Margaret Perry Movies

Let's Talk Film

The Joys of Silent Film

on 20 J0000002America/Chicago, 2011

According to The Telegraph, silent film rentals are up 40% sinceThe Artist swept the board at the Oscars. I think we can safely say that this modern cinematic triumph has become the “gateway drug” of silent films. And about time, too!

Ever since I heard/saw a professional silent film organist Clark Wilson accompany Buster Keaton in The General at my college’s auditorium I have been hooked on silent films. The organist would return every couple of years and I had the privilege of experiencing The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame on the big screen with live music. Not everybody is blessed with these magical opportunities. But everybody can enjoy silent movies.

At first, I found it difficult to enjoy a full-length silent movie on my computer. In a large auditorium with live music, the people in the audience feed off of the energy in that atmosphere. But when watching a film alone, it can be difficult to keep the adrenaline pumping. I have a few suggestions that may help newcomers to this medium get the most out of their experience:

1.) Watch silent movies with other people, your friends and family. Because there’s no spoken dialogue, you can talk during the movie. You can laugh at the graphics and clarify parts that may be confusing without disrupting the film.

2.) Try watching the shorter films first. Back in the day, a twenty-minute Chaplin film might precede the feature presentation. There are a lot of Chaplin and Buster Keaton short films on YouTube. They are a lot easier to sit through than a two-hour epic.

3.) Start with comedies. We’re not used to the extreme melodrama of the silent era, but most of the humor translates pretty easily to a modern audience.

3.) After comedies, try horror. This genre has always been literally ‘in-credible’ so it’s can be fun laughing at the techniques used back in the day. It can also be fun playing along with it – scream  and gasp all you want to, even if you’re not really scared. It’s especially fun at a sleep-over!

If you saw Hugo, you will have some idea about how silent films used to be made. In the early years of Hollywood, movies were very low-budget. Film companies turned out dozens of films a week! Keep this in mind when you are watching these films. They were made with virtually no technology, at least not of the variety we think of today. Their “graphics” were minimal. But it is astonishing what they were able to do with no money, no time, and no technology. When I was a kid, my friend and I would set up a camcorder in her basement and we would act out Aesop’s Fables. We used her mother’s old clothes as costumes and we stole her little sister’s toys for props. Sometimes, watching the early silent movies is like watching our homemade attempts at theatre. If you think of it in these terms, they’re amazing! Also keep in mind that many of those actors did their own stunts. Buster Keaton is the master in this field. It’s hard to believe what he put his body through to get a laugh! Lon Chaney, who did Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame is called the “man of a thousand faces” because he could so completely transform himself with makeup. A lot of silent movie performers injured themselves because of the physical exertion they experienced making these films. Chaney used wires to make his eyes bug out in Phantom and he forced himself into a very painful harness for Hunchback. Lillian Gish permanently damaged the nerves in her wrist because her hand was siting in freezing cold water for hours while she sat on an iceberg for the filming of Way Down East.

If you are a bit lost when it comes to selecting silent films, here are some classic full-length silent pictures (in order of major performer):

Charlie Chaplin:
The Great Dictator (1940)
Modern Times (1936) – YouTube the “eating machine” scene
The Circus (1928)
The Gold Rush (1925) – YouTube the “table ballet” scene
The Kid (1921) – my personal favorite, lots of laughs but a few tears too
shoulder Arms (1918) – not many people could make WWI funny

Buster Keaton:
Our Hospitality (1923)
Sherlock, Jr. (1924)
Seven Chances (1925)
Go West (1925)
The General (1926) – personal favorite
College (1927)
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) – the year Katharine Hepburn graduated from Bryn Mawr college
The cameraman (1928)

Lon Chaney:
Oliver Twist (1921)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

D.W. Griffith (director):
The Birth of a Nation (1915) – controversial epic about KKK
Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916) – trying to clean up controversy after The Birth of a Nation
Orphans of the Storm (1921) – personal favorite – stars sisters Dorothy and Lillian Gish

Mary Pickford – watch anything with a title that you’re familiar with. She did the first film versions of many classic stories. She and her husband Douglas Fairbanks were the first “Brangelina” of Hollywood.

I hope you enjoy your silent film experience! Please feel free to comment on your own favorite silent films and stars!

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7 responses to “The Joys of Silent Film

  1. Linda says:

    Thanks for the post link. Just a comment on #1. I actually hate it when people talk during a silent movie. The best films I’ve seen with a crowd, is ones where people are totally engaged into the film and not talking. (The only sound is people laughter.) Recent example would be The Artist. I’ve seen it three times. Only one of those visits did we have a rude couple, who talked and eat noisy snacks, especially during key moments in the film. It was VERY rude, and ruined the moment. Just SO glad it was on my third visit, not the other two. NO, people shouldn’t be talking, but visually engaging into the story. Just my thoughts… 🙂 [One of my favorite films is GREED. Excellent film, and not short. Love to see Napoleon in Oakland that’s coming up, if I could afford to travel there.]

    • Margaret Perry Movies says:

      I do agree. I’ve seen it a few times in the theatre, too, and once we were put next to War Horse and it was such a PAIN because we could hear bombing from the other movie!!! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. chandlerswainreviews says:

    I am surprised you didn’t first recommend Chaplin’s “City Lights” as that seems to me to be one of the most accessible silent films for modern audiences, or for that matter the Douglas Fairbanks vehicle “The Thief of Bagdad” which I’d stand against ANY contemporary film entertainment.. There is also a spellbinding German silent “The White Hell of Pitz Palu” (starring controversial documentary filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl) that is mesmerizing not only for it’s stunning visuals, but for the fact that all of the performers did their own rather harrowing (to say the least) stunt work.

  3. Linda says:

    City Lights was the first silent film I ever saw in a theatre in 1972. Love the film, but when I tried to get my husband to watch in recent years (or anyone else, for that matter – who don’t watch silent films), they didn’t care for it. The only Chaplin film my husband responded to was The Circus, and he really liked Show People, and a few Buster Keaton’s. He can’t connect with many others. (The Artist is the only other silent film he likes, and he really loved it.)

    I think it depends on the person, and what they connect too. I tried some Buster Keaton on one person, and they thought he was funny and clever, but didn’t like some of the jokes. But took them to The Artist, and they loved it.

  4. RBuccicone says:

    Clark Wilson plays the classic summer movie series in Columbus, Ohio every year. He mostly plays before and during intermission, but with silents he also accompanies. He’s a lot of fun. Cool to have him in common with you!

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