Part 1

Silent Films

Part 1 | Examples

Silent Films: A thorough history of the films of the classic silent era has been described in two other places in this site:

Silents are the films of the early era that were without synchronized sound, from the earliest film (around 1891), until 1927, when the first 'talkie', The Jazz Singer (1927) - the first commercially successful sound film, was produced. Its follow-up was The Lights of New York (1928), the first all-synchronized-sound feature. The silent era basically lasted until the end of the decade when most films were all-talkie, although there were hold-outs like Chaplin's City Lights (1931). Many early silent films were either dramas, epics, romances, or comedies (often slapstick). One-reelers (10-12 minutes) soon gave way to four-reel feature-length films. On-screen inter-titles (or titles) that were inserted intermittently between sequences of the film narrated supplemental story points, presented dialogue, and were sometimes used to provide commentary on the action for the theater audience. In the decade of the 1920s, Hollywood's output of films reached an average of about 800 feature films annually.

Calling them silent films was something of a misnomer. In the earliest silent film days, movies were often accompanied by a phonograph recording. Then, movie theatres and other dream palaces provided live music from pianists, organists, wurlitzers, and other sound machines. In the larger cities with bigger theaters, silents were usually accompanied with a full-fledged orchestra to provide musical background and to underscore the narrative on the screen. Live actors, singers or narrators were sometimes provided, and some films were produced with complete musical scores (but many organists and pianists just improvised). Unfortunately, many of the early classics have been lost to decomposing nitrate film bases and outright destruction. Estimates by some film historians state that about 80% of silents have been lost forever.

Silent films, usually made with low budgets and few resources, were an important evolutionary stage in the development of movies, since they forced film-makers to tell engaging narrative stories with actors who could emote (with body language and facial expressions). They provided the major foundational elements and visual vocabulary of cinema, including mise en scene, lighting, cinematography, set design, costuming, camera shots, composition, movement, special effects (jump cuts, dissolves, superimpositions, miniatures, matte paintings), and more. After the film was shot, editors were compelled to use fundamental techniques (montage, cross-cutting, parallel scenes, tableaux, etc.) to convey the proper rhythm and continuity. (See Filmsite's Film Terms Glossary)

Early masters of cinema during the silent years included Cecil B. De Mille, known for his epics such as The Ten Commandments (1923), Erich Von Stroheim's dramatic tale of the degenerative effects of avarice in Greed (1924), King Vidor's war drama The Big Parade (1925) and his simple yet dramatic story The Crowd (1928) of a young couple in the city experiencing the plight of Everyman. In addition, F. W. Murnau was most famous for his silent melodramatic masterpiece Sunrise (1927).

Early pioneering director D. W. Griffith was often identified with silent epics including:

The most-remembered films from the silent years are the visual comedies from the Mack Sennett Keystone Kops series, starring Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand, and slapstick from the 'silent clowns.' Tragi-comic superstar Charlie Chaplin is most noted for The Kid (1921), his classics including The Gold Rush (1925), the exquisite City Lights (1931), and his first mute "silent film" with sound Modern Times (1936) - a satire on the machine age.

Physically-daring comedian Buster Keaton ("Old or Great Stoneface") appeared in many other classic comedies, including Sherlock Jr. (1924), The General (1927), and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). Harold Lloyd's most famous silent film found him dangling from a clock on the side of a city building in Safety Last (1923), although he was most popularized with his college-related The Freshman (1925).

In the modern era, only a few films have been made as silents - some as homage to the period, including Jacques Tati's Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953, Fr.) (aka Monsieur Hulot's Holiday), Mel Brooks' Silent Movie (1976), Charles Lane's Sidewalk Stories (1989), Eric Bruno Borgman's The Deserter (2003), and the Best Picture-winning mostly-silent The Artist (2011).

On the next page, find recommendations for silent film viewing, so that you can experience for yourself these great film masterpieces.

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