Posted by gregferrara on December 11, 2013
Many stars of the silent period became stars of the sound period, too. Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo are two big examples of a star’s silent movie appeal crossing over into the sound era. Others include Norma Shearer, Donald Crisp, Janet Gaynor and Wallace Beery, all actors who gracefully made the transition from silents to sound. But would they be famous, would they be known today at all without their sound careers? While some silent stars still have immense name recognition, like Rudolph Valentino, their films are known with far fewer frequency than their more successful sound counterparts.
When it comes to silent and sound careers, the question I always ask is, “How could it have been different?” Greta Garbo is a fascinating example to me because she became enormously famous in the silent period in just a very short stretch of time. This led to her becoming a star in the sound period because everyone wanted to hear her talk. There was no “Bow Talks” or “Crawford Talks” for Clara and Joan, also big stars of the silent period. Garbo made an enormous impact on the sound period by virtue of being such a big star of the silent period but, honestly, I’ve never known anyone, when asked to name their favorite Garbo, who named a silent film (not to claim they don’t exist, mind you). It’s always Queen Christina, Grand Hotel, Anna Karenina, Anna Christie, Camille or Ninotchka. Okay, actually, it’s almost always Queen Christina or Ninotchka. You’ll hear high praise for Mysterious Lady or Flesh and the Devil but, frankly, nothing approaching her sound work.
Joan Crawford also had a very successful silent career but, again, few people mention Our Dancing Daughters as their favorite (although it’s a good one) over, say, Mildred Pierce or Humoresque or any other of the many, many more films she did in the sound period. Norma Shearer might have also enjoyed great silent success but if you ask a fan for their favorite, you’ll get Marie Antoinette, The Divorcee or The Women over anything from her silent period.
Others, like Clara Bow, had an uneasy transition to sound and soon threw in the towel. As a result, her sound films aren’t very well known but, importantly, neither are her silents. She was the star of It, Wings, Hula and Mantrap, movies known to film buffs but, to the general public, barely known at all.
So, the question is, are the films of the silent period receding so quickly as to make those mainly associated with them the ghosts of movie history? When coming up with names of stars who had both silent and sound careers and yet are more recognized for their silent work, it is a short list indeed. There’s Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, of course, and the Gish sisters and that’s huge, don’t mistake me. But considering there were dozens of big names in the silent period, that’s not a lot of crossover successes known more for their silent work than their sound work. Despite how many silent films influenced the great directors of the thirties and forties and fifties, they are relegated to midnight and early morning hour showings on television if they’re shown at all. They were always outsiders in the modern world once sound emerged but it’s gotten worse with each passing year.
The causes are many: the acting styles seem alien to modern day viewers, the visual styles are often impressionistic rather than realistic and the lack of consistent scores from one print to the next makes for disjointed viewing experiences. Given how much music can affect the action the viewer sees, it’s a real problem. Imagine if every time you watched Psycho or Jaws, the music was different. Sometimes it was that stunningly effective original score, other times it was a generic organ score and yet other times, it was a re-imagined score by a modern day performance art group. I can’t imagine the shower scene of Psycho or any of the shark approaches from Jaws impressing all that much with generic music slapped on. I’m sure they’d still be good but it wouldn’t be the same. For instance, I saw The Crowd years ago on PBS with a generic piano score thrown over it and still liked it a lot. But when I saw it on the big screen at the AFI years later, with its original organ score played live, it was amazing.
The fact is, even among movie buffs, I rarely see conversations online centered around silent film. Before you think I’m pointing fingers, let me point out that I’m as guilty as they come. I’m familiar with the classics we all are (Intolerance, Birth of a Nation, Way Down East, Greed, Metropolis, The General, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Potemkin, The Gold Rush, Napoleon, Nosferatu, Sunrise, The Crowd, City Lights and many other big titles) but I’m no expert when it comes to the hundreds of silent films that didn’t get written up in the film books. In fact, I’m pretty clueless on them.
As time advances, the length of the silent period shortens. In 1941, the year that Citizen Kane saw its release, commercial studio sound film had existed for just around fourteen years, only a fraction of the silent period, from 1890 on. Even the feature length silent period from, say, 1913 to 1928, was longer than the sound period in 1941. By now, however, the sound period’s length is many times that of the feature length silent period and, as a result, the silent period becomes easier to push aside. When you have eighty plus years of different genres and periods in the sound era to catch up on, it’s easier to relegate the silents to the handful of classics mentioned above.
And don’t fool yourself, the same thing will happen to movies of every decade since. It’s why I think “Greatest of All Time” lists should no longer attempt to cover all of film history but sections. Trying to lump everything together becomes increasingly difficult in a medium as vibrant and ever-changing as the cinema. The short films of the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century are already relegated to the status of curiosities to be found at archive sites and YouTube. Silent feature length films carry more weight, thanks to story and running time, but find themselves increasingly becoming ghosts in the canon, the movies you mention out of respect before turning your attention back to the sound films we all know and love. Of course, that will go too. Maybe in a hundred years, people will read our conversations to get a feel for how film was in the Golden Era, when people still watched films from the era and had lively discussions about it. Then we’ll be the ghosts, informing future generations of a past long gone but, hopefully, not forgotten.
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