In 1927, the release of ‘The Jazz Singer’, the first film to feature “synchronised sound” as it was called then, the death of silent cinema became a daunting reality to everyone in the industry. This shift of technique, and form, was drastic – likely one of the most significant changes to an art-form ever. The first ever spoken word sequence in the film comes after a musical piece and are “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet” – the audience literally hadn’t heard anything before then (if you ignore music of course), producing a clever joke.
It was in the coming few years that silent cinema altogether died out. There were few that clung-on (unsuccessfully) to the vestiges of old, Charlie Chaplin being the most famous. By 1930 the silent era was over. I see the famous silent masterpiece ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ as a final statement, a requiem perhaps, of that age.
Silent films still exist of course, purely through the director’s choice and it could be argued that some experimental films could be considered “silent” too. Godfrey Reggio’s ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ utilised time-lapse footage and music to show humanity’s surreal, destructive relationship with nature, no dialogue needed. Part of the modern extremist movement, the 1990 film ‘Begotten’ presents, entirely visually, the story of the suicide of God and the rebirth of nature, in stark, surreal, gruesome detail.
Many silent films even present this shift of technology and technique. ‘The Artist’ of course being about two movie stars who find the shifting landscape of Hollywood getting in between their love. Sunset Boulevard (my personal favourite) tells of a screenwriter who is drawn into the strange fantasy world of Norma Desmond, a faded, forgotten silent movie star – played by Gloria Swanson, a faded, forgotten silent movie star. Norma represents that lost glamour and lustre of the silent era, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces” seems to ring eerily true; there is a certain magic to be found in the melodrama, the theatricality, of silent Hollywood.
Even classics such as Mr Bean, the influence of the silent film era is clear, as in many ways a modern reincarnation of Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot, which itself is inspired by the silent comedies of Chaplin, which itself is inspired by traditional ancient theatre. So in a way silent “film” has been around for a long time, in those physical plays which rely on slapstick. Early silent film itself was basically still ancient theatre, only projected onto a silver screen.
We have images of small rural communities all packed into a single room, all staring, in awe, at the images presented to them – it is in their eyes that the magic of cinema was born. There is a certain romance that can still be found in silent film, and as an art form it shouldn’t be viewed as lesser, but as an essential part of cinema. So get out there, to that metaphorical film library, and explore silent film for what it is – beautiful and poetic, funny and moving.