Sunday, October 31, 2010

How To Watch Silent Movies

Buster Keaton

Because I watched The Thief of Bagdad when I was four, it has never occured to me that some may find it difficult to watch silent movies. Sure, we've all watched the occasional silent on fast forward, but who hasn't? Especially when it's overdue. Silent movies, like the Talkies, can range from absolute drek to some of the most exquiset forms of art created in the 20th Century.
The most important thing about the Silents is that they are the only international language. As Norma Desmound said "We had faces!", that is human expressions and actions are truly universal, whether you live in New York, Tokyo or Timbuktu. All you need to do is change the inter titles. Silents gave us the concept of the celebrity and the household name who didn't wear a crown. Just look at the newsreel footage of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks' honeymoon/publicity tour being mobbed in Soviet Moscow!
So, if you don't live somewhere where you don't have access to a movie palace (and they were palaces) and an orchestra that regularly shows Silents, here are some easy steps to accustom yourself to watching Silents without hitting fast forward:

1. Start by watching a talking picture about silent movies. Singin' in the Rain and Chaplin are both good places to start. So is Mel Brooks' Silent Movie or anything by Guy Maddin.

2. Next, watching documentaries of silent films is very good, as they show clips of important movies. Obviously the best one is Kevin Brownlow's Hollywood: The Pioneers, which has intervies with everyone who made silent films or was in silent films (and Fairbanks Jr. is in there too) who was still alive in the 70's. If you can't find that series, try watching (or downloading) the documentaries that Paul Merton made this year on early fantastical cinema and the silent and early talkies that Hitchcock made in Britain. Mr. Merton also made an absolutely marvelous documentary series called Silent Clowns about Keaton, Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy. There are also a number of biographies of various silent stars, like Louise Brooks and Clara Bow, that are more widely available on DVD.

3. Have you done steps one and two? Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Now we can start watching silent shorts. These comedy shorts are done by masters of their craft (I'm partial to Buster Keaton) and all of them are probabily the funniest things you've seen this month. And a lot of them are available for your viewing pleasure on the internet because of public domain. Yay!!! Try starting with these ones:

4. Now you that you've slowly eased yourself into watching silents, you are ready for the feature presentation. Start with comedies that are just under an hour long and slowly increase the length, while progressing from comedy to more dramatic works. You're choice of comedies is entirely up to personal comedy preference, however if I may, I would like to suggest these non-comedies which are some of the greatest films ever made:
-Pandora's Box
-Thief of Bagdad
-The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (can't be fast forwarded)
-The Wind
-Metropolis (by a miracle, now in it's complete original form)
-Limelight (the only comedy which will make you cry at the end and shows why Chaplin was a master of pathos an a sheer genius)

There you have it. An easy step by step guide to accustomize yourself to watching Silents. You may not be ready to watch anything by D.W. Griffith or Cecil B. DeMill (people actually died while making his Silents), overly long melodramas, or Erich Von Stoheim's Greed (they've only found a quarter of his nearly 10 hour masterpiece, but I think that it's the greatest film made so far. Citizen Kane is brilliant, but nothing compared to this) but at least you will be able to watch the funniest, saddest, most romantic, tragic and generally some of the most awesome films ever made. I thank you for your time.


Walt said...

Back in high school(in the Seventies) I checked out Laurel and Hardy's The Music Box (silent version) and borrowed a film cutter from the school. I fed in one end of the film, leaned in and started cranking. Kinda like watching a movie on an iPhone but more exercise.
Laughing made the cranking erratic but still a great memory.

Andi B. Goode said...

I may just have to try this as I still find silent films, on the whole, excrutiatingly difficult to watch. Sat through all of Pandora's Box and LOVED it. Fast forwarded Metropolis and Nosferatu (though I can appreciate both from a film history point of view) so I may just have to try your method. Hehe.
-Andi x