Silent movies are in some essential way not what we think of as movies at all. Yes, you sit in the dark and watch flickering images of light projected through celluloid onto a screen, but watching a silent film is much more akin to watching ballet or kabuki theater than anything like what we think of as the movie-going experience.
They say movies are a visual medium, but silent movies are a purely visual medium and you'd be surprised how quickly you can tire of interpreting purely visual information—I mean absent a nice-looking redhead in the picture.
Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard famously said, "We didn't need dialogue, we had faces," but let me tell you, a little bit of "faces" goes a long, long way and I don't know about you, but after ten minutes of a typical silent movie, I find myself yearning for dialogue, any dialogue, even dialogue written by Joe Eszterhas. And he wrote Showgirls.
Filmmakers by necessity had to develop ways to convey information without sound (or more specifically, synchronized sound—a line of dialogue or an aural cue tied to a specific image—there were all sorts of random sounds and musical scores in "silent" movies by the mid-1920s, but none that could be reliably synchronized to the picture).
Like with everything else, some were better at it than others.
Some, such as D.W. Griffith, realized the unique potential of the medium and invented ways to tell stories—with flashbacks, cutting back and forth between two parallel storylines, etc.—that wholly slipped the surly bonds of the stage and continue to influence how movies are made today.
Others, well, not so much.
There are, as far as I can tell, an ungodly number of silent movies that are as talky and dialogue-laden as a Noel Coward play—except without the benefit of any actual, you know, dialogue. Those are the silent movies that make you want to shoot yourself and if those are the only silent movies you've ever seen, then no wonder you don't want to see any more.
Because actors had to convey everything with their faces and bodies, you wind up seeing a lot of what to modern eyes looks like ham acting. Believe me, this exaggerated style was necessary. Without it, silent movies would implode into incomprehensible stillness. But because of this style of acting, it's the rare drama that doesn't turn unintentionally hilarious, like watching high school students perform Death Of A Salesman.
The medium lent itself best to slapstick comedy, action-adventure, broad melodrama and grand romance, slapstick and action because you don't need a lot of dialogue to elicit an emotional response, melodrama because the story is as broad and obvious as the acting necessary to convey it, and romance because—let's face it—most of what lovers say to each other in throes of passion sounds pretty silly unless you're lucky enough to be participating in the action.
So the most watchable silent movies—watchable by me, that is, the only person I can safely vouch for—are comedies starring Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, spectacles such as Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ or The Phantom Of The Opera, or anything with Greta Garbo or Louise Brooks who were, to my refined eye, really hot broads.
Most everything else tends to play as a bitter pill swallowed in the name of a well-rounded film education and I end up fast-forwarding through to the end. Sue me.
That audiences fled silent movies so quickly after the introduction of sound leads me to believe they weren't all that happy about the situation either. They just hadn't had a choice.
That said, I stand by my awards for the Silent Era—with certain caveats—as movies and performances I found accessible as a modern viewer, and which you too might find accessible, if you're so inclined.
Leonard Nimoy: 1931-2015 - Row Three
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