage (1921), Battleship Potemkin (1925), Der Mude Tode(1921), Intolerance (1916), The Thief Of Bagdad(1924), Orphans Of The Storm (1921),Ghosts Before Breakfast (1928), A Trip To The Moon (1902), The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920), Metropolis (1927),The General (1926),Nosferatu(1922) , Sherlock Jr (1924) , The Epic Of Everest (documentary from 1924), The Man With The Movie Camera (documentary from 1929).

A Silent Film That I Would Recommend To A Newbie?

Shooting Stars
Shooting Stars. Screenshot by me.

1- Shooting Stars (1928) This British Silent is a behind the scenes look at filmmaking. It follows three actors who are caught up in a love triangle. The film is funny, suspenseful and very moving. It looks at the fleeting nature of fame and how we should never take what we have for granted. 

This film was one of the first(possibly the first)films to show audiences what goes on behind the scenes of films, and of how shots are achieved in film. We see how the screen fiction is achieved and made believable to an audience who buys into the illusion of film. You can read my full review of this film here. 

I would also recommend The Artist(2011). This charming film is a homage to the Silent era.It also brings to mind sound films such as Singin’ In The Rain and A Star Is Born. It also features the cutest and most scene stealing dog you’ll ever see. 

I could go on and on about Silent cinema, but I don’t want to bore you all.  🙂  I hope that I have piqued your interest in these films if you have yet to check out any Silent films. Let me know how you get on if you do decide to check out Silent films for the first time.

If you are already a fan I would love to hear from you. How did you become a fan? What are your favourite Silent films? Did you put off seeing them for ages?(like me). I sometimes feel like an oddity because I’m 30 and don’t know anyone else my age (outside of people online) who loves these wonderful films. 

May I also suggest you head on over and see Fritzi at Movies Silently.  Fritzi knows all there is to know about Silent cinema. 

 

 

 

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8 thoughts on “Learning To Love Silent Films”

  1. Shooting Stars! You’ve spoken about that before, haven’t you? I must see it.

    I want to share this post from 2011 about silent film (it’s not long). Three years later, we would take the niece mentioned here to the theatre to see Buster Keaton in The Navigator. She would later ask her mother when Tracey was going to the movies with Aunt Maureen, “Is it a talkie?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Paddy. No link is showing up for me! I’d love to read this. Great story about your niece 🙂

      Yes I have spoken about Shooting Stars before. I love it so much. I highly recommend it. As well as being a good film, it was also the directorial debut of Anthony Asquith.

      Like

  2. Maddy, I absolutely share your love of Silent films! I can remember watching Charlie Chaplin shorts on tv as a boy, but I didn’t really connect with his films at the time (I later changed my opinion, and became a huge fan). In my teens I discovered Harold Lloyd, and became totally hooked.

    Since then, I have discovered the pleasures of Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate; Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell in Street Angel; Harry Langdon in The Strong Man, and many, many others.Metropolis is a truly stunning film, and I love Anthony Asquith’s work, especially A Cottage On Dartmoor, and Shooting Stars (which was actually recommended to me by your good self some time ago).

    I have many Silent dvd’s, and enjoy them immensely, and I’m pleased that so many are available to buy (although, sadly, too many films are lost forever) but, for me, the true pleasure is in watching them on the big screen with live musical accompaniment. I was able to see Louise Brooks in Prix De Beaute at the Cinema Museum a couple of years ago, and I was absolutely transfixed! I was already a fan, having seen and admired her in Pandora’s Box, but to see her presented as originally intended, in a beautifully restored print, and watching from a packed auditorium…Sheer bliss. I think if more people had the opportunity to see these films in the best possible environment and highest quality prints, rather than the often grainy, over-cranked public domain copies available, there would be far more converts to the work of Murnau, Pabst, et al.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It took me a very long time to get into silent movies, and not because I had anything against them. I had always admired their beauty but, to be completely honest, they intimidated me. I finally was brave enough to sit down and watch a silent movie from beginning to end when I was in my late-20s or early-30s. I watched FLESH AND THE DEVIL and never looked back. Since that day, I try to watch silent movies whenever and however I can.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Not really seen many apart from a few classic Georges Méliès. As a teenager I was obsessed with Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy and got to see a small collection of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin films.
    Your article is ace Maddy, very passionate and it’s most excellent to see your recommends. A good place to start. TBH I’ve only just started hitting the pre-code era as well! Too many films and unfotunally never enough time.
    A top read indeed.

    Like

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