In 1927, the movie, The Jazz Singer, electrified audiences because it represented the beginning of the end of the era of silent films. Its appearance gradually changed the expectation of moviegoers, who from that time forward expected “talkies.” Though more silent movies would be produced after 1927, talkies quickly became preferred.
It isn’t that hard to understand the basic elements of a silent movie. It is a film that does not have a soundtrack, and for many years these were more common than not when people went to the movies. Early silent films simply explored the wonders of filming anything as the medium developed, but by the 1920s, the silent movie was just as elaborate in many respects as films made today.
As plots advanced and filmmakers took on more extensive subject matter, many silent movies had intertitles. These were written dialogue or plot details shown on the screen so people could understand plots and action that went forward. Mainly though, the silent movie depended on certain types of acting to convey the various emotions of the actors.
Body language and especially facial expression were often exaggerated, and would probably be considered overacting in a talkie. In fact, some of the early talkies with former film actors and actresses are now a little silly. Perhaps the most wonderful treatment of this is in the film Singing on the Rain, where the attempt to create a talkie is hilariously portrayed because the actors are not used to talking on film. It should be stated that many actors did make a successful jump from silent film acting to talkies, but in some cases the move toward talkies ended the careers of silent film actors and actresses.
When people watch a silent movie at home, it may be very quiet, but in theaters, live music usually accompanied the films. Though some movies had actual scores that were to be played during each moment of the film, few of these have survived. Some television rebroadcasts of silent films do add music, but it may take some adjustment to watch a film that doesn’t have sound. A few movie theaters that show classic films today can help recapture the experience of the silent film for audiences and will have live music, very often played on an organ.
Even without music or sound, it’s certainly worth watching some of the silent movies of the past. Many of them feature the work of some of the best comedians of the early 19th century. Watching Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin really doesn’t require sound when the movements and acting can be so amusing. Dramatic silent films may be a must for people who adore movies in general, and some to look for include the 1927 science fiction film Metropolis, and the 1929 Nosferatu, which many consider the best horror film of the silent era.