By Joel Davidson
As a Media Communications major, the part of every film history course we all seem to dread is the very beginning… silent movies. After that, it’s pretty smooth sailing: 1950s film noir, 70s blockbusters like “Jaws” and “Star Wars,” and the witty and daring 1990s indie scene. But before those, we have to make our way through a few movies without words.
But is it as boring as we sometimes make it out to be? I would say no. In fact, I’d go even further than that. I think there’s a very significant place for silent film today: not just in the classroom or even for film students, but for everyone who enjoys a good movie! However, before we look at why movies from the silent era are still worth seeing, it’s important to know what silent movies were capable of.
If your only experience with silent film is early examples like “The Great Train Robbery” (1903), keep in mind that the medium evolved over three decades into an incredibly sophisticated art form. Cameras, unrestrained by bulky audio equipment, were used to great effect by cinematographers, resulting in some of the most sweeping and beautiful imagery ever filmed. Actors developed their craft into a high art of pantomime, and some of the most revered and respected performers of all time were silent stars. Film music also thrived; after all, silent movies were never really silent. The blockbusters were backed by lavish scores performed live by full orchestras, and silent film composers gave us the soundtrack as we know it today, laying the foundations for the likes of John Williams and Hans Zimmer.
But, even with these impressive accomplishments, how can movies from almost a century ago, movies categorized by their lack of audio, be enjoyable today? Ironically enough, the lack of dialogue is actually a huge part of what makes them great. It’s like reading a book: Instead of passively letting the story play out in front of you, you have to make a conscious decision to turn the page to experience the story. With sound movies, you can technically look away and still “watch” the movie by hearing the dialogue. However, with silent film, doing that takes you out of the story. Whole conversations are sometimes played out through body language, and an audience feels close to the characters because, in seeking to understand them, you have to get to know them and observe how they react to things. It might sound tedious, but, after adjusting to the style, there are few artistic experiences more engaging.
So, there you go. They have artistic merit, they’re well-made, and some guy writing an opinion article thinks they’re nifty. But there’s one thing I didn’t mention… Silent movies are really fun! There are few moments in movie history more intense than Harold Lloyd scaling a skyscraper in “Safety Last” (1923), performances more subtle and heartbreaking than Renée Falconetti in “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928), action sequences more thrilling than Douglas Fairbanks rescuing an Arabian princess against incredible odds in “The Thief of Bagdad” (1924), or love stories more tear-inducing and emotionally satisfying than that of Charlie Chaplin and the blind flower girl in “City Lights” (1931). These movies aren’t just groundbreaking for their time. They hold a special kind of undying magic for all time.
Not a lot has changed in the movie business over the past 100 years. Technology has advanced and actors have come and gone, but good stories and palpable emotional connections aren’t restrained by those things. If an audience is willing to open their minds and take a leap into the unknown, a great movie, new or old, is a powerful experience. And so, I challenge you to hop onto Netflix and give some silent classics a watch. They might have more to say than you realize.