Age of the Silver Screen.
(Click on thumbnails to view full-size images.)
A silent film is a film without any recorded sound or dialgoue. Most films, as a result of the technical challenges of equppting sound with the actual moving picture, were silent until the late 1920s. The silent era is sometimes referred to as the "Age of the Silver Screen" but are also known as the "Silent Era" to most people. The actual art of motion picture making grew before silent films were replaced with talking (known as talkies) but many film historians believe the actual quality of cinema decreased for many years as a result of sound being added into movies. The visual quality of these silent movies, especially those made in the 1920s, were often very high but were later televised horribly. Using poor, even third generation copies orginally made from neglected and damaged stock of the original film, often being shown with inappropriate music in certain scenes and played at the wrong speed, it was led to believe that film in that era was "primitive" and were deemed unwatchable.
Since silent film had no dialgoue what-so-ever, onscreen intertiles. (The piece of printed, text edited in the midst of a scene. You have probably seen them, but intertiles are their proper name. See the above two photos and click on them to see intertiles as presented in The Temptress, 1926.) They were used to show story points, dialgue or even comment on the action for the film's viewing audience. A title writer became crutial in silent film and were seperate from the scenario writer who actually wrote the plot of a film. Intertiles, later shorted to titles, became vital.
The actors and actresses starring in these silent pictures were required to emphasis their body language and facial expressions to the dramatic degree, as to allow the audience to understand what was going on in a particular scene on screen or how a particular character was feeling. As time passes, most modern-day audiences may be disoriented when watching silent films, but silent comedies tend to be much more popular than the dramas, merely because overreacting is purely...natural comedy. This is why, when watching a star such as Greta Garbo, who started her career as a silent film star, in a talking picture, she still uses her body language and her expression as if her mouth wasn't moving at all.
Until 1925, most silent films were shot at lower film speeds or "frame rates" than sound films. They typically had sixteen to twenty-three frames per second depending on the year the film was made and the studio, rather than the usual twenty-four frames. Unless these types of film are shown at their original speeds, often quite carefully, the films can appear unnaturally fast and jerky--which merely reinforces this era's "alien" appearance to today's moden movie-going audience. At the same time, some scenes were intenotionally "undercranked" during shooting in order to quicken the action. This was mostly used in slapstick comedies. (Something else you probably have seen and never realized it in several television spoofs.) These films were usually hand cranked, so there can, of course, be variation within one film to another. Film speed is often argumentative between film historians when silent films are shown today--especially when DVDs are released of silent film.
Sadly, though, during this era, thousands upon thousands of silent films have been lost forever. Historians estimate almost eighty to ninety percent, which is way too much to be desired. Movies made in that time were filmed on highly flammable (figures, right?) nitrate film stock which requires careful preservation. It decomposes over time and most films were considered to have no money-making value after shown in theaters. All of the money had already been squeezed out of them. they were carelessly preserved and as a result, the prints became dust or even goo. Many were destroyed or recycled, if you can believe it, in studio fires or space-saving projects over the years. Film preservation has become a fight until the end--click here to read more about it at ClassicStardust.com.
(Damaged film photograph courtesy of the National Film Preservation Foundation.)