I love silent films. I accept that most people, assuming they've seen a silent film, probably do not share my affection for them. Why should they? After all, they're in black and white (usually); the acting's a little more intense than we're used to (sometimes); and, for crying out loud, you have to read them!
I do not really expect anyone else to love silent films. It's true that, in the 21st century, they can seem a bit arch, alien and archaic. But here are some of the reasons why I love them and why I think that everyone should take the time to spin a choice silent picture now and then …
It's a Whole World of Movies That We Never Knew Existed
Imagine that there's a secret cinema made up of thousands of movies from every genre that exist just below the horizon where few people think to look. That's silent cinema. Once you're in the know, the spectrum of film is wider, deeper and richer than you could have previously imagined. Westerns, science fiction, crime dramas, romantic comedies, horror, all represented by some of the finest – and most infrequently seen – movies ever made. When you've seen some of these, you will begin to find that …
Silent Films Enhance Our Appreciation of Recent Films
Silent film is, by its very nature, an intensely visual medium. Direction, cinematography and performance are all focused purely upon what is visible to the eye. Actors had only their body language and facial expressions to evoke a character and tell a story. They had no recourse to dialogue. This is why so much of the acting of the period seems overwrought to today's viewers. Once you learn to appreciate silent performance, however, you will start to spot current players and actresses who really know how to act with their faces and, indeed, with their whole bodies as opposed to those who just stand around and talk.
Likewise, cinematography was a potent storytelling device. A shot pans from a western outlaw to the woman he has imprisoned – and then follows her sightline to the gun on the table. This sort of device is, of course, part of the basic grammar of film, but the lack of dialogue throws cinematographic technique into bold relief. We really begin to notice and to appreciate how the camera alone can tell a story.
After you've internalized the purely visual style of silent film, you'll become aware of their great economy. What requires two or three pages of dialogue in a talkie is often communicated in a silent picture by a single shot.
They Are a Window Into Another Time
If you've ever wished for a time machine (and who has not?), Silent films may be as close as you're likely to get to owning one. A movie shot on location, like much of Harold Lloyd's SPEEDY, allows us to be passive observers to a few moments of day-to-day life over eighty years ago.
More importantly, silent films are a window into the mindset of the era. A good way to gain an understanding of the general opinions and attitudes of a given period is to sample some of its popular entertainment. Silent film covers topics as diverse (and still current) as immigration (GRETCHEN THE GREENHORN) and abortion (WHERE ARE MY CHILDREN?). What better way to gain an understanding of the way our great-grandchildren saw their world that by seeing the very same films that they saw, pondered over, and discussed with their friends?
They Stretch Your Mind
A silent film makes the viewer an active participant in the creative process by asking us to fill in vital details. What are these characters really saying to one another? The intertitles only summarize. What does our heroine's voice sound like? It's as sweet as our mind cares to make it. In these ways, silent pictures engage us in a way that talkies rarely can.
Additionally, silent films, because of their age, often require us to shift our mental gears a bit, to try to see the world the way that questions of ninety or a hundred years ago saw it. I once watched DW Griffith's THE MOTHERING HEART with a friend who looked his head at the performance of Lillian Gish when confronted with the death of her infant child. I pointed out that infant mortality was astronomically higher then and that this film was actually sitting hard for many contemporary viewers. It's this sort of change in attitude and outlook that can turn something seemingly silly into something near profound.
They Are Great Entertainment
Lastly, silent films can be great entertainment. Obviously, the comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd continue to be popular, and tentpole titles like METROPOLIS and NOSFERATU will always grab attention, but there are countless other films waiting to be discovered by the general public. From the romantic comedy of Mary Pickford's MY BEST GIRL, to the epic western of James Cruze's THE COVERED WAGON, there is plenty to discover and enjoy. I guarantee that if you give them a chance, you'll find in silent cinema a few favorite movies that you never knew exhausted!
(Originally published on Movie Literacy http://movieliteracy.blogspot.com/ )