Silent films were never silent. At the first official movie screening by the Lumiere brothers in Paris in December 1895, a guitarist accompanied the presentation of 10 short films, including the first documentary, Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory, and the first comedy, The Sprinkler Sprinkled. In the U.S. it was more common for a pianist or – in the case of major films in big cities – a small orchestra, to accompany early films, which due to lack of the requisite technology had no synchronized soundtrack. The musicians began by improvising or linking together popular melodies to illustrate what they saw on the screen, often adding sound effects for galloping horses, thunderclaps, ringing bells and other actions. In 1908, the first fully-composed film scores appeared in France (by Camille Saint-Saens) and Russia. The first major U.S. film to have a score was D.W. Griffith’s racist blockbuster The Birth of the Nation, with music composed by Joseph Breil, in 1915. The giant movie theaters built in the 1910s and 1920s often incorporated immense theater organs that allowed for musical accompaniment, which usually involved a combination of following the score as well as improvisation and elaborate sound effects. The switch to synchronized sound after the success of The Jazz Singer in 1927, a change that permitted the actors to speak their dialogue and allowed moviemakers to incorporate music into the film itself, put thousands of movie theater musicians out of work.
Modern audiences often have difficulty watching movies from the “silent” era. The acting style necessary to communicate without spoken dialogue – essentially a form of mime – seems histrionic and over-the-top to many now. (Even some contemporaries agreed. When Charles Chaplin made A Woman of Paris in 1923 – one of the few Chaplin films that did not star The Little Tramp – he specifically instructed his actors to adopt a more subdued acting style than was the norm. As a result the film seems more modern than many other silent films.) The stilted, corny or moralistic tone of some of the intertitles can also be offputting to modern audiences. On top of these substantive concerns, there are also physical problems with many silent films – many were badly preserved. In fact, we are lucky to have any silent films left at all – it is estimated that 70% of all feature films from the pre-talkie era have deteriorated beyond repair or were deliberately destroyed after the switch to the new sound technology.
But these difficulties should not dissuade movie buffs from checking out some of the classic silent films, particularly those made in the 1920s. It was during the silent era that filmmakers developed the basic visual vocabulary of moviemaking. By the mid-1920s, studios around the world were turning out high-quality films, some of them with dazzling visual technique and inventiveness. In fact, the first years of sound movies, which required the noisy film cameras to be placed in soundproof (and immobile) boxes and anchored the actors to the location of the nearest microphone, saw a decrease in the cinematic inventiveness and overall quality of films. Look at many sound films from the late 1920s and early 1930s and you will see film returning to the days when everything looked like a filmed play – no moving cameras, few or no tracking shots – everything static. The transition period is lovingly parodied by Betty Comden and Adolph Green in their screenplay for Singin’ in the Rain, the 1952 musical directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly.
Because there was no dialogue, and intertitles could easily be translated into any language, silent film was a more international art than film after the introduction of sound. Germany during the Weimar Republic was a particularly strong producer of high-quality films in various genres: horror (Nosferatu), science fiction (Metropolis), crime thriller (Dr. Mabuse – The Gambler), and drama/social commentary (The Last Laugh; Pandora’s Box). Several of the best German directors – Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Ernst Lubitsch, Erich von Stroheim, Josef von Sternberg – brought their expertise to Hollywood in time to produce silent film masterpieces on both sides of the Atlantic.
Perhaps the most accessible of the silent films to modern audiences are the comedies. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and other comic geniuses created personae that appeared in film after film in one outrageous fix after another. The relative critical reputations of Chaplin and Keaton have see-sawed over the years. At times, the sublime mix of comedy and pathos that characterizes Chaplin’s best work receives top billing; then the pendulum swings to the unsentimental acrobatics of the stone-faced Keaton, who never asks the audience for its sympathy.
I urge you to take another look at silent films, many of which are available online either free on YouTube or through a streaming service. Or take the DVDs out of your local library.
To give you a selection of the best silent films that have been preserved, I collected 10 lists of “Best Silent Films” and made two meta-lists. One organizes the movies by rank, that is, with the movies on the most lists at the top. The other list is chronological. Enjoy.