Silent film

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A silent film is a film with no accompanying, synchronized recorded spoken dialogue. The idea of combining motion pictures with recorded sound is nearly as old as the motion picture itself, but because of the technical challenges involved, most films were silent before the late 1920s.

Scenery art from Fritz Lang's Metropolis (Germany, 1927)
Scenery art from Fritz Lang's Metropolis (Germany, 1927)



The years before sound came to the movies are known as the silent era among film scholars and historians. The art of motion pictures grew into full maturity before silent films were replaced by talking pictures or talkies and many film buffs believe the esthetic quality of cinema actually decreased for several years as the new medium of sound was adapted to the movies. The visual quality of silent movies (especially those produced during the 1920s) was often extremely high but later televised presentations of poor, second or even third generation copies made from already damaged and neglected stock (usually played back at incorrect speeds and with inappropriate music) led to the widely held misconception that these films were primitive and barely watchable by modern standards.


Since 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 of the film or enhanced its atmosphere.

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 (Cook, 1990). 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 neighborhood 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, especially early in the medium's history, or compiled from existing music by the pianist, organist, orchestra conductor or the movie studio itself, which would send out a cue sheet with the film. Starting with Joseph Carl Breil's score 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 theater with original, specially composed scores (Eyman, 1997).

By the height of the silent era, movies were the single largest source of employment for instrumental musicians (at least in America) and the introduction of talkies, which happened simultaneously with the onset of the Great Depression, was devastating.

Film industries in some countries devised other ways of bringing sound to silents. The early cinema of Brazil featured fitas cantatas, filmed operettas with singers lip-synching behind the screen (Parkinson, 1995, p. 69). In Japan, films had not only live music, but 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 (Standish, 2005). Their popularity was one reason why silents persisted well into the 1930s in Japan.

Acting techniques

One of the most enduring images of the silent era: Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (USA, 1925)
One of the most enduring images of the silent era: Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (USA, 1925)

The medium of silent film required a greater emphasis on body language and facial expression so the audience could better understand what an actor was feeling and portraying on screen. Combined with cultural differences arising from the passage of time, modern-day audiences may be disoriented watching some films from the silent era. Silent comedies tend to be more popular in the modern era than drama, partly because overacting is more natural in comedy. However, some silent films were quite subtly acted, depending on the director and the skill of the actors. Overacting in silent films was sometimes a habit actors transferred from their stage experience and directors who understood the intimacy of the new medium discouraged it.

Projection speed

Most silent films were shot at slower speeds (or "frame rates") than sound films, typically at 16 to 20 frames per second rather than 24. 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.

Lost films

Thousands of silent films were made during the years before the introduction of sound but some historians estimate between 80 and 90 percent of them have been lost forever. Movies of the first half of the 20th century were filmed on an unstable, highly flammable nitrate film stock which required careful preservation to keep it from decomposing over time. Most of these films were considered to have no commercial value after they were shown in theaters and were carelessly preserved if at all. Over the decades their prints crumbled into dust (or goo). Many were recycled and a sizable number were destroyed in both studio fires and space-saving projects. As a result, silent film preservation has been a high priority among movie historians.

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), Mel Brooks with Silent Movie (1976) and indie filmmaker Eric B. Borgman with his film The Deserter (2004). Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien's acclaimed drama Three Times (2005) is during its middle third a silent, complete with intertitles.

Some notable silent films

With director and year of release:

Before 1915

1915 - 1919

1920 - 1925

A 1927 poster advertising Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924).
A 1927 poster advertising Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924).

1926 - 1930

A 1926 Soviet poster for The Battleship Potemkin.
A 1926 Soviet poster for The Battleship Potemkin.

1931 and later

Top grossing silent films

  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 (film) (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 (1927) - $2,500,000
  14. What Price Glory (1926) - $2,400,000
  15. Abie's Irish Rose (1928) - $1,500,000

See also


  • Brownlow, Kevin. Behind the Mask of Innocence. New York: Knopf, 1990. ISBN 0-394-57747-7
  • Bean, Jennifer M., and Diane Negra, eds. A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema (Camera Obscura Book). Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002. ISBN 0822329999
  • Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film, 2nd edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 1990. ISBN 0-393-95553-2
  • Eyman, Scott. The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-1930. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. ISBN 0-684-81162-6
  • Parkinson, David. History of Film. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995. ISBN 0-500-20277-X
  • Standish, Isolde. A New History of Japanese Cinema: A Century of Narrative Film. New York: Continuum, 2005. ISBN 0-8264-1709-4

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