In his fascinating book, Who The Devil Made It?, Peter Bogdanovich interviews the greatest directors Hollywood ever produced and tries to figure out what it is that makes them so great. One thing I thought was interesting was how many were into airplanes—like, one (besides Hughes) was an actual airplane mechanic. And of course they all had lives much broader and richer in experience (almost all served in one war or another, although Hitchcock—who studied to be an engineer—was apparently not combat material even at 18) than most Hollywood directors for the last sixty years. But the thing Bogdanovich latches on to is that they all directed silent movies.
And the funny thing, to me, when reading this, was how absolutely obvious that seemed. As Kevin Smith likes to say (to the jeers of his crew), film is a visual medium. While there are (many) great dialogues and monologues and narration in film, they’re only a part of any film—often a small part. Worse, words can be a crutch—and movies ruined by bad words is an entire topic of its own.
But the past, as they say, is a foreign country, and if this sort of film seems too foreign to you, there are ways to get there.
The Warm Ups
If you have trouble warming up to the idea of spending a couple of hours without the spoken word, there are a few easy cheats. There are a ton of great movies that have long stretches of silence (consider 2001, Lawrence of Arabia or the recently reviewed, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring). Quips aside, wouldn’t Die Hard still be a great movie without dialogue?
When you’re ready to take the plunge, you have some good modern examples of silents: 2011’s Best Picture Winner The Artist, which is more than just a clever French ruse to win an Oscar from provincial Hollywood rubes (and maybe Harvey Weinstein’s last power play). This movie is a serious homage to silents of yore, and you’ll surely get more out of it once you know your classics, but that’s true of all the mainstream modern silent films. (There’s been a rash of low-budget silent movie making in the 21st century, but I can’t vouch for it. I hear good things about Call of Cthulhu, at least.)
Case in point, Silent Movie: Mel Brook’s 1976 follow-up to his impossible 1974 double-hitter Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles was relatively coolly received but is chock-full of his madcap zeal to entertain and his passion for cinema. To not know the source material is a little like seeing Spaceballs without ever having seen Star Wars (or any of its many clones). But it’s still upper tier Brooks.
A movie that you might not consider a silent, but which satisfies the criteria of no spoken words, is Quest for Fire. Can’t talk if you haven’t invented speech yet! Bonus naked Rae Dawn Chong!
Lastly, my research turned up Biancanieves (2012) as a silent. I saw this movie when it came out and I did not remember it as a silent. Much like The Artist is very French, Biancanieves is very Spanish, featuring a Snow White who is a matadora—I guess to be politically correct, we should call her a matadorx—and her dwarven friends as her picadors, sorta. It’s odd and moody, as Spanish films always seem to be.
The gateway drug for silent movies (for most people) is comedy. In general, comedy (and horror) age especially poorly. The sitcoms of yesteryear are nigh unwatchable today, and people today don’t really pine for the comedy stylings of Cheech and Chong, Lewis and Martin, Nichols and May much. You get a little more buzz off of older teams, like Abbot and Costello, the Marx Brothers, even Laurel and Hardy or the Stooges, I think. And yet, the most accessible comedy across time and space is almost certainly found in Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton.
These guys were memes back when memes were called “icons”. Harold Lloyd is undoubtedly best known for Safety, Last! wherein at one point, he hangs from a clock tower. Girl Shy is another of his classics, wherein the inexperienced Lloyd writes a book on wooing women.
Buster Keaton is probably most famous for the image in Steamboat Bill, Jr. where a house facade falls down over him, but he is spared because of the fortuitous placement of the second story window. Keaton’s physical genius can be seen echoed in the works of Jackie Chan, and his character was typically feistier than Chaplin’s Little Tramp.
One of the great moviegoing experiences of my life was seeing The General in a packed revival theater in my neighborhood. There were people who had seen the movie as children and had brought their grandchildren to see it, and it was uproarious. Joe Bob Briggs talks about the importance of the shared experience, and it’s definitely true: Movies are better in theaters, and they’re best when packed with people who are having a good time.
The General was a disappointment at the box office, in part because choosing to set a comedy in the Civil War was controversial at the time. Its poor performance would set Keaton down a far less happy path in the arts.
Charlie Chaplin is indisputably the 800-pound gorilla in the silent movie comedy room. Writing, producing, directing, editing and starring in, and also doing the music for his movies (I had a college professor who started his career co-writing music for his films). And when I was growing up, his was the name you heard, and whose picture you saw on the deli wall. Modern Times and City Lights were a standard double-bill for revival houses.
These days The Kid and The Gold Rush are given more love than in the past, and there’s a lot to be said for their lack of any pretensions. People complain about Chaplin’s sentimentality, but I think it’s safe to say it was heavily market-driven and as focus-tested as it could be for the time. Per my aforementioned professor, Chaplin said of the happy couple walking over the horizon at the end of Modern Times, “someone just over the ridge is about to kick them in the pants”.
There were other comedies as well, though I find that if I go through a list of great silents and see a title I don’t recognize, it’s probably going to be Lloyd or Keaton. But there are noteworthy others. The Hungarian film (and N.B. in a silent, the country of origin is significantly less important than in a talkie) Hyppolit The Butler is a kind of proto-Mr. Belvedere, and still regarded as one of the greatest Hungarian movies. Most people know Marion Davies from her caricature in Citizen Kane, but her relationship with Hearst was much more complex than that movie shows, and movies like Show People reveal that she wasn’t some talentless hack Hearst was foisting on the studios and the public. (Some say his attempted bullying actually hurt her career, which is certainly plausible.)
But maybe comedy, or these comedies anyway, isn’t for you. Next time we’ll look at the weird, the epic, and the dramatic silents. (And by the way, almost every film mentioned here is available free and legal for download on YouTube, Internet Archive and elsewhere.)