Silent Movies

Silent Movies

Do you find 3-D glasses more irksome than enhancing? Do thrilling special effects leave you yawning? Immerse yourself a fascinating film form! No, not the advent of 4-D, but the advent of film itself – silent movies.

The era of silent film was short: from 1894, when William Dickenson received a patent for motion picture film and the Lumière brothers patented Cinematographe, a combination movie camera and projector, to 1929, when silent film was removed from mainstream media consumption by the wide-spread introduction of talkies. Yet it was during these formative years that film became regarded as an artistic medium in its own right, instead of means by which to reproduce reality or a form of theatre, adding educational value to the inherent entertainment value of early movies.

Narrative films created between the 1900s and the mid 1920s often seem melodramatic or campy to a modern viewer. Exaggerated acting was the predominant style of live-theatre performances, and by the mid ’20s, the general consensus in Hollywood was that the big screen required a more restrained, natural form of acting. Danish films were using subtle acting for a decade prior to Hollywood, with actress Asta Nielsan being especially noted for her scrutinous control of her expressions, both with her face and her entire body. This concern for expression through the human body led Danish film to be credited with the invention of the erotic melodrama genre and the now-cliched “long, drawn-out kiss scene”, first used in Urban Gad’s The Abyss.

Though unpopular in Danish film, intergraphs (still frames containing dialogue or narrative text) were used in both American and European film. While first purely functional, the designing of intergraphs became an artistic pursuit. This can be seen in the works of Guy Maddin, a current Canadian director and screenwriter, who combines bizarre situations and psychosexual theory with a silent film aesthetic.

In addition to intergraphs, audiences were provided with emotional and dramatic cues by a live musical accompaniment. Small theatres might use a single piano, but an orchestra was most preferable, or an organist. However, it was not until 1915, with the release of the extremely influential and controversial The Birth of a Nation by D. W. Griffith, that music was scored for individual films. Prior to that point, musicians had played pieces from the classical repertoire or improvised. Films were also sometimes given sound by live persons, either narrating or speaking lines; this technique proved less popular in the United States and Europe than in Brazil, where filmed operettas were accompanied by singers from behind the projection screen. Meanwhile, producers struggled to be the first to create technology for effectively recording sound.

By the 1930s, silent films had fallen out of fashion. Silent filmed lasted the longest in Japan, holding out until the end of the 1930s thanks to the popularity of the benshi, a live narrator and voice actor. Post-1930s, directors utilized silent films for artistic expression, such as the gangster film Dragnet Girl, by Yasujiro Ozu. Many silent films were not carefully preserved during the mid-twentieth century and have tragically been lost or destroyed. Happily, film preservation was recognized as a valuable practice in the eighties, and continues to be supported by both independent and governmental organizations. And, though it has not congealed into a distinct movement – numerous contemporary independent directors are still making stunning, silent films.

Silent Movie Recommendations

The Gold Rush

A comedy written by, directed and starring Charlie Chaplin in his role of The Tramp. In this film, The Tramp heads off to the Yukon in search of gold. Romantic misunderstandings and general hilarity ensue.

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari

Directed by Robert Weine, written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, and starring Werner Krauss, this classic example of German Expressionism is considered the first film to feature a “surprise plot twist” ending.

Watch The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari – the full silent movie


This sci-fi dystopian film, directed by Fritz Lang and written by Thea von Harbau, cost 5 million Reichsmark – approximately $15 million current USD – making it the most expensive silent film ever made. (Today, it costs $139 million to make the average Hollywood film.) At 153 minutes, it is also considerably longer than the typical silent film.

La Souriante Madame Beudet

Directed by Germaine Dulac, written by Denys Amiel and André Obey. Though not the best example of Dulac’s work in the Pure Cinema movement, this Impressionistic piece is considered the first feminist film. Germaine Dermoz stars as an intelligent woman; Alexandre Arquillière plays her husband.

Charlie Chaplin plays The Tramp in The Gold Rush

Dragnet Girl – Japanese silent film by Yasujiro Ozu