“But They’re So Primitive!”
Some Common Misconceptions About Silent Films
It’s a conversation that fans of silent film are all very familiar with. You tell someone you love watching silents. They laugh. Then it dawns on them that you aren’t kidding, and they put on a serious expression as you valiantly try to explain just why you love that unique, creative, historic era of cinema. Maybe your explanation intrigued them. Or maybe (and more likely) they said, “Huh, well that’s neat,” and changed the subject.
But…but what’s not to love? (Rudolph Valentine, The Sheik, 1921)
Of all the eras of cinema, the silent era is perhaps the most stereotyped and the least understood. Even classic movie fans with an encyclopedic knowledge of 1929-1960 films will balk at watching silents–and they’re no strangers to defending old movies, I might add.
Why are silents so misunderstood? Well, there’s simply a lot of widespread misconceptions about them. Let’s take a look at four of the most common ones:
Myth #1. Silent films were very primitive.
Many assume that silents were clumsy embarrassments right from their humble “curio” beginnings in 1888 up until sound finally burst in around 1927, liberating them from the oh-so-sad tyranny of silence.
Now, next to today’s technological marvels it’s true that something like Roundhay Garden Scene (the earliest surviving motion picture) is going to look pretty rough, as are films like George Melies’s The Haunted Castle (1896) or the animation Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906). However, cinema evolved very quickly from these roots–so quickly, in fact, that your standard 1910s drama was shot, paced, and edited pretty much the same way it is today.
The sophisticated serials Les Vampires (1915-16) and Judex (1916-7) by Louis Feuillade are some excellent examples, as are Biograph shorts like The Unchanging Sea (1910) and The Battle at Elderbrush Gulch (1913). Delightfully fluid line animation can be seen in cartoons like How a Mosquito Operates (1912), and underwater photography was showcased in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916). And if you ask me, the immense scale and brilliant editing of the Babylon battle scenes from Intolerance (1916) can sweep away even the most jaded modern viewer.
And so can the scale, all by itself. (Intolerance, 1916)
Lighting reached artistic heights during the silent era, from the delicacy of Broken Blossoms (1919) to the dramatic shadows and angles of Pandora’s Box (1929). So did the art of in-camera effects blending miniatures, special mirrors, matte shots, dissolves, multiple exposures, etc., as showcased in noted masterpieces like Napoleon and Sunrise (both 1927). And these are but a handful of examples I could give right now.
In short, the filmmaking vocabulary was grasped very early on and silents became a sophisticated art form of its own, not an “awkward stage” that was endured until talkies came along.
Myth #2. Fine, maybe silents were okay technically, but most of them were hokey melodramas.
Sure, there were lots of melodramas back then, even hokey ones, but the world of silent film was much bigger than we think.
Following the Victorian period of modest one-shot films, cinema all over the world ballooned into dozens of different styles and genres. There were comedies, westerns, nature documentaries, newsreels, satires, animated cartoons, war pictures, serials, romances, historical epics, and so on. European film became known for its mature dramas and grand spectacles like Cabiria (1914). Filmmakers like Georges Méliès and Segundo de Chomón made whimsical fantasies with stage and in-camera effects. Studios like Vitagraph and Biograph made heart-tugging dramas and light comedies. Slapstick was churned out by famous studios like the Keystone Film Company.
There was also a rise of political films such as A Corner in Wheat (1909) and The Cry of the Children (1912), addressing working-class issues. Modern art trends resulted in films like the German Expressionist The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and the avant-garde Ballet Mechanique (1924). It was an era of immense creativity, attracting comedians, poets, and intellectuals alike.
So in reality, there was far more to the silent era than just melodrama. And when they were well done, some of those melodramas could even be masterpieces–Tol’able David (1921) and Way Down East (1920), for instance, are considered classics today.
Myth #3. Well, at any rate, the acting in silent films was ridiculously exaggerated.
Yes, there’s certainly some silent acting that’s ludicrous to our eyes today. Some of it can be blamed on lackluster actors. However, there was more than one style of acting in the silent era–some being more “of their time” than others.
As you might guess, film acting derived from the theater, where actors tended to “play to the back rows.” Many stage actors had a hard time adjusting their gesture-heavy performances for the camera. Plus, it was common for early films to shoot full-length figures, making at least some gesturing necessary to keep the story clear. It wasn’t until closeups became common in the mid-1910s that actors realized they could focus on subtler displays of emotion.
It’s also important to remember that some exaggerated acting had to do with style. Comedy acting, especially in 1910s slapstick, could be deliberately cartoony. Stylized Expressionist films like Faust (1926) and Metropolis (1927) featured equally stylized acting as part of the experience.
But for every stylized or admittedly bad silent actor, there were a host of wonderfully naturalistic ones. Mary Pickford, Asta Nielson, Louise Brooks, Buster Keaton, Ramon Novarro, Sessue Hayakawa, Florence La Badie, and Richard Barthelmess are just a few that spring to mind. Many of their performances are as effective as they were a century ago, and can still inspire young actors today.
Myth #4: Silents are still mainly of interest for hardcore film history nerds…right?
Dramatic Lillian Gish begs to differ. (The Wind, 1928)
Wrong! Profoundly wrong. Because of the wide range of genres and styles, I believe it’s a rare individual who couldn’t enjoy some sort of silent film, whether it’s early silent horror like Nosferatu (1922) or flapper flicks like It (1927). Comedies by Chaplin or Harold Lloyd are entertaining for any age, and for the artsy crowd there’s always Victor Sjöström’s character studies or Eisenstein’s famous montages. There is truly something for everyone
So if you’re a silent film “newbie,” don’t let these four common misconceptions fool you. Consider sitting down to enjoy a few of the films that probably delighted your great-grandparents–I can almost guarantee you won’t regret it.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.