Handy Silent Era Glossary

A place to look up some of those silent era terms you always stumble across.  (And as you can see, a work in progress!)

Continuity: The silent era term for a screenplay. For some filmmakers, such as comedians, the continuity was merely the outline of a story with room left for improvisation.

Cutting: The silent era term for film editing. At the time the film negative was literally cut width-wise with a scissors to create strips of film, each containing a scene or single shot.  The strips were hung in front of light boxes so editors could tell the scenes apart.  The desired scenes were fastened back together with paste to form the finished product, which was sent to a processor to be copied and sent out to theaters. Cutting required examining thousands of frames of film only with the editors’ naked eyes. Directors closely supervised the cutting process and some even did the editing themselves.

Dutch comic: A popular type of makeup used by vaudevillians and some silent era comedians. It tended to consist of a short beard, mustache, spectacles, a frock coat, and a “Dutch“ (meaning German) accent. Chester Conklin is one example of a film actor who had a Dutch comic character. Groucho Marx’s appearance is derived from the vaudeville Dutch comic. Other popular types of comic makeup included Irish, Jewish, Italian, American rube, and blackface.

Frame: Refers to either the edges of the film picture or a single cell in a strip of film.

German Expressionism:  Style of filmmaking from Germany that started in the 1910s.  It featured the use of stylized lighting and set designs (the most extreme and well-known example being The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) that were greatly inspired by modern art movements and the general willingness to experiment with new forms of expression.  The results were dramatic and were a visual cues to the themes and emotions in the films.  Many of the well-known German Expressionist films explored dark themes such as madness and death.

Greasepaint: A skin-colored paste that appeared as early as the 18th century. Greasepaint was initially made of zinc, ochre, and lard and was in common use in theater and in films of the 1900s-10s. In 1914 Max Factor created “Supreme Grease Paint,“ specially designed to reduce the glare caused by bright film studio lights. This was the standard makeup in use during the silent era, initially coming in twelve colors but increasing to thirty-one shades in the 1920s. Foundational greasepaint was yellowish-nude in color, and came in flattened sticks or cardboard tubes (pots of creamier greasepaint were also marketed but were less common). After it was applied powder was layered over it to help it set. While it “normalized” the appearance of actors’ faces on camera it was hard on skin. Actors also lined their eyes with black greasepaint and sometimes painted in their eyebrows and darkened their lips. What is recognized today as “pancake makeup” was not created until 1937, when Factor created his “Pan-Cake” foundation that eliminated the need to add powder.

Irish comic: A popular type of makeup used by vaudevillians. It usually consisted of a red, half-bald wig and baggy clothes. Around the turn of the 20th century Buster Keaton and his father often appeared in Irish comic makeup in their vaudeville act. Other popular types of comic makeup included Dutch, Jewish, Italian, American rube, and blackface.

Long shot: A shot taken from enough distance for the entire subject to be in view. A close-up would be the opposite of a long shot. An extreme-long shot could be taken from up to a quarter a mile away, and was often used for large-scale action scenes or to show a large set (the famous shot of the giant Babylon set from Intolerance is an example).

Makeup: The word referred not only to makeup on the face, but to the costume as a whole. To “get into makeup” meant to put together your costume as well as apply facial makeup. Different types of costumes were called different “makeups” (such as an “Irish comic makeup”).

Negative: The original film that was used in the movie cameras.  This negative was “cut” (edited) and the finished version sent out to be copied; the resulting prints were distributed to theaters.

Orthochromatic: The type of film that was used from the late 19th century to the mid-1920s. The look was very crisp (comparable to Blu-Ray quality) but since the film was sensitive to greens and blues some colors did not register normally (red looked black, blue appeared white, etc.).

Print: Refers to the copy made of a silent film. Many silent films today exist as battered copies of copies (or even copies of copies of copies, etc.) which results in the exaggerated contrasts, fuzziness, and scratches that are so often seen. The most desirable, best quality prints of silent films were the first ones struck from the original camera negative (The General is one such lucky example).

Reel: A single roll of film, measuring about 1000 feet. When played it tended to run about 10 minutes long. Silent films were not measured by minutes of playing time but by how many reels they used (“one-reelers,” “two-reelers,” etc.). Many comedy shorts from the twenties, for instance, are two reelers (about the same length of time as an average sitcom without the commercials). The average feature was usually at least four reels long. Before it was edited, Von Stroheim’s masterpiece Greed had the original running time of an astonishing 45 reels.

Serial: A film series, usually centered around a young heroine, that was shown in weekly installments. They tended to be melodramatic, and each installment ended on a cliffhanger to ensure a steady audience. Serials were not critically well-regarded although they were popular throughout the 1910s. By the late 1920s they were obsolete. Actress Pearl White was a well-known actress in serials.

Tinting: The practice of giving film an all-over color by dipping it into baths of special chemicals. This was derived from the common early practice of tinting photographs. Tinting served both to dress up a picture and to convey mood. Sepia was a popular color, and blue served to create night scenes (which were hard to photograph).  Tinting colored the light areas of the film, while another process, toning, would color the darker areas. By the late twenties a wide range of colors was in use.   In 1921 Kodak introduced pre-tinted film stock, which initially came in red, green, blue, yellow, pink, orange, amber (dark and light) and lavender.  The vast majority of silent films were tinted in one way or another, and use of the process died out with sound films because of cost, the amount of time it consumed, and because coloring the film interfered with the soundtrack.

Title cards: Printed captions inserted into a film to explain action or add dialogue. Early titles were often in plain letters, were short and served only to clear up possible confusion. In time title writers began to experiment with prose styles, and dialogue titles became almost indispensable. Comedies were filled with “joke” titles and humorous dialogue. Title writers were paid a few dollars a word, and worked to match the words with the actors‘ lip movements. The background of title cards were plain at first, with company logos at the corners, but soon painted scenes, cartoons, attractive motifs, and textured backgrounds came into use. These not only served as decoration but to relieve the eye from switching back and forth from the black cards to the lighter film.

Toning: The chemical process of coloring a film which replaced silver compounds in the film with silver salts.  Unlike tinting, toning would color the dark areas of the film.

Vaudeville: A family-oriented variety show that appeared in the 1890s and was a main form of American entertainment until around 1930. It evolved from the tradition of burlesques and medicine shows. Theaters that hosted the shows were known as “vaudeville houses,“ and the acts they booked consisted of everything from singers to acrobats to comic skits. Vaudevillians hoped to get the later slots on the program, while the first slot was regarded as the least desirable (they had the task of having to warm up the audience, and latecomers would often miss seeing them). A short film would usually play at the end of the show, as a chaser. Successful vaudevillians had to be very talented, unique, and able to appeal to audiences of all ages and backgrounds in order to find steady work. They were on the road constantly and were often responsible for their own bookings and publicity. Countless great film actors were graduates of vaudeville, the long list including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Roscoe Arbuckle, Harry Langdon, Mae West, Al Jolson, Charley Chase, the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, and many more. Vaudeville influenced all other entertainment mediums that proceeded it, from radio to television.

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2 thoughts on “Handy Silent Era Glossary

  1. Nice glossary! Well, the definition of Dutch comic explains something I had been wondering about. Somewhere online I found a still from a Keystone showing Mack Sennett with Ford Sterling and Mabel. Part of the caption reads, “…the Old Master, Mack Sennett, does one of his Dutch scowls.” I thought: Hmm. What does that mean? People in the Netherlands scowl a certain way?? I couldn’t find any information on a “Dutch scowl”—now I see it’s all part of the ethnic character. And I’m guessing “Dutch” was still a corruption of “Deutsche” at this point?

    The entry on grease paint was most interesting, too.

    One I’d like to see you add sometime—slapshoes. (Or is it two words?) That’s something I’ve not been able to figure out. I know what they are, and that they were (I think) a carryover from Vaudeville. What I don’t understand why they were so often used and what their comic appeal was. They look really odd in closeups. (I’m thinking of Buster in Butcher Boy, where he steps in the Molasses. 🙂 )

    • Thanks for the suggestion–I’ll have to study up and add a new entry! Lol, those slapshoes Buster has on in The Butcher Boy are something else, aren’t they? I don’t think he ever wore pair more X-TREME than they were.

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