Friday at the Movies: How to Watch Silent Films

hollywood2 (2)(In anticipation of my next novel, which will go on sale in October, I plan on a series of posts about the silent movie industry and its profound meaning.  Well, forget the profound meaning–I just found the subject and the movies to be seriously fun!)

I don’t like silent movies.  They’re dumb and hard to understand and the film quality stinks and everybody moves too fast and wears too much makeup and they’re old . . .

Well, silent movies are old.  That’s true.  And that has a lot to do with why they’re hard to watch—at least until you get acquainted with them, and understand a few hard facts.

First, a lot of the film quality is bad.  The movies were produced on celluloid, an early plastic compound that was ridiculously flammable—the film would spontaneously combust if temperatures reached 150 degrees centigrade (which some projectors did).  That’s what happened to over half the silent movie film ever produced, due to poor storage or handling.  Of the film that remains, a lot of it is scratchy, warped, or overexposed–some scenes glare while others sulks into shadows and you can hardly make out what’s going on.  Some of that may have been the fault of early directors and techniques that were still in flux.  But a lot of it is just age.

Second, the speed at which many films are shown today is too fast.  Shooting speeds varied in the early days, generally from 18 to 22 frames per second (today it can be as high as 60 frames per second for high-rez).   Since the earliest cameras had to be cranked by hand, cameramen tried be consistent but there were slight variations in film speed that didn’t match the projection speed.  Even in their own day, the movies were apt to look jerky and hyper.  Sometimes, especially in early comedy like the Keystone Cops, the fast speed was deliberate.  But more often it was just because the projectionist didn’t know his business.  Today, action sequences that were supposed to be dramatic and exciting often look like the sight equivalent of Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Finally, the soundtrack that’s often matched to silent films is just awful.  I watched a DVD of The Gold Rush, for example, that has a nauseating organ score all the way through.  After a while I noticed it was eating into my brain.  I had to either turn the sound off or turn the movie off (click here for a clip from The Gold Rush that’s more delightful).

Still, there’s plenty to appreciate about the best of the silent films, especially if you watch a progression of them from around 1912 to 1921, when the industry made amazing strides.  During the twenties, the industry produced some of the greatest movies ever made (snooty film historians say so!)  The range of camera techniques opened up, goofy slapstick gave way to sophisticated sight gags, and facial expressions, even in the weepiest melodrama, can still make audiences cry.

From this . . .  (A Trip to the Moon, 2003)

From this . . .
(A Trip to the Moon, 2003)

After the first sound movie debuted in 1927, the silents were doomed, even though some of the best ones appeared in the very early thirties.  At first they were much better than the “talkies” for photography.  because early sound pictures required actors and cameras to huddle around a microphone.  The action was obviously limited.  Big sweeping views like battles and parades and crowd scenes were impossible, so for a while you could have either spectacle or sound, not both.  Of course, the technology improved so that now you get both.  But it may have been a good thing that movies weren’t hindered by sound technology at first—it freed up cameramen and directors to develop their visual range, including special effects that are pretty impressive even today.

. . . to this (The Thief of Baghdad, 1924), in a a mere 22 years!

. . . to this (The Thief of Baghdad, 1924), in a a mere 22 years!

So, how to watch?

  • Check your expectations.  The beginning of anything is going to look awkward and crude, and when you consider that The Great Train Robbery, one of the first motion pictures that told a story, was made in 1903, it’s pretty amazing that the industry was able to offer up three-hour spectacles like Intolerance only fourteen years later. Technicolor, wide-screen, high-rez, surround-sound, and CGI have all happened since, but it took 100 years!  Let’s just admire what some very talented people were able to accomplish in a very short time.
  • Try to get the best soundtrack you can.  When big-name directors and actors premiered big movies, they often commissioned an original score to be played along with it, by a live orchestra.  Of course, this was only possible in the prominent cities and theaters.  By the time these films reached smaller towns, the local keyboardist had to match the action to short piano pieces.  The musician might have a book of scores considered suitable for love scenes, sad scenes, dances, fights, funerals, etc.—meaning the piano or organ player was flipping through the book continually as the film rolled.  The silent comedies and dramas you can can get on DVD today usually have a piano or organ score.  These are bearable if they don’t go on to long.  But for a longer picture, try to find a full-orchestra score.  For example, Douglas Fairbanks’ Thief of Baghdad is available with a classical soundtrack by Rimsky-Korsakov—or an organ.  Ditch the organ if you can.
  • Be patient with the film quality.  Even the best-preserved movie classic will probably be uneven in spots—blurry, shaky, or scratchy.  As mentioned earlier, at least half of the film produced during the silent era didn’t make it into the future because it wasn’t stored properly or it was simply lost.  So be grateful for what we’ve got.
  • The best tip is appreciation. Motion pictures were a brand new way of telling stories, for the first time in 200 years (if you count the development of the novel) or 2000-plus years (if you go back to poets like Homer).  Acting and the stage had been around for millennia, but film had totally different demands and possibilities.  Limits, too, especially during the silent era.  Those early directors had to figure out how to communicate as much as possible through action and expression alone, and they caught on fast.

I’m not a snooty film historian, but if you want to explore a bit of the development of the movies during the late teens and early twenties, here’s a list of titles you’ll be able to find on Netflix or Youtube (the asterisk indicates they’re mentioned in I Don’t Know How the Story Ends):

Tillie’s Punctured Romance* (Charlie Chaplin and Louise Dressler)

Coney Island* (Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton)

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm* (Mary Pickford)

Intolerance* (directed by D. W. Griffith, with a cast of thousands)

The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin)

The Kid (Charlie Chaplin)

The General (Buster Keaton)

The Mark of Zorro (Douglas Fairbanks)

Other Posts in this series:

D. W. Griffith and the Birth of an Industry

Charles S. Chaplin

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