Watching Silent Films With Our Grandparents

If it seemed a bit quiet on Silent-ology lately, it’s because my beloved Grandpa passed away last week on Independence Day. He was 91 and had, without a doubt, enjoyed a “life well-lived.” He leaves behind his wonderful wife of nearly 70 years, a dozen children, dozens of grandchildren and great-grand children, and even one great-great-grandchild.

And of course, he leaves behind countless memories for all of us to share with each other during each holiday gathering, BBQ or impromptu get-together. And for me, a few of those memories involve bringing over Buster Keaton shorts to watch with him and Grandma.

Grandpa was a big Laurel and Hardy fan all his life, and as a result the duo was pretty much a staple in my family. But believe it or not, I was the only relative who ever thought to bring over some 1920s silent comedies.


As a result, some of my last and fondest memories of my Grandpa involve watching Buster together. He and Grandma both remembered Buster from way back when, although they hadn’t seen much of his work in a long time. They would remark how impressive it was that Buster put himself through so much physically for those films. We laughed together and enjoyed all the little “old-timey” details. And I’ll always have that.

Thinking over these memories recently, it reminded me how important it is to watch these old films with the folks who were there during Hollywood’s Golden Age (I do include the 1920s in that Age, by the way). It’s important because they remember all those “forgotten” stars–and have been fans of some of them for decades–and also because they get old films. We all know a rather large number of folks who, well, don’t.

An observation I’ve had about modern society, one that’s bothered me quite a bit, is that in spite of the remarkable amount of information we have at our fingertips we are growing increasingly uncultured. Mind you, we have incredible access to old movies, movies, literature and so on, more so than we’ve ever had in all of human history. But what do we also have? An equally massive amount of distractions–games, apps, streaming, social media, and so forth. After all, all those kids glued to their smartphones aren’t ardently researching Shakespearean sonnets or arias from Carmen.

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Except that one kid. He always is.

I’m not a cynic, so I’m not saying that can’t or won’t change in the future. I’m strongly optimistic that silents will always find new audiences thanks to the Internet, and you never know what sort of revivals there will be in the decades to come.

But what we won’t have in the decades to come are the folks who remember cinema when it was still relatively young. The people who don’t sit through a black and white film just to humor you, but who enjoy it right off the bat. People who, well, grew up in a more cultured age, the sort where movie stars went to a costume parties dressed as historical figures (how many people think of dressing up as Napoleon nowadays?) and where silent comedies referenced classic operettas (the Looney Tunes sure carried that torch).

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Chaplin in Napoleon garb.

Now, in the year 2018 there aren’t many elderly people who are quite elderly enough to have clear memories of silent films. They would have to be nearly 100 to have seen silents as children (if you know any centenarians, get them in front of your DVD player pronto). But many of them remember the stars of the ’30s and ’40s, and those stars often got their start during the silent era, as you will recall. I say it counts.

So I’ll close this little reflection with a simple plea to share your love of silent films with your grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, etc. while you still can. Make some memories that you can look back on fondly. And hopefully those memories will also inspire you to share silents with the younger generations, so we can bring a bit more culture–a bit more beauty and richness–back into our modern age.

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27 thoughts on “Watching Silent Films With Our Grandparents

  1. What a wonderful tribute to your grandfather and silent films. God bless you and your family. When I watch old movies or listen to vintage jazz, I always think fondly of my grandparents.

    I agree with you about the “culture” of today. I enjoy showing our kids the silents. I think the humor in them easily translates for any age.

    • Oh absolutely, and that’s a big part of why I think silents can keep finding new audiences in the future. The comedies in particular are timeless.

      Thank you for taking the time to leave this kind comment! 🙂

  2. Yes, we are definitely in the time when there are no longer people who can remember watching a Buster Keaton film. Your grandfather would have been born in 1928 — the release of the last classic silent Keaton film. By the time your grandfather was ten years old, Keaton’s silent films were long hidden in The MGM film library gathering dust. In fact, it wasn’t until 1948 that a LIFE magazine article by James Agee caused Keaton’s films to be reconsidered, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that Keaton films got a television release that allowed the average person to watch them (in the 50s and 60s they were only available in art house theatres and rare film festivals). I am surprised that your grandfather would even recall Laurel and Hardy — the comedy team of Abbott and Costello were so completely dominant in the 1940s. Classic Film appreciation is a relatively recent phenomena — we are the lucky ones who can now watch silent films in the comfort of our homes and on demand.

    • Yes indeed, we are absolutely spoiled when it comes to accessing old films. Although it’s unfortunate they aren’t played as often on TV. I’ve met more than one older film enthusiast who’ve said they used to watch, say, the Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges on TV or at special screenings pretty much all the time. Now, you have to actively seek their films out–but at least they’re available.

      Grandpa was born in June 1927 by the way–but the jist of what you were saying is still the same. 😉

  3. What a beautiful tribute! My condolences to you and your family, Lea. It sure sounds like you have a lot of wonderful memories of your grandfather, and that is a beautiful thing.

  4. Wonderful post Lea, You hit it right on the mark, we also tend to lose our sense of history. Of who we were and how it affects who we’ve become. As we are all sorry for your loss, remember you carry part of your Grandfather with you ever day.

    • Thank you, staticflashes!

      Silents really bring history alive like nothing else. That alone is an important reason to watch them. And having a solid understanding of history–even a little niche area of it–gives us a sense of perspective. And it helps us humanize the people of the past, too.

  5. Sorry for your loss, Lea. Lovely post. I think we should all try and pass on our love for the classics to someone else (be that person a family member, friend or colleague). I don’t know anyone (besides bloggers)who watches classic era films, let alone anyone who watches Silent films.

    I just wish more younger people today would give these old films a chance and check them out. I was hesitant about checking out Silents at first, but I am daily thankful that I took the plunge and watched because now I am a major fan of Silent films.

    • I sometimes find simply calling them “films from the 1920s” makes people perk up a bit. 😉 Everyone loves the 1920s.

      The younger people I have the most hope in are homeschoolers–they are much more openminded to watching old films, I’ve found.

  6. Hello Lea,

    My sincerest condolences on the loss of your Grandfather, and your article reminds me of a pleasant silent movie sharing I was able to have with my Grandparents in my years of collecting silent film. When my Grandparents were married, they discovered that their friends were planning to “help” them celebrate their wedding night by giving them a “shivaree” (one of those lovely and annoying old customs practical jokers like to pull on their “friends”), so they avoided such nonsense after their wedding by hiding out and going to the Strand Theater to watch KING OF THE WILD HORSES (1924) through several showings until their friends gave up and went home.

    So, when Grandma and Grandpa celebrated their 50th Wedding Anniversary, one of the things I was able to do to celebrate it was run KING OF THE WILD HORSES once again for them. They sat through it happily, actually remembered parts of it (well, they had to sit through it several times), and at the film’s end, pronounced it “just as lousy as it was fifty years ago”, but it was really a warm, happy moment, one of the pleasures one can have in one’s film collecting adventures.


    • A pleasant silent movie sharing indeed, Richard–thanks for sharing this story! Just wonderful. It’s a good thing that “lousy” film survived. 😉

      I appreciate your stopping by, too (I was out of town this weekend or I could have replied earlier!).

  7. Hey Lea- I bet it meant a lot to your Grandpa that you loved Laurel and Hardy too and that you’d bring over movies to watch with him and your Grandma. Were they the ones you mentioned who got a kick out of the “wedding bells” remark in One Week?

    This topic of movies doing more than just entertaining is something I think about quite a bit, actually. I think movies are a really great way to bridge any and every generation gap and connect with people. They’re such a universally good thing. And there’s something about experiencing something from someone’s past with them- whether it’s a movie or a song or whatever- that is kinda magical, for lack of a better word. I love the memories they can bring up too- things maybe the person hasn’t thought of in years. I’ve learned a good bit of family history over the years as a result of listening to music and watching movies and tv shows with my Grandma, Mom and Uncle.
    My Grandma’s main man was Clark Gable. Even now, whenever any other actor’s good looks are being discussed around her, she’ll say, “He ain’t no Gable!”
    As far as the youngsters go, I think there’s plenty-a hope for them, even with all the distractions. A couple years ago, I had a trick-or-treater of about 10 show up at my door in a homemade Marie Antoinette costume. No joke. 😉 And the odd part was, she said of all the houses she’d been to, no one else had known who she was!
    Anyhow, I’m really sorry you’re going through this. You and your family are in my prayers and thoughts for sure.

    • They WERE the ones I watched ONE WEEK with, I love that you remembered that detail!

      Yes, there is some hope for the youngest generations, for sure. Here’s a story for you–one day I was working on my laptop at the library, and happened to glance over at a girl using one of the library computers. She was maybe 11 or so, and what was she watching? An episode of The Lucy Show. My heart grew three sizes that day.

  8. Condolences and nicely put together. Can’t replace those magic times. One thing I still do every time I see my parents (about once a year due to distance) who turn 80 this year is revisit classic westerns cause that’s what our house grew up on. Always fun to listen to Dad’s commentary about the actor we might be watching.

    • Quite a few family memories seem to involve bonding over movies–yet another reason why film history is such a worthy research subject.

      Aside from Laurel and Hardy, my Grandpa’s favorite films were The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Quiet Man, so those will always remind me of him too.

  9. Awww Lea, my sincerest condolences, I’m so sorry. What a beautiful remembrance. I’m so so happy you got to watch Buster with him. But also Laurel and Hardy; I used to watch Laurel and Hardy with my grandparents too. I’m just so glad that you got to have such a good relationship with them that you could share these things. It’s so important….important to you, but also to them. The fact that someone your age could understand something they knew and loved…..that’s beautiful. My heart has always broken thinking about the silent stars whose life work ended up being considered a joke. To have someone that understands…….that’s everything.

    I don’t even have to know him to know that he was very proud of you, Lea. How could he not be. He was blessed to have such a grand-daughter, as you were to have him as a Grandfather. He sounds wonderful. I wish I could have met him.

    And I couldn’t agree with you more on…well….everything! I am constantly shocked what people don’t know, and don’t appreciate. People don’t even know who fought against who in WWII ….. stuff like that.

    My grandparents WERE around during the silent era and had a great book on their coffee table that went through all the stars, with pictures of all their movies. I used to study that book, even though it would be decades before I actually got the silent film fever. But even now, I know all about stars and films that I’ve yet to see, just from that book.

    Luckily, I watched many old movies with my grandparents (and aunts/uncles/etc), but never any silents. I did ask my Grandfather about it from time to time, but I would do ANYTHING to go back and ask my grandparents a whole litany of questions. Now I see baby pictures of my grandmother (born 1919), and I see her in Pickford curls. My Grandfather (born 1917) reported that same old story that’s been said a million times, about seeing “The Phantom of the Opera”. I so wish I had asked him more because that story is so commonplace!

    Anyways, my Aunt Nat (born 1919) IS still alive, and she’s a pip! (She auditioned for the Rockettes in the late 30s/early 40s). I’d love to ask her a million questions but there’s some family drama that’s preventing that. If I ever do….I will give a full report!!

    *Calling them “films from the 1920s” is a great idea!

    • Thank you for this kind comment! Yes, I’m lucky that my family is very close. My grandparents have literally wanted for nothing–there was always someone stopping by their house, dropping off what they might need, fixing things, looking after any appointments and such, etc. It’s heartwarming, I must say.

      That’s funny–my very, very first exposure to silents was also via a coffee table book, although it’s one my parents had, not my grandparents.

      I say, go visit your Aunt Nat–as soon as you can! 🙂

  10. My sincere condolences.

    My maternal grandmother was born in 1928, so she *just* missed the silent era. However, she has a great passion for old film that she instilled in her children. Mom made sure I was exposed to the classics growing up, and I know that’s my grandmother’s influence. My grandmother and I share three loves-cats, books, and classic film.

  11. I’m sorry for your loss. At least you were close to them and have many good memories. I’m sure your grandfather is in a better place.

    I agree about people being less informed these days. (My 17 year old sister has a classmate who didn’t even know what the HOLOCAUST was… that is unacceptable.) With thousands of years’ worth of media at our fingertips, why limit yourself to the past 15 years?

    It’s weird– at my house, I’m the reason my parents even bother watching black-and-white movies. I got into classic films at age 15 because I was big into Disney history and loved looking up what influenced classics like Snow White and Pinocchio. And these inspirations were usually silent horror movies, oddly enough! I became enamored with silent films and early talkies, then I spread out to the 40s-70s as well. My parents will watch classic talkies with me, but so far, I’ve only been able to get my sisters and one friend to watch silents, particularly Buster Keaton’s work. Luckily, I’ve had a good amount of success!

    My own maternal grandparents (both born during WWII) won’t touch silent films and think I’m crazy for liking them, but they do enjoy movies from the 30s-50s, as well as the 60s and 70s, so it’s cool talking movies with them. It’s great hearing them talk about old stars– my grandma is still salty about Eddie Fisher leaving Debbie Reynolds for Liz Taylor. She also still fangirls over Elvis; she told me she was a teen when Love Me Tender came out and that at the theater, all the girls in attendance screamed when he appeared (of course, she made sure to tell us SHE screamed the loudest!). My great-grandma, born in 1918, worked at an RKO theater and got to meet Maureen O’Hara once too. She died when I was 12, long before I got into old movies, so I never got to ask for more stories from her– especially about meeting O’Hara!!

    It’s weird how movies and pop culture in general can bridge gaps between generations or even cultures. It’s part of why I love cinema so much. Honestly, I think the classics of film should be taught in schools– and I don’t mean college or film schools, I mean K-12– just as we expose students to classics of literature. Not that this will cause some mass revival of old movie appreciation, but some exposure is better than none.

    • My mom was always really into old movies (from the ’30s-’60s, of course), so while I got into silents on my own I was always comfortable around classic film thanks to her. And I’m very lucky that my grandparents were open to watching silents with me! (They always had TCM on in the house, too.)

      I completely agree that film history should be taught in schools, it’s had an immeasurable impact on culture and the way we view history.

      Thanks for the kind words, and for sharing the great anecdotes about your relatives–love the Elvis story! You know, I haven’t seen much of Elvis (oddly) and should really give more of his movies and music a shot. Hearing Blue Christmas every December doesn’t quite cut it. 😉

  12. Reblogged this on Silent-ology and commented:

    Hello everyone! Much like back when I first published this piece, it’s been a bit quiet here on Silent-ology. That’s because my wonderful, cheerful, incomparable grandmother (who I had mentioned in this post) passed away recently. So I took a bit of a break, and decided this piece was certainly worth a reblog. I often attribute my love of old movies to my mom, who watched almost nothing else when I was growing up. But who introduced my mom to those old movies to begin with? My grandma! So you might say that, ultimately, Silent-ology might not exist without her long ago influence. Thank you, thank you Grandma, and I’ll always miss you.

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