I convinced my family to watch City Lights (1931) with me one summer. What began with slight chuckles and admiration, turned rapidly to uncomfortable shifting, sighs, and maybe a slight smile. They would ask, “How long is this?” To say the least, it was quite discouraging. But could I blame them?
“The motion pictures did not originate as art but as a machine. They were invented” (Fulton, 3).
Silent films can be grueling for today’s audiences. They were not made for our breed of audience. In contrast, they were created for viewers from the 1890s until about 1930. They run slowly, target specific humor, and sometimes get lost in translation. Today’s audiences are used to constant stimulation, vibrant color and clarity, and most importantly, voices to tell the story.
While this is completely valid, it is imperative for film fans, at the very least, to acknowledge and respect silent films. Setting aside the creativity and innovation that developed through camera work and technique, silent films create a window into history.
“The study of silent film is often an attempt to decipher a series of faded, sometimes discontinuous, multi-layered images that may have been altered in any number of ways. Yet the scholar is motivated by the promise of insight into years gone by. In the present study, it has proved valuable, in this age of changing attitudes toward America’s economy and its international competitors, to explore early twentieth century American films that engaged the themes of left radicalism and capital-labor problems. These silent dramas, numbering in the hundreds, both reflected and helped to shape the American public’s attitudes about these important social issues” (Shull, 18).
Shull is identifying the significance of these stories and how they allow us as viewers to see a visual representation of contemporary social commentary. If one takes marketing into account, these films represent both the perspectives of the filmmakers and what the audience wishes to see. For example, Where Are My Children? is a silent film from 1916 which comments on abortion rights. The film encourages the education of contraception and many other controversial topics of the early twentieth century. During the women’s rights movement, this film is just one of many to use film as freedom of speech.
Silent film began as a form of trickery. The illusion evolved from a minute-long story of Cinderella (1899) to feature length epics like Wings (1927). To watch these films progress in both technique and story is a thrilling experience. Through technological and creative innovation, audiences can see the evolution of film from the very beginning.
What makes silent films so captivating and despite the fact that they were so technologically restricted, they were able to illustrate elaborate plot twists and create dynamic characters. With the use of intertitles, silent films create a unique viewing experience. With the lack of dialogue, viewers must achieve a certain zen while watching. If they allow themselves to completely become a part of the story, they will soon forget they were supposed to hear voices in the first place.
D.W. Griffith is one of the many pioneers of film. His silent films were epic, controversial, and still discussed today.
“For the most part, the alternative to gestures in a silent film is subtitles, and Griffith used subtitles sparingly. The exaggerated acting of Lillian Gish depicting Elsie Stoneman’s embracing the bed post and of certain other scenes, particularly involving the love stories, is parly attributable to Griffith’s sentimental strain. Griffith did not follow a detailed scenario. Having only a rough mental outline of the action, he improvised as he went along” (Fulton, 89).
Acting in silent films had its own evolution. The exaggerated acting of Lillian Gish as described by Fulton is soon replaced by the subtleties of Greta Garbo and Clara Bow. Camera work helped this transition with the use of the close-up. Instead of Gish clinging desperately to her bedpost or throwing her arms in the air, Garbo and Bow needed only a moment. With the camera tight on their faces, the story would glide along gracefully with the audiences’ understanding.
There is something vital about each decade of the silent film era. Audiences may smirk at Georges Melies’ primitive sets, Lillian Gish’s dramatic overacting, or tap their foot at the sight of Harold Lloyd falling over again. The fact remains, silent films are magical. They allow fans to peek into the past. One can see the first magic carpet fly in The Thief of Bagdad (1924), the first on-screen kiss in Thomas Edison’s VitaScope (1896), and yes – even the four hoofs of the horse completely off the ground, thanks to Eadweard Muybridge in 1878 (noted as being the first motion picture).
If I haven’t succeed yet in convincing you to love silent film, perhaps watching this will work:
Now that you’re convinced, start with this list:
THE GREATEST SILENT FILMS EVER
Cendrillon (Cinderella) (1899)