Silent Cinema: Silent Movies 101

You've decided to bite the bullet and give silent movies a try. Maybe you are taking some film history courses. Maybe you realized your knowledge of film started post-1930. Maybe you're just curious. Whatever your reason may be, you are going to have an exciting journey of discovery.

If you are like most viewers, there will be a learning curve. Silent movies are not just sound movies with title cards added. They are a completely separate visual art and deserve to be treated as such. Silent performers used their entire body to convey emotion and the smallest movement would be full of meaning. Reading this body language can take practice but the rewards are great.

What is a silent film?

Silent films are motion pictures that communicate through visual means. This does not mean silent films are really silent. A professional score is key to a silent film's success; some veterans of the industry have stated the music is responsible for half of a film's effectiveness.

Some silent films even used vocal music (for example, a love theme for the romantic leads) and gibberish dialogue. In my book, anything that is not the synchronized spoken word is fair game.

The most recognizable element in a silent film is probably its title cards, sometimes called intertitles or subtitles. It's worth mentioning that they are not deployed at the ratio of one card to one line of dialogue. Silent movie viewers were accomplished lip readers and simple statements like 'yes,' 'no,' or 'goodbye' did not have to be titled. In fact, fewer title cards were seen as the mark of a more sophisticated, higher budget production.

To laugh or not to laugh?

Comedy is often considered the ideal gateway for new silent film viewers, an easy way to get used to the grammar of visual storytelling without having to dive into heavy dramas. Here are a few things you should know about silent comedy:

1. It wasn't all slapstick. Like today, there were broad comedies but there were also romantic comedies, domestic comedies, spoofs, satire, meta humor, you name it. If slapstick is what interests you, wonderful. But if you prefer things on the more subtle side, there are plenty of films that can accommodate your taste.

2. Don't forget the ladies! Silent film was packed with funny ladies. Many of the big flapper stars (Colleen Moore, Clara Bow) had a flair for comedy. Marion Davies regularly had audiences rolling in the aisles with her antics. Mary Pickford's talent for physical comedy is one of the underappreciated aspects of her career.

3. There's no need to choose a favorite. The great Chaplin vs. Keaton 'debate' (with Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon sometimes thrown into the mix as well) is one of the most tedious aspects of the silent film fandom. I'm in favor of letting the films speak for themselves. There's no need to force an opinion on others. Don't let anyone bully you and feel free to love one or the other. Or both. Or neither.

I should point out that while comedy is a popular genre for first-timers, there are many, many silent movie fans that fell in love with the art thanks to a well-made drama.

A topsy-turvy world

In the upside-down world of silent film, comedy gets the acclaim and drama is the hard sell. It could be that potential audiences are primed to scoff at silent dramas. The old (and completely false) belief that silent movies always involved a damsel tied to the train tracks by a mustachioed villain just will not die. (Really, truly the only time you see this is in comedies spoofing old Victorian stage melodramas.)

Real silent drama is a different animal; beautiful to look at, subtle and extremely sophisticated, they have the power to capture an audience's imagination the way no sound movie ever can.

Whether you decide to go in for comedy or genre, the wide range of silent films is truly impressive. Basically, name a genre and there is probably a silent film available that will fit the description. Keep in mind, the silent era lasted from the late 19th-century all the way to 1930. Over three decades of film? That's a lot and there is sure to be something for everyone.

Do you need some recommendations? Here are some of the films I have used to introduce new viewers to the world of silent film. This list is not exhaustive, of course, but it should give a few ideas to anyone looking for their first silent movie.

If you are a fan of classic horror or the macabre, you might want to try The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a stylish and cerebral film that still influences filmmakers. Another option would be to try a classic Lon Chaney, Sr. role, such as his turn as a murderous (and armless!) knife-thrower in The Unknown.

If you want something more romantic, you might try My Best Girl, Mary Pickford's delightful rom-com, or perhaps the quirky charm of The Wishing Ring, a romanticized look at merrie olde Englande. If you want something more serious, Lillian Gish and John Gilbert give their all in La Boheme.

If you decide to live the free spirit of the roaring twenties, the original 1927 version of Chicago is a raucous delight. Or you can see why Clara Bow was the very first 'It Girl' in a vehicle entitled, well, It.

If you are in the mood for more of a tear-jerker, Lois Weber's The Blot or Frank Borzage's Seventh Heaven will certainly fill that prescription.

If you want to see silent epics at their best (and they were the best) then the 1925 Ben-Hur or the 1924 version of The Sea Hawk show off the massive scale of silent productions with full-size ships, real chariots, massive spectacle and grandeur galore.

If you wish to go the comedy route, you might start with Chaplin's The Gold Rush, The Kid or City Lights; Keaton's Sherlock Jr., The General or Go West; Lloyd in Safety Last or Girl Shy and Langdon in The Strong Man. Marion Davies is hilarious in her meta showbiz spoof, Show People, and Colleen Moore is a doll in Ella Cinders.

Silent films are more popular now than they ever have been post-talkie revolution. However, they still have a long way to go in rehabilitating their reputation. Viewing these wonderful films with an open mind is one more step toward giving these films the mainstream respect they deserve. You have an exciting journey ahead of you. Enjoy!

Fritzi Kramer is the chief cook and bottle washer at Movies Silently, where she opines on all things related to silent film. She lives in central California, which is the part without the palm trees.