Silents are Golden: The Good, The Bad, And The Not-So-Bad Of Silent Era Acting
So you’re thinking of taking the plunge and exploring the world of silent films! You’re intrigued by those flickery, black and white images from a time gone by, and are looking to expand your film history knowledge–and perhaps add some new favorites to your movie collection. You’re interested in seeing Clara Bow strut her stuff and Harold Lloyd dangle off that clock, and you’ve heard a lot of intriguing things about German Expressionism. But! there’s one thing holding you back–one thing you’re not sure you can handle. That florid silent film acting.
Broad gestures, hands clutching hearts, eye-rolling, occasional swooning–surely this is what’s in store for anyone who attempts to watch century-old motion pictures, or so you feel. And thus, you’ve been a little reluctant to explore that alien world of early 20th-century pop culture (and late 19th-century pop culture, if you’re counting the very oldest films).
Yes, there was certainly plenty of overacting in the silent era–but there was also plenty of understated, naturalistic acting. And there were also specific acting styles that we simply find difficult to get used to, being accustomed to decades of realism and all. But a little knowledge of where those long-gone actors were coming from can go a long way in appreciating silent films.
The most important thing to know about the silent era is that screen acting evolved from the dominant styles on the stage. And it evolved very quickly. Acting in, say, short dramas from 1908 are going to look quite different from your basic feature in 1928–or even 1918.
For decades–scratch that, for centuries, actors had to make sure their gestures were visible to viewers throughout the theater. Thus, their movements and emoting were often exaggerated or otherwise stylized. Heavy makeup was worn for the same reason (as well as to cope with early forms of stage lighting). Many actors and stage directors felt that the theater was supposed to be “larger than life,” providing an escape from ordinary routine–and broad acting was a part of that escape. Sarah Bernhardt, for example, is famous to this day for her mastery of the “grand manner.”
By the late 19th century, there were certain styles of acting that were very influential. One of the biggest was the Delsarte method, created by French music teacher Francois Delsarte, which taught how to show interior emotions through specific gestures and poses right down to the smallest movements. Thus, an actor might slump and put their hand over their face to show despair, stand straight with clenched fists and a furrowed brow to indicate outrage, etc.
The Delsarte method and other, similar methods that emphasized gesture and pantomime were a big part of Victorian melodrama. So once moving pictures began taking off in the 1900s, many early screen actors attempted to do the same type of acting for the camera that they’d always done onstage. The results were…not subtle.
This was actually one of the subtler ones. (The Power of Destruction, clipped from Moving Picture World, 1912).
What looked swell on a vast stage looked downright silly blown up on a large screen–directors quickly realized more realistic styles of acting were needed. Some actors couldn’t adapt to the new medium, while others evolved through trial and error. By about 1910 theatergoers were insisting on seeing “naturalness” on the screen, and more and more studios were doing their best to comply. A 1911 Moving Picture World critic put it succinctly: “The reason so many photoplays fail utterly in getting across is due to one thing–unnaturalness…motion picture audiences are getting educated. Producers are producing better and better plays and giving more and more attention to details. But they are going to improve more in the next three years than the next ten–or many of them are going out of business…”
By the 1910s, subtler acting styles were common on the screen. Some gesturing and posturing was still common too but was used with more care, utilizing the space in the frame to create just the right mise-en-scène. Pause many dramas from about 1908 to the mid-1910s, and the resulting images could almost be paintings. (Ironically, these more refined works are often the types of films people mean when they talk about silent era “overacting,” but it’s simply because they aren’t used to the mannerisms.)
The Sealed Room (1909).
Les Vampires (1916).
Once the 1920s rolled around, of course, naturalistic acting was pretty much the norm. There were exceptions, particularly for stylized films like The Last Laugh or Metropolis, which had Expressionistic settings and grand themes that called for highly operatic acting. And silent comedy, of course, retained much of broad grimacing, slapstick, and exaggerated makeup that was popular in the circus and vaudeville. But even that unpretentious genre evolved throughout the silent era. By the 1920s, audiences were growing tired of nonsensical pratfalling and wanted more logic. As a result, many of the top screen clowns began trading baggy pants and thick eyeliner for tailored suits and jaunty hats.
So as we can see from this (very quick) overview, silent film acting is nothing to be squeamish about, and can even teach us a little about Victorian and Edwardian theater. You can certainly find bad, overdone performances if you look for them, but there are countless fine examples of realism too, from early Biograph shorts like The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) to skillful family dramas like Master of the House (1925) to artistic pictures like The Crowd (1928), to name just three. And as far as I’m concerned, much of that stylized acting is worth checking out, too–because in this 21st century, it’s certainly not something you see every day.
–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.