The Silent Cinema

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As Richard Abel observes, “The materiality of silent cinema…has become so unfamiliar to us, so different from that of our own cinema in the late twentieth century” that it is difficult to view silent film as anything but anachronistic (4). However, with 2011’s The Artist—an homage to silent film—winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards, it may be worthwhile to examine the nature and appeal of silent film. In a way, silent film does something that the modern day special effects spectaculars do not do: it leaves more to the imagination and calls upon the viewer to use his or her own mind in correspondence with the moving pictures. This paper will analyze what it is that makes silent film unique and show how the nature of silent film allows viewers to envision for themselves those aspects of the drama that are left out (voice, dialogue) while emphasizing others (action, place, physical humor) in much the same way that an audience participates with a live performance in the theater.

The Nature and Beginning of Silent Film

Film is a visual medium. Yet, this does not mean that there are not other elements to film. The silent film era, for some, recalls a time when movies were silent and simply visually expressive. But as Melinda Szaloky states, it is a “truism that ‘silent cinema was never silent’” (109). Indeed, Szaloky notes that “the sounds of the silent have been conceived of as something external, an accompaniment to the visual universe of the film” (109). Silent film, from its very beginnings in the basement of the Grand Café in Paris in 1895, was ever a medium that relied solely on the visual power of its moving pictures. Indeed, the Lumiere brothers’ early films were simply brief clips or photographs of simple acti...

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...ilm, like a storybook with pictures, was meant to be seen and felt—not heard or read.

Works Cited

Abel, Richard. Silent Film. UK: Athlone Press, 1996. Print.

Dardis, Thomas. Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down. NY: Scribner, 1979.


Ebert, Roger. “The Films of Buster Keaton (1923—1928).” Chicago Sun-Times. 10

Nov 2002. Web. 6 Mar 2012.

Hall, Mordaunt. “The General: A Civil War Farce.” New York Times. 8 Feb 1927.

Web. 6 Mar 2012.

Mast, Gerald. A Short History of the Movies. NY: Pearson Longman, 2006. Print.

“The Popular Sin.” Film Daily. 2 Jan 1927. Web. 6 Mar 2012.

Sann, Paul. The Lawless Decade: A Pictorial History of the Roaring Twenties. Web.

6 Mar 2012.

Szaloky, Melinda. “Sounding Images in Silent Film: Visual Acoustics in Murnau’s

Sunrise.” Cinema Journal, vol. 41, no. 2, 2002, 109-131. Print.

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