(Note: Since writing this in 2005, Moran of the Lady Letty has come out on DVD with a gorgeous print and much-improved soundtrack. The difference between the garbagey VHS print I’m referring to here and the beautiful DVD restoration is like night and day!)
Things to keep in mind when watching them:
Remember, these are very old films; even the last silent, Modern Times, was made in 1936. You have to expect some things to be a little different and make allowances accordingly. Many films will show people smoking. Live with it. Who the hell didn’t smoke back then? Even doctors and athletes used to heartily endorse cancer sticks in advertisements, and many companies had pictures of actors and singers in cigarette cartons, like baseball cards in chewing tobacco.
Of course most African-Americans will be shown in servile positions, like railway porters, maids, cooks, nannies, gardeners, shoe shiners. Be glad they’re not depicted as villains at least, or by whites in blackface. You won’t find the most enlightened views re women in most pictures either, and there will be plenty of other highly un-PC stuff in some pictures, such as the portrayal of Native Americans. Cringe for a moment and move on. It’s deeply shameful and inaccurate of course, but chances are that’s just a small part of a much larger story.
Don’t zero in on a two-minute demeaning portrayal of Native Americans or an intertitle referring to women as “the fair sex”; focus on the big picture. Most people thought like that back then, and at best such people would be considered more than a little old-fashioned in the modern world, not necessarily deliberately racists, sexists, and misogynists. People operated under a different paradigm back then, and at least men respected women more.
A man from the Twenties can make all the comments he likes on the “inferiority” of women and “superiority” of men and I won’t feel insulted, knowing he’s coming from a very different time and place. So long as the guy making the comments treats women with respect and deference, like holding the door for them and pulling their chairs out, instead of beating his wife and using misogynistic vulgarity in front of women.
For most people it’s an acquired taste. Besides making allowances for the time and place in which these films were created (less than enlightened views towards women and minorities, crude special effects, stories that aren’t as well-developed as they could be), you also have to pay attention, really pay attention. You can’t talk to other people, get up to go to the bathroom or get snacks, or pause to go have dinner.
You miss significant portions of the action and story when you leave the room, and if you pause it and then come back later, you’ll have a hard time picking up where you left off, like leaving off in the middle of a chapter in a book and then not having what’s going on as fresh in your mind when you get a chance to come back. You need undivided attention for this pursuit, since the story is told through primarily nonverbal channels. You have to learn how to read body language and facial expressions.
There will be enough periodic intertitles that you don’t have to follow the entire story through nonverbal communications. You really have to get a sense of the time and place, how not everything has to be verbally explained to be understood, how a certain facial expression can express a broken heart more poignantly than some over the top sappy monologue in some chick flick or made-for-tv movie.
And the more you watch any given film, the better it only proceeds to get, since you’re seeing even more nuances in what’s going on, seeing foreshadowing, understanding something a whole lot better than you did when you first saw the movie. It’s like an old friend or a childhood blanket.
Sometimes, unfortunately, the picture quality won’t be as good as it should or could be, and sometimes there will be a very inappropriate or monotonous musical score. I know a lot of people hate the Alloy Orchestra, though wouldn’t you rather they have some musical score than none at all, that your town have a silent film festival even with Alloy than not have the festival at all? Not all films are so lucky as to have great pros like the Mont Alto Orchestra behind them.
Wouldn’t you also rather have sub-par prints than none at all, for these films to be lost like so many others already long are? Sometimes this is the best they could do, something no amount of restoration can totally make picture-perfect. You get used to less than picture-perfect prints after awhile. It’s annoying, for example, that a great film like The Eagle had such a horrible job done on the DVD, complete with the organ score instead of more appropriate Russian music, when I’m told the laser disc version was in such pristine condition. The DVD print obviously came from a copy of the film that saw a lot of wear and not much care, but honestly, it’s such a great film you can overlook the less than perfect print.
I was expecting the print to be as below-par as most of Moran of the Lady Letty, and come to find out the print of The Eagle is like at least 90% better. You can see everyone’s faces and bodies, for example, as well as objects, and you can clearly read all the intertitles; in Moran many times there’s so much blurring and trouble with lighting and contrast that you can’t really tell who’s whom or what’s going on, and many of the intertitles are in such tiny white print that they bleed together so much you have to strain your eyes to try to read them. A real shame, given it’s such a strong underrated gem (though not as developed as it could be), and was actually geared towards the male audience as opposed to women; there wasn’t much fainting in the aisles going on at this film!
Some films are also projected at the wrong speeds, which make them look ridiculous or too fast or short. The better companies don’t have this problem, and many films which were only available in mutilated form for years are now out there in definitive editions pieced together from the most complete prints available, much longer and making more sense with so many restored scenes.
I would like Blood and Sand to have the remaining few missing scenes added in, but from what I hear, the videos which were available before the awesome deluxe Kino edition came out were way shorter than said Kino edition and left out some pretty important scenes and events, like the early scene when Juan (still a teenager at the time) is being chased by his mother with a broom.
You’re supposed to let your imagination fill in the blanks. Apparently many theatre-goers back then were adept at lip-reading, some so much so they sent angry letters when they observed, for example, a cowboy furiously cursing as he tried to mount his horse. But even if you can’t lip-read (apart from some obvious instances where you don’t need to lip-read to realise the person is saying something like “Help!,” “WHAT?!,” or “I love you”), you can still imagine what’s probably being said, based on the body language and facial expressions, or the intertitle you just saw.
Like Chaplin said, in a silent film, everyone brought his or her own experience and interpretation to the theatre. You had an idea in your own head of what was going on, your little dream and fantasy. The actors aren’t telling you what to feel or a thorough explanation of everything that’s going on. And isn’t something more sensual and exciting and thrilling when you only see the prelude or hints of it instead of a graphic sex scene?
Let your fantasies and imagination run wild and fill in the blanks in your head of what happened after the newlyweds got to the bedroom, or what just happened when you see a rumpled bed, a woman adjusting her stockings, and her kissing some guy in his office. The famous rape scene in The Son of the Sheik is so powerful and memorable that it makes it obvious what’s about to happen, and it’s even more obvious when we next fade in and see Yasmin swooned on the bed crying; do we really need to see a graphic brutal depiction of the rape itself?