Are words really better than silence?

Advertisements for Paramount Pictures’ early silent film comedy stars, Fatty Arbuckle and Leatrice Joy

By Ashley Mayberry

Like most 20 year olds today, I have never been exposed to silent films. I have only ever seen films with dialogue and I did not have a particular interest in silent films. Also, silent films seem to have been forgotten because of the how advanced movies are today. This semester I am taking two media courses which have opened my eyes to the world of silent films.

Silent films are able to draw viewers in without a script. They use music, facial expressions, interactions with other characters, and humor to make it a story worth watching. Films from this era have the ability to wow audiences without words, which is something today’s films lack.

While watching more silent films than I ever have before, I have also been wondering what the films I watch today would be like if they were silent. Silent films are silent, so I can follow the story line by merely seeing the film, not hearing it. In some of my favorite movies of today I do not think they would be the same without sound.

All of today’s movies are centered on dialogue. In fact, a lot of people quote humorous lines from movies. You have probably fit a line from a movie into your everyday conversation as a sort of comic relief. These quotes make people laugh because the movie they are coming from is funny. I believe that audiences find today’s comedies entertaining mostly because of what the characters are saying, not the events of the actual movie.

To test this theory I decided to watch a popular movie from this era with the sound muted. I chose Mean Girls because it is a fairly popular film from our time that most people can summarize. Also, the plot is fairly basic, so most viewers have no trouble following it. I admit that this is one of my favorite movies and I do happen to quote the movie from time to time.

After my experiment, I have concluded that this movie is fairly dull with no dialogue. The reason that this movie has received such high ratings is simply because the dialogue is humorous. Without the banter, jokes, and quirky phrases this movie is nothing special. Actually, the plot itself is ultimately boring. A new girl does not fit in, she becomes popular, becomes unpopular, and then she turns into a good person. This is not exactly the most stimulating comedy.

For example, in one particular scene the main characters are at a party. The girls are dressed up in a crowded room, talking to each other, and holding drinks. It does not sound interesting in the slightest when the sound is off. However, this scene is actually funny because of what the characters are saying. Gretchen, played by Lacey Chabert, is trying to explain to Karen, played by Amanda Seyfried, the concept of cousins because Karen likes a boy who is her first cousin. Karen backs herself up by saying, “So, you have your cousins, and then you have your first cousins, and then you have your second cousins…” Obviously this scene is funny because the character sounds like an airhead.

Lucille Ball’s physical comedic style of the 1950s would have fit into the silent era

If this film did happen to be a silent film, this particular scene would have been much more comical with a more animated actress, such as Lucille Ball. She could have walked up to the boy and acted out a flirtatious encounter by talking to him, laughing, and touching his arm. Her friend would then come over and dramatically drag her away to have a serious conversation with her. Then Lucille would give a confused look, shrug her shoulders, and shake her head. The viewer would still get the impersonation that Lucille should not be flirting with this boy because of something her friend told her. Even without words, the viewer will still understand the basic point of the scene.

The point I am trying to make is that most films today rely on sound to impress audiences. If you mute the sound, you are simply watching a character go through meaningless motions. The dialogue is what makes the movies noteworthy because, without sound, the characters are basically standing around. My opinion is that even though actors in silent films had a more difficult time relaying a story, they still did a better job than actors of today because they were able to tell a story through physical movements instead of words.

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2 responses

  1. I remember walking to Coughlin high school passing a single story red brick building on the west side of N. State St. about halfway in the block between E. Market and E. Union St. It had on the top over the main entrance (which was like a garage door) a logo of one of the motion picture studios, I think it was Paramount pictures (it was a pic of a mountain with stars around it in a circle). Other kids said motion pictures were made there. But I never found any story or history in the news about what it was, and I never saw any activity in there, never saw anyone going in or out. What was with that?.

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