Today kicks off the 15th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theatre. It will be my third summer attending, and it’s one of the highlights of my year.
Like most people, I was ignorant of the power and beauty of silent film, until I had a very strange dream in 2006. It was a chaotic tumble of images, and when I woke up, I had a name pounding in my head like a pulse. It was insistent. (I don’t usually hear voices in my head, I swear!)
The name was Louise Brooks. I wasn’t certain I knew who she was, so I looked her up and discovered she was a silent film star who wrote a well-respected book called Lulu in Hollywood. I went to my neighborhood used bookstore (remember those?) to find it, but they didn’t have a copy, so I bought Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns instead. The Silent Clowns is a wonderful book about the great silent comedians, focusing on Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. I read it cover to cover. Then I rented my first Buster Keaton film, The Cameraman, and that was it. I was in love. Not just with the comedian himself but the whole era of film. It probably helped that I had a bout of flu soon after that allowed me to watch every single Buster Keaton silent film and short in the course of a week. There’s nothing like total immersion.
Many people today have never seen a silent film. Certainly there aren’t many who have seen one in a movie palace with live music. Even those of us fortunate enough to attend the SF Silent Film Festival, which is the closest we get to the original experience, are missing an important element. The original films were made on silver nitrate film stock. Silver nitrate film shimmers beautifully when projected, which is where the term “the silver screen” comes from. Unfortunately, it is also highly inflammable, and it emits toxic fumes when it’s deteriorating. It is so dangerous that it’s now actually illegal to project silver nitrate film without a special projector and viewing room. Only those with access to film archives get to watch them anymore. Oh, how I’d love to be one of those privileged few! The films that have been restored and shown to the public have been transferred to safety film, which is just that–safe–but it’s not the same.
There are so many misconceptions about silent films. Nowadays people dismiss them as primitive, artless, badly acted, jerky and unwatchable. While it’s easy to find films poorly produced on cheap DVDs that validate this dismissal, a little effort will reveal an artistry, freshness and level of creativity that makes one envious of early film audiences. Some of the most beautiful films were created in 1928, just as sound was being introduced.
Theatres and studios were making the big transition to sound by 1929. Ironically, the very first film audiences had no interest in sound, since it was the miracle of moving images that fascinated them. Sound would have been developed for film much sooner, but early experiments were dropped until the novelty of moving images wore off. Silent film audiences became extremely sophisticated and had no trouble lip reading. They complained loudly, or laughed knowingly, when the actors mouthed lines that didn’t match the intertitles.
Projection speed (the number of frames per second) is the reason so many silent films look wrong today when they’re not shown correctly. When filmmaking was in it’s infancy, nothing was standard. Different companies produced film stock that was different widths, with different numbers and shapes of sprockets. The movie cameras were hand cranked, with different kinds of scenes cranked at different speeds for different effects. The movie projectors didn’t have standard projection speeds. Unscrupulous movie theatre owners would show films extra fast to allow more showings for greater profit. ( They’d probably still be doing it today if they could get away with it!) For years it was believed that all silent films should be projected at 28 frames per second, but that rule of thumb is too fast for some and too slow for others. Cue sheets were sent out with films to the cinemas, and the musicians playing along also provided sound effects. Special scores were written for prestige films, as well as songs, and the movie palaces in big cities were accompanied by full orchestras. Just imagine it!
The comedies of Buster Keaton are a brilliant introduction to silent film. Keaton’s work remains fresh and even postmodern, and he’s called the most silent of the comedians, because his comedy needs the fewest intertitles. It’s probably a mistake to begin with the dramas, since they are the ones that come across as melodramatic to modern audiences. After some exposure to them, you get used to the heightened emotion and gestures, and they are genuinely moving. Here’s a list of some of my favorite silent films:
- The General and The Navigator (okay, just about any Buster Keaton silent)
- The Passion of Joan of Arc
- Tol’able David
- The Kid Brother (Harold Lloyd’s comic tribute to Tol’able David)
- Metropolis (look for the newly restored version due out soon)
- Diary of a Lost Girl
- The Thief of Bagdad
- Sparrows and Daddy Long Legs (for two sides of Mary Pickford)
- The Crowd
- Modern Times (Chaplin, made in the 30s, because he was stubborn)
Oh, and read Lulu in Hollywood. Louise Brooks insists.