Preservationists have established September 29 as National Silent Movie Day to celebrate an art form that once flourished without dialog on he world’s movie screens. Before sound, the language of film was universal; actors spoke with their eyes and bodies. The very few written titles needed for story continuity could easily be changed for ones written in the language of the country where the films were being shown. When you see a silent film, you are seeing something rare and precious. Eighty percent of them have been lost. What can the ones that survive say to modern audiences? The Clemons Library video collection is an excellent place to discover they could be surprisingly subtle and quietly eloquent.
Blancanieves (Snow White) (2012). Pablo Berger’s “love letter to European silent cinema” was released a year after “The Artist” was awarded the Oscar for best picture. While that silent film contained elements of parody, “Blancanieves” was the real deal — a serious modern, silent retelling of the “Snow White” fairytale. The daughter of a deceased matador in 1920s Spain flees her stepmother’s attempt on her life and finds refuge with an acting troupe of dwarfs, one of whom is transgender. The absence of dialogue enhances the unreal atmosphere of the story, but the ending is unlike anything you’ll find in Grimms’ Fairytales.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Danish director Carl Dreyer focuses on the face of Maria Renee Falconetti as Joan to tell the story of Joan’s trial for heresy. In a film that could only have been made in the silent era, words are inadequate to convey the emotions Falconetti’s eyes can express. Film critic Pauline Kael said it may be the finest performance ever recorded on film. The complete film was thought lost until a pristine copy turned up in a Norwegian psychiatric hospital in 1981.
A Story of Floating Weeds (1934). Often regarded as the greatest of all filmmakers, Yasujirō Ozu began his career in the silent era, which continued for a longer period in Asia than in the West. His 1934 film “A Story of Floating Weeds” is usually considered his first mature work, incorporating his signature low-angle “tatami” shot from about the height of someone kneeling on a tatami mat or even lower, and a style of storytelling that focuses on the emotional consequences of actions rather than the actions themselves, examining character rather than constructing plot, and raising this tale of jealousy and betrayal within a traveling Kabuki troupe above the level of melodrama.
Metropolis (1927). The grandmother of all cyborg films — precursor of “Blade Runner,” “The Terminator,” and many others — director Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” was slashed following its Berlin premier. Still, the transformation scene, futuristic cityscapes, and dark catacombs made quite an impression. Italian composer Georgio Moroder’s 1984 theatrical release with a 1980s rock music score stirred new fan interest. Then, in 2008 a battered but complete 16mm print was discovered in an Argentinian archive, and the film is again whole.
The Oyster Princess/I Don’t Want to be a Man. Director Ernst Lubitsch spoofs American capitalism in “The Oyster Princess” (1919). The Oyster King of America sets out to buy a European prince for his daughter, played by dancer-turned-comedian Ossi Oswalda. She marries an impostor but falls for the real prince. The movie’s funniest scene? A foxtrot epidemic breaks out at the wedding.
In the second feature on the disc, “I Don’t Want to be a Man” (1918), Ossi — youthfully androgynous in men’s evening clothes — goes on the town, encountering by chance the man her father appointed to rein in her impulses. Believing that Ossi is a young man, the guardian gets drunk with her and on a carriage ride home they exchange passionate kisses.
The Chaplin Mutuals vol.1, vol.2, vol.3. In 1916, Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp with his mustache, bowler hat, and cane was the most identifiable figure in the world. Reason enough for the Mutual Film Corporation to give Chaplin his own studio and full artistic control to make 12 short comedies — among his finest work, mostly playing outsiders surviving on the margins of society. In “The Immigrant” (1917), as the tramp and his fellow immigrants are pushed back and roped off from viewing the Statue of Liberty at the end of a transatlantic voyage, he delivers a surreptitious kick to the posterior of an immigration officer.
Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers. From the beginning, women played a major role in the transformation of film into cinematic art. French filmmaker Alice Guy, possibly the first person ever to tell a story with film, made nearly a thousand films, many of which challenged gender stereotypes. In “The Little Rangers” (1912), two young women saddle up to pursue a wife-beating outlaw. When they can’t dislodge him from his hideout with six-shooters, they smoke him out with flaming arrows! Also in this set, film giant Lois Weber dazzles with innovative camera perspectives and editing in her short thriller “Suspense” (1913). Other Weber films include the surviving 31 minutes from “Sunshine Molly” (1915), a film dealing with sexual harassment and assault.
Pioneers of African-American Cinema presents three silent films by Oscar Micheaux, including the debut film performance of legendary actor/activist Paul Robeson. Other films in the set explore racial identity, featuring Black actors playing white characters or Black people mistaken for white, or characters who intentionally pass as white. In one powerful sequence from “Within Our Gates” (1919), Micheaux intercuts an attempted rape of a Black woman by a white man (her biological father) with the lynching of her adoptive parents.
Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913). If you have seen Martin Scorsese’s film “Hugo” or read Brian Selznick’s book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” in which French filmmaker Georges Méliès is featured, you know that at the turn of the 19th century Méliès was celebrated for concocting elaborate fantasies with a combination of film technique, theatrical stagecraft, camera trickery, and an irresistible sense of fun — over 200 of 500 Méliès voyages into the absurd survive either whole or in part.