How to choose and view silent films, Part VI

(Note: Again, please keep in mind that this was originally written in 2005. Some of the things referred to are now past history or no longer very up-to-date, such as how TCM has now rescored quite a few more silents in their annual Young Film Composers Competition.)


How to find them:

Unfortunately, most mainstream video stores don’t carry many apart from the obvious ones (usually Chaplin and Keaton, maybe a few other high-profile silents). Most major online stores stock them, and some harder-to-find films that Amazon doesn’t carry can easily be found at online stores specialising in hard-to-find films and books, and for very decent prices too.

I got The Conquering Power, the 1921 version of Camille, and Monsieur Beaucaire (well-meaning disastrous trainwreck that it is) at Movies Unlimited, for example; they ship very quickly and are located in PA. DVD Empire is also an online store with a good selection of silents. I was referred to them by a site listing all the silents available on DVD and where to buy them online when I was looking for another place that had Cobra. After authorising a second delay on the one I’d ordered on Amazon, I finally decided I was waiting beyond a ridiculously long amount of time, cancelled the Amazon order, and had the film in my hands like a week from the day I ordered it at the other place.

Picture Palace also has quite a lot of even harder-to-find films; I ordered All Night from them (what could be wrong about a film with a Nice Jewish Girl and a Nice Italian Boy?). There are also Kino, Grapevine Video, the Videobrary, and quite a number of other sources specialising not just in silents but also harder-to-find silents.

Milestone is also a wonderful company, greatly increased in status in my eyes because they’re in charge of distributing Beyond the Rocks when it comes to the States in May of 2005, for the first time since 1922. Netflix has an extensive library of silents, and Scorched Earth Productions out in Colorado also has many wonderful silents (only on video though), with fast delivery. I got The Four Horsemen and Moran from them.

Most decent libraries should have at least a few silents in their collection, as well as many video rental places. It’s always best to try it out before you buy, to see if you like it enough to pay for it and permanently add it to your collection. Some you might decide you don’t personally care for enough; unless you’re really sure you’re going to like the film based on smashingly good reviews you’ve read, or you’re already deeply interested in the performer, it’s best to not take a blind leap of faith first, without even having seen this movie or any of the person’s other work.

Silents aren’t played that often on tv, but Turner Classic Movies does play them regularly; Encore also sometimes shows silent westerns. American Movie Classics used to show them more often, but I think they’ve really jumped the shark in recent years, not just because they stopped showing Laurel and Hardy but also because they’ve been showing too many modern and recent movies instead of, as their name implies, true classics.

TCM shows a silent every Sunday at midnight (i.e., the very beginning of Monday, not the end of Saturday and beginning of Sunday) and occasionally at other times during the week. It exposes you to stuff you might not ordinarily see or be aware of, and can increase the actors and films you’re interested in.

They also have an annual contest for young film composers, to rescore a silent film, and in January they announce the results and air the film, along with the other past winners. So far they’ve rescored The Ace of Hearts (a 1921 Lon Chaney movie), the 1921 version of CamilleThe Rag Man (with child star Jackie Coogan), Laugh, Clown, Laugh (another Chaney movie), and The Temptress (a Garbo film from 1926). The upcoming film they’re going to be scoring is Souls for Sale.

You can’t really authoritatively say which films and actors to get acquainted with first; taste is deeply personal. You might find you just don’t personally care for a certain director, actor, or comedian, no matter how well-regarded s/he might be, or that a very famous film did absolutely nothing for you. It seems like comedy is the best door into exploring other silents, since you don’t even need many intertitles to understand what’s going on, and a funny situation will be funny no matter what, even if there might be a few dated elements afoot, or gags that no longer work.

Of course, the biggest comedians of the era were Chaplin, Arbuckle, Keaton, and Lloyd; Laurel and Hardy also got their start during the silent era, though since I was introduced to them via their sound shorts, I find them their absolute funniest there and not in their silent shorts. Sound enhanced their careers; they’re even funnier with their voices, which were just MADE for them, like they couldn’t have been made for anyone else. They really looked like their voices. It’s hard to explain, if you’re not familiar with their voices, just why their voices are part of what made them so damn funny.

There were enough big names who still have films surviving that you’ll probably like at least a few of them, instead of just liking silents in general. Most people do have their lists of faves whom they’re interested in getting everything by, even obscure stuff and very early films or shorts in which they only played bit parts.

There were the different types (Vamps, outlaws, cowboys, comedians, party girl flappers, sophisticated flappers, eternal virgins, swashbucklers, sheiks) too, though versatile actors could play more than just one stock type very well and fluidly. I personally favour the Vamps, comedians, flappers, and sheiks; damn, were men good-looking back then, and no plastic surgery either!

Even though there’s increased interest in the genre and awareness of both silents in particular and film preservation in general, there are still so many still lost, probably many forever and not just sitting gathering dust in archives. People still parrot lies and misconceptions, as though watching an unrepresentative silent film (such as one of the typical early melodramas) at the improper speed, with a horrible backing score, makes you an expert on the subject.

Many people, both actors of the time and outsiders, have said that silent actors in fact were more talented than the modern-day wannabes; they had to have a much wider range of expressions and emotions, having to convey everything through pantomime, a world where, as Chaplin once said, an eyebrow raised just a tiny bit could convey something more powerfully and meaningfully than someone delivering spoken lines. It was personal; you put your own interpretation on it.

It’s very saddening and makes me jealous to read vintage reviews of these films, like in the index of all the film reviews The New York Times wrote from 1913 onwards (yes, I read reference books and indexes of old newspapers and magazines for personal enjoyment). These reviewers, the audience they were writing for, had seen or could go out and see these wonderful films which are now lost.

They were so lucky and took for granted how they could buy a ticket to go see Flaming Youth, A Sainted Devil, London After Midnight, The Young Rajah, Ravished Armenia (sometimes called Auction of Souls), CleopatraUncharted Seas. They were familiar with artists whom we have to rely on memory, pictures, and historical records to remember them as stars, like Theda, Nita, Pola Negri, Colleen Moore, Olive Thomas, Olive Borden, Clara Kimball Young, Wallace Reid, Sarah Bernhardt.

Today most of their films are either lost or being held hostage in archives, yet when my great-grandparents were young people they could freely go out to see them at the theatre whenever they wanted to. They were all there, but because no one cared about preserving history, they were lost or destroyed, so busy to clean house after sound came along, unwilling to admit or realise that there was great value and beauty in the past.

It’s haunting and depressing to realise that there are elderly people around now (dying day by day yet) who saw these great stars and great films when they first came out, when they were in their heyday, that they had the luxury and privilege of seeing what people today can’t. They’re so lucky to have those memories, even though I’m jealous of them too.

How to choose and view silent films, Part V

(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?

How to choose and view silent films, Part IV

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.

How to choose and view silent films, Part II

A continuation of my run-down of some of the most famous silents.


The Sheik (1921) I almost wish this were a lost film too, because it’s usually the only silent film most outsiders have seen, and the campy hokey overacting and simplistic plot (not to mention the ridiculous eye-bulging) lead people to believe they’re all like this. Technically not a very good movie, but you can’t appreciate it as a really fun movie if you’re not familiar with the genre overall. I can’t believe I’d recommend seeing the sequel first, which isn’t Academy Award material either, yet is a very good movie, with a much more complex plot and MUCH better acting from everyone.

I would normally consider it bad form to read or watch the sequel first, but in this case I would; it’s entirely its own story, not really a continuation of the story in the original. (And in the sequel, unless you’re blind or REALLY naïve, there is zero doubt that Ahmed, Jr. does rape Yasmin; we obviously can’t see the actual rape, but we do see the prelude and aftermath, which leave us in no doubt of what’s about to happen and what just did happen.)

It’s based on a trashy bestseller from 1919, crawling with racism, violence against women, little more than a big long rape and kidnapping fantasy (which seems to have been the genre of the author, herself a woman!), about how a “new” liberated woman who’s grown up feeling herself the equal to men has to have her proud, free spirits broken and crushed, taught a lesson in servility, and forced to come to heel by a man whom she eventually falls in love with after he physically overpowers her.

The film actually softens a lot of what happens in the book; the film appears rather open-ended over whether or not Diana is raped by her captor. We see some intertitles that might suggest it happened, but we also see no scenes of manhandling like later occur when she’s kidnapped by Omair. We know Ahmed was preparing to rape her when he was told to go out to round up horses who’d gotten loose in a sandstorm, but when he comes back to the tent to pick up where he left off, he sees her knelt over the bed crying. Instead of bulging his eyes out yet again, his face floods with sympathy and he calls in a slave girl to comfort her, basically leaving her alone.

You can’t underestimate what a watershed event this film was; up till this point, the heroes in films were clean-cut all-American men, not dark-featured foreigners. Never before had it been okay for a woman to return the embraces of a dark-skinned lover onscreen. People began to realise women had sexual fantasies too, and not just directed towards the boring clean-cut all-American boys they’d been fed for years.

People also were beginning to change their perception of women’s sexuality; prior to this time in history, most people believed women who enjoyed sex, let alone initiated it, were disturbed deranged perverts and deviants. It wasn’t yet to the point where women could have as free a reign on their sexual fantasies as we do today, but in this era, this was a really hot fantasy. This is why it’s called a rape fantasy; in a fantasy you’re in total control of the event, not like if you were really being raped. Do we really think, due to how he’s portrayed, that Ahmed will really hurt Diana? The only sex women could safely fantasise about was rape; certainly they couldn’t have affairs or premarital sex without getting into trouble. If it were forced on them, it wouldn’t be looked upon as wrong and deviant to fantasise about.

Women fainted in the aisles over this film, even though most men hated it (jealous their women would fall for a dark-featured dark-skinned foreigner who was sensitive and romantic in addition to strong and manly). They too longed for a dark handsome stranger to come riding in on a white horse and pull her onto his steed, kidnapping her, taking her back to his tent, his heart and soul driven wild with desire for her, so much so he’d do anything to have her as his own. Nothing like this had ever been shown in films before, as campy and hokey as it might look to the average modern-day viewer.

The director George Melford was an ass though and wanted a popular film instead of highbrow entertainment; he also basically egged people on to overacting, combined with exaggerated makeup. And besides, the bulging eyes have also been attributed to nearsightedness and myopia; if someone with myopia refuses to wear glasses, of course you’ll see a look of strange-looking squints and eye-bulges.

Nosferatu (1922) Widely considered to be the original Vampyre movie; even though I personally feel it’s a little overrated and not nearly as scary as I’d been led to believe, if you’ve seen it, you just know Max Schreck IS Dracula, the ultimate Vampyre, no matter he isn’t seen doing too much vamping.

It takes place during the 19th century, in Germany; Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was one of the greatest directors of all time and really created a spooky eerie mood, no matter how it doesn’t seem very scary by modern sensibilities. Count Orlock is a creepy-looking mysterious fellow who goes around biting people on the neck and controlling people’s minds, as well as smuggling himself and a bunch of earth-filled coffins onto a ship so he can bring the Plague to town.

But, to be honest, all this eerie foreboding promise and the creepy mood build up to a whimpering, rather anticlimactic end instead of ending with something really scary and terrifying, ending with a real bang. And I know that back in 1922, filming technology wasn’t yet advanced enough to shoot scenes in the dark, but that means that this Vampyre spends an awful lot of time wandering about in broad daylight!

Nanook of the North (1922) This is an allegedly documentary film about an Eskimo named Nanook and his family. (I’m well aware of the fact that Eskimo is now considered an offensive term and that they prefer to be called Native Alaskans or Inuits, but I’m so used to using the word Eskimo from my frequent childhood trips to the Eskimo exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh; it’s like an older person still saying Indian, Negro, or mankind even though s/he knows the language has moved on in spite of his or her personal lifelong habit.) It’s a really great film, but I don’t view it in the same way upon finding out it was a hoax, that Nanook had indeed had prior contact and familiarity with Westerners and their way of life.

Safety Last! (1923) He’s not as well-known by many people today as Chaplin or Keaton, but Harold Lloyd was considered the third major comedian. He looked like a proper dignified British schoolmaster or professor, with his horn-rimmed glasses. This is the one where he’s hanging from the hands of a clock on the side of a building directly above traffic. Even more stunning about this stunt is the fact that Harold only had three fingers on his right hand, having had his thumb and forefinger amputated in 1919 when he used what he thought was a prop bomb to light a cigarette. The bomb exploded in his hand, nearly killing him. After a long stay in hospital, he was able to resume making comedies, and had even more success than before. [And that made him a fellow sinistral, even if he had to switch because of an accident instead of being born that way! I love seeing him writing and doing stuff with his left hand in his films, knowing this was the era when many people shamed and bullied southpaws out of their natural inclinations.]

The Gold Rush (1925) Chaplin’s most famous film and the one he most wanted to be remembered for, though in my opinion a little bit overrated. It was reissued in 1942 with the title cards deleted and Charlie narrating everything; that really takes away from what was really funny and sweet about it. Can you imagine having a full-on narration of a film like Steamboat Bill, Jr. explaining everything that’s going on? The beauty and genius of silent comedy is that it didn’t need to be narrated or explained to be funny. The narrated version also is shorter than the silent version, and changes the ending sequence a bit, ending with Georgia and the Tramp walking up the ladder to the deck of the ship from sterrage as opposed to Georgia and the Tramp kissing.

Even though I don’t personally find it the funniest of his films, it does have numerous funny bits, and of course the usual expected sentimentality. It’s also to be noted that Charlie’s most famous segment in this film, the Dance of the Rolls, wasn’t invented in this film. Roscoe Arbuckle had done a Dance of the Rolls in his 1917 film The Rough House, and Charlie liked it so much he decided to use it himself eight years later.

How to choose and view silent films, Part I

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!).