I've been told since starting animation school that you have to watch silent films. I'd seen bits and pieces here and there, we watched some Chaplin in class and I once caught a documentary on Mary Pickford on The Knowledge Network*, but while they were entertaining and excellent examples of pantomime, I never took more than a professional interest in them. I was never one of those people who professed that all the best films were made before 1930. The acting was stilted, the film sped up, the dialogue cards too intrusive and plentiful, the stories and gags intended for an unsophisticated audience** and it was all accompanied by some canned ragtime piano music that tinkled on irrespective of what was happening onscreen – not my idea of entertainment.
That was all changed by THIS MAN.
My sister and I went to see the annual Silent Film Gala put on by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, where the musicians, live on stage, accompany a classic silent film. This year's selection was Speedy, starring Harold Lloyd, with a fairly modern score by Carl Davis. It was Lloyd's last silent movie, made in 1928, and shot largely in New York, including Coney Island, the last horse-drawn trolley car, and Babe Ruth (really!). It was fantastic. The print had been restored, it was running at its proper speed, the orchestra was playing a score that had been written for the movie (quite well, I might add, and not some ghastly modern-sounding thing intended to 'update' it, either), and it was absolutely enthralling. The story was simple but solid, the characters engaging, their complications frustrating, the action exciting, the gags plentiful but not distracting, imaginative, and funnier than anything I've seen in recent memory. And the dialogue was surprisingly judicious – most of the time, you knew what they were saying without it being specifically stated, so cards were only used when delivering a specific gag line or important exposition. How flattering, for a moviemaker to trust the audience's imagination instead of assuming they need everything spelled out for them.
On top of that, the whole audience was incredibly involved in the film. I don't know if it was the setting, or the lack of an overpowering sound system, or the fact that you actually had to pay attention to the movie to get anything out of it, but there was much more audible reaction – genuine, unconscious, instant reaction – to what was going on onscreen than I've ever heard before. There was one moment at the very height of the climax where something goes suddenly wrong and the audience, as one, let out a tremendous gasp. It was amazing.
I left the theatre giddy, and with joy discovered that there was a wealth of Harold Lloyd material on YouTube as well as a 5-DVD set of restored films with new scores (most by the same composer as Speedy). Unfortunately it appears all the good clips have been taken off YouTube so you're left with the DVDs (which are better, anyway)... if you have access to a library and that library is blessed enough to have any of them (hint: try VPL downtown), I highly recommend you check them out. Speedy is still my favourite but Safety Last is probably the most famous and is surprisingly gripping while still being funny. You're doing yourself a disservice if you don't at least expose yourself to these movies, no matter how much you think you don't like silent film. Just make sure you give them your full attention; that'll be the most rewarding. Take it from a convert. If nothing else, marvel at how a movie can be both funny and charmingly sincere, the art of which seems to have been mostly lost in the quagmire of snarky dialogue and unsavoury characters.
*Last remaining bastion of integrity in educational television since PBS started making shows intended for resale to the Discovery Channel. Only in Canada, you say? Pity.
**as explained by my Animation History teacher when questioned as to why old cartoons were timed oddly slowly and not terribly funny.