Silent Films vs. Films of Today

Charlie Chaplin’s Oscar-winning silent film The Circus (1928) features a scene actually filmed in a lion’s cage.

By Ashley Mayberry

Silent films and today’s films have one obvious difference: the presence or absence of sound. While silent films are just that, silent, modern day films are full of a chorus of sounds. However, if you take a closer look, there are many more aspects that differentiate the films of the present and the past. To explain these differences, I will be using scenes from a silent film, The Circus, and a modern film, Step Brothers. These films are both comedies that were aimed at broad audiences.

Since there is no dialogue in a silent film, you have to use your imagination. In order to understand the film, you need to put your brain to work to think of what the characters are saying, what they are doing, and what their opinions are. For example, in The Circus, Charlie Chaplin was running around panicking. He could have been calling for help, yelping swear words, or just simply screaming at the top of his lungs. It is up to you to decide what he is saying. On the contrary, films of today tend to do all the thinking for you. Since you are not only seeing but also hearing everything that is happening, you only have to observe the film, not think about it.

Also, silent films have much simpler storylines than speaking films. The plots are fairly straightforward because it is obviously easy to confuse viewers if there is no dialogue. The plot is limited because the only way words are incorporated into the film is through dialogue boxes, which have to be kept sparse. Writers can delve into mysteries, thrillers, and twists when the actors can use words to move the production along. In Step Brothers, Brennan and Dale become step brothers, share a bedroom, hunt for jobs, and develop a brotherly friendship. While this is not exactly a movie that stimulates your mind, it does contain many fast-paced events at varying locations that would be hard to follow with no noise. When only using dialogue boxes, though, the films have to keep the story clear-cut and simple, such as a man being trapped in a lion cage.

Actors in silent films have to convey so much more with so much less than speaking actors. They have to over exaggerate everything they do since they have to tell a story by sight, not through words. If you’ve ever watched a silent film you probably notice that the actors need to be dramatic by making theatrical facial expressions and hand gestures. Today actors do not have to rely on non- verbal communication because audiences can pick up what is occurring through their words, tone of voice, and mood. The power of speech is powerful in conveying emotion so, in a sense, modern day actors have an easier job.

Music and other sounds present in today’s movies are another way to incorporate emotion into a production. For example, horror movies will use suspenseful music to create a sense of foreboding. Or a sad moment will be accompanied by a slow song. Also, footsteps, knocking, wind gusts, and so on will have an effect on the audience. Of course, silent films do not have these advantages so this emphasizes the fact that those actors need to work harder to convey emotions to the viewers. Keep in mind, though, that some silent films were accompanied by musicians, so they were able to utilize the advantages of music in certain cases.

An example of these discrepancies can be seen in these comedic scenes from the silent film The Lion’s Cage and the popular film from today Step Brothers. The links to these scenes are shown below:

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