The Surprising Appeal of Silent Films

I’ll admit, I don’t have a lot of patience for movies. I can somehow sit and watch episode upon episode of a good TV show for hours on end, but when it comes to anything that lasts over an hour? Suddenly it’s too much. So it was surprising when, a few nights ago, I not only decided to watch a film – I decided to watch a silent film.

What’s even more surprising is how much I enjoyed it.

It (not the Stephen King version) is a 1927 film starring Clara Bow as a shop girl who falls in love with her boss. The idea behind it is that some people just have “it” – that natural charisma, that charm, that little something that draws people to them. Clara Bow’s character, Betty, has “it” – and so does Clara.

Even without words, Bow’s natural charm and charisma leaps off the screen. You barely realize there’s anyone else in the film – she steals every scene she’s in. There’s a quality about her that draws the eye. It takes a skillful actor to convey emotion convincingly on screen; it takes an even more skillful actor to convey emotion without words.

Even though there’s dialogue that shows up on screen, quite often it’s secondary to the action. Sometimes a character will “talk” on screen with no title cards appearing to show what they’re saying, so you just have to guess from the context. It’s an interesting exercise, and I personally found it quite engaging; almost as if the film were interactive. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s difficult to follow. I quite enjoyed feeling like I was a participant in the film rather than a passive spectator.

On the note of dialogue, I found some of the twenties slang to be quite amusing: “Shall we gnaw a chop at the club tonight?” (What does that even mean?) It helps that I’m fascinated by that entire era – so liberated, yet still so Victorian. Still seems preferable to the fifties, though. But I digress.

I never thought I would enjoy a silent film; I barely enjoy films at it is, but at least I can experience the dialogue with modern movies. But now, having watched this, I might branch out a watch a few more (and hope this one wasn’t just a fluke). In a way, I’m a little sad that silent films are a lost art, but at least now I can hold my own when talking with hipsters.

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