Thursday, June 17, 2010

Silent Movie 101

In today's culture we are constantly bombarded by noise. Wether it be self inflicted (I am notorious for carrying my iPod everywhere!) to the everyday sounds of the street (or the annoying obnoxious car next to you at the stop light who wants to share their bass beats with the world)

Silents are the opposite of media today and therefore are sometimes harder to understand. You can't just sit and watch a silent movie the way you do any other kind of film. You have to adjust not only your way of watching, but you also have to modify your expectations. For example, you wouldn't read shakespeare the same way you read Jane Austen. You have to adjust to the author. The same goes for watching a silent movie as opposed to a talkie.

So... I have compiled a few tricks to preparing a silent movie newbie.

Above: Stunning Clara Bow!

1. Prepare Yourself: Realize that films before sound technology look and feel differently than early talkies. They are almost a completly different medium all together. The film may have different cuts, close ups and might use other artistic devices to help tell the story. There is even more camera movement in silents as opposed to early talkies as the cameras weren't connected to sound equipment.

2. Silent Acting Style: Actors in silent movies had different techniques than what many audiences today expect. Silents are often more melodramatic and have much more exaggerated highs and lows. Actors had to rely on physical and facial expression to emote feelings rather than rely on their voice and dialogue. The acting might come off looking fake, but it absolutly isn't. Some actors, in my opinion, have actually lost that special character physicality and rely too much on words in later talkies. Garbo was made famous because she knew how to show such a wide range of emotion from just a look in her eye. So... when you watch a silent film, don't judge the acting too harshly, simply accept it for what it was.

3. Choose Carefully: Don't just watch any silent movie in the beginning. Choose films that you have a vested interest in watching. This will give you a reason to push forward even if you are feeling a bit skittish about watching silent movies. For example, watch a Valentino! Everyone knows who he was. Women committed suicide after his pre-mature death because they were so distraught! There had to have been something special about that guy, right?! Watch one of his films just to see what all the fuss was about. Girls in the 20s knew how to have a good time! Watch a Clara Bow or Colleen Moore film and see just how much fun a flapper really had! Choosing really interesting silent movies not only gets your feet wet, but once you have those under your belt, the heavier silents don't feel like such a big deal!

4. Stay Open Minded: Silent films truly are a very specific kind of fim medium. They were unlike anything that had ever been seen before. There were masterpieces, like the controversial ones made by D.W. Griffith, and small purely entertaining ones, like those made by Harold Lloyd. The Trick is to keep your self open to new experiences. Don't judge the film before you watch it. Be willing to explore silent era films and look at it as an adventure. Once you build up your silent movie muscle, who knows, you might feel like you could even take on a German Expressionist Silent! (Dr. Calligari, Anyone?)

Anyhow, I encourage you to stretch your film boundaries and try something new! Watch a silent movie! I have posted a few posters of my favorite titles (My Best Girl, Wings and Beyond the Rocks) All three are wonderful. Coincidentally... anything with Harold Lloyd is also a winner in my book... He was not only funny... but adorable to boot! In fact, I will end this post with a little Lloyd Love!


  1. This was quite useful for me, thanks.

    I feel ashamed to say it, because I LOVE classic talkies, but silent movies have never really done it for me. You're right, it is the acting that sort of puts me off. I feel like some sort of phoney, and I honestly would love to get into them.

    The only one i've ever seen in full is 'The Battleship Potemkin' the other day and I did actually enjoy it, surprisingly, a lot more than I thought I would. I'm thinking of starting my silent-film journey with Birth of a Nation. Good idea?

    By the way, I hate self promotion, but I just started a blog as well, and, even though there's probably lotss od stuff there you wouldn't be interested in, i'm definitely going to be posting about my journey through classic films since I am a relatively new classics lover. Just FYI in case you're interested!

  2. These are all great tips. I've just started getting into the silents, and I'll definitely keep these in mind as I progress.

    I couldn't help but smile, though, when you suggested starting with Valentino - because that's exactly what I did! The Sheik was the first silent movie I ever saw (and, sadly, the only one to date), and it's got me interested to see more. Good advice!

    From what I've read so far, you've got a great blog! And I love you profile picture. Bell, Book and Candle isn't one of my favorite movies, but that pic really is stunning.

  3. There is definitely a different language to silent cinema, and anyone who fails to understand that will simply be lost. I would suggest watching silents on TCM (in particular, its superb "Silent Sunday Nights" series) to better comprehend the medium.