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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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: