In 2012, the silent movie The Artist won the Oscar for Best Picture. Jean Dujardin stars as a silent movie star whose career is affected by the advent of talkies. I saw it in the theaters and loved it. As a cinephile, that may be a given; however, silent film appreciation took me awhile. I’ve tried different genres with varying success. Silent movies initially didn’t impress me. They have a constant musical soundtrack, dialogue cards to read (so no looking away), and limited special effects and stunts (not a requirement, but helpful with certain plots). The camera doesn’t change scenes as fast as our modern eyes and short attention spans are accustomed. Remember: these are moving pictures.
I find the earliest dramatic films are indeed photo-like; the camera remains focused on the actor emoting. As a child, I remember seeing parts of the Keystone Kops. These comedies moved at a break-neck speed. Not natural movement. For the most part, by the 1920s, the images started to pass by at a more natural pace. Albeit, film direction does depend on filmmaker, genre, and country of origin.
Besides expanding my horizons, I wanted to experience the performances of famous actors like Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. I would often put the movie on fast-forward because it moved too slowly—again the image, not the plot. I enjoyed the comedies better than the dramas.
Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp in The Kid (1921) is one of the most famous vehicles for the character. It’s a great movie. No fast-forwarding. As with any old movie, I’m always intrigued by the slice of history: the fashions, the living conditions, the look of society, etc. I’ve seen a few of Chaplin’s films as well as some of his shorts and I have found elements of pathos and social commentary along with the humor. One I’ve not seen is The Immigrant (1917), considered to be among his best. That’s on the to-watch list.
Another classic silent comedy is The General (1927) with Buster Keaton. I found myself laughing out loud. I had never seen him in anything before. His expressions are priceless, although he never smiles. Strange perhaps, but it most definitely adds to the comedy. I have watched as many Keaton vehicles as possible. He has become my favorite from that era.
Nosferatu (1922) I saw after seeing Shadow of the Vampire (2000) with Willem Dafoe playing Max Shreck. The latter truly scared me, but the former creeped me out. Some will know the film from its ending—the rising sun shining through a bedroom window and destroying the vampire. The image that remains in my memory is the one of the vampire rising from his coffin while on a ship. He goes from being horizontal to vertical. The scene is seamless, making the modern viewer think, “That’s a neat trick, especially for 1922.” It is one instance of adept and effective special effects from the era.
Another example is J’accuse by Abel Gance. He made the movie twice, once in 1919 and then again in 1937. I find the original, at 2 hours 46 minutes, to be the better version. (The 1937 version is about 95 minutes.) The plot is more developed, allowing the final scene to have greater meaning. It’s an antiwar film made in France while WWI was still raging. The final sequence is called the March of the Dead. Soldiers rise from their graves to remind the living of the horrors of war. They are dressed in uniforms from different time periods. They are also in various states of decay. The make-up and the ghostly effects are just plain spooky.
Of course, there are more silent movies that can be mentioned, but these examples cultivated my interest. It isn’t always easy to appreciate silent movies. I still find myself fast-forwarding through many. I wasn’t sure about seeing The Artist in the theater since I would not have the power to speed it up if desired. Fortunately, that was not an issue. I’m glad I had developed an appreciation for silent movies prior to seeing it because I may have just missed out on a great movie.