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The New Era of Silent Movies, Part II

“It’s almost like you have to think differently than you do with regular movies… It’s such a different rhythm. It’s such a different experience.” Rob Zombie

One of the most impressive and extensive restorations to date was that lavished upon ‘Nosferatu’ (1922), which is considered to be the first genuine horror film and one of the most unsettling examples of the genre thanks to the skin-crawling appearance of Max Schreck as the cadaverous vampire, Count Orlock.

still from 'Nosferatu' (1922)

‘Nosferatu’ (1922), dir: F.W. Murnau

Murnau’s gothic fairy tale was thought to have survived only in well-worn duplicate prints after Bram Stoker’s widow won a legal battle to suppress this unauthorized adaptation of her husband’s 1897 novel ‘Dracula’. All existing prints were believed to have been destroyed along with the original negative. It is nothing short of a miracle that the film has been restored to the extent that it has by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung (F.W. Murnau Foundation), giving the impression that the latest release had been sourced from a first generation print. In fact, it was pieced together from multiple sources which had suffered varying degrees of ill-treatment over the years. Such improvements and enhancements do not simply offer a more pleasurable viewing experience; they effectively dissolve the barrier between the viewer and the images on screen to allow greater engagement with the characters and give the film an immediacy that belies its age. It is no longer an artefact but has been brought back to life.

Director Robert Wiene’s ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ (1920) is another historically significant film that has been saved from the ignominy of the bargain bin by an extensive restoration. Although only nominally a horror film, it establishes several key elements of the genre, most notably the inclusion of an archetypal ‘mad doctor’ (Werner Krauss, who is revealed to be the director of a madhouse in the film’s final scene) and his homicidal ‘creature’ (Cesare, the somnambulist played by Conrad Veidt) who abducts the heroine and carries her off across the rooftops.

With its bizarre sets of painted shadows and forced perspective suggestive of a madman’s vision, ‘Caligari’ is one of the most striking examples of German expressionism. Those who have seen it in its numerous pre-restoration editions will find it hard to believe that the stunning new edition by the Murnau Foundation is the same film.

Influence of the Early German Horror Films

Both ‘Nosferatu’ and ‘Caligari’ continue to exercise a fascination for modern audiences who are now more likely to explore related releases such as the supernatural fantasy ‘Warning Shadows’ (1923), Paul Leni’s atmospheric haunted house comedy ‘The Cat and the Canary’ (1927), ‘The Penalty’ (1920) with Lon Chaney Snr as a crippled crime lord and Wiene’s ‘The Hands of Orlac’ (1924). The latter stars Veidt in the tale of a pianist who fears he has inherited homicidal tendencies after having the hands of a murderer grafted onto his amputated stumps. Such morbid subjects were evidently acceptable to audiences before the Hays code of 1930 prohibited graphic violence, drug addiction and explicit allusions to sexual intercourse to be depicted on screen.

But if any film is likely to convert the skeptical to the neglected art of silent film, it is the macabre period costume drama ‘The Man Who Laughs’ (1928) again with Conrad Veidt, this time cast as a clown bent on revenge after being gruesomely disfigured as a child by a sadistic monarch. The story was based on a novel by Victor Hugo and, although set in 18th century France, the German director Paul Leni blended Grand Guignol with German expressionism to produce a truly remarkable and richly atmospheric film that deserves to be better known and more frequently viewed.

The perennial popularity of these classic early horror films is proof that the language of silent cinema remains truly international, but they only represent a small portion of the treasures on offer. New converts to silent cinema will discover that they are able to enjoy films made in a number of countries where the new medium was finding its most eloquent expression.

still from the French film 'L'argent' (1928, dir: Marcel L'Herbier

‘L’argent’ (1928, dir: Marcel L’Herbier

In Russia Sergej Eisenstein was perfecting the art of film as propaganda and developing the technique of montage for ‘Battleship Potemkin’ (1925), ‘Strike’ (1925) and ‘October 1917’ (1927); in Japan Yasujiro Ozu was assimilating American influences in his earliest forays into the medium that he would come to master, in France Marcel L’Herbier was using film to portray psychological conflict in his anti-capitalist drama ‘L’argent’ (Money, 1928) and in Denmark Carl Theodor Dreyer was pioneering the close-up, low camera angles and harsh natural lighting to convey the emotional turmoil of his leading actress in ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ (1928). Also in France, Abel Gance devised and utilized many innovative techniques in his historical epic ‘Napoleon’ (1927) that gave lie to the impression that silent films were static and unsophisticated, while in Germany Murnau, Pabst and Lang were being celebrated for films noted for their innovative optical effects, technical brilliance, fluid camera movements and naturalistic acting. It was these achievements which subsequently brought their directors to the attention of the Hollywood studios where other European émigrés such as Billy Wilder, William Dieterle, Josef von Sternberg, Ernst Lubitsch, William Wyler, and Erich von Stroheim had found employment after fleeing Nazi oppression.

still from 'Sunrise' (1927), dir: F.W. Murnau

‘Sunrise’ (1927), dir: F.W. Murnau

At Fox Murnau was to make what is generally acknowledged as one of the crowning achievements of the silent era, ‘Sunrise’ (1927) for which he and his technicians devised innovative in-camera effects and other techniques such as using children and models in the middle distance to create the illusion of a large city on a comparatively small set.  A 2012 Sight and Sound magazine poll for the BFI named it as the fifth best film in the history of motion pictures and time has not dimmed or devalued its visual and emotional impact.

It is worth mentioning that Murnau also made the only silent movie that did not include the customary intertitles (save one to justify the upbeat epilogue). ‘The Last Laugh’ (1924) stared Emil Jannings as a hotel doorman who cannot face the humiliation of being sacked from his job and resorts to stealing his own uniform so he can continue the pretence. It remains an extremely moving film and testament to the potency of the silent image.


“When you see a silent movie, you understand everything that’s going on from the images because the images are so strong.” Monica Bellucci (Italian actor)

Not all silent movies have aged as well, however. ‘The Big Parade’ (1925), directed by King Vidor and starring John Gilbert, was the biggest grossing film of the silent era netting some $20 million (equivalent to $250 mio. today), but it is hampered by a sickly sweet romantic subplot and its battle scenes were bettered by both ‘Wings’ (1927) and ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ (1929). ‘Wings’ was helmed by director William Wellman who drew on his own combat experience for the aerial dogfights and was justly rewarded with the first Academy Award for Best Picture. Lewis Milestone’s anti-war film was originally released in a silent version with synchronized sound, but converted to a talkie before re-release in 1939.

Anyone who imagines that films of the period were static tableaus or elaborate pantomimes animated in fits and starts by actors favouring exaggerated gestures from the Sarah Bernhardt school of barnstorming melodrama will be impressed by the naturalistic performances, fluid camera work, optical effects and opulent sets that feature in the aforementioned films as well as the prestige pictures produced by the major Hollywood studios toward the end of the 20s.

photo of Douglas Fairbanks in 'The Thief of Bagdad' (1924), dir. Raoul Walsh

Douglas Fairbanks in ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ (1924), dir. Raoul Walsh

If you doubt it, watch any one of the extravagant spectacles staring the athletic Douglas Fairbanks whose ‘Robin Hood’ (1922) qualified as the second most expensive movie of the silent era. (It was beaten only by the 1925 version of ‘Ben-Hur’ staring Ramon Navarro, which is justly celebrated for its exhilarating chariot race, even though we all know who wins before it even begins).

Fairbanks, whose ‘Mark of Zorro’ (1920) saw the big screen debut of the original Dark Knight and whose skill with a whip presaged Indiana Jones, never ran when he could leap and never leapt when he could fly—as he did most convincingly in the silent screen’s spectacular Arabian nights fantasy ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ (1924). The latter’s sets (designed by William Cameron Menzies) and special effects are still impressive in the age of CGI where armies of computer-generated warriors are commonplace, but silent film buffs swear they are no substitute for the massed crowds of costumed extras that were regularly mustered for silent epics, or the massive sets which only the Hollywood studio system could put at its directors’ and stars’ disposal.

photo of director D.W. Griffith on location

D.W. Griffith on location

Directors such as D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. deMille and Erich von Stroheim made outrageous demands in the name of entertainment and authenticity, which drove their studios to the point of financial ruin. Griffith’s ‘Intolerance’ (1916), for example, claimed the lives of several extras who were drowned when gallons of water flooded the set during the destruction of Belshazzar’s palace, while von Stroheim insisted on filming the climactic scene of ‘Greed’ in the searing heat of Death Valley which led to severe cases of heatstroke among his cast and crew. Stroheim was a notorious martinet and a profligate, who once demanded that the costume department furnish the male cast members of a period drama with silk underwear embroidered with the correct coat of arms on the pretext that they would play their roles more efficiently if they knew their uniforms were authentic down to the last detail. Thanks to DVD his lost masterpiece ‘Greed’ survives in a recently reconstructed four hour director’s cut which the panic stricken studio had reduced to two in the vain hope of reclaiming some of its crippling costs.

The name of Cecil B. deMille is synonymous with excess, but he trumped himself by bringing real lions on the set for a scene in ‘Male and Female’ (1919) during which Gloria Swanson was required to feign unconsciousness while a fully grown lion held her down with one paw on her bare back. DeMille himself kept a loaded revolver at his side during that particular scene while the beast’s keepers cracked their whips off camera to goad it into roaring on cue.

It was Swanson who summed up the allure of the silent era when she played faded screen diva Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s elegy to Hollywood’s golden era, ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (1950). During a screening of one of her own movies (‘Queen Kelly’ directed by Erich von Stroheim), Norma leaps to her feet and caught in the beam of the projector delivers the classic line, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces then.”

Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton

She was doubtless referring to the enigmatic Greta Garbo and heart throb Rudolph Valentino, but while they are now regarded as icons of another more innocent age, comedian and director Buster Keaton remains perennially popular and his films among the most watchable and enjoyable of any period. Keaton incidentally made a fleeting appearance in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ playing one of Norma’s aging friends, referred to rather disparagingly in the film as her ‘waxworks’. His dead pan expression earned him the sobriquet ‘The Great Stone Face’ and made him a worldwide star on a par with Chaplin, but while Chaplin’s art now seems compromised by cloying sentimentality, Keaton’s sardonic sensibility and restless ingenuity have ensured that the best of his surviving films retain their ability to entertain and amaze. Keaton, a former child acrobat, risked his life on more than one occasion for the sake of a gag, the most famous being when he narrowly escaped being flattened by the front of a two-storey timber house during the hurricane sequence in ‘Steamboat Bill, Jr.’. The house collapses leaving Keaton framed in the narrow window, a gap of mere inches on either side.

Buster Keaton in 'Sherlock, Jr.' (1924)

Buster Keaton in ‘Sherlock, Jr.’ (1924)

He also created a dazzling sequence for ‘Sherlock, Jr.’ (1924) in which he played a cinema projectionist who dreams himself onto the screen and through a series of precarious situations as the scenery changes in quick succession. Fortunately, most of Keaton’s full-length features survive intact and have been lovingly restored including ‘The General’ (which has been ranked as one of the finest films ever made by both the AFI and the BFI), although a number of his equally inventive shorts are in poorer shape and several are missing key sequences.

The only serious rival to Keaton and Chaplin in the comedy stakes was bespectacled comedian Harold Lloyd who was known as ‘The Third Genius’. Lloyd shrewdly retained the rights to all of his films and preserved them for posterity along with home movie footage and thousands of photographs so that when his estate authorised their release on DVD they were in pristine condition and could offer copious bonus features. But while he was happy to give his fans a recorded tour of his magnificent Hollywood estate, he was more guarded when it came to the secrets that had astonished audiences in his most popular film, ‘Safety Last’ (1923). For the climactic scene Harold’s character scales the outside of a department store after a human fly that he had engaged for a publicity stunt fails to show up. His gravity defying stunt – which involved dangling from a clock face (a scene that was replicated in Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’) – became one of the iconic images of the silent era and also one of the best kept secrets in movie history.

It was not until 1981, a decade after his death, that the makers of the Thames Television documentary ‘Hollywood’ revealed that it was essentially an optical illusion created by constructing a false section of the exterior of the department store on the roof of a seven-storey building at 908 South Broadway.  By clever placement of the camera Lloyd was able to scale the new structure overlooking downtown Los Angeles while in fact being only a few feet from the ground. Nevertheless, it was still a physically demanding role as Lloyd had lost his thumb, index finger and half of the palm of his right hand in an earlier accident when a prop bomb that had been packed with real explosive had detonated prematurely.

Read: The New Era of Silent Films Part I, Part III (with essential filmography, bibliography, and documentaries)

'Das Testament des Dr Mabuse' (1933), dir: Fritz Lang

‘Das Testament des Dr Mabuse’ (1933), dir: Fritz Lang