Silents Was Golden

A question I am absolutely never asked is, “What is a silent film.” So I will now attempt to answer it.

Before the invention of silent films, audiences flocked to see something called “wordies.” These early films had recorded soundtracks that played alongside the picture on a phonograph. But because it was not yet technically possible to synchronize the sound to the picture, these “records” told completely different stories to the ones shown in the pictures. The “audience” (literally: listeners) could have the fun of making up their own connections between the two storylines. Sometimes the wrong records went out with the cans of film, and this made it even more fun, although sometimes the picture would finish ahead of the soundtrack and everyone would be left just sitting in the dark, listening. It was great.

In the days of the “wordies,” “phoning in” a performance was commonplace.

But then Thomas Edison, probably egged on by notorious shit-stirrer Alexander Graham Bell, invented what he called “silence” and started pumping it into movie theaters through special hosepipes.  Many found that this enhanced the viewing experience, though the first formulas for “silence” were dangerously flammable.

Soon, silent movies were driving out the wordies. People said that it had always bothered them, hearing conversations and noises that had nothing to do with the film they were watching. It was like being at home in the tenement with the paper-thin walls listening to the neighbours arguing while you tried to watch your husband.

A minute’s silence.

Then music entered the picture, though not literally, and changed everything. Silence was expensive to manufacture (if it was done cheaply, it would be full of hiss and crackle and hardly worthy of the name) but musicians would actually pay cinemas (or “theaters” as they were known) to come in out of the perpetual twentieth-century cold and rain and have somewhere they could practice. The only condition imposed by the management was that the music should begin and end approximately when the film did. For a small fee, the musicians (or “accompanionionists”) were allowed to play overtures and exit music also.

A sciencer, or sciencist

Sciencers were already at work, however, trying to find ways to let the pictures make noise. The great pioneer D.W. Griffithses released some of his old wordies, whose accompanying irrelevant records are now sadly lost, with what were billed as synchronized soundtracks, but Griffithses was humiliated in Oklahoma City when a curtain collapsed, revealing the filmmaker barking through a megaphone in a variety of assumed dialects, while honking car horns and slapping his thighs (each of Griffithses’s thighs had its own unique timbre, allowing him to produce a surprisingly wide range of sounds, from “imperiled virgin” to “war’s peace.”)

D.W. Griffithses, owner of the era’s most versatile thighs (not pictured).

The first true “sounds film” or “talksie” was THE JAZZ MASTER, despite the fact that it was a silent film. In a few remarkable scenes, star Val Bowlson moved his lips in an exaggerated manner, and at the same time, noises emerged from a speaker in the back of the “theater,” giving the startling impression that he was a ventriloquist, adding to his other talents (Bowlson, a black actor, habitually performed in “jewface” makeup and sang in an assumed Eastern European accent. Different times.)

Val Bowlson in full makeup.

The industry reacted with ferment, a bit like when Higher Frame Rate films changed everything. For a while, industry bosses like Thriving Alberg believed that sounds and musical silent films could co-exist, “like ebony and ivory side by side upon the piano keyboard,” as he cleverly put it.

But fickle audiences and feckless critics now saw the talksie as the new, modern and important thing, and films without humorous racial impersonations were consigned to the history books, which were in turn consigned to the junk heaps (of history). Like it or lump it (or simultaneously like/lump it), soundtracks with accompanying lip close-ups were here to stay.

And thus “pictured movements” continued on unchanged for decades, until the great Canadian mogul Darryl F. Canuck introduced three-strip monochrome.

7 Responses to “Silents Was Golden”

  1. Simon Kane Says:

    Just brilliant.

  2. Simon Kane Says:

    Woohoo! I can post again!

  3. Great! And thanks!

  4. This emitted a great silent chuckle in my head – and further, as always, ending on “rosebud”….

  5. dbenson Says:

    I envision a young interviewer scribbling all this down as an elderly pioneer gulps brandy and insists he was there at every juncture.

    “Yeah, I know. That’s not what the books say. The industry got together with J. Eddie Hoover and Rutland B. Hayes to hush up everything. Hell, they rewrote the whole history. Gave Hayes an office to censor out anything that didn’t match the cover story. You know the real reason they built soundproof studios? …”

  6. Simon Fraser Says:

    Best Documentary Feature Academy Award 2023

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