Thoughts Of A Twenty-Something, 21st Century Silent Film Fan

It’s a great time to be a silent film fan.

What director or star from the ’10s and ’20s imagined that one day, we’d be able to share their movies with people across the globe in seconds–and that we could even watch them on mobile devices whenever we wanted?  Who from back then thought their films would even last that long?

It’s an amazing thing–to share rare photos, rare info, rare research, and to form rare friendships with those rare silent fans, all so quickly and with ease.  To learn there are other people out there who love the same films and people as you.  To see that new fans are being made every day.

Still…for someone like me, once you step away from the computer or the TV screen, it all seems to vanish.  

I look at my friends, relatives and coworkers. Few of them watch old movies–that is, movies from about the ‘60s and back. Those that do have definitely never seen a film from the ’20s. People usually know Chaplin, at least.  They smile or laugh when I mention his name.  But they’ve never watched a Chaplin film. They haven’t heard of Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, let alone Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.  Lillian Gish and Conrad Veidt may as well be random names from a phone book.

The Wizard of Oz? Probably. Gone With the Wind? Maybe. Citizen Kane? Uh-uh.  The General?  Never heard of that one…

Then I look more closely at people who are my age and younger, the people I’m around the most, and here’s what I see.

They, too, will smile if I mention Charlie Chaplin.  But they’ve rarely, if ever, seen a black and white film. They consider movies and music from five years ago to be “old.”  They have a big appetite for huge range of smart, surreal humor–inside jokes, satire, dark comedy, randomness, goofy pictures, bizarre videos. Their television shows (usually watched online) are smart, witty, satirical, and littered with pop cultural references.  They are used to CGI to the point of complaining about it.  There’s just so much of it, an avalanche of it.  It’s getting harder and harder to inspire awe.  They never forget those images aren’t real.  They like things that are real–real stunts, real photos, real videos of natural phenomena.

They’ve never imagined wanting to sit down and watch a silent film.  Still, when I mention Charlie’s name, they smile. They’ve never seen his films, and might not be able to clearly picture what he looks like…but they know his name.

There are hints, guys.  There are signs.  There are faint fingerprints on pop culture.  Pixar has revived the practice of having a short film play before the feature.  They study Chaplin and Keaton in making their gold standard animated features.  The Big Bang Theory, the most popular sitcom on TV, features a main character who is often compared to Keaton.  A now-iconic figure in modern pop culture, Captain Jack Sparrow, owes more than a little to the Stoneface persona.  Johnny Depp‘s acting style in general is practically a twenty-plus year homage to Keaton–and he’s one of the most popular stars in the world.  Faint fingerprints…a few of many.

I went to a movie recently.  One of the previews was for a new animated film (not Pixar).  It looked cute, basically well-done, probably funny enough to keep you entertained for an hour and half.  But the laughter at that preview…!  And I thought: imagine what would happen if The Scarecrow started playing.  Or The Pawnshop.  Or even The Butcher Boy or Big Business…

I have hope, guys.  Teens and twenty-somethings have an appetite for something truly funny, something truly real, and they just need to find it.  They want to see movies that make them gasp again.  I’m sure of it.  A door has been slowly opening.  I think I see Chaplin and the rest of them standing behind it.  And I think I can see Keaton opening the door.

17 thoughts on “Thoughts Of A Twenty-Something, 21st Century Silent Film Fan

  1. The pleasure of silent cinema seems to be savored by a select few. I’m 51 but have been watching silents for thirty years so I can identify with what you’re saying. My own kids don’t like to watch black and white films let alone silent, but I’m trying to wear them down. Until two years ago they wouldn’t watch a foreign film, but now they look forward to them.

    • Foreign films alone can be a big step, so that’s a good sign! Perhaps comedy will ultimately do the trick…it always seems to convert those I’ve shown it to.

  2. Your description of the types of movies the current generation is used to is masterful! Wonderful writing, and you nailed it. The topic of this post is really a good one. I hope that in the very near future, these younger people might have a chance to see something “real” that has substance, as you write. I know they would be knocked out completely by the stuff Buster did without benefit of CGI or actually without anything other than his own skill and vision. I enjoy your writing style and of course, your main subject!

    • Thank you much for your kind comment! And, of course, I agree about Buster…his work is so incredibly fresh even today. The fast pace, his acting, the cleverness of it all…his work has the potential to draw in so many people who don’t realize how good silent films can be.

  3. I just discovered this community and am so glad I did. I’ve been enchanted and amazed by Buster Keaton since I first saw Our Hospitality at the Film Forum in New York over 10 years ago. So nice to find such kindred spirits!

    • Welcome, and thank you for this wonderful comment! Yes, something about Keaton in particular inspires so much enthusiasm…he was one of a kind.

  4. Both of my grandparents on my father’s side were in Silents. My grandmother, Bess Meredyth had her own serial, “Bess the Detectress”(sic) and then became a writer, and wrote many of Barrymore’s films. My Grandfather was Wilfred Lucas and wrote, directed and acted in numberous films.

    • Welcome, Liz! How wonderful that your family is part of film history–feel free to share as much as you like! I know I’ve seen your grandfather in a Biograph called “A Girl and Her Trust.” Very cool stuff.

  5. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this blog and your wonderful articles! They are like manah falling from heaven to this old silent films lover from Catalonia I am. You are cleaver, funny, and have a deep knowledge about how people brain works. I’m reading your articles, translating them in live time (sorry, English isn’t my mother language, but even less the one of my girlfriend) and she thinks exactly the same as me about your writing and thinking about this matter. Thank you again! Bravo!

    • Oh my!! Sites like this are a labor of love, so it’s a huge thrill to see fellow fans appreciating it. Thank you so much, Florenci–and thank you for sharing my writing with your girlfriend, too! You can’t see me but I’m waving “hello” at you from over here in Minnesota. 😉

  6. Ok, it may be the tumultuous day I had, but your hope brought tears to my eyes. How beautiful would it be to get people of our age to be interested in this wonderful genre? I get super excited when people give me a chance to show them a classic silent. You’re right, there is hope. We just have to find the people who have a mind whose door is slightly ajar, slightly open to the wonderful treasure that is silent film. Do you see the light coming out of that door? Sometimes I feel like I do.

    • …I do too! You just need people who are curious and openminded, and usually when they see your enthusiasm they get interesting in seeing what it’s all about. 🙂

  7. I’m 52 and when I was a child Harold Lloyd films were on TV ( this was in the 1970s ). I watched them with my brothers. They LOVED Harold as did I. The scene where he was hanging from the clock sticks in my mind. I’m ashamed to say that my father gave me a DVD box set of silent films a couple of years ago ( Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton) and I haven’t got round to watching them yet. I must get out my portable DVD player and watch them.
    I’ve been getting more interested in silent films lately and seen some on YouTube.
    I watched “It” with Clara Bow a couple of weeks ago and I got really engrossed in it. Clara is charming!

      • I reckon so too! I watched Forbidden Fruit on YouTube yesterday afternoon at lunch time. It was visually splendid and and the story had me engrossed. I loved the pretty title cards as well. I have yet to watch more of Buster’s films!

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