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Silent film

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Scene from the 1921 Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, one of the highest-grossing silent films.

A silent film is a film with no synchronized recorded sound, especially spoken dialogue. 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 possible in the late 1920s with the introduction of the vitaphone system. After The Jazz Singer in 1927, "talkies" became more and more commonplace and ten years later silent films essentially disappeared. The silent film era is sometimes referred to as the "Age of the Silver Screen".


Roundhay Garden Scene 1888, the first film recorded.

The first film was created by Louis Le Prince in 1888. It was a two second film of people walking around in Oakwood Grange garden, titled Roundhay Garden Scene.

The art of motion pictures grew into full maturity in the "silent era" 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 during the 1920s — was often extremely high. However, there is a widely held misconception that these films were primitive and barely watchable by modern standards. This misconception is due to technical errors (such as films being played back at wrong speed) and due to the deteriorated condition of many silent films (many silent films exist only in second or even third generation copies which were often copied from already damaged and neglected film stock).


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 decorations 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 neighbourhood movie theaters usually had a pianist. From the mid-teens onward, large city theaters tended to have organists or entire orchestras. Massive theatrical organs such as the famous "mighty Wurlitzer" could simulate some orchestral sounds along with a number of sound effects.

The scores for silents were often more or less improvised early in the medium's history. Once full features became commonplace, however, music was compiled from photoplay music by the pianist, organist, orchestra conductor or the movie studio itself, which would send out a cue sheet with the film. Starting with 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 films to arrive at the exhibiting theatre with original, specially composed scores.

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 form, as well as providing translation for foreign (mostly American) movies. Their popularity was one reason why silents persisted well into the 1930s in Japan.

Few film scores have survived intact from this period, and musicologists are still confronted by questions in attempting a precise reconstruction of those which 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.

Critical in the development of the silent score is the theater organ designed to fill a gap between a simple piano soloist and a larger orchestra. Theatre organs had a wide range of special effects, and used actual percussion.

Interest in the scoring of silent films fell somewhat out of fashion during the 1960s and 1970s. There was a belief current 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 was Francis Ford Coppola's 1980 restoration of Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927) with a live orchestral score composed by his father Carmine Coppola.

Notable current specialists in the art of arranging and performing silent film scores include Steven Ball (of Ann Arbor's Michigan Theater); Rosa Rio (organist at the Brooklyn Fox during the silent era and now at the Tampa Theatre), Ben Model, Neil Brand, Phillip C. Carli, Jon Mirsalis, Dennis James and Donald Sosin. Carl Davis has created entirely new scores for silent era classics. Robert Israel has written new scores for the comedies of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. In addition to composing original film scores Timothy Brock has restored many of Charlie Chaplin's scores. Some ensemble groups have specialized in accompanying silent films, including Silent Orchestra, Alloy Orchestra and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

Acting techniques

Lillian Gish was a major star of the silent era and continued to promote the art of silent films until her death.

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. For this reason, silent comedies tend to be more popular in the modern era than drama, partly because overacting is more natural in comedy.

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, Eleanora Duse in the Italian film Cenere (1916), Janet Gaynor in Sunrise, Priscilla Dean in The Dice Woman and Lillian Gish in most of her performances made restraint and easy naturalism in acting a virtue. Directors such as Albert Capellani (a French import who directed several Alla Nazimova films) and Maurice Tourneur insisted on naturalism in their films; Tourneur had been just such a minimalist in his prior stage productions. Many mid-20s American silent films were quite thoughtfully acted, though as late as 1927 such patently overacted movies 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 naturalness in their films. Just like 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.

Projection speed

Until the standardization of the projection speed of 24 frames per second (fps) for sound films in 1926, silent films were shot at variable speeds (or "frame rates"), typically anywhere from 16 to 23 frames per second or faster, depending on the year and studio. Unless carefully shown at their original speeds they can appear unnaturally fast and jerky, which reinforces their alien appearance to modern viewers. At the same time, some scenes were intentionally undercranked during shooting in order to accelerate the action, particularly in the case of slapstick comedies. The intended frame rate of a silent film can be ambiguous and since they were usually hand cranked there can even be variation within one film. 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.

Projectionists frequently ran silent films at speeds which were slightly faster than the rate at which they were shot. Most films seem to have been shown at 18 fps or higher - some even faster than what would become sound film speed (24 fps, or 90 feet per minute). Even if shot at 16 fps (often cited as "silent speed"), the projection of a cellulose nitrate base film at such a slow speed carried a considerable risk of fire. Often projectionists would receive very general instructions from the distributors as to how fast particular reels or scenes should be projected on the musical director's cue sheet. In rare instances, usually for larger productions, detailed cue sheets specifically for the projectionist would carry a detailed guide in how to present the film. Theaters also sometimes varied their projection speeds depending on the time of day or popularity of a film in order to maximize profit.


With the lack of natural colour processing available, films of the silent era were frequently dipped in dyestuffs and dyed various shades and hues in order to signal a mood or represent a specific time of day. Blue represented night scenes, yellow or amber meant day. Red represented fire and green represented a mysterious mood.

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 very striking.

Top grossing silent films

Scene from Birth of a Nation.

The following are the films that earned the highest ever gross income in film history, according to Variety magazine in 1932. The dollar amounts are not adjusted for inflation, and the values were calculated in 1932.

  1. The Birth of a Nation (1915) - $10,000,000
  2. The Big Parade (1925) - $6,400,000
  3. Ben-Hur (1925) - $5,500,000
  4. Way Down East (1920) - $5,000,000
  5. The Gold Rush (1925) - $4,250,000
  6. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) - $4,000,000
  7. The Circus (1928) - $3,800,000
  8. The Covered Wagon (1923) - $3,800,000
  9. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) - $3,500,000
  10. The Ten Commandments (1923) - $3,400,000
  11. Orphans of the Storm (1921) - $3,000,000
  12. For Heaven's Sake (1926) - $2,600,000
  13. Seventh Heaven (1926) - $2,400,000
  14. Abie's Irish Rose (1928) - $1,500,000

Silent films in the sound era

Silent gives way to sound

Although attempts to create sync-sound motion pictures go back to the Edison lab in 1896, the technology became well-developed only in the early 1920s. The next few years saw a race to design, implement, and market several rival sound-on-disc and sound-on-film sound formats. Although The Jazz Singer's release in 1927 marked the first commercially successful sound film, silent films formed the majority of features produced in both 1927 and 1928. Thus the modern sound film era may be regarded as coming to dominance beginning in 1929.

Silent films in the early sound era

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.

  • The Docks of New York, Josef von Sternberg, 1929
  • Diary of a Lost Girl, GW Pabst, 1929
  • Pandora's Box, GW Pabst, 1929
  • Man with a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov, 1929
  • City Girl, F.W. Murnau, 1930
  • Earth, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1930
  • Love Is Strength, Mikio Naruse, 1930
  • City Lights, Charlie Chaplin, 1931
  • Tabu, F. W. Murnau, Robert Flaherty, 1931
  • I Was Born, But..., Yasujiro Ozu, 1932
  • A Story of Floating Weeds, Yasujiro Ozu, 1934
  • Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin, 1936

Later homages

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. Writer / Director Michael Pleckaitis puts his own twist on the genre with Silent (2007). Reminiscent of Pleasantville (1998), it's done in the vein of a silent movie from the earliest days of cinema.

The 1999 German film Tuvalu 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.

In 1999, the famous Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki produced Juha which captures the style of a silent film, using intertitles in place of spoken dialogue.

In India, the 1988 film Pushpak, starring Kamal Hassan, was a black comedy entirely devoid of dialog.

At least two 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.

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, like the series of Pinochle Boys 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); The Apostle, the world's first animated feature film (1917); Cleopatra (1917); 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.

In 1978 in Dawson City, Canadian Yukon, a bulldozer uncovered buried reels of nitrate film during excavation of a landfill. Dawson City used to be the end of the distribution line for many films, and the 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 in this treasure trove were films by Pearl White, Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks, and Lon Chaney, Sr.. These films are now housed at the Library of Congress.

The degradation of old film stock can be slowed through proper archiving, or digitization can preserve films. Silent film preservation has been a high priority among movie historians.

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