I did not want the first ever National Silent Movie Day on September 29, 2021, to go without so much as a mention on this blog. The day is an important one, a celebration of art, of style, and of talent that anyone can take part in. The goal is simple, promote silent movies, watch a silent movie, appreciate silent movies, and recognize they are much more than something from a long time ago. Like all film, silent movies are alive, they are now as you watch them. They enchant, horrify, move, bring you to laughter and amaze just like the movies that followed.
In a 2013 study done by the Library of Congress, it was revealed that seventy-five percent of silent-era films have been lost forever to history. While we cannot say that all lost films were masterpieces, there certainly were notables among them. Films featuring legends like Lon Cheney, directed by the first ever woman director, Alice Guy Blaché or African American pioneer producer-director Oscar Micheaux. Nearly all the films of one of, if not the, first movie sex symbol, Theda Bara, are gone. If that does not move you just imagine the permanent loss of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring or Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus or Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon or Michelangelo’s Pieta or his David, or Rodin’s The Thinker. Or simply that any one of those is lost. Most people are likely to think and to feel that the loss of any one of those artistic works is a tragedy. It is the same sort of tragedy when we lose a film forever, when we lose its art.
“With every American film saved, we rescue a piece of our history.”
It really was not my intention to preach, but to motivate perhaps one person who might visit this page into watching a silent movie. I did my part. During the last few days, I searched silent shorts at random. Only comedies, I admit, given my personal situation right now I just needed to laugh. So, I ended up laughing heartily with Laurel and Hardy as they manage several Harold Lloyd-esque feats in Leo McCarey’s Liberty (1929). It is hard to believe I had never seen this gem wherein the boys play escaped convicts trying to avoid getting recaptured. The two-reeler features a hilarious bit with a crab in Hardy’s pants and the stunts are impressive.
Speaking of Harold Lloyd, I saw Bashful from 1917, a fun little romp directed by Alfred J. Goulding. Harold plays a shy bachelor who is invited to a party hosted by Bebe Daniels. While there, the bashful boy receives a telegram letting him know he will inherit $2 million from a recently deceased aunt if he is married and has a baby. Soon Daniels pretends to be Harold’s wife and his valet, Snub Pollard who overhears the terms of the inheritance, sets out to find any toddler in town to complete the trifecta. When Harold’s uncle visits to make sure all is set, there is an entire room of toddlers, which impresses the uncle who hands over the check.
Bashful and other shorts like it are an entertaining way to spend an afternoon or evening. Some of these movies look great thanks to the efforts of people like Harold Lloyd’s granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd and The Harold Lloyd Trust. Unfortunately, many silent movies did not have those types of champions when it counted, and they cannot be recovered. Most were destroyed by decay, and some are still lost, which means we must find them. Take a look at this terrific article by Fritzi Kramer of Movies Silently in Smithsonian Magazine, Why We Need to Keep Searching for Lost Silent Films. And here is notable film historian Kevin Brownlow who talks a bit about silent movies in this short Academy video…
That brings me to other champions who, like Mr. Brownlow, continue to fight endlessly to bring silent movies to the forefront either by way of exhibition or by their tireless efforts to find and restore them. Here are a few to visit…
San Francisco Silent Film Festival
After you watch a silent movie on National Silent Movie Day – and TCM is making it easy by dedicating the entire day to silent programming – post something about it on social media and then consider a donation of any size to any one of the above-noted places. Also, buy physical when you can. Not only does it mean you have these to enjoy forever, but you’ll be supporting their continued presence in all our lives. The bottom line is that if you care about movies today, then you should care about movies from yesterday. They are all related.
More places to visit:
Martin Scorsese on Film Preservation
The International Buster Keaton Society
A Crack in the Wall of Skeptics
Preserving Silent Films at NEH
I think the only silent film I’ve seen so far is Sunrise.
Well, that’s a great one, but there are many others. I hope you seek them out.
I’m slowly learning to appreciate the lost art of silent film as I explore it. I’m glad the film community is keeping it alive and putting a focus on it.
Agree it’s great. I have come to love silent movies as I’ve had the opportunity to see them on a big screen. It takes a bit of getting used to, but now I love them.
Happy Silent Movie Day!
Toronto is a great film town and a great silent film town.
Here is a list of silent movies I have seen on the big screen over the years: https://www.imdb.com/list/ls000300772/
My father was a big fan of Laurel and Hardy. I always think of him when I watch them now. 🙂
Lovely. That’s a gift.