Why you should see the silents, part I

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By:Ray Olson | July 22, 2014

Silent movies are to movies in toto as classical Greek and Roman drama is to all of European drama. Of course, cinema is one of the latest progeny of the classical dramatic tradition, so one can’t claim the silents invented any wheels in terms of plot and characterization; those haven’t changed since Euripides and Menander.

What the silents did do was develop the expressive means of the new medium of dramatic presentation that cinema constituted. Those means were afforded by the camera and the film it exposed. The camera enabled infinite points of view upon dramatic action, and the film strip enabled switching among those points of view through editing, the joining of various bits of exposed film to compose a narrative flow. All the other means of dramatic expression—acting, movement (other than of the camera), incidental music, lighting, set design, special effects, and, when synchronized sound arrived, noise as well as speech—were cinema’s inheritances from the stage.

By the advent of the talkies, the distinctive means of cinema—camera placement and movement, and editing or montage—had been fully developed for dramatic purposes. In the normal business of making a movie, both means are used. Film historians usually attribute the flowering of each, however, to particular national film industries. Germany in the 1920’s made camera movement the sine qua non of movie storytelling, while Russia at the same time made editing the queen of movie techniques. These assignments are too neat, for France, America, and Japan picked up the foreign innovations and often the innovators, too. Still, I know no more rapturously mobile a movie than Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney (1928), directed by G. W. Pabst, no more brilliantly—and rapidly!—edited one than Battleship Potemkin (1925), directed by Sergei Eisenstein. In both countries, virtues were made of environment. Germany after the Great War rebuilt itself along industrial lines, creating great movie studios, within which filmmakers could exercise the control necessary for keeping adventurous camera movements pertinent to a story. In the early Soviet Union, Communism was proving itself productive primarily of scarcity. Film stock was hard to come by. Short takes became the rule, longer ones were excerpted for their most effective frames, and how to fill gaps between takes without exposing more (unavailable) stock led to psychologically guided creativity in making one image suggest things about the next. That third practice is known as the Kuleshov effect after filmmaking collective leader Lev Kuleshov determined to use all the film at hand—and no more—to tell the story at hand.

[For the record, the earliest extensive camera movement is in the pre-Soviet Russian work of Evgeni Bauer; see, especially, After Death (1915), available in a DVD, Mad Love: The Films of Evgeni Bauer, that includes excellent analytical extra features, from Milestone Films. Bauer died four months before the revolution.]

In general, the later the silent, the more polished it is. The American Frank Borzage’s ravishing love stories starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell—Seventh Heaven (1927), Street Angel (1928), and Lucky Star (1929)—yield nothing in mobility and grace to Pabst’s Jeanne Ney; indeed, I think such sound masterpieces as John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) and George Stevens’s I Remember Mama (1948) are descendents in style of the great German silents even as they are developments in theme from the romantic love of Pabst’s and Borzage’s classics to familial love—but see, too, Ford’s echt-Germanic Four Sons (1928), my favorite of his silents. Eisenstein’s Old and New (1929, aka The General Line) is the acme of montage, perhaps too visually dazzling for a plot that has been deprecated as the love story of a girl and her tractor (there’s more to it, I assure you).

Some filmmakers were slow to give in to the talkies, so aesthetically impressive had the silents become. Charles Chaplin famously made two more in the ’30’s, City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936), and the Japanese film industry didn’t make the change until the middle ’30’s. Now and then, someone makes a silent for fun, it seems; Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie (1976) and the recent Oscar-winner, The Artist (2011), come to mind. My favorite anachronistic silents, however, are both shorts, Film (1965), starring Buster Keaton in a screenplay by Samuel Beckett, and The Heart of the World (2000), Canadian independent filmmaker Guy Maddin’s comic tour-de-force consisting of more than 100 shots per minute during an overall duration of six minutes—take that, Sergei Eisenstein!

In my next post, I’ll offer a viewing list, with comments.



Joe Johnson
7/23/2014 01:14 PM

  Ray, this question may be off topic, but do you think that john ford's how green was my valley deserved to win the best picture oscar over citizen kane?

Ray Olson
St. Paul
7/23/2014 03:50 PM

  Joe--Yes, I do, though if two best-picture Oscars had been awarded that year, I wouldn't kick. In fact, I think 1939 wasn't Hollywood's greatest year, as it's trumped up to be. 1941 was. Besides How Green Was My Valley and Citizen Kane, such wonders as Ball of Fire, The Devil and Daniel Webster, Dumbo, High Sierra, The Lady Eve, The Maltese Falcon, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, The Strawberry Blonde, Sullivan's Travels, and They Died with Their Boots On--to mention the ones I think are first-rate--came out in '41. Quite a hand to beat!

San Antonio
7/23/2014 05:01 PM

  Ray, you have written another excellent piece. Apart from Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd (who is nowhere near as good) I have seen few silent films. Do you prefer the silent or 1950's version of BEN-HUR? I think they are both excellent, but prefer Charlton Heston's version.

Ray Olson
St. Paul
7/23/2014 05:45 PM

  Louis--Well, then, my next post will give you plenty to see. It includes the two on-location documentary dramas made by the partnership of Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper. To answer your question, I prefer the 1959 Ben-Hur, though recently re-viewing the 1925 version made me appreciate its virtues. This is what I said for Netflix: "I first saw this film some 40 years ago, and I enjoyed it then primarily because I was sitting beside the projectionist, who was also the proprietor of a small film society and a good friend of mine, trading shots of bourbon. I'll remember forever the musical accompaniment of the 16mm print, which was principally drawn from Liszt's Les Preludes and in which i heard a strong resemblance to "The Bear Went over the Mountain", aka "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow". Every time that theme came up, I solemnly intoned, "The-Bear-Went-O-ver-the-Moun-tain". This time, the watching was more sober and my appreciation keener. Director Niblo virtually never moves the camera but generally knows how to frame and light each static take. When he reaches the sequence in which Ben-Hur's mother and sister encounter him sleeping outside their former home, he absolutely does no wrong until the film reaches Calvary; this part of the movie is spellbindingly strange yet right, very inspired. If the rest of NIblo's version is less striking, memorable, and impressive than Wyler's talkie, it still often forecasts Wyler in particular framings and lightings. Though none of the cast can touch the performances of Wyler's actors, this is an honorable film in the epic mode."

San Antonio
7/23/2014 10:41 PM

  Ray, I have seen GRASS, but not CHANG. Last week I saw THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME and SHE for the first time which were good although not directed by Schoedsack. The FILM ENCYCLOPEDIA lists GOW, THE HEAD HUNTER (1928), and RANGE (1931) and some others by Cooper and/or Schoedsack that are not available. Perhaps no copies exist anymore I don't know. Your method of going through all the films in order by director got me thinking a lot. It is a good way to survey the films although if you look at the FILM ENCYCLOPEDIA it is clear many are not available, at least not yet. Wyler's films are a good example of this. It makes it difficult for me to pin down a favorite director. I still say an auteur is simply a director who picked out everyone who worked on the film instead of the producer who is normally the most important in my view. Ford's films and Hitchcock's are pretty much all available and I have seen them (I have just begun on Ford's silents), but the availability of Walsh's, Curtiz's, Hathaway's and many others are incomplete at best. Then there is Victor Fleming whose GONE WITH THE WIND and THE WIZARD OF OZ are two of the best films in my opinion, but other directors contributed as well. Recently, I saw his JOAN OF ARC and was really impressed. The reviews have never been great, but it was one of the most visually stunning films I have ever seen! I often judge many talkie films as better by their minimal use of dialogue although strangely films from the silent era have been difficult to get into. I was absolutely bored with the Blu-Ray of SUNRISE and gave up less than a third of the way into it. I will be looking at your picks. Dr. Wilson's series about Southern films was good, but I would like to know why Southerners have not produced their own films. They have produced their own music. Much of which was excellent until Garth Brooks hit the scene and did as much damage to country music as the British Invasion did to rock and other American music.


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