A silent film is a film with no synchronized recorded sound, especially with no spoken dialogue. In silent films for entertainment the dialogue is transmitted through muted gestures, mime and title cards. The idea of combining motion pictures with recorded sound is nearly as old as film itself, but because of the technical challenges involved, synchronized dialogue was only made practical in the late 1920s with the perfection of the Audion amplifier tube and the introduction of the Vitaphone system. After the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927, “talkies” became more and more commonplace. Within a decade, popular widespread production of silent films had ceased.
Elements (1894 – 1929)
The first projected primary proto-movie was made by Eadweard Muybridge some time between 1877 and 1880. The oldest surviving film (of the genera called pictorial realism) was created by Louis Le Prince in 1888. It was a two-second film of people walking in “Oakwood streets” garden, entitled Roundhay Garden Scene. The art of motion pictures grew into full maturity in the “silent era” (1894–1929) before silent films were replaced by “talking pictures” in the late 1920s. Many film scholars and buffs argue that the aesthetic quality of cinema decreased for several years until directors, actors, and production staff adapted to the new “talkies”.
The visual quality of silent movies—especially those produced in the 1920s—was often high. However, there is a widely held misconception that these films were primitive and barely watchable by modern standards. This misconception comes as a result of silent films being played back at wrong speed and their deteriorated condition. Many silent films exist only in second- or third-generation copies, often copied from already damaged and neglected film stock.
In addition, many prints may suffer from censorship cuts and missing frames and scenes, resulting in what may appear to be poor editing.
As motion pictures eventually increased in length, a replacement was needed for the in-house interpreter who would explain parts of the film. Because silent films had no synchronized sound for dialogue, onscreen intertitles were used to narrate story points, present key dialogue and sometimes even comment on the action for the cinema audience. The title writer became a key professional in silent film and was often separate from the scenario writer who created the story. Intertitles (or titles as they were generally called at the time) often became graphic elements themselves, featuring illustrations or abstract decoration that commented on the action.
Live music and sound
Showings of silent films almost always featured live music, starting with the pianist at the first public projection of movies by the Lumière Brothers on December 28, 1895 in Paris. From the beginning, music was recognized as essential, contributing to the atmosphere and giving the audience vital emotional cues. (Musicians sometimes played on film sets during shooting for similar reasons.) Small town and neighborhood movie theatres usually had a pianist. Beginning in the mid-1910s, large city theaters tended to have organists or ensembles of musicians. Massive theater organs were designed to fill a gap between a simple piano soloist and a larger orchestra. Theatre organs had a wide range of special effects; theatrical organs such as the famous “Mighty Wurlitzer” could simulate some orchestral sounds along with a number of percussion effects such as bass drums and cymbals and sound effects ranging from galloping horses to rolling thunder.
Film scores for early silent films were either improvised or compiled of classical or theatrical repertory music. Once full features became commonplace, however, music was compiled from photoplay music by the pianist, organist, orchestra conductor or the movie studio itself, which included a cue sheet with the film. These sheets were often lengthy, with detailed notes about effects and moods to watch for. Starting with the mostly original score composed by Joseph Carl Breil for D. W. Griffith‘s groundbreaking epic The Birth of a Nation (USA, 1915) it became relatively common for the biggest-budgeted films to arrive at the exhibiting theater with original, specially composed scores. However, the first designated full blown scores were composed earlier, in 1908, by Camille Saint-Saëns, for The Assassination of the Duke of Guise, and by Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, for Stenka Razin.
When organists or pianists used sheet music, they still might add improvisational flourishes to heighten the drama on screen. Even when special effects were not indicated in the score, if an organist was playing a theater organ capable of an unusual sound effect, such as a “galloping horses” effect, it would be used for dramatic horseback chases.
By the height of the silent era, movies were the single largest source of employment for instrumental musicians (at least in America). But the introduction of talkies, which happened simultaneously with the onset of the Great Depression, was devastating to many musicians.
Some countries devised other ways of bringing sound to silent films. The early cinema of Brazil featured fitas cantatas: filmed operettas with singers performing behind the screen. In Japan, films had not only live music but also the benshi, a live narrator who provided commentary and character voices. The benshi became a central element in Japanese film, as well as providing translation for foreign (mostly American) movies. The popularity of the benshi was one reason why silent films persisted well into the 1930s in Japan.
Few film scores survive intact from this period, and musicologists are still confronted by questions when they attempt to precisely reconstruct those that remain. Scores can be distinguished as complete reconstructions of composed scores, newly composed for the occasion, assembled from already existing music libraries, or even improvised.
Interest in the scoring of silent films fell somewhat out of fashion during the 1960s and 1970s. There was a belief in many college film programs and repertory cinemas that audiences should experience silent film as a pure visual medium, undistracted by music. This belief may have been encouraged by the poor quality of the music tracks found on many silent film reprints of the time. More recently, there has been a revival of interest in presenting silent films with quality musical scores, either reworkings of period scores or cue sheets, or composition of appropriate original scores. A watershed event in this context[according to whom?] was Kevin Brownlow‘s 1980 restoration of Abel Gance‘s Napoléon (1927), featuring a score by Carl Davis. Brownlow’s restoration was later distributed in America re-edited and shortened by Francis Ford Coppola with a live orchestral score composed by his father Carmine Coppola.
In 1984, a restoration of Metropolis (1927) with new score by producer-composer Giorgio Moroder was another turning point in modern-day interest in silent films. Although the contemporary score, which included pop songs by Freddie Mercury of Queen, Pat Benatar and Jon Anderson of Yes was controversial, the door had been opened for a new approach to presentation of classic “silent” films.
Music ensembles currently perform traditional and contemporary scores for silent films. Purveyors of the traditional approach include organists such as Dennis James and pianists such as Neil Brand, Günter Buchwald, Philip C. Carli, Ben Model, William P. Perry, and Donald Sosin. Orchestral conductors such as Carl Davis have written and compiled scores for numerous silent films. In addition to composing new film scores, Timothy Brock has restored many of Charlie Chaplin‘s scores. Sosin and his wife, Joanna Seaton, specialize in adding vocals to silent films, particularly where there is onscreen singing that benefits from hearing the actual song being performed. Films in this category include Griffith’s Lady of the Pavements with Lupe Velez, Carew’s Evangeline with Dolores del Rio, and Julian’s Phantom of the Opera with Mary Philbin and Virginia Pearson.
Other contemporary pianists (such as Stephen Horne and Gabriel Thibaudeau) often work in less traditional styles.
Contemporary music ensembles are helping to introduce classic silent films to a wider audience through a broad range of musical styles and approaches. Some performers create new compositions using traditional musical instruments while others add electronic sounds, modern harmonies, rhythms, improvisation and sound design elements to enhance the film watching experience. Among the contemporary ensembles in this category are Un Drame Musical Instantané, Alloy Orchestra, Club Foot Orchestra and Silent Orchestra.
Other musicians have developed this practice, as Jaime Lopez (Zaragoza. Spain) public offering and free from his blog “musicamuda” versions of the most famous films in the history of silent film.
Silent film actors emphasized body language and facial expression so that the audience could better understand what an actor was feeling and portraying on screen. Much silent film acting is apt to strike modern-day audiences as simplistic or campy. The melodramatic acting style was in some cases a habit actors transferred from their former stage experience. The pervading presence of stage actors in film was the cause of this outburst from director Marshall Neilan in 1917: “The sooner the stage people who have come into pictures get out, the better for the pictures.” In other cases, directors such as John Griffith Wray required their actors to deliver larger-than-life expressions for emphasis. As early as 1914, American viewers had begun to make known their preference for greater naturalness on screen.
In any case, the large image size and unprecedented intimacy the actor enjoyed with the audience began to affect acting style, making for more subtlety of expression. Actresses such as Mary Pickford in all her films, Eleonora Duse in the Italian film Cenere (1916), Janet Gaynor in Sunrise, Priscilla Dean in Outside the Law and White Tiger, and Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo in most of their performances made restraint and easy naturalism in acting a virtue. Directors such as Albert Capellani (a French director who also did work in America directing Alla Nazimova films) and Maurice Tourneur insisted on naturalism in their films. Tourneur had been just such a minimalist in his prior stage productions. By the mid-1920s many American silent films had adopted a more naturalistic acting style, though not all actors and directors accepted naturalistic, low-key acting straight away; as late as 1927, films featuring expressionistic acting styles, such as Metropolis, were still being released. Some viewers liked the flamboyant acting for its escape value, and some countries were later than the United States in embracing naturalistic style in their films. Just as today, a film’s success depended upon the setting, the mood, the script, the skills of the director, and the overall talent of the cast.
Until the standardization of the projection speed of 24 frames per second (fps) for sound films between 1926 and 1930, silent films were shot at variable speeds (or “frame rates“) anywhere from 12 to 26 fps, depending on the year and studio. “Standard silent film speed” is often said to be 16 fps as a result of the Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe, but industry practice varied considerably; there was no actual standard. Cameramen of the era insisted that their cranking technique was exactly 16 fps, but modern examination of the films shows this to be in error, that they often cranked faster. Unless carefully shown at their intended speeds silent films can appear unnaturally fast or slow. However, some scenes were intentionally undercranked during shooting to accelerate the action—particularly for comedies and action films.
Slow projection of a cellulose nitrate base film carried a risk of fire, as each frame was exposed for a longer time to the intense heat of the projection lamp; but there were other reasons to project a film at a greater pace. Often projectionists received general instructions from the distributors on the musical director’s cue sheet as to how fast particular reels or scenes should be projected. In rare instances, usually for larger productions, cue sheets specifically for the projectionist provided a detailed guide to presenting the film. Theaters also—to maximize profit—sometimes varied projection speeds depending on the time of day or popularity of a film, and to fit a film into a prescribed time slot.
All motion-picture film projectors require a moving shutter to block the light whilst the film is moving, otherwise the image is smeared in the direction of the movement. However this shutter causes the image to flicker, and images with low rates of flicker are very unpleasant to watch. Early studies by Thomas Edison for his Kinetoscope machine determined that any rate below 46 images per second “will strain the eye.” and this holds true for projected images under normal cinema conditions also. The solution adopted for the Kinetoscope was to run the film at over 40 frames/sec, but this is expensive on film. However by using projectors with dual- and triple-blade shutters the flicker rate is multiplied two or three times higher than the number of film frames — each frame being flashed two or three times on screen. A three-blade shutter projecting a 16 fps film will slightly surpass Edison’s figure, giving the audience 48 images per second. During the silent era projectors were commonly fitted with 3-bladed shutters. Since the introduction of sound with its 24 frame/sec standard speed 2-bladed shutters have become the norm for 35 mm cinema projectors, though three-bladed shutters have remained standard on 16 mm and 8 mm projectors which are frequently used to project amateur footage shot at 16 or 18 frames/sec. A 35 mm film frame rate of 24 fps translates to a film speed of 456 millimetres (18.0 in) per second. One 1,000-foot (300 m) reel requires 11 minutes and 7 seconds to be projected at 24 fps, while a 16 fps projection of the same reel would take 16 minutes and 40 seconds; 304 millimetres (12.0 in) per second.
In the 1950s, many telecine conversions of silent films at grossly incorrect frame rates for broadcast television may have alienated viewers. Film speed is often a vexed issue among scholars and film buffs in the presentation of silents today, especially when it comes to DVD releases of restored films; the 2002 restoration of Metropolis (Germany, 1927) may be the most fiercely debated example.
With the lack of natural color processing available, films of the silent era were frequently dipped in dyestuffs and dyed various shades and hues to signal a mood or represent a time of day. Blue represented night scenes, yellow or amber meant day. Red represented fire and green represented a mysterious atmosphere. Similarly, toning of film (such as the common silent film generalization of sepia-toning) with special solutions replaced the silver particles in the film stock with salts or dyes of various colors. A combination of tinting and toning could be used as an effect that could be striking.
Some films were hand-tinted, such as Annabelle Serpentine Dance (1894), from Edison Studios. In it, Annabelle Whitford, a young dancer from Broadway, is dressed in white veils that appear to change colors as she dances. This technique was designed to capture the effect of the live performances of Loie Fuller, beginning in 1891, in which stage lights with colored gels turned her white flowing dresses and sleeves into artistic movement. Hand coloring was often used in the early “trick” and fantasy films of Europe, especially those by Georges Méliès. Méliès began hand-tinting his work as early as 1897 and the 1899 Cendrillion (Cinderella) and 1900 Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) provide early examples of hand-tinted films in which the color was a critical part of the scenography or mise an scene; such precise tinting used the workshop of Elisabeth Thuillier in Paris, with teams of female artists adding layers of color to each frame by hand rather than using a more common (and less expensive) process of stenciling. A newly restored version of Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon, originally released in 1902, shows an exuberant use of color designed to add texture and interest to the image.
By the beginning of the 1910s, with the onset of feature-length films, tinting was used as another mood setter, just as commonplace as music. The director D. W. Griffith displayed a constant interest and concern about color, and used tinting as a special effect in many of his films. His 1915 epic, The Birth of a Nation, used a number of colors, including amber, blue, lavender, and a striking red tint for scenes such as the “burning of Atlanta” and the ride of the Ku Klux Klan at the climax of the picture. Griffith later invented a color system in which colored lights flashed on areas of the screen to achieve a color.
Top grossing silent films in the United States
The following are American films from the silent film era that had earned the highest gross income as of 1932. The amounts given are gross rentals (the distributor’s share of the box-office) as opposed to exhibition gross.
- The Birth of a Nation (1915) – $10,000,000
- The Big Parade (1925) – $6,400,000
- Ben-Hur (1925) – $5,500,000
- Way Down East (1920) – $5,000,000
- The Gold Rush (1925) – $4,250,000
- The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) – $4,000,000
- The Circus (1928) – $3,800,000
- The Covered Wagon (1923) – $3,800,000
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) – $3,500,000
- The Ten Commandments (1923) – $3,400,000
- Orphans of the Storm (1921) – $3,000,000
- For Heaven’s Sake (1926) – $2,600,000
- Seventh Heaven (1926) – $2,500,000
- What Price Glory? (1926) – $2,400,000
- Abie’s Irish Rose (1928) – $1,500,000
During the sound era
Although attempts to create sync-sound motion pictures go back to the Edison lab in 1896, only from the early 1920s were the basic technologies such as vacuum tube amplifiers and high-quality loudspeakers available. The next few years saw a race to design, implement, and market several rival sound-on-disc and sound-on-film sound formats, such as Photokinema (1921), Phonofilm (1923), Vitaphone (1926), Fox Movietone (1927) and RCA Photophone (1928).
Although the release of The Jazz Singer (1927) by Warner Bros. marked the first commercially successful sound film, silent films were the majority of features released in both 1927 and 1928, along with so-called goat-glanded films: silents with a section of sound film inserted. Thus the modern sound film era may be regarded as coming to dominance beginning in 1929.
For a listing of notable silent era films, see list of years in film for the years between the beginning of film and 1928. The following list includes only films produced in the sound era with the specific artistic intention of being silent.
- Un Chien Andalou, Luis Buñuel, 1929
- People on Sunday, Robert Siodmak, 1930
- City Girl, F. W. Murnau, 1930
- Borderline, Kenneth MacPherson, 1930
- Earth, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1930
- City Lights, Charlie Chaplin, 1931
- Tabu, F. W. Murnau, Robert Flaherty, 1931
- I Was Born, But…, Yasujirō Ozu, 1932
- A Story of Floating Weeds, Yasujirō Ozu, 1934
- The Goddess, Wu Yonggang, 1934
- Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin, 1936
Several filmmakers have paid homage to the comedies of the silent era, including Jacques Tati with his Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953) and Mel Brooks with Silent Movie (1976). Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien‘s acclaimed drama Three Times (2005) is silent during its middle third, complete with intertitles; Stanley Tucci‘s The Impostors has an opening silent sequence in the style of early silent comedies. Brazilian filmmaker Renato Falcão’s Margarette’s Feast (2003) is silent. Writer / Director Michael Pleckaitis puts his own twist on the genre with Silent (2007). While not silent, the Mr. Bean television series and movies have used the title character’s non-talkative nature to create a similar style of humor. A lesser-known example is Jérôme Savary‘s La fille du garde-barrière (1975), an homage to silent-era films that uses intertitles and blends comedy, drama, and explicit sex scenes (which led to it being refused a cinema certificate by the British Board of Film Classification).
The German film Tuvalu (1999) is mostly silent; the small amount of dialog is an odd mix of European languages, increasing the film’s universality. Guy Maddin won awards for his homage to Soviet era silent films with his short The Heart of the World after which he made a feature-length silent, Brand Upon the Brain! (2006), incorporating live Foley artists, narration and orchestra at select showings. Shadow of the Vampire (2000) is a highly fictionalized depiction of the filming of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau‘s classic silent vampire movie Nosferatu (1922). Werner Herzog honored the same film in his own version, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979).
Some films draw a direct contrast between the silent film era and the era of talkies. Sunset Boulevard shows the disconnect between the two eras in the character of Norma Desmond, played by silent film star Gloria Swanson, and Singin’ in the Rain deals with the period where the people of Hollywood had to face changing from making silents to talkies. Peter Bogdanovich‘s affectionate 1976 film Nickelodeon deals with the turmoil of silent filmmaking in Hollywood during the early 1910s, leading up to the release of D. W. Griffith‘s epic The Birth of a Nation (1915).
In 1999, the Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki produced Juha, which captures the style of a silent film, using intertitles in place of spoken dialogue. In India, the film Pushpak (1988), starring Kamal Hassan, was a black comedy entirely devoid of dialog. The Australian film Dr Plonk (2007), was a silent comedy directed by Rolf de Heer. Stage plays have drawn upon silent film styles and sources. Actor/writers Billy Van Zandt & Jane Milmore staged their Off-Broadway slapstick comedy Silent Laughter as a live action tribute to the silent screen era. Geoff Sobelle and Trey Lyford created and starred in All Wear Bowlers (2004), which started as an homage to Laurel and Hardy then evolved to incorporate life-sized silent film sequences of Sobelle and Lyford who jump back and forth between live action and the silver screen. The animated film Fantasia (1940), which is eight different animation sequences set to music, can be considered a silent film, with only one short scene involving dialogue. The espionage film The Thief (1952) has music and sound effects, but no dialogue.
In 2005, the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society produced a silent film version of Lovecraft’s story The Call of Cthulhu. This film maintained a period-accurate filming style, and was received as both “the best HPL adaptation to date” and, referring to the decision to make it as a silent movie, “a brilliant conceit.”
The French film The Artist (2011), written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, plays as a silent film and is set in Hollywood during the silent era. It also includes segments of fictitious silent films starring its protagonists.
The Japanese vampire film Sanguivorous (2011) is not only done in the style of a silent film, but even toured with live orchestral accompiment. Eugene Chadbourne has been among those who have played live music for the film.
The American feature length silent film Silent Life started in 2006, features performances by Isabella Rossellini and Galina Jovovich, mother of Milla Jovovich, will premiere in 2013. The film is based on the life of the silent screen icon Rudolph Valentino, known as the Hollywood’s first “Great Lover”. After the emergency surgery, Valentino loses his grip of reality and begins to see the recollection of his life in Hollywood from a perspective of a coma – as a silent film shown at a movie palace, the magical portal between life and eternity, between reality and illusion.
Right There is a 2013 short film which is an homage to silent film comedies.
The American Theatre Organ Society pays homage to the music of silent films, as well as the theatre organs which played such music. With over 75 local chapters, the organization seeks to preserve and promote theater organs and music, as an art form.
The early studios were located in the New York City area. In December 1908, Edison led the formation of the Motion Picture Patents Company in an attempt to control the industry and shut out smaller producers. The “Edison Trust”, as it was nicknamed, was made up of Edison, Biograph, Essanay Studios, Kalem Company, George Kleine Productions, Lubin Studios, Georges Méliès, Pathé, Selig Studios, and Vitagraph Studios, and dominated distribution through the General Film Company. The Motion Picture Patents Co. and the General Film Co. were found guilty of antitrust violation in October 1915, and were dissolved. Edison Studios were first in West Orange, New Jersey (1892), they were moved to the Bronx, New York (1907). Fox (1909) and Biograph (1906) started in Manhattan, with studios in St George Staten Island. Others films were shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The Thanhouser film studio was founded in New Rochelle, New York in 1909 by American theatrical impresario Edwin Thanhouser. The company produced and released 1,086 films between 1910 and 1917, including the first film serial ever, The Million Dollar Mystery, released in 1914. The first westerns were filmed at Scott’s Movie Ranch. Cowboys and Indians galloped across Fred Scott’s movie ranch in South Beach, Staten Island, which had a frontier main street, a wide selection of stagecoaches and a 56-foot stockade. The island provided a serviceable stand-in for locations as varied as the Sahara desert and a British cricket pitch. War scenes were shot on the plains of Grasmere, Staten Island. The Perils of Pauline and its even more popular sequel The Exploits of Elaine were filmed largely on the island. So was the 1906 blockbuster Life of a Cowboy, by Edwin S. Porter. Companies and filming moved to the west coast around 1911.
Preservation and lost films
Many early motion pictures are lost because the nitrate film used in that era was extremely unstable and flammable. Additionally, many films were deliberately destroyed because they had little value in the era before home video. It has often been claimed that around 75% of silent films have been lost, though these estimates may be inaccurate due to a lack of numerical data. Major silent films presumed lost include Saved from the Titanic (1912), which featured survivors of the disaster; The Life of General Villa, starring Pancho Villa himself; The Apostle, the world’s first animated feature film (1917); Cleopatra (1917); Gold Diggers (1923); Kiss Me Again (1925); Arirang (1926); Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1927); The Great Gatsby (1926); and London After Midnight (1927). Though most lost silent films will never be recovered, some have been discovered in film archives or private collections. Discovered and preserved versions may be editions made for the home rental market of the 20s and 30s that are discovered in estate sales, etc.
In 1978 in Dawson City, Yukon, a bulldozer uncovered buried reels of nitrate film during excavation of a landfill. Dawson City was once the end of the distribution line for many films. The retired titles were stored at the local library until 1929 when the flammable nitrate was used as landfill in a condemned swimming pool. Stored for 50 years under the permafrost of the Yukon, the films turned out to be extremely well preserved. Included were films by Pearl White, Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks, and Lon Chaney. These films are now housed at the Library of Congress. The degradation of old film stock can be slowed through proper archiving, and films can be transferred to digital media for preservation. Silent film preservation has been a high priority among film historians.