Wednesday, December 21, 2016

What's to Like About Silent Films

As I delve into a Season of Silents, I thought I might take a moment to state that I am not expert on silent films, I have only my experience to share. Here are some things I have learned from watching silent movies.

Silent films have varying picture quality.

There was a time when my only exposure to silent film did not go far beyond Nosferatu and Phantom of the Opera. At that time, the silents I saw were in pretty bad shape, the actors looked ghastly, their makeup stood out in a ghoulish way, the movies were played at the wrong speed or were heavily edited, making the films pretty hard to watch. Restoration efforts in the present day have significantly altered the offerings of quite a few silent films today, allowing us to see them as they were originally intended to be seen, often with tints or colorization, and proper musical score or synchronized sound. It's often difficult to fathom that such pristine prints depict action from 100 years ago or more.

Silent films have well known actors and directors from the sound era.

My experience watching many pre-code movies led me to begin exploring the silent era. In watching many films of favorite actors and directors, I found myself drawn to silent films where they also played a part. Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Neil Hamilton, Joan Crawford, Marie Dressler, John & Lionel Barrymore, among others, were what drew me in.

Not all silent movies are slapstick comedies.

When many people think of silent movies, they picture Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Cops going on wild chases, but many genres are represented in silent film besides comedies, including westerns, drama, romance, mystery, documentary and horror. Silent films are also pre-code films, and include subjects of prostitution, adultery, drug abuse, and crime. Silent films can be thought provoking and timeless, with topics that remain relevant in the present day.

A good musical score is essential.

The score of a silent film is crucial to the enjoyment of the film. I believe it's a matter of personal preference what composers and orchestras you will enjoy, as I've read reviews from some folks who adore an orchestral score that absolutely grated on me. I am a purist and always prefer to hear a reproduction of the original score when available, but usually this is not the case, and there are certain composers I appreciate more than others.

Not all home video offerings are created equal.

I have found Flicker Alley and Criterion to offer the best releases of films with good picture quality and orchestral scores. Kino Lorber is also fairly consistent in releasing a good quality product, though often the best available prints are not without defects. Warner Archive also tends to provide fair quality prints. Grapevine is not always the finest quality but still a step above Alpha Video. I purchase from Alpha Video only if I really want to see a film and there are no other options available.

What's in store for the Season of Silents?

While I have more than enough silent films to watch every day during the Winter, I won't try to fool myself into thinking I can watch and write about one every day. My ambitious goal is to try and watch and write about three each week, but my minimum expectation is to post about at least one every weekend. I have many films I haven't seen in awhile that I'd like to revisit and many new films I have not yet seen.

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