Not Just Faces Part 2: Myths of the silent era

1) Silent films were silent
2) Silent films were in black and white
3) Silent actors had to use exaggerated gestures to make up for the lack of dialog
4) Silent films used primitive technology
5) Silent films had mostly hackneyed cliched plots
6) Silent films were cheaply made and mass produced
7) Silent film plots had prudish Victorian attitudes towards love and sex
8) Silent films used static cameras, many just being filmed versions of stage plays
9) Most silent film actors couldn’t make the transition to talkies because of their voices
10) Silent films are best viewed without the distracting musical accompaniment

If you thought the answers to ANY of the above were true you wouldn’t be alone. But you’d be very very wrong.

In this entry we’ll explore the myths and misconceptions of the silent era- some of you will be surprised, but I am hoping also that in doing so it will greatly enhance your appreciation of this great art form.
1) Silent films were silent

Silent films were ANYTHING but silent. True, there was usually no soundtrack attached, though later on event the music came pre-packaged with the reels.

But to see a silent film was to immersed in sound: Orchestral music, Jazz combos, rag time piano, and sound effects- bombs dropping, thunder, crashing, screaming, howling.

And of course laughter, usually from the audience, at any of Mack Sennett’s or Hal Roach’s films.

From the very beginning film makers experimented with synchronized singing and musical performances. Why didn’t dialogue catch on?

There were several reasons.

– Automating the process of synchronizing dialogue with visual movement was difficult at the beginning. Because movies ran at different speeds it was difficult to keep the sound devices in time with their visual components.

Typically, a phonograph or victrola would play the sound, and somehow the projectionist had to keep this in synch with what was shown on the screen. Over the years several techniques developed, but not until soundtracks became attached to the film itself was synchronized sound more and more foolproof.

– Besides, movie audiences were more than happy to sit through the pantomime-like performances of the major stars, who were skilled in conveying wide ranges of emotion visually. Life was much slower back then and people had more patience to be able stare up at the big screen, hear the music which set the mood, and just let the scene unfold itself.

– Movie theatres added their own sound- and it was plentiful. Sound effects like guns and cannons going off, doors creaking, footsteps approaching. Crowds cheering, storms blowing. And the great (sometimes sublime, as when a symphony orchestra was used) music.

2) Silent Films were in black in white.

They were in black and white. And many were in color, such as two strip technicolor, or the painted in color of the early Melies shorts. And they were tinted. Sepia, red, blue, all sorts of colors for effect.

Technicolor didn’t become widely used until the 1940s and 50s but there was plenty of color in film from its inception.

3) Silent actors had to use exaggerated gestures to make up for the lack of dialog

This was only true in some cases, and in the beginning directors may have tried taking their actors in this direction.

It is certainly NOT TRUE when we think of the greats of the silent film world- the Gloria Swansons, the Lon Chaneys, the John Gilberts, the Greta Garbos. They didn’t need to exaggerate their expressions much at all.

By ever so slight facial moves- the widening of the eyes by Lon Chaney, the “(O)” mouth of Colleen Moore, the coy eye batting of Mary Pickford, silent film actors could convey a wide range of emotion- the best of them didn’t need to exaggerate much at all. This was largely a myth that came down thru the early talkies well into the 1940s, and has yet to be dispelled today.

True, without dialog actors had to telegraph what they were feeling thru body language and facial movements, but it wasn’t necessarily exaggerated, and the best of it never was.

4) Silent films used primitive technology

In the 1920s, after America and the rest of the world settled down from WW1, the technology used in film making started leap frogging what had come before. Static camera shots became action shots. The idea of a filmed stage play disappeared from the SOP of silent film making for several years, until the introduction of the talkies once again made camera movement difficult.

Films such as Vidor’s The Crowd and He Who Gets Slapped, and his great anti-war epic The Big Parade, used highly advanced camera techniques that would be unrivaled for decades.

In movies such as The Thief Of Baghdad entire sequences using complex animation thrilled movie goers, long before “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” or even “Song Of The South”.

Even early pioneers such as Lumiere and Melies used stop-motion, double exposure and split screens to create onscreen magic, years before they were made as easy as child’s play by CGI.

5) Silent films had mostly hackneyed cliched plots

By the 1920s were far into the pre-code era of complex romantic plots, adult-oriented themes and deep philosophical and moral issues.

But even as far back as the 1910s films of stage plays exhibited a high degree of complexity, and certainly many of the great epics such as Intolerance and Birth Of A Nation did the same.

After the Hays Code took over, for the next 30-40 years these issues would be addressed in a much more oblique manner, if addressed at all. It wasn’t until the 1950s and 60s that movies once again developed enough to directly spell out issues like homosexuality (or any exlicit sex), un-punished evil, moral dilemnas and religious questions.

But make no mistake, the films of Clara Bow, Colleen Moore, Theda Bar, Gloria Swanson and others had as much explicit sexuality as any mainstream 1960s fare. And their plots were not hampered at all by the limitations of dialogless film, in fact the stories moved along just fine when in the hands of such fine actors as Douglas Fairbanks, Wallace Reid or Barbara Lamarr.

6) Silent films were cheaply made and mass produced

By the 1920s films had budgets that would rival any of today’s block busters, in real dollars.

Reportedly, Von Stroheim’s Greed cost over $700,000 (which would be tens of millions in todays dollars) and was 42 hours long before Irving Thalberg order it cut to just a few. Ben Hur was severely over budget when again Thalberg ordered the costs brough under control by moving the entire production back to the United States.

Many cheap one or two reelers were made, esp in the beginning of film, when the “nickelodeon” was the preferred method of seeing these. But silent film was a lucrative business model, and even with these anecdotes to the contrary, no expense was spared in bringing movie audiences the best visual experience money could buy.

7) Silent film plots had prudish victorian attitudes towards love and sex

See number 5). If you really want to experience onscreen salaciousness and over-the top sex, forget about those 1980s porn films. Try any of Theda Bara’s surviving prints, or Clara Bow, or Colleen Moore. The sex was uncensored (at the time) and everywhere. One could argue you didn’t really need a separate category for porn back then.

Of course it wasn’t as “in your face” as later porn, but any silent film buff will tell the effect was even more tantalizing, and tittilating. When you saw Theda in that Chain metail blouse in Cleopatra, or watched as Jean Harlow’s breasts fell in and out in her pre-code days, you got more than an eyeful for your money.

8) Silent films used static cameras, many just being filmed versions of stage plays.

Again, by the 1920s this was just not true. See the flood scene in Noah’s Ark, or the Chariot Race scene in Ben Hur for some thrilling examples of great non-static camera work of the day.

9) Most silent film actors couldn’t make the transition to talkies because of their voices

The real culprit here, history shows, is that the studios just wanted new talent and were pretty much willing to make any excuse to excise actors from their contracts.

As actor after actor flunked their voice tests (and many passed), it turns out that their voices really weren’t a problem at all. Even John Gilbert, who was much maligned for having a squeaky, high pitched voice, really had no trouble in talking roles.

So actor after actor was cut from their contract. Some dropped out for a while then managed a comeback. Some retired. And some took the ultimate way out and committed suicide, often preceded by a period of drunken obscurity.

10) Silent films are best viewed without the distracting musical accompaniment

This bit of nonsense came up in the 1950s and 60s. If you see it thru the lens of that time it makes more sense: many films had long lost their scores, and showing them on the small screen took away alot of the effect that a good, sweeping orchestral accompaniment would have had. But to eliminate the music was to take away a major part of their power because music gave these films the added dimension of emotion that they needed to conver their message.



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