Learning to Watch Silent Movies

If you are only beginning to take an interest in silent movies, there are a few key concepts which you should be made aware of right at the top:

1. Silent Movies should never be watched silently. A large percentage of the silent movies that you can watch online are without a soundtrack (this has to do with copyright issues). But do not ever watch a silent movie without some kind of music to accompany it. Run a long-playing musical video on a different tab. I like to watch silent movies on my TV, and I will play music from my phone when necessary as accompaniment. For serious movies, I find playing a mix of baroque pieces make for an excellent background. Piano music or strings of any kind also make for quality accompaniment. For comedies, I like a background of ragtime or Dixieland jazz. Experiment with different forms of music.

2. Do not think of a silent movie as simply a movie without sound. Rather, approach learning to watch silent movies as if you were learning a completely distinct art form, as if silent movies and talkies were as different from each other as are theater and literature. The conventions of telling a story on film are necessarily different when the actors cannot express their emotions in words. Some new or misunderstanding viewers, for example, think that the exaggerated facial expressions and pantomime found in most silent films are demerits, but when the players cannot tell us what they are thinking or feeling, new modes of expression become necessary. It is like criticizing a painting because it fails to portray subjects in three dimensions like a sculpture does!

3. You have to keep your eyes on the screen when watching a silent movie. Watching a silent movie requires patience and attention. You cannot multitask when watching a silent movie, as you would when a sound movie is playing, because silent film is fundamentally a visual medium. The joy of silent film comes in luxuriating in the lovely visual effects and pantomime of the players on the screen. As a consequence, learning to watch silent movies can, at first, feel like work. It is an art form that requires persistence to get used to. But the payoff can be exciting and rewarding!

4. You will have to get past the fact that silent films (as did sound films for several decades) employed racial stereotypes that are beyond unacceptable by modern standards. White actors wore blackface in order to portray black characters. Homosexual humor abounds in comedies. On the other hand, there do exist early films in which the studios rose above the prejudices of the day, permitting minority-actors to play characters who were portrayed with sensitivity and genuine sympathy.

OK, I get it; so where do I start?

  1. The best place for an eager and new potential fan of silent movies to begin is by watching classic short comedies, films whose total length is in the 20-30 minute range. These will be entertaining, and not take too much time or become burdensome because they drag on too long.

Suggested viewing:
Charlie Chaplin: The Rink; Easy Street; The Floorwalker.
Buster Keaton: One Week; Cops; The Electric House.
Harold Lloyd: Ask Father; Bumping Into Broadway; From Hand to Mouth

2. Now move on to longer films – but not too long. Start building up your endurance by watching films with a running time of 40-50 minutes (silent feature films were frequently less than an hour long).

Suggested viewing (all comedies)
Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton);
The Pilgrim (Charlie Chaplin);
Hot Water (Harold Lloyd)

3. Now graduate to films that are truly full-length. I would suggest broadening your viewing to include both comedy and horror. This allows you to enter the realm of some of the greatest silent films ever made; and who doesn’t enjoy both a good laugh and a better scare?

Suggested viewing:
Comedy: The Gold Rush (Chaplin); City Lights (Chaplin); The General (Keaton); Safety Last (Lloyd)
Horror: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; The Golem; The Phantom Carriage; The Unknown

4. By this time, you are hopefully champing at the bit for some serious drama. So let us bring into the mix some of the finest feature-length silents.

Suggested viewing:
Sunrise; A Corner in Wheat; Way Down East; The Big Parade; The Wind; The Crowd; Metropolis.

Conclusion

By now, you should have pretty well decided whether or not you want to dedicate some part of your movie life to watching silent film, as well as the degree to which you might plan to divide your attention between silents and talkies.

So, explore our lists, and start picking and choosing additional movies to watch; each movie included on our lists is identified by its director, its stars, its length, and its genre, in order to facilitate selection. If you have indeed made it this far, then be warned, there may be no turning back! So welcome to the club!