Rebuttals of frequent lies and misconceptions:

Everyone overacts!

This one seems to be parroted the most, as though most people saying it have seen more than a handful of films. SOME actors overacted. SOME films are overacted. SOME actors weren’t as talented as the big names and therefore had less of a range of emotions and body language. This all basically boils down to unfairly judging the standard of one era against that of another, like not comprehending why doctors in the old days often bled their patients to death instead of using real remedies that would heal instead of killing. That was how medicine was practised back then, like it or not.

I don’t notice any of this alleged “overacting” so many modern-day people complain about. Every generation has its own style of acting. What looked natural, emotional, normal, and expressive ten years ago looks dated now. And in addition, silent acting had to be different from speaking acting, which leaves next to nothing to the imagination anymore. Too many people have forgotten what a truly expressive face looks like, how you can convey a mood, emotion, story, bit of news through a shocked convulsion of your body, mischeivous twinkle of the eyes, erotic sweep of the hand, furious cock of the head, shattered facial expression. It’s believed that at least 80% of communication is nonverbal. And btw, have you ever seen a soap opera or a made-for-tv movie? Talk about TRUE overacting!

They’re all so melodramatic or overly dramatic!

SOME were. A great many more weren’t. Certainly a good many in the early days of feature-length films in the Teens (even some in the early Twenties) were overly melodramatic and formulaic, but is melodrama or a very dramatic story necessarily a bad thing? It all depends upon how it’s played out, how convincing the characters are, how realistic the plot is. If you actually watched more than just an unrepresentative few examples of the lost art, you’d see how nuanced the films actually are.

The comedy is nothing but police chases and pie fights!

Yes, in the early days comedy wasn’t very advanced, but again, if you watched more than just a few examples, you’d know just how multifaceted silent comedy truly was. Show me the pie fights and police chases in Steamboat Bill, Jr., Bacon Grabbers, Bromo and Juliet, Backstage, The Cook, The Gold Rush. Slapstick needs no verbal accompaniment to be funny. You don’t need words to laugh and see the humour in these situations. It’s probably true that silent comedy is the most accessible aspect of the genre to newcomers. The children in Kabul who saw their first movies in the form of Chaplin’s comedy shorts from WWI didn’t need dialogue to laugh for the very first time in their lives.

The stories aren’t developed enough!

Certainly, in the earlier films from the Teens this is true more often than not, but we can see even in films that aren’t as developed as they could be that the medium is gradually working toward more complex and developed storylines. The great June Mathis, who shamefully is all but forgotten today despite all she did for both her friends and the industry, was the driving force in fact behind establishing the importance of dialogue (via intertitles) in motion pictures, of having a story with a plot instead of just things happening without enough motivation or explanation to back them up. Look at the average film from the Teens and then compare it with one from the last few years of the era, 1926-29, and you’ll see just how far film storytelling had come.

The intertitles are so corny and overdramatic!

Again, judging something by modern sensibilities. I don’t view them as such any more than I view the actors as overacting. You’re laughing at something meant to be very serious, romantic, or sensual only because people in the modern era don’t express themselves like that anymore. Just because they might seem silly or corny by modern standards doesn’t mean they actually are. They are different.

They’re dated/quaint/old-fashioned/don’t hold up well today.

Yes, of course there are dated elements in everything. There are gags which no longer work (particularly racial “humour”), references which no longer mean anything, situations which seem absurd by modern standards, things which aren’t as funny as they were back then. And of course you won’t exactly find the most enlightened views on and portrayal of women and minorities in most of these films. What the hell else do you expect from something so old? Cringe for a moment and move on.

And some of these things which are quaint are quaint in a good way, like looking back at horses and buggies, old cars and fire engines, amusement park rides, appliances, machinery, clothing, manners, trains, houses, elevators, hairstyles, money, you name it. Old-fashioned doesn’t have to be a bad thing. And of course you’ll see a great many people smoking. Who the hell didn’t smoke back then?

Of course it was a big hit back THEN!
I’m sure it was a blockbuster in that era.
I’m sure it is a good film, if you like that kind of stuff.

Ah yes, the pathetic old let’s laugh at our primitive unevolved ancestors line of unreasoning. A great many still hold up well in their own rights today. A lot more silents than you might think were remade in the sound era. This is what leads people to show silent films speeded up and making up voices and speech, or showing only select clips knowing full well they look absurd out of context, making fun of what was high entertainment to our great-grandparents and grandparents.

It implies that it was ONLY a huge blockbuster because people back then were stupid and didn’t know what a great film really was, or had nothing “superior” by which to judge it, or its success has to be quantified by the era, that old dismissal and insulting of people and things from other eras. “Yeah, they were funny in their own time.” It’s really pathetic for you to insult them by talking smack like that when you haven’t even seen the films you’re cavalierly dismissing.

What, they have no merits in the modern era and they only succeeded so well back then because people were stupid and didn’t know what real entertainment was? A great many people who admit they don’t watch many silents or didn’t think that highly of them have expressed surprise after watching a great film like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Eagle, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Steamboat Bill, Jr., Sparrows, The Blot, or Big Business that they found it so great and enjoyable, not at all hokey, campy, corny, overly dramatic in a bad way, or overacted like they thought most silent films were.

It can’t have been that good if it hasn’t survived and stood the test of time.
(Fill in name) was a huge star then, but probably the reason why so few of his/her films are still available is because most of them weren’t that good or haven’t stood the test of time.

This is just pure ignorance. Someone who speaks thus has no clue of the real actual reasons why an appalling amount of silent films are lost and why many others exist only in fragments and deteriorating prints locked away forgotten in warehouses, archives, and museums. An obscene amount of great classics were lost in this careless way, including many films by big-name stars.

Because of the shitty quality of nitrate, these films easily deteriorated, and silent films were deemed useless and obsolete nearly as soon as sound became the norm. No care or thought was given to film preservation. It wasn’t considered important or a priority. By the time people began to realise how much had already been lost and how many films were in danger of being lost forever, it was far too late to do much of anything to rescue a lot of them.

These films aren’t lost because they were shitty films or by unimportant players, but rather because people had no sense of history or preservation of the past; out of sight, out of mind to them, and now thanks to that a great many films of historical importance are lost forever, only available for viewing in museums and archives, on hard-to-find videos with sub-par quality prints, with the records of many important stars all but wiped out and obliterated. It’s complete ignorance and bullshit to claim these films haven’t survived because they didn’t stand the test of time or weren’t that good.

They’re no longer around because people realised the superiority of sound when it came out.

A great many people thought sound pictures were just a novelty at first, that they were a passing fad which would soon pass away, that they could co-exist peacefully with silent pictures. Charlie Chaplin held out the longest by far, so convinced of the superiority of silence and fleeting popularity of talking pictures was he. People had been experimenting with adding sound and dialogue to film from practically the very beginning, with varying degrees of success, but the earlier experiments with sound never caught on.

There were some synchronised sound effects and music in 1926’s Don Juan, but that didn’t really catch on either, and even in 1927 The Jazz Singer (which contrary to popular belief is largely a silent film, with only a few primitively synchronised songs and bits of dialogues tacked on) didn’t immediately usher in an era of sound pictures. It caused a huge uproar to be sure, but people were still very cautious in the beginning. Most of the films made in the remainder of 1927 and in 1928, even early into 1929, were still silent.

1928 was the last great year of silent films, and 1929 also had some great silent films (particularly abroad, with German Expressionism and other foreign films), but the ones made at the very end of the era were usually ignored or poorly-reviewed since people wanted to see exciting new talking pictures instead of seeing films viewed as dinosaurs. Just when the art form was at its pinnacle, its height of glory, on the verge of becoming something even bigger, better, and greater, sound came along and ruined everything.

The mystery was killed; someone who’d been viewed as very sexy got betrayed by a thick Brooklyn twang, a Southern accent sounded ridiculous in a costume drama taking place in 18th century France, the voice didn’t match with the persona millions of fans had imagined in their minds. In their rush to annoint a new technology king, they threw away their history and what had made the industry so great to begin with.

Countless careers were destroyed, not just those of actors, but also of musicians, composers, scenarists, writers, title-card writers (whose job was much harder than it looked). There were those who successfully survived, but there were many more who simply didn’t. Although sound did help some careers; my belovèd Laurel and Hardy only got even funnier when we could hear their voices. If you know what they sounded like, you know what I mean; can you imagine the two of them with any other voices? It’s like their voices were made for them, uncannily fitting their personalities.

The special effects are so primitive and even look laughable by today’s standards.

Again, unfairly judging the standards of another era by ours today. These things were high-tech way back when, and besides, they had a lot more advanced camera techniques than we might think, like split-screen allowing a person playing dual roles to appear in the same scene as the other character s/he was playing. And in the Buster Keaton short The Playhouse, during the early dream sequence, we see that Buster is literally the entire act as well as playing everyone in the audience, AND the person outside trying to sneak in to see the show. We also had early geniuses like Georges Méliès who had special effects far beyond what we’d expect from films made during the Aughts. And besides, does a film really NEED high-tech special effects to be good? Does it even need special effects at all?

When most people think of classic movies, they think of ones like North by Northwest or Psycho, and when they think of classic actors, they think of people like Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe.

Those are classics of a different era. Serious film critics DO regard great silent films like The General, Metropolis, Dr. Mabuse, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Kid, The Diary of a Lost Girl, Pandora’s Box, Ben-Hur, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Stella Maris, and City Lights as classics worthy of their laurels too. There were so many great silent actors, of both sexes, who could so easily wipe the floor with all the modern-day pretenders nowadays.

Go on, try to watch a bona-fide classic masterpiece like The Four Horsemen or Pandora’s Box and then claim again it’s just some quaint bygone novelty and not a real classic, doesn’t really have great classic actors and performances in the cast. Only a handful of silent films ever get selected in those constant insipid “best of” lists, when they’re chosen at all, and they’re almost always the same ones over and over again, usually Metropolis, The General, and BOAN (puke). Voyage to the Moon and The Great Train Robbery might be selected as honourable historical mentions if they’re lucky.

And besides, a lot of these homages to classic films and actors are nothing more than mere lip service. They can talk till the frickin’ cows come home about how great Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo (who started out in silents and didn’t make her first talking picture until 1930, and even then didn’t speak until like 34 minutes into it), and Marilyn Monroe were, about all the great classic films they were in, but we all know Hollywood has no use for anything or anyone old. They’ll pay them the lip service but in the long run the only old films most people don’t want to disown because of how nasty and old they are are GWTW, Citizen Kane, and Casablanca.

How can you not like anything modern?

I know what’s out there. I just don’t like it. That’s not to say I hate all movies made in the modern era, just that I don’t like as many modern movies as older ones. It’s the same deal with my tastes in music; why should I bother my ears with anything but the very best? Is it so insulting and unthinkable that a person of his or her own free will could CHOOSE to like things which were made a very long time ago?

It really ought to say something about the state of entertainment today. No modern-day actors put me under a Magick spell, this intensely involving personal experience, just knowing I’ll always love this person, need to get all his or her films, have finally found someone with whom I connect instead of how I barely bat an eye at the modern-day wannabes.

People don’t want to assign any positive value to something that’s old apart from sanctimonious lip service or trotting it out to be humoured at the obligatory tribute service. They don’t want to admit that old things still hold up, are still great, are timeless classics and not just things to be snidely laughed at, dismissed, or viewed as products of some hopeless unenlightened backwards era.

You’re only saying you like it because it’s old.

Not every old film was great. Many of the ones that survive from the Aughts and Teens, even some from the early Twenties, aren’t as good or complex as the ones from later on in the era. I have no problem saying that A Woman of Paris is a mediocre film that doesn’t deserve all the praise and accolades it’s gotten over the years, that Monsieur Beaucaire is a complete disaster and train wreck (made even sadder by the fact that it was so well-meaning, trying to be a film about being true to yourself and escaping the image the public can’t see you away from). I don’t like them because they’re old; I like them because they’re good. If a film sucks goats, it’ll suck goats anyway, be it old, new, or in-between. And you don’t hate it because it’s old?

But they’re so obscure!

SOME films and actors from that era are now obscure, deservedly or not. But talk to anyone who’s involved in the community or to a serious film critic and you’ll find that a great many silents are far from obscure. And again, assigning something value and worth based upon its age and your lack of knowledge of the genre.

I’m surprised they still make these.

Yes, because there’s a demand for them. And don’t feed me that tired old line “There’s a market for everything,” since it’s not like this is some ultra-obscure interest that only like 3 people in the world care about. Even though progress is slow, slowly but steadily more are coming onto DVD, including ones that were never even on home video before or have prior only been available in museums and archives being held hostage.

A lot more of these films and stars have larger devoted followings than you want to let yourself believe. And this isn’t like the delusional lie the CPUSA likes to tell about how they’re becoming “a mass party”; there really IS an increasing interest in this sadly lost art.

Only a few still hold up as good entertainment today.

That’s just nonsense. SOME are so obviously products of their own time or so poorly made, with such primitive plotlines and bad storytelling, that indeed they don’t stand up well today. But come on, a LOT of them still do stand up as great entertainment today. Why do so many people make these snide dismissive humouring comments about how such-and-such or so-and-so was only popular in a certain era? Besides unfairly wanting it to be the same as modern entertainments, how the hell many have you even seen to make this judgment call, and did you even watch them with an open mind?

I’d take such dismissive comments more seriously if more of them were actually uttered by people who’d seen more than just a few bad examples of the genre or none at all, people who gave it a try and decided they just didn’t personally care for it, not people who act like authorities on the subject and make all sorts of snippy insulting comments based on zero or limited actual experience.

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

  1. A good one to read when people are trying to understand why Mary Pickford was one of the Worst Best Actresses – she wasn’t particularly well-served by her material, was she?


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