That's it. The day we all feared has arrived: I've become a silent screen aficionado. It started with my Greta Garbo obsession, and me being completely hypnotized by her mystique and power, without the use of her words. Of course I started with the very best, but the fact was that it wasn't Greta who was seducing me that day (Ha! Can you imagine it?), it was the entire universe of the silent pictures. I explored and branched out as much as I could and I realized no film fanatic should go years and years without even giving these films a chance.
I realize most of you here are movie buffs and have been so for much longer than I have, so chances are you are already familiar and well-acquainted with all I'm about to say. But I also realize that silent films are not as far-reaching as one would expect: I've met movie fanatics who have never even seen a silent flick. This post is for them.
And here are 10 reasons to go for the silence:
1. A whole lotta acting
If you think in the Golden Age resources were limited, in the silent era they were minimal. Imagine what it was like to be an actor without being able to rely on voice, color and special effects to show your emotions. Most human emotion is expressed in subtleties we pay only subconscious attention to, namely, veins popping, slight changes of color in our faces, a voice that gently raises. None of these could be expressed in the poor image quality of silent movies. So, the actors had to exaggerate and pantomime their way through a film. It wasn't just a lot of acting, that no second-rate thespian can tackle, it was also a whole different kind of acting, one that cannot be seen in movies today, not even in fabulous replicas such as "The Artist" (2010). Here's an excellent article on silent acting using four examples.
2. Made history
I hope I don't get shunned by the movie community after I admit that I am not a huge fan of "The Birth of a Nation" (1915). I could not get past the blatant racism throughout the flick and the whole thing seemed too long and draggy for me. But it felt good watching it, because I knew that I was witnessing cinema history being made. The silent films, or rather, all the films made in the 1920s or before, were innovative pictures, pictures with techniques that had never been used before. Tricks that today are commonplace among filmmakers were nothing but experiments in the hands of those pioneers. It's never uninteresting to see how they used them, and how they laid the first rocks in the path to modern cinema.
3. The infamous transition
|Sunset Boulevard (1950)|
|Singing in the Rain (1952)|
|The Artist (2010)|
More movies, books and articles were made about the infamous transition between silents and talkies than any other even in film history and it's not hard to see why. Nothing shook the cinema world so vigorously as the birth of sound. The type of acting changed and the biggest stars of the day were suddenly inadequate at best. Their voices counted, their tones counted, their accents counted. Why did Greta Garbo survive so fabulously well, but yet her handsome co-star figuratively and literally (!) died not long after the advent of sound? What was it about the silent films that made them die off so permanently? Or rather, what was it about early sound that allowed it to take the screen by storm? It didn't work the same way with color, that slowly crept through in the thirties, while still allowing pictures like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", as late as 1966 to still be black and white. I believe silents have a magic that no sound will ever encompass and we will never know the reason for their sudden death.
4. Stars you don't know
|The hauntingly beautiful Pola Negri|
Have you ever heard of Clara Bow? Pola Negri? Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.? These were stars that acted almost strictly on the silent screen. They, too, had fascinating lives, extraordinary ability and were capable of telling lovely stories. They, too, deserve a chance.
5. Stars you do know under a different light
|Norma Shearer and John Gilbert on "He Who Gets Slapped" (1924)|
Greta Garbo. Norma Shearer. Joan Crawford. Charlie Chaplin. They could talk, but they could also pantomime. I'll never forget the shock of seeing Norma Shearer for the first time on a silent film. For me, silents always seemed like a whole different class, like a parallel world within cinema and when I saw that familiar face, I yelped. "How did she get there? How did she cross over to the silent world?!" It's very interesting to see how your favorite stars are able to change themselves so radically as to fit the silent star mode. It's even more interesting to realize that this is how they started, and the transition you imagine was the other way around. Comparing Norma in "He Who Gets Slapped" with the Norma in "The Women", fifteen years later, is mind-blowing. It's like two different actresses.
Before I watched my first silent, I thought it would get annoying to listen to literally non-stop music for an hour and a half. But it turns out the soundtracks are so wonderful that it's not in the least tiring or over-the-top. It's usually very suave music, but that accompanies the scene's mood and environment. This video is one of my favorite silent movie songs: The Waltz on Flesh and the Devil (1926).
Trust me when I say the universe shown in silent pictures comes closer to our modern lifestyles than the movies made during the Hays Code. This characteristic is shared by pre-code films since there was no Code to speak of, and movies were free to express reality exactly like it was. Obviously, movies are fantasies, and by definition, unreal, but there's no comparison between the sexual and visual modernity of the pre-codes and post-codes. I'm not saying full-on promiscuity or pure graphic violence, but the ridiculous frustrating standards, such as "not kissing for longer than three seconds", were gone, and so these pictures had a wonderful naturalness to their love stories.
8. Twenties culture
|Louise Brooks, the ultimate flapper|
I'm a really modern girl and I cringe at the idea of living in the past, but I simply adore the 1920s. If I had to live in the past, this is the decade I would choose without second thought. The flappers, the Charleston, prohibition, the suffragettes, the female struggle, the artists, the writers; everything about that era is so attractive to me. There is no way to watch a silent movie without experiencing the reflection of the culture of that decade and it's not only fascinating, but thrilling to watch.
Isn't it that simple? Great films were made in the silent era. Films worth watching, films you'll enjoy. What other reason does one need?