Jump to content
 
Search In
  • More options...
Find results that contain...
Find results in...

The language of film in silent films.


Recommended Posts

I have a hard time following the plots of silent films that are any more sophisticated than a Keystone Cops short.   I presume the average silent film audience member wasn't that much smarter than me, yet they apparently followed the plotlines.  

 

I wondered if people then had different visual cues--a language of film--to help them understand the plot and action of the film.    We have them in sound films: a wave transition indicates a flashback.   A clock wipe indicates the passage of time.   Music cues all sorts of things: approaching danger, etc.   I assume that certain live music was indicated and timed to the action for each silent films but the quality of the organists and orchestras varied from theatre to theatre.

 

Was there a different language of film understood by movie patrons then that I am not familiar with?   Does anybody know any examples of that film language?

 

 

 

 

Link to post
Share on other sites

Hi Curt,

 

Welcome to the boards. I think you are starting a very interesting conversation. I never looked at it that way before, but you may be right. Obviously, you must realize that the same people who watched the early films attended plays, vaudeville shows and burlesque revues-- and though movies employed performers from those fields, it was a separate, new artform.

 

Also, do we know that the silent films we are seeing now are complete? It is possible that footage is missing that might have more clearly explained a story/plot. And we have to realize that not every silent film was perfectly made, and may have had problems with continuity like some films today.

Link to post
Share on other sites

The basic language of film is the same now, just speeded up.

 

Silent films require full attention from the viewer. You can't half-watch them the way you can with a sound film, letting the dialogue give you the story.

 

Try watching films that you've seen sound remakes of. For me that would be films like The Mark of Zorro, The Three Musketeers, The Thief of Baghdad, Beau Geste, The Virginian, Ben Hur, King of Kings (these last two are IMHO superior to their talkie remakes). This way the plot is already familiar to you, and you can get accustomed to silent storytelling technique.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Heh, I thought this thread was going to be about lip reading of silent films......

 

I was in the audience of a silent film screening where the actor was CLEARLY swearing like a sailor! The audience erupted in laughter because we all could see what the actor was really saying....then the title card read something benign like, "I don't like you" which garnered applause.

 

As for "visual" cues, like montages & iris out/iris in.....I think most of those survived into "talkies". Remember NIGHT OF THE HUNTER '50 used several "silent" cues.

Link to post
Share on other sites

As silent film historian Kevin Brownlow has stated, the fundamentals of "film grammar" - the editing techniques, long shot/closeup shifts, etc. - was firmly in place by the early 1920s. And as many would agree, film technique was reaching some sort of perfection by the late 1920s, just as talkies were coming in and taking over.

 

I might recommend that you try some of those later silents, for example Wings, Show People, The Wedding March, The Cat and the Canary, and work your way backwards, as it were.

 

Some DVD's of classic era talkies come with an option of hearing the isolated music and sound effects track only. Watching them using both this function and having the subtitles, you get a sort of "silent" version of a sound era film, which can be a fascinating study. I've watched Rebecca (1940) and Double Indemnity (1944) in this way.

 

 

 

 

Link to post
Share on other sites

Thank you for the welcome and the good suggestions.    While reading your responses another thought occurred to me.   Namely, I am unfamiliar with a lot of the silent stars, especially the supporting actors.   When I see an old movie from the 30's I know that a Frank McHugh or an Allen Jenkins will be the hero's pal.  A George Zucco or  a Laird Cregar will be the bad guy.   If I become more familiar with silent films I will at least recognize the good guys from the bad guys.  

Link to post
Share on other sites

As already noted. KEY #1 is that you have to WATCH and PAY ATTENTION. The narrative structure isn't all that different (if at all) from sound films. KEY#2 is that a good music score complements the action onscreen rather than trying to compete with it. Scores by Carl Davis, Robert Israel, Mont Alto Orchestra complement perfectly. Key #3 is to become familiar with some of the great silent stars. Once you've discovered a personality you like, you get drawn into the film quicker. Audiences in the teens went through this process, responding to Chaplin, Pickford, Swanson, Fairbanks, Gish etc while many others came and went.

 

It's probably easier to start with comedies but there are plenty of action and dramatic films that should hold your interest.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Some DVD's of classic era talkies come with an option of hearing the isolated music and sound effects track only.

 

Really? Do they also have an option to get rid of the music score? I could make good use of something like that.

 

In regards to the topic, I haven't noticed silent films being any more difficult to follow than talkies in general. Some more than others. In silent films actors sometimes tended to relish emotional, physical responses, and that might give the impression that something is "being said," whereas it's actually a prolonged reaction. Of course, it's difficult to to talk about this in such a general sense, as it largely depends on the movie. Maybe an example would help, if the OP has a film in mind.

 

I recently watched Metropolis with a friend who had never seen a silent film before, and he found it difficult to get into, and complained about them "just waving their arms around" with too few intertitles in between to follow it by. This friend doesn't watch many early films at all, so he is forgiven. I find the acting in that film to be incredibly entertaining and interesting, and I relish their movements as much as they do. I think he at least maintained interest in Brigitte Helm's manic and twitchy performance.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
© 2021 Turner Classic Movies Inc. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Cookie Settings
×
×
  • Create New...