Douglas Fairbanks gliding across balcony to balcony as if on a magic carpet of air.
Murnau’s “Sunrise”, a love story told so moving that it has yet to be unequalled 90 years later.
Lon Chaney as a monster so hideous audiences fainted when he made his appearance.
Camera techniques so far ahead of their time they would not be equalled decades into the future. Stars so big that they commanded salaries enviable even by today’s standards.
An art form where the entire span of human emotion was on display in 20 minutes to an hour and a half. Love, hate, war, laughter, passion, lust, danger, angst, terror.
And all without a spoken word- indeed with little dialog at all, except that which was presented on title cards.
“We had faces then.” as Norma Desmond, the fictional caricature in Sunset Blvd famously quipped.
And they used those faces. To so show love, inquisitiveness, bafflement, fear, hate, joy, anger, in-credulousness.
In the decades that followed these actions would be parodied and made fun of by the talkies. Overacting, they laughed. Hackneyed clichés, they scoffed.
But the stars, the audiences, the directors, and increasingly, today’s silent film aficionados know better.
Sure there were some hams among them. But then what was Mae West, a decade later, or Jack Nicholson, circa “Five Easy Pieces”? They overacted, but instead of being taken to task for it, they won academy awards.
But no matter, whatever you can say, the art of the silent film was like no other that had come before or after. No other art form combined the visual with music, combined light with shadow, required so much effort on the part of its practitioners and so much involvement on the part of the audience.
As the orchestra plays its sweeping, crooning, coaxing melodies, and the actors faces light up the theatre with their reactions of terror and excitement, the audience is swept into a fantasy world miles, even light years from the theatre.
The audience is swept away into the magic, dreamlike world of the silent movie.
To thoroughly enjoy a silent film you MUST see it on the big screen. Where towering figures such as Valentino stare at you with eyes that pierce you through to your soul. Where the charioteers in Ben Hur almost appear to come right off the screen and right at you. Where the bombs in The Big Parade look as if they are landing right in front of you.
Seen in beat up, worn out old prints with the tiny speakers on a TV, they lose their magic, lose most of their effect. Which is why, more and more, film societies the world over are starting to show restored versions in the theatres at special events. A recent French Film “The Artist” paid tribute to this art form, and in the process showed new audiences part of the power of this long forgotten genre.
In this blog series I will plough through the myths, the misconceptions and the over-generalizations that 100 years have visited on this great art form. I will discuss its virtues- what makes it so unique and compelling even in today’s over-CGI’d world of movies.
I’ll talk about what has been lost, and what is with us and will probably always be with us from this art form.
I’ll talk about not only its greatest exponents, but the little heralded innovators who moved the art form forward in their own way. I’ll discuss the economic, cultural, and political effects on the industry, and conversely this art form’s effects on society in return.
This will not be a scholarly work- I am no scholar. Just a lover of great art. And silent film it exactly that- great art, art that has been under-appreciated for far too long, art that deserves a second look and a second age in the sun of our collective artistic luminescence. Silent film deserves our attention- our love and our appreciation and in this series I hope to answer the question for a lot of you…. why???