Watching Silent Films

01 Aug

Chaplin, eating his shoe

I have recently become interested in silent movies, though it took some doing. It is the unintentional and un-directed work of a lifetime. I used to watch quite a few as a small child, mostly Charlie Chaplin shorts that my Dad would bring home from the library. I was so young, I couldn’t even read and I would have to nudge my brother and sister every time there was an intertitle to remind them to read it to me. Fortunately, it is not necessary to read to be able to appreciate Charlie Chaplin. My one, enduring memory is of Chaplin trying to eat his shoe. I was also very taken with his walk and would imitate it every chance I had.

The other silent film I saw as a child was The Birth of a Nation (1915), a film so racist that even I, an unaware child, could pick it up. It was my first introduction to how movies reflect their time and it was also the first movie that taught me that just because something is so in a movie, does not mean it is right or true or just.

Through the years, I have tried fitfully to reacquaint myself with silent movies. There was Douglas Fairbanks’ 1922 Robin Hood, which felt long and had very 1920s’ costumes with a slight medieval flavor; there was Fairbanks’ The Three Musketeers (1921), which put me to sleep with its uninspiring organ accompaniment (and I’ve never fallen asleep during a movie before, so it must have been the organ music). There were a few Chaplin films: The Great Dictator (1940) and Modern Times (1936), silents he made after the silent era had ended that were funny, but had a point behind them and didn’t quite do anything for me.

Two movies…well, three…actually, four, finally hooked me and made me a silent film fan.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928): I read about Buster Keaton and the kind of physical comedy he did and about the wall that falls on him with the open window that falls over his head. I read about how he did all his own stunts and that a wall really did fall and how they measured it exactly so that his head would go through the window frame. There was something rather exciting about watching him do all his own stunts – no CGI – with his trademark deadpan face. I’d never heard of him before, but I enjoyed what I saw and have since become a big fan.

Keaton in Sherlock, Jr.

Keaton in Sherlock, Jr.

Then I saw Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Directed by F.W. Murnau, a German director known for his expressionist films, he came to American and made this movie in 1928, at the very end of silent movie making. I was awestruck by how beautiful and dynamic it was. The camera was mobile (unlike early talkies), the lighting and shots were exquisite, the acting was supreme, it actually had its own score instead of organ accompaniment (they figured out how to add scores to films in 1926) and it was very moving.

But although I saw these two silent films and liked them, I wasn’t quite sure how to go further into silent films. I didn’t know much about silent movie actors or genres. What proved truly helpful was to take stars I liked from the 1930s and go backwards and see them when they started, in the silent era. I am a big Mary Astor fan and I had just seen the movie Midnight (1939), which was also my first John Barrymore. I read that Astor and Barrymore made several silent movies together. One was Beau Brummel, a film that I absolutely loved and also served to introduce Barrymore to me when he was in his acting prime. The other movie was with Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), which is considered one of the first horror films and one I found quite riveting to watch as Barrymore played each role.

One of the things that really helps make a silent movie come alive is the music, which unfortunately can be a bit hit or miss. It can be a contemporary score, piano, organ, or even the original score.  Sometimes, the music is just slapped on and doesn’t fit the action. I once tried watching an inferior version of the 1925 Lost World and the perky, tacked on classical music that had no reference to what was actually occurring onscreen drove me nuts. When the music is good, however, it really makes a movie stand out. Beau Brummel had a beautiful score. It is a contemporary score and achingly lovely. There apparently have been many composers who have stepped up to provide compositions for these silent films and I wonder if it offers them more interest than composing for a talky film; silent movie scores can be more like a tone poem, more in the forefront rather than in the background.

I think one of the real keys to enjoying silent films is finding the actors and genres that you like, as opposed to feeling obligated to watch the best ones. After all, we don’t do that when movies come out in theaters. We watch what we want, not what the critics say are the finest, most artistic films. It’s supposed to be fun to watch a silent film, not educational.

Mary Astor and John Barrymore in Beau Brummel

Mary Astor and John Barrymore in Beau Brummel

But silent films are not like talkies. They convey emotions differently, visually, through their face and body language, through the music and cinematography. I’ve definitely seen hammy and melodramatic acting (but then, I’ve seen that in today’s films, so that doesn’t count), but there is a heightened emotion and expression that is almost poetic in silent films, that is beautiful and exciting to see…or funny.

Fritzi Kramer, on her site, Movies Silently, argues that silent movies are somewhere in between books and talkies and that many people who like silent movies are also readers. I have seen nothing to contradict it, though I would argue that there is a silent movie for everyone’s taste, if they could find it: horror, romance, kitsch, melodrama, jazz age, crime, gangsters, adventure, mystery, fantasy, historical, comedy, westerns…anything.

For more information on the silent era, I would definitely check out Movies Silently (here). There are movie reviews, fun GIFs, articles about the silent era, videos debunking silent era myths, book reviews, mini bios of actors. It’s a wonderful and well written resource. And for fun, check out her video called “Dear Movies Silently, Why do so many silent movies have women tied to railroad tracks?” where she debunks this particularly persistent silent movie myth.

Or for an introduction to silent movies, try her article called “About Silent Movies #1: Silent Movies? You Like Silent Movies?”

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Posted by on August 1, 2014 in Silent Films


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