Updated: Jun 2, 2021
I originally wrote this essay on August 30, 2007. Since then, I have improved as a writer, so I edited and updated what you are about to read. Since my youth, I have been a fan of silent movies, and since Christmas is a couple of days away, why not publish it now?
Hope you enjoy the read.
I first started watching silent movies when I was 15 years old. At the time, my family was one of those who didn’t have cable, so we could only get the major network channels, a PBS affiliate, and an independent channel. If there was nothing interesting to watch, our TV watching opportunities were limited. Out of sheer boredom one evening, I decided to watch some silent film features by someone named Harold Lloyd. At the time, the only silent film stars I was aware of were Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Rudy Valentino, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. I even saw a few features of the Keystone Kops that were funny, but I didn’t know who Mack Sennett was.
I watched these film shorts of Harold Lloyd, unaware of the comedy legend he was. He was a pioneer in physical comedy and his clock tower scene is one of his most famous. That began my interest in silent movies. I took the movies at face value and didn’t think any further than that. Lloyd’s physical comedy was funny. In fact, it is timeless. So every Friday night on our PBS affiliate, WYES Channel 12 in New Orleans, I would watch his features and shorts on my small black and white TV, which was perfect for this type of film. Sometimes they would show other features of silent film stars, but they featured Lloyd the most. After a while, they changed the schedule and stopped showing his or any other silent films. Being the fickle teenager I was, I stopped watching silent movies altogether when Channel 12 stopped showing them. The interest was still there, but no silent films were being featured anywhere in my area at the time or for the next several years. Hence, I moved on to other things.
Now fast forward to adulthood. I’m a father now and yes, I have cable. Having watched too many episodes of Leave It to Beaver and The Brady Bunch in my youth, I thought my kids would have similar interests as mine. Then reality kicked in. Anything I like, they hate, including silent movies. Oh well. It’s their loss.
One night around Christmas a few years ago (2002, I think), again out of sheer boredom, I was scanning the dials looking for something to watch. Amazingly, you can have over 200 channels to watch and still think there is nothing interesting on any of them. Then I see a movie from 1914. It’s a Christmas movie! That stoked a fire in me that hadn’t burned in many years.
But this time, I’m not some kid just waiting to be entertained simply by what he saw on the TV screen. The history buff in me kicked in and this started a fascination that lasts to this day (I mean today, in 2020). When I watch these films, I’m fascinated with the technology and history of the time.
Let’s look at that film from 1914. When that Christmas film was made, WWI had just started. The U.S. wouldn’t get involved for another three years. Most of the WWII generation hadn’t been born yet. While watching this movie, the next question was, what were these people like? Who were they? I’m not talking about just their names. Who were they as people? What was their belief system? What were their favorite topics of conversation? The history books can only provide so much. Cars were still something new and the first flight at Kitty Hawk happened a little over a decade earlier. The elderly actors were alive during the Civil War. People from that time saw the turn of a century, just as we did. Their 50+-year-old generations celebrated the country’s centennial in 1876, just like our 50+-year-old generations our bicentennial in 1976.
Of course, there is a dark side. Jim Crow laws were in effect and the civil rights minorities rightfully deserved were another 50 years away. What a waste of a golden opportunity to see other points of view from that time or benefit from major professional accomplishments by minorities because they were denied those opportunities based on the color of their skin. Or worse, white actors dressed in blackface and acted out stereotypes. I once saw The Birth of A Nation and I never want to see it again. Even though it’s hailed as one of the greatest films of all time, it’s the only silent film I don’t like.
Now I'm not saying there were no movies by minorities. There were plenty, but unfortunately, most of them are now considered lost. What I am saying is, compared to Griffith, I prefer the films of Oscar Micheaux. Griffith had outstanding cinematography, but Micheaux had better movies. Micheaux's films, such as Within Our Gates and The Symbol of the Unconquered stand the test of time.
And sadly, when I watch a silent movie from 1929 on back, I watch it knowing that all of the actors and the people who helped make the film are no longer with us. I once saw a silent short featuring the starlets of 1925. They were young, beautiful, and looked like they had their whole lives and careers ahead of them. I never heard of any of them and wondered how their careers ended up and what they did after their acting careers were over. But at least for a short time, when a silent movie is playing, these people are alive again and full of life.
Another fascinating part of silent movies is the music. Unfortunately, many, if not most of the original film scores were lost. Unlike today where the music is part of the film being shown, silent films had no music soundtracks to play with the movies. Movie houses of the era had piano players or groups of musicians who would play the scores live with the movie. Thankfully, there is a budding group of young composers today who write good scores for the silent movies whose music scores are lost.
As you can see, even as I approach old age, I still have a childlike fascination and appreciation for silent movies. Yes, they are entertaining and some are surprisingly timeless. TMC sometimes shows silent movies from other countries that are well made. It is interesting to compare and contrast how they viewed life through their silent movies from that time to how we did. One of my favorites is The Phantom Carriage, which was made in Sweden in 1921. It's one of my video recordings that will never be deleted, along with Metropolis (1927) and The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). If you ever get the opportunity, watch them. They are worth it!
Many movies today, though entertaining, are not much more than fluff or garbage, especially the sequels. They are little more than formulaic storytelling. For example, since when do you go into any situation or a place and find that every single person is good looking? Where are the real people? But there is something special about silent movies. There is something about them that is real, and not just the actors’ appearances, that doesn’t exist in movies today. The innocence and sense of wonder that silent films have are lost in today’s feature films. The actors in Life's Whirlpool (1916) are far from good looking and that is part of what makes that silent movie so good.
With each silent movie, in addition to enjoying the movie, it’s another opportunity for you to look through the window of time, to see performances from a century past when these long gone people were still alive. It's another opportunity for you to enjoy the history and wonder what life was like during that time. So the next time you see a silent feature, don’t leave yourself hanging like Harold Lloyd on the minute hand of that clock tower. Get some popcorn, enjoy the movie, and appreciate everything else that goes with it.
As you can see, my appreciation for silent movies is as strong as it was then. On my TV right now is a recording of a compilation of silent Christmas movies from 1901-29. They range from 6 to 29 minutes each. The movie even featured a short version of A Christmas Carol from 1910. It's a fascinating view, not only of Christmas movies but the evolution of visual storytelling from that era. It inspired me to write this post. The movie and director links are to their IMDB pages.
Again, the essay is an edited and updated version of the original, but the essence of what I was trying to say is the same. I'm still deeply fascinated by the silent era and the people from those times. I put reality aside and enjoy the ride. So should you. Tune in to TCM's Silent Sunday Nights at 11pm Central time. Enjoy the show.
I hope your Christmas is the best one yet and I hope 2021 is far better than 2020 was for all of us.