Silent Films

A silent film

 

 is a film with no synchronized recorded sound, especially spoken dialogue. In silent films for entertainment the dialogue is transmitted through muted gestures, pantomime and title cards. The idea of combining motion pictures with recorded sound is nearly as old as film itself, but because of the technical challenges involved, synchronized dialogue was only made practical in the late 1920s with the perfection of the audion amplifier tube and the introduction of the Vitaphone system. After The Jazz Singer in 1927, “talkies” became more and more commonplace and within a decade silent films had died out due to technology.

Watch this silent film in 1920’s for Colleen Moore

The first projected sequential proto-movie was made by Eadweard Muybridge some time between 1877 and 1880. The first narrative film was created by Louis Le Prince in 1888. It was a two-second film of people walking in Oakwood streets garden, entitled Roundhay Garden Scene. The art of motion pictures grew into full maturity in the “silent era” before silent films were replaced by “talking pictures” in the late 1920s. Many film scholars and buffs argue that the aesthetic quality of cinema decreased for several years until directors, actors, and production staff adapted to the new “talkies”.

Watch Sir Charlie Chaplin

The visual quality of silent movies—especially those produced in the 1920s—was often high. However, there is a widely held misconception that these films were primitive and barely watchable by modern standards. This misconception comes as a result of silent films being played back at wrong speed and their deteriorated condition. Many silent films exist only in second- or third-generation copies, often copied from already damaged and neglected film stock

Because silent films had no synchronized sound for dialogue, onscreen intertitles were used to narrate story points, present key dialogue and sometimes even comment on the action for the cinema audience. The title writer became a key professional in silent film and was often separate from the scenario writer who created the story. Intertitles (or titles as they were generally called at the time) often became graphic elements themselves, featuring illustrations or abstract decoration that commented on the action.

Title card

Showings of silent films almost always featured live music, starting with the pianist at the first public projection of movies by the Lumière Brothers on December 28, 1895 in Paris. From the beginning, music was recognized as essential, contributing to the atmosphere and giving the audience vital emotional cues. (Musicians sometimes played on film sets during shooting for similar reasons.) Small town and neighborhood movie theatres usually had a pianist.

Silent film actors emphasized body language and facial expression so that the audience could better understand what an actor was feeling and portraying on screen. Much silent film acting is apt to strike modern-day audiences as simplistic or campy. The melodramatic acting style was in some cases a habit actors transferred from their former stage experience. The pervading presence of stage actors in film was the cause of this outburst from director Marshall Neilan in 1917: “The sooner the stage people who have come into pictures get out, the better for the pictures.” In other cases, directors such as John Griffith Wray required their actors to deliver larger-than-life expressions for emphasis. As early as 1914, American viewers had begun to make known their preference for greater naturalness on screen.

In any case, the large image size and unprecedented intimacy the actor enjoyed with the audience began to affect acting style, making for more subtlety of expression. Actresses such as Mary Pickford in all her films, Eleonora Duse in the Italian film Cenere (1916), Janet Gaynor in Sunrise, Priscilla Dean in Outside the Law and The Dice Woman and Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo in most of their performances made restraint and easy naturalism in acting a virtue. Directors such as Albert Capellani (a French director who also did work in America directing Alla Nazimova films) and Maurice Tourneur insisted on naturalism in their films; Tourneur had been just such a minimalist in his prior stage productions. By the mid-1920s many American silent films had adopted a more naturalistic acting style, though not all actors and directors accepted naturalistic, low-key acting straight away; as late as 1927 films featuring expressionistic acting styles such as Metropolis were still being released. Some viewers liked the flamboyant acting for its escape value, and some countries were later than the United States in embracing naturalistic style in their films. In fact today the level of naturalism in acting varies from film to film and our favourites may not be the most naturalistic. Just as today, a film’s success depended upon the setting, the mood, the script, the skills of the director, and the overall talent of the cast.

Until the standardization of the projection speed of 24 frames per second (FPS) for sound films in 1926, silent films were shot at variable speeds (or “frame rates”), typically anywhere from 16 to 23 frames per second or faster, depending on the year and studio. Sixteen frames per second became the most commonly used speed in the earliest silent films, as a result of the Lumière brothers’ Cinematographé. Unless carefully shown at their original speeds they can appear unnaturally fast and jerky, which reinforces their alien appearance to modern viewers. Gus Van Sant mentions in director commentary (~52 minutes into Psycho: Collector’s Edition – 1998) that telecine conversion at grossly incorrect frame rates in the 1950s for broadcast television may have contributed to the alienation of younger audiences (his generation) — thereby accelerating the demise of rebroadcast of silent films as those viewers grew to adulthood. At the same time, some scenes were intentionally undercranked during shooting to accelerate the action, particularly in the case of slapstick comedies. The intended frame rate of a silent film can be ambiguous and since they were usually hand cranked there can even be variation within one film. Film speed is often a vexed issue among scholars and film buffs in the presentation of silents today, especially when it comes to DVD releases of “restored” films; the 2002 restoration of Metropolis (Germany, 1927) may be the most fiercely debated example.

Projectionists frequently ran silent films slightly faster than the number of frames per second they were shot at. Most films seem to have been shown at 18 frame/s or higher – some even faster than what became sound film speed (24 FPS, or 90 feet per minute). Even if shot at 16 FPS (often cited as “silent speed”), the projection of a cellulose nitrate base film at such a slow speed carried a considerable risk of fire. Often projectionists received general instructions from the distributors as to how fast particular reels or scenes should be projected on the musical director’s cue sheet. In rare instances, usually for larger productions, detailed cue sheets specifically for the projectionist provided a detailed guide to presenting the film. Theaters also—to maximize profit—sometimes varied projection speeds depending on the time of day or popularity of a film.

With the lack of natural color processing available, films of the silent era were frequently dipped in dyestuffs and dyed various shades and hues to signal a mood or represent a time of day. Blue represented night scenes, yellow or amber meant day. Red represented fire and green represented a mysterious mood. Similarly, toning of film (such as the common silent film generalization of sepia-toning) with special solutions replaced the silver particles in the film stock with salts or dyes of various colors. A combination of tinting and toning could be used as an effect that could be striking.

Top grossing silent films in the United States

  • The Birth of a Nation (1915)
  • The Big Parade (1925)
  • Ben-Hur (1925)
  • Way Down East (1920)
  • The Gold Rush (1925)
  • The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)
  • The Circus (1928) – $3,800,000
  • The Covered Wagon (1923)
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
  • The Ten Commandments (1923)
  • Orphans of the Storm (1921)
  • For Heaven’s Sake (1926)
  • Seventh Heaven (1926)
  • Abie’s Irish Rose (1928)
  • Although attempts to create sync-sound motion pictures go back to the Edison lab in 1896, the technology became well-developed only in the early 1920s. The next few years saw a race to design, implement, and market several rival sound-on-disc and sound-on-film sound formats, such as Photokinema (1921), Phonofilm (1923), Vitaphone (1926), Fox Movietone (1927), and RCA Photophone (1928).

    Although the release of The Jazz Singer (1927) by Warner Brothers marked the first commercially successful sound film, silent films were the majority of features released in both 1927 and 1928, along with so-called goat-glanded films: silents with a section of sound film inserted. Thus the modern sound film era may be regarded as coming to dominance beginning in 1929.

    For a listing of notable silent era films, see list of years in film for the years between the beginning of film and 1928. The following list includes only films produced in the sound era with the specific artistic intention of being silent.

    • Un Chien Andalou, Salvador Dalí/Luis Buñuel, 1929
    • City Girl, F.W. Murnau, 1930
    • Borderline, Kenneth MacPherson, 1930
    • Earth, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1930
    • City Lights, Charlie Chaplin, 1931
    • Tabu, F. W. Murnau, Robert Flaherty, 1931
    • I Was Born, But…, Yasujiro Ozu, 1932
    • A Story of Floating Weeds, Yasujiro Ozu, 1934
    • The Goddess , Wu Yonggang, 1934
    • Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin, 1936
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    1 Comment

    1. V.E.G.

       /  June 10, 2011

      Around the world, most old times actors and actresses have vanished to time. It means (most have died.) Olivia De Haviland is the last of the dying breed.

      Reply

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