There are significant differences between a silent film and one where we hear the character’s voices. These are two completely different modes of expression. We can follow along with a movie where we can hear the voices in the same way we follow a novel or short story. Watching a silent movie is like watching an opera. More of the drama is left up to the imagination. I’ve known a few lovers of silent pictures that feel too much talk has destroyed any significance a movie may have had. This point is valid. We usually can talk ourselves right out of anything genuine. A silent picture makes the viewer work to puncture the mystique of what is happening on the screen. The silent movies I remember most were the horror movies I’d see late at night or on a Saturday afternoon as a child. Some of these pictures would have been ruined by speech. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) with John Barrymore, The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) both starring Lon Chaney, Sr., and a few other silent horror films with the memorable monsters were superior to the remakes. On the other hand, movies like Ben Hur (1926) - though less than two and a half hours seems to drag, The Ten Commandments (1924) - which brings us Moses and then jumps to two modern day brothers (one destined for heaven and the other for hell), and The Wizard of Oz (1926) are not nearly as memorable as the talky remakes that were made much later.
Many reviewers excuse the weaknesses of silent films because they focus on the timeframes in which the movies were made, but a poor movie should not be forgiven because it was made without modern film techniques. Capable moviemakers have always taken what they have been given. There never has been a golden age of movie or movie craftsmanship. That’s romanticizing of the past. A genuine movie is good whenever it was made. (And we forget that some moviemakers have learned from our past mistakes.) Critics usually throw kudos to any movie made by Chaplin or Buster Keaton, and these two individuals did make some of the best silent pictures I have ever seen. Chaplin and Keaton were tremendously talented individuals, but movies like The Gold Rush (1925), Modern Times (1936), The General (1927), or Our Hospitality (1923) can never quite live up to all of the praise. These movies are charming and filled with comical and farcical shots that are followed by gentle admonitions to the audience. These movies are more than lighthearted entertainment, but I’d rather see movies like Scarface starring Paul Muni or Public Enemy made in the early 1930s.
I have also seen Birth of a Nation (1915), which has many times been listed as the greatest silent film ever made. It certainly is one of the most important movies ever made. The story is incredible (meaning completely over the top), and many directors have imitated its film technique and use of plot line. Unfortunately, it’s a piece of racist propaganda. What else can one say? When the Klan saves the day in the end we are reminded of so many later westerns where the cavalry came to the rescue. Except that this is the Klan and it came to stifle the rebellion of former slaves. Birth of the Nation’s greatest significance lies in its rewriting of history and its complete acceptance by the moviemaking establishment of its unsavory storyline. We’ve never forgiven Leni Riefenstahl’s filming of the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, so why do we forgive D.W. Griffith?
I’m usually quite good at ranking in order the movies that I like best, but I can’t do it in the case of these silent films. I have to rely too much on other critics concerning my knowledge of these movies and feel my independence of judgment would be lacking. I’ll name just a few other movies that I did enjoy. I remember liking The Battleship Potemkin (1925), though it’s been many years since I’ve seen it. Greed (1924) and Beau Gest (1926) I also remember liking. I’d like to see Nosferatu (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), two German films that have been highly recommended by friends that know good movies.
As I mentioned before, I’m sure there are dozens of great silent movies that I’m still unaware of having ever existed. Maybe I’ll live long enough to see a few of them.
October 27, 2006
© Robert S. Miller 2006