How Did You Get Into Silent Films?

It’s been a cool, grey, rainy couple of days up here in Minnesota, so I’m in an introspective mood and decided to write a “get to know me better” kind of post. Feel free to share your own stories!

When folks ask me how I got so enamored with silent films (apparently this isn’t common…?) I usually have a ready answer–because I’ve thought the question over myself. It’s been interesting to ponder: how did I get so obsessed with century-old movies? Why am I more compelled to study them than more recent films like ’50s musicals or ’30s comedies? Is it just because those are so alarmingly recent? (Okay, fine–comparatively recent.)

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See, to me, this came out yesterday.

Now that I think of it, there were several stepping stones that lead to this love of super old movies. 

First and foremost, my mom loved older films (the ’30s through the early ’60s) and would pop them in all the time. Me and my brother grew up watching almost nothing else, from Laurel and Hardy to Silly Symphonies to MGM musicals to James Cagney gangster films. And thank heavens for that, since silents are a bit easier to get into if you’re familiar with classic films.

Image result for sunset boulevard

And some classic films are even better after you’ve watched silents.

And speaking of classics, I also grew up reading books like the “Little House” series, Anne of Green GablesThe Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Chronicles of Narnia and Jules Verne novels, among others (also thanks to my mom, as well as my grandma who bought me the first few “Little House” books). So you might say I’ve always felt pretty comfy with old-timey things!

Plus, I’ve admittedly always been drawn to things that are obscure–unusual old names, archaic words, unfamiliar countries on the map (Kyrgyzstan or Andorra, anyone?), exotic species of animals or birds…obscurity was always sure to pique my interest.

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This…weird blobby frog interests me.

So with all this in mind, you might say that silent films were a perfect marriage of all the above.

But there’s a little more to the story, too. When thinking back to how I technically became introduced to silents, there were three major factors. The first was glimpsing the last few minutes of Chaplin (1992) while flipping through TV stations at age 13 or so. If you haven’t seen it, the end scene shows an elderly Chaplin waiting backstage to accept his special Oscar while clips from his films play on a screen. The clips included the “Tramp and Kid reunion” scene from The Kid, which instantly turned me into a blubbering mess–even without the whole context.

Image result for the kid 1921 chaplin kid

I dare you to look at this for thirty seconds without welling up.

The second was seeing a PBS American Experience documentary on Mary Pickford, around that same age. I was mildly familiar with the name of Pickford, but didn’t know much about her or even what she really looked like (to me at the time, she was rather obscure! And yes, that was a plus). The documentary on the young actress with the iconic curls fascinated me and stuck in my memory. This must be the one, if you’re interested:

And now we’ve come to the third factor, the very first stepping stone I ever had to the silent era. That was this coffee table book, which my parents had when I was growing up. It’s, err, seen some love over the years:

worldbookspine

I have it now, sitting on my bookshelf next to great works like The Parade’s Gone By and American Silent Film. Oh, and here’s what it’s called:

world book page

Maybe a few of you have it, too! It was a tour through each decade of film, with tons of beautiful photos. As a kid, I loved it because of all the great pictures from the movies I knew: The Wizard of Oz, Gigi, Gone With the Wind, and so on. And there were all those familiar faces, too–Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball, Cary Grant, Shirley Temple, and many more.

But while their faces were decidedly unfamiliar, I was always the most fascinated by the first section of the book, which had the pictures of silent stars. Oh, Charlie Chaplin was familiar and all, but Florence Lawrence? William S. Hart? Reginald Denny and Bessie Love? Not a clue. But the vintage “look” they had, the makeup and the soft focus and the women’s fluffy natural hair, left an impression on me. They seemed mysterious, these forgotten figures (as I assumed) from a time gone by. And imagine films made in 1915 or 1919! That seemed so marvelously old.

So the seeds for enjoying films without sound were planted pretty early, it seems. And that’s my little story of how I was drawn to silents. By the way, what was the very first silent I sat down to watch, once I saw they were on YouTube? The Sheik!!!

“Yesssssssssss.”

So what’s your “silent film initiation” story? Did you grow up seeing silents occasionally, or did you discover them on your own? Was there one big “a-ha!” moment of discovery, or did you gradually warm up to them? Everyone has a unique story, so feel free to share…!

Oh, and by the way, not long ago I cracked open A World of Movies for the first time in many years. Readers, all those silent era names were now familiar to me! They’re no longer strangers from misty long-ago–now and forevermore, they’re friends.

40 thoughts on “How Did You Get Into Silent Films?

  1. What a marvelous post! I enjoyed it thoroughly and I’m a little envious for that book 😀
    The very first silent I watched was The Wind, I saw some scenes on TV when I was 12 and already loved classics, but I didn’t connect with silents at that time (what a silly girl I was, The Wind is now one of the most fascinating movies I ever watched). The first silent I watched complete and with interest was The Lodger. I’m a huge Hitchcock fan and have almost all his movies on DVD, including his silents, of course. But the “a-ha” moment came with “The Penalty” (with Lon Chaney) in december 2016. Wow, that one blowed my mind! And a little after that I discovered John Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil and my life was never the same. I still enjoy very much other classics (Pre-codes and film noir and musicals are between my favourites) but silents have a special place in my heart. And no, I almost never watch movies made after… let’s say 1990…

    • The Wind! What an ideal way to first experience silent films. 😊 I love all the other classic stuff too, but silents do have that special something.

  2. How was I introduced to silent films? As a child, I saw When Comedy Was King at the local theater. I was very young, thought the clips of silent films were hilarious, and, at the time, wasn’t aware of the defects of the presentation. Gradually, I began to see complete silent films, added films that were not comedies, and began to look upon silent films as historical documents as well as works of art.

  3. In my case that was gradually. I became interested in classic cinema (or “old movies” for the rest of my friends) when I was 13 and I’d watch Hitchcock, Capra and Hawks films along with silent films. I know that for many people, even those who love classic cinema, it takes a time to get used to silent cinema, but for some reason it wasn’t my case. I don’t remember the first silent I watched but some of my first experiences were The General, Nosferatu, Metropolis, Sunrise, The Circus…
    I didn’t have an “a-ha” moment when I discovered that I really LOVED these kind of films, but maybe I began to realise that when I watched The Last Laugh. From then on I became more and more interested in silent cinema until it became nearly an obsession.
    Thanks for your post, I find these stories very interesting 🙂

  4. The usual way for me – I was just a little lad watching my cartoons while the older boys were into their “films”, and they come up and tempt me with clips of Keaton, Lloyd, Chaplin etc. I would be too scared to try it but peer pressure being what it is, you find yourself capitulating just to save yourself from a beating.

    I didn’t get it at first and they would all laugh at me, saying I’d get used to it and soon I was able to sit through a whole 20 minute short. Of course, once that happened it was onto longer films until even an hour wasn’t enough and byt the time I was a teen, I was into the really heavy stuff – the five hour Fritz Lang epics, and frankly, I’ve been a mess ever since!

    Only kidding – it was probably the Harold Lloyd’s World Of Comedy TV show where they would truncate two shorts into a 30 minute show with a voice over to get the jist of the story over that was my first exposure to silent films, As a child you only focus on the silly antics and not the lack of dialogue so it being a silent film doesn’t register.

    The first feature length silent film I saw was many years later as part of a classic horror season on Ch 4 here in the UK in the early 80’s where they showed a double bill of Universal horrors and the like, opening with “Nosferatu” (I forget the other film). That shadow up the staircase scene has stuck with me all these years later! 😀

    • For a lot of folks, TV seems to have been key to their discovery of silents. Makes you wish they’d have them on TV now and then (and not at midnight or at 5 am!). What with all the new restorations and beautiful scores, silents are getting more accessible than ever, I dare say.

  5. My first exposure to anything even remotely related to silent film was a series of Chaplin skits on Sesame Street. Unfortunately, I thought it was just plain weird, and this colored my impression of Chaplin himself for quite some time. As for silent films in general, even though I never actually watched one as a kid, I *thought* I had a good idea of what they were like-primitive, sped up, ridiculous.

    My introduction to classic film was through musicals. My parents collected them, and we would also rent. I grew to love Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, and Bing Crosby fairly early. My first black-and-white film was The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. I was so interested in the story that I didn’t even stop to think about the lack of color.

    As a teenager, I started delving further into my parents’ collection. In this way, I first saw Casablanca, The African Queen, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and even Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (that last one without my parents’ knowledge-at the end, I felt like I had just gotten away with something.) My parents didn’t own any silent films, though. I still had never seen one, and my ill-informed opinion of them (and Chaplin) had not changed. I had actually learned a bit more about Chaplin by this point, but I still wondered what all the fuss was about.

    Finally, when I was sixteen, I searched for a silent film on the Internet out of sheer boredom. I figured I’d watch a Chaplin movie to see what the big deal was. Not knowing anything about plots, I picked one at random-The Fireman. I found myself immediately riveted by Chaplin’s performance. I realized that my idea of him had been formed entirely by impersonators who had the movements down, but not the spirit. Once the short was over, I immediately started another, then another, then another.

    I’ve loved silent film, and been a Chaplin fanatic, ever since 🙂

    • When I was a kid, I loved old musicals so much I wanted them to be real. 😆 The African Queen was one of my favorite movies back then, btw!

      I’m sure a lot of people could relate to your story– except they haven’t gotten to the part where they actually sit down and give the movies chance. 😉

  6. In High School I needed and elective course and on a whim chose a film appreciation course. First film I saw was “Fatal Glass of Beer”, while not a silent I became first enamored with W.C.Fields, then Vaudeville and found many of the performers also appeared in Silent Films. It turned out one of the former Vaudevillians live close to me, I was able to meet him and become friends and during the course of interviews found he appeared in a few Silents. So I began to seek them out, and I was off and running.

    • Very cool! You know, it’s interesting that we keep track of silent film stars/performers who are still around (a tiny handful by now) but don’t really keep track of former vaudevillians. There’s gotta be a bunch who are still around, who performed as kids.

  7. Two words: Shakey’s Pizza. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that long-gone restaurant chain, but they showed silent movies while you ate their pizza. That was how I got my first taste of Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy. (Another happy by-product of this was when I went to the library to find books about or reviews of these comedians. That’s how I stumbled onto critics such as James Agee and Pauline Kael.)

  8. When I was in grade school, I accidentally stumbled upon the Matthau-narrated “Gentleman Tramp” (1975) doc on PBS, and more interested in watching anything that wasn’t Alistair Cooke I found myself amazed by Chaplin’s grace and ability to convey emotion. Near to that event I also had a copy of Parade’s Gone By at the library I kept reading, unable to know who these people were and what mysteries their films held.

    From that point on I tried desperately to fill in my knowledge, moving to L&H, musicals, to Lon Chaney (Sr. and Jr.), and seeing every theatrical show of silent films. I knew I had arrived when the local Landmark had a series of Keaton from new prints (no doubt sourced by Rohauer) in the 80s (?).

  9. The short version is that I watch early film because it’s the period I don’t already know enough about. During my years as a video clerk, I did the classics, noir, pre-code, etc., but there wasn’t a lot of silent movie on tape in those days, and what there was was of low quality. I had seen some silents before (including 8mm Chaplin shorts at a friend’s birthday party, and the release of “Metropolis” with the Eurythmics soundtrack), but these days it’s a lot easier to watch good remastered prints at reasonable prices.

  10. Great post! As in your case, my mother had a definite part to play. She loved anything old—books, magazines, films, furniture… She was drawn like a magnet to anything of an earlier age, and I definitely got the gene. So I’ve always had a fascination with life of the past, particularly when you can see it moving before your eyes…

    But the real starter for me was when I happened on a PBS screening of Broken Blossoms one Sunday afternoon (with the marvelous Carl Davis orchestral score). I was stunned, mesmerized, fascinated by it…and also disturbed and repelled at the same time. (I still have mixed feelings about that film, which I regard as D.W.’s masterpiece.)

    And then came Traffic in Souls with its actual interiors and street scenes from 1913 New York. And then came Les Vampires and Judex…who could NOT be fascinated by those? And then…the list goes on and on and on. 🙂

    • Sounds like we’re birds of a feather, Donnie! Broken Blossoms was one of the first silents I showed to my brother. For a film that’s very dated in many ways, its artistry is still timeless.

  11. When I was little I saw quite a few Sennett comedies on TV. Local kids’ shows in the early ’60s were packed with them. I also got into classic film by watching Universal horror films on Shock Theater. My Dad used to tell me about them and when they came on I was fascinated to be watching the films Dad saw when he was my age. There was a channel that showed classics from the ’40s and ’30s from 11 to 7 o’clock on Sundays. I was already a history freak and love things old. I fell in love with the big music, the stylized art direction, and the wardrobe, it didn’t matter if it was a gangster or a swashbuckler. To me the films in theaters looked flat and without texture compared to the oldies. Only a few silent features played on TV then, mostly on a late show (after 11:30). I saw Tarzan of the Apes with Elmo Lincoln, and Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But I didn’t become a fan until The Silent Years, hosted by Orson Welles, on PBS in 1971 and I saw The Gold Rush (with the William Perry score), Intolerance, The General, Beloved Rogue. Then the classics seemed to disappear and in those days there was no home video. Sometimes Robert Youngson compilations gave me an opportunity to indulge. But it wasn’t until videocassettes and VCR’s that it was possible to own films, although the scores often left a lot to be desired. AMC and TCM became my refuge when they appeared on cable in the early ’90s. When TCM showed the Kevin Brownlow documentaries Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film and Cinema Europe episode after episode I’d watch for hours until they went off, I taped films from Silent Sundays and started buying DVDs, then Blu-rays. I’m 64 now and I haven’t stopped yet.

    • Wow, very cool! The wealth of fine restorations and beautiful scores available nowadays must seem like heaven after years of subpar VHS tapes. (I count my blessings all the time. )

  12. Like you, my love for silent films came from my mother who grew-up in Hollywood. My father was an actor (in “talkies” – 1937-1944) so I like the classics as well.

  13. Hi Lea. When I was very young, I watched Fractured Flickers. When a tv station showed The General, I watched with my grandfather who told me how much he liked Buster Keaton. Some years later, the local PBS station showed a series of silent from the Killiam collection. I remember Hells’s Hinges, The Gold Rush and many others. When I was in high school and college, a local theater showed silent movies every Friday night, accompanied by Bob Vaughn on the Mighty Wurlitzer.

  14. As with several of the others here, I sort of inherited my interest in cinema. My Dad was always peppering us kids with anecdotes about the films and stars we were watching, back when television offered up classic Hollywood productions on a regular basis. Of course, he was a kid when many of the productions were first released and he still had some of that excitement to share.

    Ever the inquisitive one, I took his introduction and went deeper. I wanted to know technical details of how film magic was made. Not to spoil the fun but to deepen my viewing experience. Which dropped me squarely on the doorstep of silent films. To understand how Chaplin or Weber or Méliès worked in producing their works is awesome and adds to my enjoyment as a viewer. Then again, sometimes I just enjoy watching a good film unwind before me.

    • The technical details fascinate me, too. They’re more interesting in general since they usually involved painstaking work done by hand. In this age of CGI, that’s doubly fascinating! Thanks for sharing, Hal.

  15. Quite interesting- I’ve always been curious about how you got into them.
    When did Buster come into it? I understood he was largely to blame. 😁
    Oh and P.S.- that frog is adorable. And seems to be giving us the finger. Lol!

    • Oh yes–while THE SHEIK was officially my “first silent,” I started watching Buster’s work shortly after that. And–SOLD!

      Ha ha, it does look like it’s flipping us off!! Maybe it’s mad because I think it looks like an inflatable toy designed by aliens.

  16. I had no idea the American Experience on Mary Pickford was one of your earliest experiences!

    Like you, I had that book! my grandparents had a silent movie book that I would peruse, so I’ve always known the names of Theda Bara, Fatty Arbuckle, and others. Saw “Nosferatu” growing up. A few others, some Chapin, Phantom, etc etc but nothing “took”. Like you, I’ve always been an old movie fanatic, due to family influence. I saw that great Lon Chaney documentary that Kevin Brownlow made, but…..that’s Lon Chaney! He exists almost outside of the silent era, in some ways, just like Chaplin.

    then I saw that great documentary abut Clara Bow. And it was so great that I was just dying to watch something else about or from that era. You know what I watched? “The Ring” directed by Alfred Hitchcock! And i was so blown away by the movie, that i just wanted to see anything I could get my hands on. And that next thing was that Mary Pickford documentary. And that clinched it. Soon after – probably days later – I started watching the Hollywood documentary series that Kevin Brownlow made, with James Mason narrating…..and then it was just a life lived on You Tube, devouring every thing I could watch.

    I have a hard drive with every movie I could download. Every movie has the release date in front of the title, so I literally started watching the history of the movies from the very beginning, IN ORDER. An indispensable resource and experience. It might take me weeks to get through, say, 1909. And I’d get used to the style and what the “norm” was. And so, when something MAJOR emerged, like say the arrival on to the scene of D.W. Griffith, I could really feel how earthshaking stuff could be.

    Eventually, I got bogged down in the early teens and I couldn’t wait any longer and I jumped all around. But even still: if I watch one silent movie, I try to watch another one from the same year, immediately after. (i’ve since done it with other eras as well. Watching Sorceror, then Star Wars immediately after tells you everything you need to know about the transition from the 70s to the more modern era of special effect blockbusters. Both amazing riveting adventure action films; stylistically couldn’t be more far apart).

    Getting the books “Mary Pickford Redisovered” and “The Parade’s Gone By” both by Kevin Brownlow, were invaluable resources are still two of my most cherished books. Not just for the amazing text, but for the sheer beauty and care they reproduce the images. Even the binding is top notch.

    Id search silent movie stuff on Google every chance I’d get, I’d watch something and research everything I could about the actress or film or whatever. Both Robert Harron and Florence LaBadie I remember being two,for instance.

    Then one day – it might have even been searching one of those two names I just mentioned – I found Silentology. And this is now my main hub for all things silent. That Lea was young and full of effervescent enthusiasm, as we all were/are about this (relatively) new obsession (for some of us), that kind of added something to it. She’s only a few steps ahead of us, or me. i mean, she’s way beyond, as far as expertise, due to the time she’s invested, but as far as how long she’s been into it, she’s still got that giddy excitement we all have about it. This blog feels oddly very contemporary to me, as much as it is all about the distant past. it could ONLY happen now, today, in this day and age, with the technology that we have, with many of the films easily available to look at, and the restorations that have been going on. As far as I’m concerned, Silentology is the Internet at its absolute best.

    I’m really happy I found it. 🙂

    • Watching tons of silents year by year–now that’s a cool idea! I dig that kind of commitment. 😉 I always jumped around in the silent era timeline, although I’d watch series of shorts in order (like the Chaplin Essanays, for instance). I’ve a fondness for the mid- to late-1910s–although honestly I love practically everything, mind you. 😀

      Thanks for sharing your story! That Silent-ology’s been so helpful is a HUGE complement. It means a lot to me, to put it mildly. It’s very true, too, that my blog is well-suited to these “Modern Times,” since technology makes it so easy to research and watch these amazing films.

      P.s. You had that book too?! Awesome–small world, eh?

  17. I was exposed to silent films via horror movies from the era. Being a life long horror fan, I never seen silent horror films until after DVD became mainstream. IIRC, Nosferatu was the first silent film I bought. Definitely a great way to be introduced to the era IMO. I would watch various silents through the years but it wasn’t until about 2-3 years ago that I really dove deep into the era of silents. Now I watch all kinds of different genres. It’s funny, I can easily watch a romantic or drama silent film but would never be caught dead watching a modern film of the same type. The way silents were shot and how the actors/actresses were, I find it all very fascinating and really love the style. Every time I get a new silent film on dvd/blu-ray, I get pretty excited to check it out.

    • That’s awesome! I can see why silent horror was a gateway for you, something about the age of the films and the speed can really add to the creep factor. John Barrymore’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE and Murnau’s FAUST are well worth checking out, if you haven’t already.

  18. I honestly can’t remember the first silent film I saw. There’s a Classic Movie Series put on by CAPA in Columbus, Ohio, every summer since before I was born, and we started going to several films every year as soon as my sister was old enough to sit through them, so I would have been about 6 or 7. They show one silent film every year with live organ accompaniment. I can remember going before my sister was old enough to read the intertitles fast enough, so my mom would whisper them into her ear. When I first started going, the elderly organist had actually gotten his start accompanying films! I still am spoiled — with a very few exceptions, there is NOTHING like a skilled live accompanist who’s only got musical cues in front of them. I’d highly recommend going out there just for the summer silent if you ever get the chance!

  19. The earliest silent film I remember seeing is Cecil B. DeMille’s “King of Kings” one of the local TV stations in Philadelphia would show every Easter. Before I could read my father would read the titles to me. The fact that it didn’t have people talking didn’t seem strange at all. I really enjoyed having the visual tell the story. Then my mother took me to see Robert Youngson’s “When Comedy was King” in a theater where I was introduced to the great silent comics. She also took me to see “Laurel and Hardy’s Laughing 20s” I was familiar with Laurel and Hardy talkies from Television but this opened up a new world of their silent comedy I didn’t know existed. Then we got a rotor TV antenna and I could get New York TV stations and one of them showed Boronhco Billy shorts every morning. I found these crude but quite fascinating and I later found out he made hundreds of these westerns. On the bargain table at the paperback book store in the mall I bought Joe Franklin’s “Classics of the Silent Screen” with lots of pictures and I wanted to see all these silent movies. It also introduced me to many of the actors who were later playing character parts in talkies. I didn’t know they got their start in silent movies. Neil Hamilton = commissioner Gordon on the Batman TV show!! Then I bought Carlos Claren’s “An Illustrated History of the Horror Film” which introduced me to so many of the silent horror and Sci-Fi films. One note: I almost had it taken away from me when the teacher saw what I was reading in junior high study hall, she felt it was inappropriate. Of course I had a steady diet of the classic motion pictures on TV. But finding the silent films was difficult back then. Our local PBS station started running silent films on Sunday afternoon/early evening so I would go out of my way to watch then when I could. That is where I saw “The Lost World” (1925), I knew of Willis O’Brian’s work I was already a big fan of “King Kong” it was the first 16mm feature film I bought, I still have it. Finally someone gave me a copy of Kevin Brownlow’s “The Parade’s Gone By” which I have almost worn out.

    • Wow! You had a whole smorgasbord of early silent film experiences. Very interesting that the stately KING OF KINGS was your first silent film–and that it was shown on TV around Easter, too! That’s a tradition that should make a comeback, if you ask me.

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