I must’ve written this on my old Angelfire site (not all in one sitting!) sometime in early 2005, since it was obviously after I’d seriously started getting into silents but refers to the U.S. re-premiere of the miraculously rediscovered Beyond the Rocks as being in the future (May 2005). There are a boatload of links at the end of the post, but I’m not going to go through all of them and hyperlink them all over again, esp. considering probably at least a few of them are now dead links or have moved.

***

“Still wonderful, isn’t it? And NO dialogue; we didn’t need dialogue. We had faces then.”
—Gloria Swanson

“Adding sound to movies would be like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo.”
—Mary Pickford

“So they took all the idols and smashed them—the Gilberts, the Fairbankses, the Valentinos. They trampled on what was divine. They threw away the gold of silence.”
—Gloria Swanson

“While watching a silent picture each individual supplies the unspoken words according to his own understanding of the action. The dullard sees the story in his own way as does the intelligent, the wise, and so on–each one, as I said before, supplying his own understanding and everyone is pleased. But when the actor gives through the spoken word his own interpretation—then—well, there is bound to be disappointment. Yes, the talkie is undoubtedly entertainment, but in my opinion lacks charm.”
—Charles Chaplin

“There once was a time in this business when I had the eyes of the whole world! But that wasn’t good enough for them, oh no! They had to have the ears of the whole world too. So they opened their big mouths and out came talk. Talk! TALK!”
—Gloria Swanson

“I never approved of talkies. Silent movies were well on their way to developing an entirely new art form. It was not just pantomine, but something wonderfully expressive.”
—Lillian Gish

If I were a normal person instead of the blissfully happily timewarped freak I am, I would probably feel embarrassed or secretive about the fact that I rarely ever go to the movies, and that the ones I buy, rent, and watch on tv are overwhelmingly from before 1950. The Twenties are my favourite decade for films, and some from the Teens as well. And honestly speaking, I just can’t think of any modern-day contemporary actors whom I like on nearly the level I love so many actors from the Twenties and Teens.

There’s just no pull towards modern people, falling under some Magick spell upon watching them act or seeing their pictures. How do you even dare to compare some modern-day ass like Bruce Willis or that Kutcher freak to the great actors of yore? These modern-day wannabes don’t draw me in and make me feel emotionally involved not only in their characters but in the story as well, make it personal, intense, involving, Magickal, something really special you shan’t soon forget.

There’s nothing left to the imagination. You can learn your lines, big deal. Can you just as well communicate a story through a sweep of the hand, a sly smile, body language, or a heartbroken look on your face? Is something suddenly funnier because sound effects and speech are going along with it? This page is divided up into silent films which most people not already actively interested in the lost art have probably seen or at the very least heard of, rebuttals of common lies and misconceptions about the genre, how to properly watch them, where to find them, and finally links. I would list individual actors too, but there were just so damn many it would take forever. Besides, you might not like every big-name star or might prefer some of the lesser-known stars better. Taste is personal.


Well-known films:

The Kiss (1896) Probably everyone has seen this, a snippet from the Broadway play The Widow Jones. The two stars John Rice and May Irwin kiss for somewhere between 15 and 20 seconds, certainly no longer than half a minute. At the time it raised a furor, with censors horrified by two people greedily and lovingly kissing onscreen, their faces magnified tenfold, taking such joy and delight in kissing one another. Hard to believe that a simple joyous kiss was once considered condemnatory, back when cinema itself was only a few years old; they also put up a huge fuss over another very early movie which showed the bare ankles of women. How times have changed.

Voyage to the Moon (Le Voyage Dans la Lune) (1902) This was the 400th film of the cinematic pioneer Georges Méliès, who was a fucking genius. Before turning to the cinema, Méliès was a magician, and made all the wonderful tricks he’d learnt and fine-honed in his former craft manifest in his films, like tricks of substitution, making objects appear majorly magnified, visual effects, and making objects appear tinier than their actual size.

Like many of the films he wrote and directed, this one (based on a story by Jules Verne) also had him appearing in the cast, as Professor Barbenfouillis. It was also the first film to be told in linear format. You have to be living under a majorly huge rock to have never seen the creepy-looking shot of the face of the Moon with the spaceship landing in its eye. It looks freaky enough as a still picture, but in the actual film itself you see the Moon, and then it just zooms in larger and larger, with that eerie face on it, and then the ship lands right in its eye. As of 2005 the film is 103 damn years old; how many modern-day pretenders will still be around and remembered in 103 years?

The Great Train Robbery (1903) The original Western is only about ten minutes long; back when it originally came out, theatre owners could choose whether to open or close the film with the image of the bad guy firing his gun at the screen, which then proceeded to turn red. The plot might seem a bit formulaic, but it was great stuff to the viewers back then, and holds up well even yet today as an action-packed story. Films were still short subjects instead of full feature-length efforts back in the Aughts, but this was one of the very earliest ones that actually told a story (along with the great films of Méliès, of course) instead of just entertaining people with something like a family doing the laundry, a train going through the station, or a cat drinking milk.

The Birth of a Nation (1915) It’s really quite embarrassing how many people STILL are making elaborate apologies for this piece of racist deeply offensive tripe and going through elaborate gymnastics to defend it. The lost scenes from this movie are said to be even more deeply repugnant. It was based on two racist books, The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots, by Thomas F. Dixon, Jr. It glorifies the KKK as knights in shining armour “riding to the rescue” of white women in danger of being raped and corrupted by African-American men.

Way more racist than even the Reconstructionist Era material in GWTW. The same old stereotypes about African-Americans, like they’re all sexual predators, liars, thieves, snoops, up to no good, leading the South to rack and ruin, want to take over the world, and let’s not forget the repeated references to the “good, pure” Aryan race. This POS was used as a recruiting and propaganda tool by the KKK at LEAST until the Sixties.

Sure many people of the Teens held racist viewpoints, or at least beliefs that would be considered racist by today’s standards, even if they didn’t think of themselves as racists. That didn’t mean they had to act on them. Griffith could have chosen another book or play to base a movie on. He didn’t have to choose ones glorifying the vile KKK, which has ALWAYS been a terrorist organisation, no matter the lame-ass puke-worthy PC spin these hooded goons try so desperately hard to put on it. There are books and films telling the Southern pov of the Civil War and Reconstruction without depicting the KKK as knights in shining armour or engaging in racist slander and name-calling.

I refuse to believe that Griffith and his leading lady Lillian Gish (who really did seem like a top class act apart from her long association with this racist) were stunned by the controversy and protests. Even by 1915 standards this was racist bullshit, and it was heartily endorsed as true by President Wilson, who was a major racist himself (no matter how much I admire him in other areas).

I would rather see African-Americans depicted in serving positions like a maid or railway porter than “represented” as villains, and played by whites in blackface no less. The director Lois Weber was making films that were as least as technically advanced as those of Griffith in this same time period, as well as dealing with themes like divorce, poverty, abortion, and racism, yet because she was a woman she didn’t get the same amount of credit and esteem as that foul racist David Wark Griffith shamefully continues to get to this very damn day.

Unfortunately the film is technically a masterpiece (though not the first feature-length film, contrary to popular belief), even in spite of the hideous content contained within it. I almost wish this were a lost film.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) The film which ushered in German Expressionism, with its surrealistic images and scenery, like Expressionistic works of art brought to life via film. These films are like weird nightmarish dreamscapes and surreal fantasies, not something of this world.

The Kid (1921) Chaplin’s first feature-length film, which also kick-started the career of Jackie Coogan, who may very well have been America’s first child star. Of course we have the usual idiots who bitch about how he injects sentimentality into his comedy, as though it’s criminal for a comedy to have a moral message or lighthearted touch. Come on, tell me you don’t feel sympathy for the charming Little Tramp the moment he appears onscreen in any given film or short.

Your heart just goes out to the Little Fellow, and hey, something must have worked for that character to have become the most recognisable figure of the twentieth century and one of the most belovèd and universal entertainers of all time. It even says in the Foreword to Cinema Year by Year: 1894 to 2004 that recently in Afghanistan some Chaplin films from WWI were shown to children who’d never known anything but repression and authoritarian rule, who’d never seen a movie, and afterwards the man showing the films had parents coming up to him with tears in their eyes, crying from happiness because they’d never seen their children laugh before. And part of that universality is precisely because the Tramp never spoke, apart from the nonsense song towards the end of Modern Times.

The Keystone Kops (from the Teens onward) These shorts were staples of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, these inept bumbling cops who unintentionally made a hilarious mockery of the job they were supposed to be doing. It’s kind of hard to find their shorts, but there are some available out there (in varying picture quality, of course).

Felix the Cat cartoons (I believe he débuted in 1919) Felix is just so cute, charming, adorable, and endearing, you’ve gotta love him, just like the Tramp! Some say he was even the first television star, having appeared on tv back in 1929, when the medium was barely in its infancy, having come on the market in 1927.

I once heard a really sweet and true sentiment on some cartoon show, that cartoons only remain as young as they are because people still love them and laugh over them, no matter that they’re as old as Felix, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Tom and Jerry, or any of the other very old cartoons. Sorta like how Tinkerbelle remains alive because people are clapping (though once when I was taking a clowning class as a preteen and we were doing Peter Pan, I was behind a dressing curtain during that segment and didn’t clap, because I don’t believe in fairies; I am so evil!).

One thought on “How to choose and view silent films, Part I

  1. Wow – what an education to read. I know just what you mean. Singers like Piaf are not the same cleaned up without the 78 rpm crackle. I love Jacques Tati. If you also like animation check out “L’illusioniste” or even “Bellevue Rendezvous”. I’ve laughed until my sides ached at Keystone cops. Thanks for such an intelligent post.

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