The Silent Film Era ran from 1895 to 1929. As its name suggests, the period is marked by stories without synchronized dialogue or sound. Silent films transmitted dialogue through muted gestures, title cards and mime. Technology was not yet advanced enough to combine motion pictures with recorded sound.
Given the lack of sound and dialogue, silent film actors had to rely on facial expression and body language to impart to the audience whatever they were feeling or portraying. To signal a mood or show a time of the day, silent films frequently used various shades and hues. For instance:
– Blue was used to represent night scenes
– Yellow represented day
– Red was for fire
– Green represented a mysterious environment
Most movie houses, however, hired pianists and organists to provide musical background and emphasize certain narratives on the screen. Some even hired live actors and narrators.
While often misconceived as being primitive, silent movies were quite special in their own right.
Here are a few of our Must See Movies of the long forgotten silent film era (in no particular order):
Un Chien Andalou (1929)
Considered as the ultimate surrealist film, Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) is a masterpiece by Spanish director Luis Bunuel and artist Salvador Dali. This was Bunuel’s first film.
The movie has no plot, and appears to just be unconnected images and events. It was said that the writing of the film began with Bunuel and Dali sharing their dreams with each other and developed with more and more free association of ideas.
One of the most unforgettable scenes of the silent film era happens in this movie, that of an eyeball being slit open.
Luis Buñuel talks about the 1st film he saw & the 1st film he made, ‘Un Chien Andalou’ (1929)
Watch the film below
Greed is based on the novel McTeague by Frank Norris and was directed by Erich von Stroheim.
The whole story is about a progressive, destructive, greed. It all begins when John McTeague’s wife wins a $5,000 lottery prize.
The original film was 9 hours long but was cut down many times and was finally released at just over 2 hours.
Cineastes consider the missing 7 hours of the movie as the holy grail of movie archives, with many people (falsely) claiming to have discovered the missing footage.
A 4 hour long version was assembled by film restorer, Rick Schmidlin. He discovered a copy of von Stroheim’s original shooting script and edited original production stills together with the existing footage.
You can view the 4 hour version on Archive.org HERE
A very well done 2 hour version is also available on Archive.org HERE
Considered as the forerunner of the modern sci-fi movie, this movie had all the ingredients of sci-fi staples like Star Wars and Blade Runner.
The plot is set in a futuristic city and takes a look at the social problems between owners and workers in a capitalist society.
It is also one of the last films that adopted German expressionism.
This film was directed by Fritz Lang. Always a perfectionist, he filmed this for more than a year and used 25,000 extras during the filming.
One of the most notable special effects used was the “Schüfftan Process” (Schufftan Effect), where Lang used mirrors to insert the images of extras into the sets of miniatures.
One of the famous scenes (Maria’s Dance) can be seen here:
City Lights (1931)
Charlie Chaplin is considered the most iconic actor of the silent film era, and this list would not be complete without a movie from Chaplin.
In this movie, Chaplin is charmed by a blind salesgirl (Virginia Cherrill) who believes he is a rich man. Wanting to keep her interest, Chaplin tries to raise enough money to support a costly operation to restore the girl’s eyesight.
Many film historians believe the ending of the movie is one of the most memorable in film history.
The Passion of Joan Arc (1928)
(La passion de Jeanne d’Arc)
Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, the movie depicts the last few hours of the French heroine and saint, Joan of Arc.
It is one of the first movies to use close-ups and do away with make-up.
The lead actress, Renée Maria Falconetti, is considered to have the best depiction of Joan of Arc in movie history.
If you are interested in learning more about the history of motion pictures, explore our other history articles here.