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29 February 2012

The Joys of Silent Film

According to The Telegraph, silent film rentals are up 40% since The 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 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.

Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp
2.) Try watching the shorter films first. Back in the day, a twenty-minute Chaplin film might precede the feature presentation at the movie house. 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.

4.) 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!

Lon Chaney, Sr. as
The Phantom of the Opera
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 each 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 The Phantom of the Opera and The 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 The Phantom of the Opera and he forced himself into a very painful harness for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. 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 can make WWI funny, but Chaplin succeeds
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 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!


  1. wow Margaret!! It's wonderful! I'm so pleased that you used HTML! I hope to see you tomorrow or definitely this upcoming week. :)

  2. Nice job, Margie! Do your films give any info about who played the music to suit the scene, and whether it was a piano or a theatre organ? The Fox Theatre in St Louis used to play wonderful silent movie music after the regular feature was over. Don't know if they still do, but it was great fun to see the huge console rising from the orchestra pit and the sound was amazing. Also heard the theatre organ at the Electric Theatre in Kansas City. If these are gone you should treat yourself to Radio City Music Hall. These are probably on YouTube! Have fun! Great blog!!

  3. Most copies of silent films will tell you where the music is from and how it was composed and produced. Some cheap versions can really ruin the movie, but a lot of the restoration projects work really hard to find a good score. Thanks for the tip about the Fox - I'll have to look into that!

    1. Look what I found!!

  4. Very nice article. I have seen Sherlock Jr, and the stunt work in that movie is amazing. Jackie Chan, Zoe Bell and other stunt masters owe a lot of graditude towards him


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