A Note on the Silents

The history of cinema does not begin with the Sound film. And any true lover of cinema knows and appreciates the beauty and special nature of those early silent films that heralded the arrival of this latest and greatest of modern art forms.

But this is not a history lesson, and films of the Silent era are (with a few exceptions) not included in this collection of Film Essentials. This omission is not simply due to the fact that nobody watches them anymore. It is because of the significant transformation of the medium that occurred with the coming of sound. The fact is that when sound came to the movies, it cast off the vestiges of its old form like a butterfly. The arrival of sound was more than an added feature for entertainment. No subsequent technological advancement, not color or widescreen, 3-D, you name it so transformed the medium. Silent films became dinosaurs.

For the industry, it was a commercial no-brainer. And the public fully embraced the talkies. “All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!” screamed the marquees. And a slew of splashy but shallow films quickly followed. Just as quickly they would be forgotten. But something else was occurring. The movies began to show their true potential. And it didn’t take long before they were off and running,

With this new beginning however, something was inevitably lost. And that something was the appreciation for the flat-out genius of those who had mastered their craft in a uniquely visual medium. D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and the brilliant Buster Keaton, Erich Von Stroheim, Carl Theodore Dreyer, Lon Chaney, G.W. Pabst. And the greatest of all silent directors, F.W. Murnau. Some of these figures met with early deaths, some struggled with the transition to sound, some simply faded into obscurity. Few were able to transcend.

Now that we look back, as far as cinema goes, we might find that maybe not all that much was lost after all. Contrary to Norma Desmond’s insistent admonition in SUNSET BOULEVARD that “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces”, we really need both. One look at films like Peter Jackson’s CGI-laden LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy for example, and you can see how important the close-up is. How it is in the faces that reveal the humanity of the drama and propel the story.

And just as “modern” cinema began with the sound film, so did “modern” acting. Immediately, it became apparent that traditional methods of acting for the theater had to be adapted to accommodate the screen. To this day, there is still debate and discussion about acting for the stage vs. acting for the screen. But the best teachers and coaches will tell you “acting is acting.” And you can learn just as much from watching William Powell or Claudette Colbert or Fredric March in a 1930 film as from Michael Fassbender or Cate Blanchett or Tom Hardy in 2018.

So while the parade may have gone by for the silent film, I would urge anyone to explore that which has come before. Much is still available, for streaming or on DVD. It would be well worth your time. Just choose wisely. And stick to the essentials.

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