Believe it or not, there was a time when all we had on screen was image and no sound except for the orchestra. Subtitles back then were title cards instead that took up the whole screen. This would be a benefit to actors who didn’t have to worry about how to say their lines. It would just be all about the physicality of the actor’s movements. Despite no sound, these films still knew how to make an impact.
Here’s what you’ll see in silent films- inter-titles. Those are basically like subtitles except instead of the captions being in the ongoing action, the entire shot will literally be a card with either dialogue or words explaining the action or characters. You may not be able to know every single piece of dialogue in a silent film but inter-titles provide you with the words that are important for the audience to know to better understand the story.
You’ll also see men with dark make-up to show off their features for the camera. The action will be fast-paced and the acting will be highly dramatic. Sure, if you’ve never seen a silent film before, you would think “wow, this acting is horrible! It’s so embellished and not realistic!” But that’s the thing, there’s nothing wrong with the acting at all because back then, films were very theatrical and the camera was a very useful tool in showing the audience the emotions of the characters and the details in the shots that you wouldn’t be able to see on a stage.
Also another thing you’ll see in silent films is that women are constantly fainting! Fainting is normally used as a plot device. Whether it’s used as an excuse to make a man kidnapping a woman easier, to highlight the shocking spectacle the woman sees the way a laugh track reminds an audience to laugh, or just because during the 20s, it was a female stereotype for women to faint.
Whenever I watch a silent film, I always feel like I’m watching an independent home video. That they look like so much fun to make in that the acting can be as overly dramatic as possible. That without sound, directors don’t have to worry so much about forgetting lines. But this isn’t a home video and these films were considered to be high budget for its time. There were a lot of stresses and drama making these films just like what sound films today go through. I love watching these films because they broke barriers. They show how filmmakers were being afraid to make a name for themselves and give something new and fresh to audiences who were only able to rely on stage shows for their entertainment or reading books where they were forced to imagine the magic. In film, the magic is right in front of them.
Now let’s start all the way back to the beginning…