How To Watch a Silent Film (If You’ve Never Seen One)

So there you are, a 21st-century movie watcher, buzzed up on Monster and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and you take a break from watching your CGI-stuffed Michael Bay blowout sequel while listening to K-Pop on your iPodPhonePad amidst an online gaming marathon to go watch some old movies.  Really old movies.  Maybe you’re looking for something new and challenging.  Maybe you’re just curious.  Or maybe you have a hipster-ish desire to go beyond the mainstream (waaaaay beyond the mainstream).  Whatever the reason, you’ve decided to step outside your comfort zone and check out some 1910s and ’20s silent films–for the first time ever!

“But…but I’m not even wearing a hat! What do I do now??”–21st Century Moviegoer

Now, this article could simply discuss what to watch first, but maybe we’ll save that for a different time (SPOILER: start with comedy shorts!).  Instead, let’s ask: Is there a good “mindset” to have when diving into the world of the Olden Days?  How could we, Typical Overstimulated Modern Viewers, possibly “get into” films that were old when our grandparents or great-grandparents were little?

1. Be openminded

Being openminded is something that many people fancy themselves to be–until they’re confronted with things outside their comfort zone.  In this case, the pacing, acting styles, makeup, title cards (which you’ll learn to love), and the scratches or murkiness of many prints of silent films are definitely outside of most people’s frames of reference.

Or just about anybody’s frame of reference.

If you are your typical Internet denizen (up-to-the-second in modern pop cultural references and simply drenched with hip cynicism), put aside your modern pop cultural references and hip cynicism.  Watch the films with the expectation that you will enjoy them and that will learn more about history through them.  Enjoy having a priceless window on a world long gone–if it were possible to go back in time, would you?  Of course!  But since that isn’t possible, isn’t it a blessing that we have film from the 1890s-1920s?

2. Embrace the old-timey-ness!

So, about those old makeup styles, fake mustaches, and funny acting that quite a few (but not all) silents have…they can be easy for people to laugh at at first.  They sure delighted me to no end, I can tell you that.  But after awhile I decided–why just laugh?  Why not love?

Why don’t we just start embracing these things for being so ridiculously and beautifully old-timey, for being everything we dared dream them to be?  It’s time for a thought revolution, folks.  Verily, I say unto you: EMBRACE THE OLD-TIMEY-NESS.  For those very things that are so easy to mock are, in fact, Awesome.

People running around in goofy bathing suits that somehow involve hats and capes?  AWESOME.

The handwringing, wild gestures and exaggerated facial expressions that you see with Grand Acting styles?  AWESOME.

Title cards using funny slang like “what a sheik” and “sweet Santa Claus”?  AWESOME.

The guys in the comedy shorts with white faces, heavy eyeliner and ridiculous fake mustaches?  TRIPLE AWESOME.

Pictured: a veritable smorgasbord of awesome.

Embrace it all my friends, and you will start enjoying the films even more than you ever expected.

3. Try to learn about the world silent films were made in.

All that embracing is but a short step to getting seriously curious about the world of the early 20th century.  For a time period much closer to our own time than most, it’s still astonishing how much the world can change in 100 years.

Consider this normal Edwardian photo.

Learning even a little about what songs, fashions, art, comic strips, etc. were popular back then will provide you with little “windows” into that past world.  Reading about the classes of society, the switchover from horses to automobiles, epidemics of diseases like influenza, the rise of factory jobs, etc., will be an eyeopener.  It may sound a bit dry now, but trust me, you’ll never view silent films quite the same way again.

It’s also helpful to try and not to let old modes of storytelling affect your appreciation of some films (like the way Griffith films are often dismissed as being too “Victorian” even though, technically, they weren’t always that Victorian).  For instance, stories centering around a sweet, pure heroine playing with kittens can seem pretty, well, “Victorian” to us at first glance.  But consider how society felt about ideal “femininity” back then–how it was depicted in art, in writing, and in song.  Consider that society was more open to “idealized” characters, and to romanticism rather than just realism (as seems to be preferred nowadays).  Take a closer look at that pure heroine–is she merely weak?  Or does she have a strong moral character?  Is there more to her than you had assumed?  The more you consider, the more you will discover.

4. Understand that times really were different back then.

Just as you’ve all been secretly thinking, there are certain types of old-timey-ness that are the opposite of awesome.

Yeah, I’m getting to it.

Subjects that we are sensitive to today barely made anyone bat an eye back then.  (For instance, during the 19th century a hanging was a fun public event that people attended in droves.  No kidding.)  And during the time period where silent films were made issues such as racism were not sensitive topics.

One of the hardest things for us modern viewers to do is wrap our heads around that fact–especially when it comes to racism.  Schools and colleges go to great lengths to remind everyone how rampant racism was back in the day, yet, strangely enough, this still doesn’t prepare us for actually seeing it in old films.  It can be startling to realize how much today’s TV and movies (while the use of risque humor and realistic violence seems to be increasing) are more sanitized than we’d expect.

So what do we do when suddenly subjected to off-putting jokes and tasteless stereotypes?

It’s probably best to take the objective view, and treat it as a learning experience.  These films are proof of what the viewpoints of the past were like.  They show us precisely where we came from, and how not to repeat past mistakes.

Such as this one.

This kind of understanding is very important, as it gives us a wider perspective on how and why society is continually changing.

And while it’s easy to be tempted to dismiss all films that contain uncomfortable material (that’s going to be quite a few), realize that there are some films that you should resist judging too harshly.  Old comedies can be the easiest to pick on in this regard.  Film historians often have the rather thankless task of reminding people that back then, everything was the butt of a joke.  People from all walks of life were made fun of–including every race.  There are going to be some jokes and depictions (and entire films) that are simply hair-raising.  And there’s going to be a few that are tasteless to our standards but fairly harmless if put in context.  It’s useful to try and distinguish between the two, if only to sharpen your analytical skills (and who doesn’t like that, I ask of you?)

5. Realize that the best of silent film is far more timeless than you’ve thought.

So we’ve covered old-timey awesomeness and the opposite of old-timey awesomeness.  Now it’s time to look at timelessness.  The General, Metropolis, Sunrise, The Kid…these are just a few of the films so expertly, exquisitely made that they transcend their era.  They are as beautiful, thought-provoking, moving, etc. now as they were in the years they were released.

Think filmmaking was unsophisticated back then?  Watch Sunrise and The General.

Think that films back then were melodramatic or silly?  Watch The Kid.

Think the special effects back then were clumsy or bad?  Watch Metropolis.  

Think films back then were primitive or unambitious?  Watch Metropolis again (and then again; man that’s a good movie).

Works of art are abundant in the silent era–art that unquestionably stands shoulder to shoulder with well-known works like Citizen Kane, Vertigo, and Casablanca.  That those silent masterpieces aren’t as well-known is because you, Typical 21st Century Movie Watcher, just haven’t discovered them yet.

Run to Netflix, to the library, to that one video store in the mall, and start discovering!  You’ve got nothing to lose.  Embrace, learn, analyze, enjoy!  The past is waiting for you, and you will not regret it.

25 thoughts on “How To Watch a Silent Film (If You’ve Never Seen One)

  1. The writing is beautiful. The words you used are perfect in conveying exactly the mindset that one should have when first exploring silent films! I am sending this piece to friends of mine who know nothing…zippo…about the silent film world. We are going to see Steamboat Bill Jr. next month, and they just MUST read this piece before going. I love that you emphasized that the viewer of a silent movie is getting a peek into our history of not so long ago (and yet a million miles from where we are now).

    • Thank you so much! I would suggest having a little “pre-party” for your friends before you go see Steamboat Bill, if you can–have them watch The Scarecrow and One Week (or maybe The Goat) so they can get to know Buster a little before seeing the film. The shorts will get them hooked and then they’ll be REALLY excited for the feature! 🙂

      • That’s a great idea! The first time I saw Buster in a movie was “One Week” followed by “The General.” That was a perfect way to acquaint myself with him.

  2. The General played at the Lakewood Theatre here in Dallas 1999 as part of events presented by a local theatre organ group who owned the Robert-Morton 1927 theatre organ. Anytime a silent movie was presented, hundreds attended and so enjoy the accompaniment of the organ and learned the joy of watching a silent movie. The theatre had been built in 1938 and was never designed to have an organ but in 1984 the group installed the organ when a man leased the theatre. There were some disagreements which finally caused the organ to be removed in 2004 and now the theatre doesn’t have any movies at all. The reactions of the audience though were so interesting when the silent movies and organ were presented. They were so appreciative and loved the brief description which would be told about the organ. In 2003 I wrote a book “Street of Dreams, A History of Dallas’ Theatre Row” which covered in great detail all about the theatres on Elm St. downtown in Dallas, TX and the many theatre organs which were used for silents in the early days. All of those theatres are long gone except the Majestic which doesn’t show movies now at all. Great memories.

    • I enjoyed reading your comments, Jeanette. I am sorry that there are none of those great old movie theatres anymore in your part of the world.

  3. Finally caught up with this absolute gem of an introduction to silents. You are doing a wonderful service making this era more accessible to newcomers. Great choice of photos too.

        • If I had to point to any one thing that may have “kick-started” my interest, it was probably Richard Lawton’s “A World of Movies: 70 Years of Film History” that my mom had. The pictures of the silent stars always fascinated me the most. They were just so definitely from a different era. I didn’t know most of the names back then, but now when I go back and look through it I realize–I know them now! 🙂

  4. I read your blog list and didn’t notice one vital site you should check out–NItrateville. Mostly dedicated to silent movies or early talkies. If you do know of it, congratulations! 🙂 Incidentally, I’m “westegg” in the forums.

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  7. Lea, I had never read this piece until just now. You’ve put into words so many of the thoughts about silent films that constantly swirl around in my head and that I can’t put into words. Such a wonderful read.

    • I was just reading the other comments on your introduction to the world of silent films and saw that I already posted my thoughts when you first wrote this! I did not remember reading this before, which is so hard for me to believe. I loved every word and every thought in your piece. 2014 was not my best year, and the fact that I read this today as if it was the first time I had seen it is proof of that!

      Here’s to a great 2015 for Silent-ology, silent film, and all of us who love them..

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    • Oh, me too–they have a couple (like METROPOLIS) but need about 3,000 more.

      Fandor is an artsy/indie film streaming service that has a nice selection of silents, I recommend it.

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  10. Lea, you are a magnificent writer. Content, style, just enough quirkiness, and you. know. how. to. punctuate. properly. What a joy to read interesting AND professional writing. Even better than some of the top rags who, these days, even get its and it’s mixed up.

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