Iycee Charles de Gaulle Summary The silent film Essay

The silent film Essay

The silent film has brought challenges to the studios and the directors who wished to convey a certain type of art form and message to the audience. It is hard for modern audiences to know exactly what it was like to watch a silent film. Films such as The Birth of a Nation, The Ten Commandments and The Phantom of the Opera are some obvious choices that would be on that list. Even though the silent film is studied more in history and film classes, there are still pockets of enthusiastic supporters around the country that strive to keep this art form alive in the minds of contemporary society. The major ways in which silent films differ from the films of today is the obvious use of dialogue, the speed in which the film is being shot and the absence of sound.

      The restrictions that sound put on the filmmaker and the actors, forced them to find other ways in which to convey their message to the audience. Since the amount of dialogue was severely curtailed and it would be impractical to be frequently using subtitles in every movie, the actor would for forced to rely more heavily on the use of body language.  In the 1925 version of Cecil B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments, special effects, crude by today’s standards, was used in order to take the place of the needed dialogue.[1] Even though the movie breaks from its story line fifty minutes into the movie in order to introduce the audience to the McTavish family, the audience, is put at a disadvantage in trying to fully receive the message and the power of the story of Moses. Then, as well as now, most of the audience members would be familiar with the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments but this is still a story that requires heavy use of dialogue in order for the audience to fully grasp the concept of the movie.  However, body language can only be used to a certain extent. The movie is shot on too large of a scale and there are too many actors involved for close up shots and body language to accurately portray the feelings and emotions that the characters are feeling. One must only look at the 1950’s version of The Ten Commandments, made by DeMille again to see how important the use of dialogue is to the flow of the story line. The dialogue between Moses and God and Moses and Pharaoh are essential in helping to understand the drama and sacrifice that is involved in this story. For the audience, their only guide is the visual affects of the movie along with their familiarity to the story through their own studies. The comprehension of the audience is at a disadvantage in this respect. The 1925 version is still a masterpiece with its use of special effect and the grand scale in which the movie was shot, but with the absence of dialogue, the message is not lost, but rather has to take a different route in order to reach its audience.

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      The absence of sound also limits the number and types of movies that can be made. The classic 1950’s courtroom drama 12 Angry Men could never had been shot in the silent movie era. 95% of the movie is dialogue set in real time.[2] It would be too repetitive to stop the movie literally every other second in order to inform the audience in what is being said. If this were done, the flow and climax of the movie would never had been realized and if it were to be attempted during the silent movie era, this timeless work of art would have been forgotten and even ridiculed since the limitations that the silent movie places on these types of projects, would be unmistakable.

      Another distinct difference in the way in which silent movies were shot and thus, are to be created as a form of art, is the film speed in which they were shot. Today, every movie is shot with 24 frames per second. But at the dawn of the movies, films would be shot from anywhere between 16 to 23 frames per second.[3] This resulted in the actors moving faster than in real life and thus, the authenticity of the movie and the story would be lost somewhat. A great majority of the newsreels and historical footage was shot in this manner as well. The message and the images can still be conveyed to the audience but the realism is lost. One example of this was the 1915 The Birth of a Nation. The movie is seen as extremely pro-South and racist, as it suggests that Blacks be shipped back to Liberia. However, the movie is still an important movie to be studied as it is one of the few movies that still survive from that time period.[4] As many movies from that time period are deteriorating, The Birth of Nation is historically and cinematically important. However, even though the movie was the most artistically advanced for its day, the shooting is still choppy and the actions of the characters, due to the film being shot at a slower speed, take the audience out of the realism of the picture. This is more so for modern audiences and historians who wish to study the film for its historical relevance. However, the audience at the time of the movie’s release, gave the film a strong reaction, either for or against the film. Protests in the North and a resurgence of the KKK in the South proved that the movie was a powerful one with an unmistakable impact.[5] The audience of today, if they chose to watch the movie, would not be able to escape their bias. This is not only for the subjects that the movie covered but also the lack of special effects, a musical score as well as the dialogue. But for the audience at that time, the movie was powerful enough to spark discussion, thought and even the boycotting of the film from the start. It effects on the audience of the day was one of awe and wonderment as the feature film was in its infancy and any film, regardless of its subject matter, raised the attention and imagination of the audience that bought into the story line and message behind The Birth of a Nation.

      The use of sound or the absence of it is the third most distinctive difference between movie of today and the silent movie era. Sound is needed, not only to give dialogue but also to portray feelings as well as give the audience the sense of the environment where the setting is taking place. Most major motion pictures have a separate department which is in charge of setting the movie to music. Composers are left with the difficult task of putting the story to music as it dictates to the audience the mood that the director wishes to convey to the public. Music sends as powerful a message as the dialogue and acting ever will. Tow recent examples of this would be Braveheart in 1995 and Titanic in 1997. Regardless of how one feels about those particular movies, their scores added a great deal to the feeling of the movie. Before battle scenes, the composer of the movie, James Horner, set both the Scotland settings as well as the intensity that comes before a major battle to music.[6] This led to the anticipation of the audience and helped to create a flow into the battle scene itself.  A successful musical score never lets the audience out of the movie. This was also true for the score to Titanic. The score, which prompted teenage girls to watch the movie in theatres multiple times, added intensity to the love affair between Jack and Rose as well as to the dangers and fear that the passengers felt once it was known that the ship was going to sink and many lives would be lost.

      This is not the case for one of the most famous movies within the silent era: The Phantom of the Opera. The movie always makes the list of the top ten greatest films of the silent movie era. The actor Lon Cheney, was remembered for the rest of his life by that role. And even though many theatres during the period of silent films would have a live piano or organ to add music to the film, operas and musicals on a large scale, especially with the speed of the movie being shot at an unrealistic speed, made it impossible for the audience to experience The Phantom of the Opera in 1925, the way that it was experienced in the most recent adaptation in 2005. As a result, Cheney had to rely heavily upon facial expressions and physical acting to convey the message that the actor and the opera wished to send. When Cheney is at the table and takes off his mask to reveal his identity, the scene is still seen as the greatest in all of silent film[7]. The absence of sound in the form of music does a disservice to the film as a true work of art. The film is regarded as a different work of art within a different genre than the films of today and that is certainly not to say that the film is any less important or entertaining than the movie of today. The beauty of the film really is in the eye of the beholder.

      Silent movies are to modern movies what radio is to television. Before television, comedy programs, drama and variety shows were popular in the 1930-1950’s. Since the visual aspects of the story were lost to the radio, the listener at home was forced to create the image in their own minds. The audience had to make up for what was lacking in the story, and for the very few of us that appreciate this art form, nothing is lost in the translation. The same can be said for the silent film in relation to the modern movies of today. At the very least, the silent film is able to record an aspect of our country’s history in a way that no piece of technology was able to before. If a silent movie of Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson were available, it would be sold for millions of dollars; even without sound and the special effects and 3D imaging that are common place in films today. These fills still have value to the cultural make up of this country and to the world of film. Phantom of the Opera, The Ten Commandments and The Birth of a

Nation were classic and in Nation, historically important and need to be studied and preserved. Their lack of sound, dialogue and being shot in an unrealistic film speed serve as impediments to the modern public as well as detailing the most distinctive differences between movies of these two different eras. However, true students of film and those that love history and fine acting, can still appreciate what the silent film has to offer the modern audience.


Altman, Rick. The Sounds of Early Cinema. University of Indiana Press: Bloomington. 2004.

Altman, Rick. Silent Film Sound. Columbia Press: New York. 2003.

Brasillach, Robert. The Classic Era of the Silent Film: 1923-1929. New York: WW. Norton. 2002.

DeMille, Cecil B. The Ten Commandments. Paramount. 1923

Gibson, Mel. Braveheart Paramount Pictures. 1995.

Lumet, Sidney. 12 Angry Men Metro Goldwyn Mayer 1957

Julian, Rupert. The Phantom of the Opera. Universal Pictures. 1925.

McCaffery, Donald. Guide to the Silent Years of Cinema. Greenwood Press: London 2004.

Miller, Ronald. 100 Most Important Films in Cinematic History. Random House: New York 1998.

[1] McCaffery, Donald. Guide to the Silent Years of Cinema. Greenwood Press: London 2004.

[2] McCaffery, Donald. Guide to the Silent Years of Cinema. Greenwood Press: London 2004.

[3] Altman, Rick. Silent Film Sound. Columbia Press: New York. 2003.

[4] Brasillach, Robert. The Classic Era of the Silent Film: 1923-1929. New York: WW. Norton. 2002.

[5] McCaffery, Donald. Guide to the Silent Years of Cinema. Greenwood Press: London 2004.

[6] McCaffery, Donald. Guide to the Silent Years of Cinema. Greenwood Press: London 2004.
[7]Brasillach, Robert. The Classic Era of the Silent Film: 1923-1929. New York: WW. Norton. 2002.