Silent Film: The ultimate and extensive beginner’s guide

“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” – Silent film star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard

It’s easy to simply ignore every film made before the use of synchronized sound. Watching a silent film can be something of a chore for the modern viewer. It’s not just a matter of having no audible dialogue; silent films had a different set of conventions, and they need to be grasped before a movie from this era can be fully enjoyed. It may be worth the trouble. The silent era is an important part of film history, the time when film was developing as an art form and as entertainment; we can see the glimmer of present-day film techniques in these early attempts. It can also be a pleasant surprise to recognise just how much can be expressed without sound and to notice that one or two qualities may have been lost when the soundtrack was made available.

Consider a few of the most outstanding examples of the silent film era…

Two films by D. W. Griffith: ‘Birth of a Nation’ and ‘Intolerance’ 

“Remember how small the world was before I came along? I brought it all to life; I moved the whole world onto a 20-foot screen.” – D W Griffith

D W Griffith was an incredibly prolific and successful filmmaker, producing, directing, and writing screenplays for countless films from 1908 until 1931. Birth of a Nation was a high point of his career as of 1915 when it was released at gala premieres to great fanfare. It was a magnificent three-hour work, with an all-star cast featuring silent film superstar Lillian Gish, employing cutting-edge film techniques, enormous numbers of extras, impressive battlefield scenes and extravagant set designs. It was a resounding success financially.

It was also one of the most blatantly racist works of art ever produced in the United States, and a fine example of understated propaganda. Based on the Thomas Dixon novel, The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, Griffith’s film adaptation, while enjoyed by many, was also actively protested by clergy, civil rights organisations, and journalists of the time. The film was reputedly used as a recruiting tool for the actual Klan, as well it might be. After identifying its main characters, the film launches into the American Civil War, which it deems a terrible and pointless waste of life. Interestingly, the entire film manages to cover the preamble to the Civil War, the war itself, and the aftermath, without once mentioning or directly referencing slaves or slavery. It begins with a disclaimer, stating that it is “not meant to reflect on any race or people of today,” and identifying itself repeatedly as an anti-war film primarily. From there, it presents its first scene, the “first seed of disunion” within the United States: the introduction of Africans into the country. Griffith sees the source of national conflict not as slavery, racial discrimination, or any political stance, but simply as what he regards as an unnatural co-existence of two races which should remain separate.

The central character is a fictional, misguided politician, possibly based on US representative Thaddeus Stevens, a crusader against racial discrimination. The initial scenes of the American South feature lovely plantations and many happy, dancing black field slaves, affectionate to the plantation owners and comfortable in their servitude. (Griffith evidently liked this theme, which recurs throughout Birth of a Nation; a previous film of his was His Trust: The Faithful Devotion and Self-Sacrifice of an Old Negro Servant, released in 1911.) All is contentment until state power is threatened by the new federal administration, and the Southern states choose to secede – again, the question of slavery as a cause of the war is never mentioned. The lengthy battlefield scenes of the Civil War are impressively done, some of the later ones using a red filter over the black and white to imply fire and bloodshed. Historical events, including the assassination of President Lincoln and the surrender of the Confederacy, are done with careful attention to accuracy, sometimes as virtual historical tableaus.

The second part of the film moves past the war and into the rebuilding of the postwar South, and also into the more direct propaganda. Hinting that the establishment of civil rights for black citizens was a weapon of the Northern states, intended as a deliberate means of throwing the South into chaos, the film portrays one South Carolina town as falling into ruin because of the outrage of former slaves free to vote, run for office, and go where they liked. The situation worsens, as “the town [is] given over to crazed Negroes,” an exaggeratedly aggressive and disorderly black population bullying “the helpless white minority.” The law permitting intermarriage is emphasised as particularly odious and leads to two separate scenes of young Southern belles being pursued by lecherous black men (actually white actors in blackface), one of the women leaping from a cliff to her death to escape his advances.

Finally, one of the central male characters, despairing over “the degradation of his people,” gathers other white men and forms the first branch of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan, wearing the 1915 version of the familiar white hood, is presented as the heroic saviours of the South, driving the black citizens into submission and taking their firearms, then riding in triumph through the city. At the next state election, we see black citizens leaving their homes to vote, only to find their way blocked by armed Klansmen: only white Southerners will be permitted to vote, a conclusion presented as a happy ending for civilisation. The film concludes with a tableau representing a future of peace and tranquillity led by Christian principles, including, presumably, carefully maintained racial segregation.

Birth of a Nation is still pointed out as a milestone in filmmaking, employing cutting-edge techniques such as aerial film, and the use of natural outdoor scenes rather than studio sets. The acting and appearance of the characters are remarkably naturalistic for the time, and the presentation of historical events ambitious and effective. As one critic has said, what’s bad about Birth of a Nation is that it’s so good. It’s a film that presents objectively evil ideas magnificently.

Griffith’s next film, Intolerance, began in the director’s mind as a minor melodrama about a young man wrongly accused of murder. Viewing some of the more extravagant historical dramas of the day, combined with a fear of failing to live up to the expectations established by Birth of a Nation, led him to be more ambitious, resulting in the three-hour extravaganza that was Intolerance. With a huge budget, all-star cast, thousands of extras, wildly extravagant set and costume design, and every feature from live bears and leopards to fireballs launched from fortress walls, Intolerance was the most visually impressive film ever made when it was released in 1916.

It was also revolutionary in terms of filmmaking. Intolerance consisted of four separate plotlines, shown not consecutively but switching from one story to another through intercut, a method which is common now but almost unheard of at the time. It also made use of completely new forms of camera work. It employed moving as well as stationary cameras, which had been experimented with in Europe but had not been seen before in American films. Intolerance also featured aerial shots from a considerable height, as well as camera shots that panned downward from a great height to street level, or from the ground upward, a completely new technique which Griffith managed by building a tower with a small manual elevator, to which the camera was mounted.

The film’s four plotlines are set in four separate places and eras: the US in the present day, ie 1916; Paris in 1572; Babylon in 539 BC; and 1st century Jerusalem. The theme of intolerance, which is meant to unify the four storylines, becomes lost at times, as Griffith often digresses into whatever subplot offers the most excitement or visual dazzle – something his audience evidently appreciated. The thread of hypocrisy and intolerance is expressed in the Babylonian story by the tale of a rivalry between devotees of different deities; in Paris, by the persecution of Huguenots led by Catherine de Medici; in Jerusalem, by the rejection and crucifixion of Christ. The storyline set in Griffith’s own time relates to a charitable movement led by respectable but narrow-minded ladies, whose efforts to improve society only result in more suffering among the poor. This ladies’ “morally uplifting” group seems to be a parody of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, an organisation which had considerable influence at the time, and which Griffith felt particular animosity toward due to their past criticism of his films. He reserved the film’s sharpest and most personal attacks for the leaders of his fictional movement. An interesting choice is made with a villain of the story, who is clearly and pointedly based on well-known oil magnate and union-breaker John D Rockefeller.

Contrary to sentimental rumours of the time, Griffith did not intend Intolerance to be an apology for the blatant race hatred in Birth of a Nation. Quite the contrary; according to film scholar Kevin Brownlow, Griffith saw nothing to apologise for and maintained his opinions on race to the end of his life.

Two films by Alfred Hitchcock: ‘The Lodger’ and ‘Easy Virtue’

“The silent pictures were the purest form of cinema… When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.” Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock is best known for his later films, well after the silent era; but he produced a number of excellent earlier work before moving to Hollywood, mainly suspenseful dramas.

His 1927 horror film, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, was inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders, with the names changed and the story transferred to 1920s London. The film begins with a sudden and shocking image of a screaming woman in close-up – an unusual opening shot characteristic of Hitchcock’s style even in his early days as a director. As London is gripped with fear at the serial murders of young women, the story focuses on pretty young model Daisy (June Tripp – one of the first of Hitchcock’s blonde leading ladies). A quiet, peculiar young man moves into Daisy’s boarding house. Very gradually, we begin to suspect that he may be the notorious murderer. Suspense and a sense of looming danger slowly builds in the distinctive Hitchcock manner, but with a surprise twist in the story toward the conclusion. The calculated, subtle management of fear and slow-building tension, along with manipulation of the visual to signal dread, is as effective without audible dialogue as in Hitchcock’s later work.

The following year, Hitchcock released Easy Virtue, adapted from the play by Noel Coward about a divorced woman remarrying and being rejected by the bridegroom’s strait-laced, upper-class family. Easy Virtue was meant to be a sharp comedy in the format of a melodrama, taking aim at moral hypocrisy. Hitchcock’s version diverged considerably from the original script, losing not only Coward’s biting and humorous dialogue but also most of the satire, choosing instead to make the story a domestic tragedy rather than a comical clash of ideologies. Even with Hitchcock’s direction, the film loses a great deal from the rewriting and is merely adequate as a garden-variety romantic melodrama with a slightly unconventional heroine.

For years the film was considered lost, like many silent films, until a copy was discovered and it was re-released in 1970. It was also revised and remade as a comedy in 2008 by writer/director Stephan Elliott, this time not only retaining but exaggerating the satirical humour, and giving the story a new and more audacious ending.

The Passion of Joan of Arc

“Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring. There is no greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration.” – Carl Theodore Dreyer

This 1928 film marked the approximate halfway point in the career the great German writer and director, Carl Theodore Dreyer, whose output diminished drastically after the end of the silent film era. Depicting the interrogation, trial, and execution of Joan of Arc, this film is a perfect example of silent film’s dramatic potential. It contains little dialogue or explanatory text, yet both the story and the characters’ feelings and motives are always clear; everything is portrayed visually, through a brilliant combination of facial expression, gesture, camera work, lighting, and unspoken interaction between the characters. It is also a strikingly beautiful film, combining the naturalistic with the dreamlike and idealised in both look and story.

Joan is played by French stage actress Maria Falconetti, who provides one of the most remarkable performances on film, doing more with the many extended silent close-ups of her face than some actors would with even the most well-written dialogue. The character of Joan is also unusually well rounded, never letting her fall completely into the category of either saint, mad fanatic, or misguided innocent. Plain and peasant-like, without visible makeup and her hair sheared off by her captors, Jane is at once noble and pitiful, doggedly faithful to the saintly voices she hears, frightened and disoriented by her imprisonment, holding onto a faint hope that answering her interrogators honestly might lead to freedom, but no match for the cleverness of her questioners. Falconetti expresses every thought, fear, and emotion of Joan’s without words, and the ensemble cast surrounding her back up her performance admirably.

This is a film that, better than almost any, demonstrates the power of silent film to the modern viewer.

Nosferatu

“Don’t act – think!” – F W Murnau

This chilling 1922 horror film is the best-known work of German director F W Murnau. Based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula (and resulting in extensive legal battles with the estate of Bram Stoker over copyright infringement), and set in 1843, it tells the story of an ordinary real estate clerk, Hutter, who is assigned to travel to the home of the mysterious Count Orlok (Max Schreck) to arrange the Count’s purchase of a nearby house. Hutter at first dismisses the fears of the superstitious locals, as well as his own instinctive dread of the unnatural-looking and vaguely menacing Count, who reveals an undue fascination with blood as well as with Hutter’s young wife, Ellen; but eventually comes to realize the true nature of his eccentric client. The threat intensifies when Count Orlok decides to seek out Ellen as his next victim after his move to Hutter’s hometown. The story of Orlok’s stalking of Ellen unfolds slowly, allowing the danger to loom, while also diverting occasionally to subplots, borrowed from Dracula, of the vampire’s other victims and his misguided followers.

The film is effective horror even by modern standards, only partly because of Max Schreck’s eccentric but strangely believable portrayal of the gruesome villain. Great care is taken to achieve a look that is at once fantastical, in keeping with Murnau’s Expressionist style, and realistic enough to have a frightening impact. At a time when filming was done strictly on studio sets, Murnau took his crew around the countryside to film on location at appropriate sites: shipyards, roads, and the building chosen to represent Orlok’s castle, giving the scenes a feel of reality completely at odds with the supernatural events they show, and with the dreamlike quality of many of the scenes. Newly developed camera effects allow Count Orlok to move with inhuman speed; to suddenly rise, fully upright, from his coffin; and to apparently cause his coach and horses to glide across the ground, the coach gave a ghostly appearance through the manipulation of the film negatives.

Nosferatu set the standard for film horror for many years to come, making brilliant use of both acting and onscreen visual imagery to express the confident threat of the vampire, the helpless panic of the townsfolk, and the overwhelming sense of the uncanny that the story called for. Werner Herzog made his own 1979 version, Nosferatu the Vampyre, as a tribute to Murnau’s groundbreaking work. Restored in 2000, the film is now available with an added musical soundtrack, and with subtitles replacing the dialogue cards, allowing for less interruption of the film.

Metropolis

“We shall build a tower that will reach to the stars!” – Metropolis

This distinctive 1927 film by highly successful director Fritz Lang, based on a novel by Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou, is considered one of the best examples of the German Expressionist school of filmmaking, which influenced directors for decades to come, most notably Alfred Hitchcock. Embracing many Expressionist features, from its interest in the distant future to the fanciful and elaborate set design, Metropolis is best remembered for its look: the futuristic cityscapes, the advanced factories, and most of all the golden robot which appeared on the movie’s promotional materials.

Set in a dystopian civilisation a century in the future, Metropolis takes place in a city in which the masses are oppressed by a powerful oligopoly. Workers labour underground in brutal conditions; we see them in the opening shot which shows a shift change at a prison-like factory in dismal underground tunnels, where men troop in like cattle to a workplace controlled by machinery. Meanwhile, the wealthy enjoy a blissful life in the magnificent city of Metropolis – elevated high in the air, full of natural areas, offering beauty and recreation. In a surreal scene, Maria, a teacher from a labourers’ school, identifiable as working-class by her rough clothing, emerges from an elevator with a group of children and approaches several of the elite, including Freder, the son of the factory owner. The young woman calmly points out the elite citizens to the children, identifying them as “your brothers and sisters” before departing. Mystified, Freder attempts to track down the young woman, and as a result, discovers the shameful source of his family’s wealth, and becomes a crusader for the working class.

Much of the movie is taken up with Freder’s semi-mystical wanderings through the city’s tunnels and his discoveries there, but parallel plotlines deal with other matters. A mysterious old house in the city is rumoured to be inhabited by a wizard. In fact, it is the home of Rotwang, an inventor. Obsessed with the memory of a woman named Hel, Rotwang has built a monument to Hel, in the form of a life-sized female-looking robot. In a strange twist, the factory owner attempts to use the robot to put a stop to uprisings among his workers by making the robot into an exact replica of schoolteacher and resistance leader Maria. Maria is finally able to intervene, save the city, and help Freder establish fairness and humane conditions for the city’s labourers. The message was considered a promotion of justice and world peace.

The synopsis does not capture what is most impressive about Metropolis, which is its incredible design, visual effects, and fairy-tale quality. No expense was spared in creating the future Metropolis, both its sky-high buildings and its dank, machinery-driven underground workplaces; and a record-breaking thirty-six thousand extras were used for the city’s crowd scenes. Lang also uses newly devised colour effects to give emphasis to certain scenes. The construction and misuse of the human-like robot has the feel of mythology, while the rest of the plot walks the line between the realistic and the visionary. The acting is, for the most part, oddly naturalistic in spite of the mythic storyline and setting; although Brigitte Helm, while sweet as Maria, is over-the-top and fabulous as the evil robot made to resemble her.

The fact that Metropolis is even available to us today is the result of a series of fortunate accidents. The celluloid film used at the time was fragile, and disintegrated over time unless carefully stored; as a result, countless silent films have been either entirely lost, or damaged leaving only partial footage; and Metropolis was a film that endured a great deal of abuse and spent years in hiding. First, the version released in the US rather arbitrarily cut 70 minutes from the film, leaving the plot disjointed and hard to follow. Unfortunately, reels which contained the entire, uncut film were mostly destroyed by the ascending Nazi party, who were systematically eradicating artwork by Jews. Lang himself was forced to flee Germany after making an anti-Nazi film, and Metropolis was formally banned in Germany. The original film was considered lost. Many years later, a slightly damaged but complete copy of the original film was inexplicably found stored in a museum in Argentina. A restored version of Metropolis was pieced together and the film was re-released, partly through the efforts of music producer and film lover Giorgio Moroder. This 1984 release added a soundtrack of distinctly 1980s music, which many fans of Metropolis find crashingly inappropriate, but which others enjoy if only for the campy strangeness of it. A version with a less incongruous classical music soundtrack, and one with no sound were released in 2001, both with dialogue cards replaced with subtitles, making Metropolis available to the public once more.

Charlie Chaplin

“All I need to make a comedy are a park, a policeman, and a pretty girl.” – Charlie Chaplin

No overview of silent film would be complete without mention of the comedies of Charlie Chaplin. A former stage comedian, his talent for physical comedy was soon noticed by the burgeoning Hollywood studios, and he was offered a contract when he was 25. His career gained momentum almost immediately, when he developed the character known as The Little Tramp, first seen in the 1914 short film Kid Auto Races at Venice, in which the Tramp, attending a race, makes a nuisance of himself by compulsively getting in front of the movie camera set up to film the race. The minimal plot was made hilarious by Chaplin’s character and mannerisms, and his fame spread quickly from there. He made 35 shorts his first year in Hollywood. Most of them used the Little Tramp character, but in a few he branched out, most notably in a short first released as The Militant Suffragette; Chaplin appears in full 1914 drag, parodying a militant woman whose clothing is feminine but whose manner is exaggeratedly mannish, who berates and shoves the men at a public event, blows her nose on her skirts, and finally gets into a fistfight with policemen.

As Chaplin’s fame grew, he was able to expand from acting, and not only star in comedies, but produce, write, and direct them himself. This led to the incredibly successful 1921 full-length film, The Kid, a touching comedy in which the Little Tramp cares for a homeless orphan (child star Jackie Coogan, who was discovered on stage by Chaplin and offered a role).

The final appearance of the Little Tramp was in one of his most popular comedies, Modern Times. Chaplin not only starred in Modern Times, he also wrote, directed, and produced it, and composed the musical score. Although filmed in 1936, well after the introduction of synchronized sound to film, Chaplin chose to present Modern Times in the manner of a silent film: there is virtually no audible dialogue, only a soundtrack which provides musical background and sound effects. The sole exception was a groundbreaking one: the first time Chaplin’s voice is heard on film, when the Little Tramp performs a supposedly French cabaret song in vaguely foreign-sounding gibberish.

Modern Times is also notable for incorporating social commentary into a comedy, without at any time diverging from the comical. Chaplin uses broad, often slapstick humour to reference the sufferings of the working class during the Great Depression, the official suppression of labour unions, and even the tragedy of orphans and children of the very poor confined to harsh child welfare institutions. Most of all, it addresses the brutal conditions of factories and their inhumane demands on workers of the time – again, through lighthearted comedy rather than a tirade, yet with no less force.

Chaplin was without equal in making a scene funny without sound, using a combination of slapstick, facial expression, and gesture that remains effective to this day. It’s was a skill that caused fellow comedian W C Fields to say dismissively (or perhaps enviously), “The man’s nothing but a goddam ballet dancer!” His comic ability, combined with a talent for screenwriting and directing, as well as his willingness to provide social commentary between the lines, made him for some time the most popular and well-paid film star in Hollywood.

Unlike many silent film stars, Chaplin had no difficulty adapting to the ‘talkies’. In spite of his initial misgivings about his accent putting off his large American audience, his fans adapted easily to Chaplin in speaking roles – including his first feature-length talkie, The Great Dictator (1940), a funny yet sharp-edged parody of Adolf Hitler (thinly disguised as fictional dictator Adenoid Hynkel) with Chaplin in the title role.

For further viewing…

The Artist stands out as a feature-length silent, black-and-white film made in 2011, but it is more than a novelty. French director Michel Hazanavicius’ brilliant, multi-award winning comedy/drama manages to adapt and modernize the look, feel, techniques, and even common clichés of silent films, without turning into a parody. It is both a tribute to those early films, and a typical movie of the era, yet revitalized and updated into something contemporary audiences can find entertaining.

Shadow of the Vampire (2000) is the perfect companion piece to Nosferatu; it tells the bizarre story of the making of Nosferatu, freely mixing fact with rumour. Director F W Murnau (John Malkovitch) chooses an unknown actor, Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), to play his vampire. He explains to the film crew that Schreck is a fanatical Method actor, who will remain in character at all times during production. As filming continues, the crew are unnerved by the man’s eccentric and threatening manner, and it begins to seem that Schreck may actually believe himself to be a vampire. Both film history and horror, it finds equal creepiness in Schreck’s strangeness and Murnau’s obsession with completing his film at all costs.

Silent Movie (1976) is something of a parody of silent film, but an affectionate one. It uses the familiar broad and frankly silly comedy of director Mel Brooks (Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles) in a silent movie about the making of silent movies. The film famously contains only a single word of audible dialogue, from the one character least expected to speak on screen.

Chaplin (1992) is a mediocre film but of interest as an outline of the career of Charlie Chaplin, beginning with his days on stage. Robert Downey does a reasonably good job in the title role.

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