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Silent Movies-Silent Movies, Films and Slapstick Comedy

Updated on November 6, 2014

Slapstick comedians

Slapstick comedy
Slapstick comedy | Source

Silent film themes

The silent movies covered many interesting themes all of which are aimed at giving the audience a choice and a robust cinematic experience. The most popular theme was comedy because the medium was highly stylized and based on dramatization and movement.

Another reason comedy was so favored is facial expression and the use of slapstick to connect with the viewers. A comedy legend like Charlie Chaplin took silent movie comedy to a worldwide audience and gained iconic status.

Another genre that was popular with the film audience was romantic drama, drama, comedy and a great favorite the Epic themes such as Ben Hur and Ten Commandments.

Silent movies

Silent movies ruled and rocked until the early nineteen twenties when sound was introduced to cinema enthusiast. It took the creative inventors that long before they could unravel the technicalities involved in synchronized picture and sound.

Though many of us are not preview to silent movies except during the later part of its long spell, we enjoyed a few duplicate copies or rerecorded flicks. The silent era had a boisterous long run of about thirty five years spanning the late 1894 to 1930 and recording heavy box office successes but nothing compared to today’s mega budget films.

Silent films

Silent films come in black and white and only towards the latter part was tinting used to add monochrome color to the presentation. The tint was dyed in different shades onto various sheets or manually introduced as the scenery effect.

Different color tones were used to depict different moods, emotion, chase, romance, anger, remorse and colors such as blue tint relating to night scenes, yellow tint day, red, green and other hues. The tint was usually added in layers by applying color to each frame or by hand.

The silent film era lasted until early 1930s when the first set of sound films made their debut. The sound was not that good so silent films still had a chance until a few years before the technology was finely tuned and the sound quality much better.

Movie star

Movie star
Movie star | Source

Sound and Dramatization

Dramatization is the blood that fuels the silent film movies, because there was no sound or spoken word except the occasion interpreters and narrative cards. The actors had to overdramatize a sequence using larger than life actions like wide eyes, exaggerated hand gestures and gesticulations and weird movement to project meaning.

Today’s actors can make very subtle gestures and be assured that the meaning is easily translated and understood by the audience. Silent films is dependent on visual action and presentations, the chase sequence are usually elaborate, facial expression of anger, joy and romance over emphasized.

Some times the films were politicized and carried social reform undertones or are used to poke fun at farcical situations via slapstick presentations. Slapstick comedy focused on exaggerated sounds on contact such as fight scenes, trickery, pie fights, and accidents.

The films used naturalistic and minimalist themes, and the actor’s depictions consisting of body language, facial expressions, simplistic actions and larger than life expression.

Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin | Source
Pianos were part of the production
Pianos were part of the production | Source

Percussion effect

Most of the time silent films were showcased without any accompanied sound so the audience may experience a pure visual presentation. But in some small cinema halls and theaters the silent movies was accompanied by an in house pianist who simulated sound effects as the film progresses.

The percussion effect could be a lone instrumentalist on his piano or an organist ensemble that simulates orchestral sounds such as crashes, storms, horse carriage sounds, thunder, drums and many more. With time the film score improved to accommodate classical theater sounds and compiled photo play music.

Other sound techniques used were audio amplifiers and high quality speakers and vitaphone.In larger theaters they were able to organize an ensemble of musicians to provide the background instrumentals and percussion effect all to simulate mood, character and atmosphere in the silent movies.

With more improvement in film technology the technocrats included better vacuum tube amplifiers. They also used specialized sound equipment, and other audio amplifiers, huge loud speakers, and some even developed sound on film and vitaphone.

Light was used to add detail while cue sheets with the film increased the effect, mode and original score. The first experimentation with sound on film sounded awful giving a short resurgence of more modern contemporary music ensemble, interesting music styles and improvisation.

During the golden era of silent movies lots of musicians found gainful employment in the small film halls and larger theaters as instrumentalist and made a decent wage. They offered dramatic effect live presentations that heightened the feel of the movie.

Since silent movies had a challenge of dialogue the makers included large narrative cards that told the audience what was going on. They also employed the method of live commentary explaining each film sequence.

Some theaters went as far as hiring singers and performers to increase the entire viewing experience.

Early sound equipments

Types of sound equipment used in early silent movies

The type of sound equipment used continually become more sophisticated and varied as technology improved some of the earlier sound creating techniques are listed bellow.

1 a lone instrumentalist playing the piano

2 an ensemble of instrumentalists accompanying the film

3 an orchestral piano

4 a live orchestra ensemble

5 the wide use of vacuum tube amplifiers

6 wide use of huge speakers

7 the use of other amplifiers

8 direct sound on film

9 vitaphone

Charlie Chaplin in the lion cage

Top Box office silent movies

Which silent movie grossed the highest box office earnings

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Silent movies and box office takings

The more popular mode of entertainment during the silent movie era were musical concerts both classical and contemporary to that period, animal circus, live shows, large cabaret shows and music hall entertainers. Others like live theater also allowed the presentation of stage dramatizations of plays, and sketches like William Shakespeare plays and other Broadway musicals.

Silent movies did quite well but in today’s standard are about the cost of producing a small budget Hollywood film. The silent flick if costs of production consideration are to be analyzed were great money spinners.

The films were not relatively long and the costs minimal, films like Birth of a nation grossed an amazing ten million dollars (10m) in box office earnings. While others like Big Parade made six point four million (6.4m) and the highly acclaimed Ben Hur grossed five point five million (5.5 m) and the ten commandment three point four million (3.4m).

Mark Sennett one of the leading lights and pioneer of silent movies within a period of fifty five years produced over one thousand films which is quite remarkable and unheard off in today’s film making. He is mentioned in this hub because he turned slapstick fights into a thing of art.

Slapstick is a specialized comedy that puts emphases on sound and contact like the emphasized sound of someone being struck by a ball, slapped or the sound of running, an accident, stomach rumbling.

Mark Sennett also elevated the pie fight into a thing of beauty; the custard pie throwing in slapstick comedy became a mainstay in comical presentations with pie gags having prominent roles.

Like most film makers of the silent era they not only produced the films, they acted, produced, edited, did the screen writing and directed most of their silent movies. Mark Sennett also perfected those lovable extra fast passed scenes that are synonymous with chase scenes like car chase, horse drawn carriages, boats and cops chasing someone.

The producers usually achieved this feat by using parallel editing to heighten the melodrama, originally the chase scenes were short and precise but with improvement in the technique they become long and complicated sequences the audience craved and loved.

Black and white movie image Bridgetfear Bettina

Black and white movie image Bridgetfear Bettina
Black and white movie image Bridgetfear Bettina | Source

Old Films and Sound

Sound in small halls
Sound in big theaters
Vacuum Amplifiers
orchestral piano
Vacuum Amplifiers
Live singers
Ensemble of instrumentalist
Sound on film

The Golden age of Silent films collectors 2 dvd

More on Silent films

Silent films contrary to perception that they were poor quality flicks are actually high quality movies but because of most original productions are lost. Some degenerate, while duplicate content abound.

The average projection speed of silent movies are between twelve frames per second and twenty six frames per second while modern films run on twenty four frames per second and thirty five mm cinema

Some silent films had varied speed and frames or no set standards and were made at the discretion of the filming company or producer. The films were prone to fire because the cellulose nitrate based films used projection lamps, were slow and prone to heat exposure.

Modern films use thirty five mm (35mm), twenty four frame (24fps) and two bladed shutters while black and white films used eight mm (8mm) to sixteen mm (16mm), three blade shutters. The editors of silent flicks used special techniques during editing to accelerate movement, the films also depended on moving shutters to block light while the film is moving or the image becomes smeared in the direction of the movement.

Problems associated with silent movies

Silent films had many challenges because of the nature of the production some of which are highlighted bellow

1 the film producers had to contend with missing frames

2 slow movement

3 the possibility of fire burning the films

4 contending with excessive copies of an original

5 had to use narratives to explain drama sequence

6 had to hire interpreters

7 producers employed the liberal use of sound amplifiers such as loud speakers, pianos, orchestra, dancers, singers and dramatists

8 Used color tones to interpret mood, and time.

Charles Spencer Chaplin

When writing about comedy, slapstick and silent films one man stands out in the comedy genre Charlie Chaplin. The consummate comedian died at the age of eighty eight years (88) in Switzerland and was one of the top contributors to the success of silent movies. He was born in 1989 and worked till 1976 and died 1977.

Married four times to Mildred Itarris, Lita, Paulette Goddar and Oona the actor, director, producer grew up in abject poverty and hardship. He was sent to a workhouse while his mother suffered psychotic episodes brought on by poverty, malnutrition, syphilis and other psychological issues.

The British parents were music hall entertainers and could be where he developed his interest for the performing arts, he started performing early at age ten and in his latter years become an accomplished actor, comic, film director, producer, editor and screen writer like most of his peers in that era.

His impressive comic delivery and characterization endured him to a worldwide audience making Charlie Chaplin a world icon, his first brake in films came when he was signed on by keystone film studios I 1913 and went on to make many productions especially on his own film group united artists.

His first film making a living was a challenge for the young actor and almost cost him a career because of his poor performance and interpretation but keystone gave him another opportunity to prove his acting worth.

One of his must memorable characters was the in the Tramp a loving resourceful character, other films he made are A woman of Paris, The Gold rush, The circus, The great Dictator and a host of other memorable comic sketches.

Some of his work bordered on social commentary, politics, slapstick and romance.Most of his romance films were acted opposite his regular leading lady Edna Purviano, Charlie Chaplin built a million dollar industry making a fortune from his movies, in 1930 sound came but he remained a silent film producer.

Curved Vacuum Tube Amplifier

curved vacuum tube amplifier
curved vacuum tube amplifier | Source


The silent movies was characterized by short sketches, slow frame, and the precious films quickly degenerating with time. The silent era used common sense, melodrama and tons of creativity to push their stories.

Sound effects like thunder, drums, crashes and loud slapstick sounds were used effectively. They also used interpreters, narrative and billboards to relay the sequence of a film to the audience.

Silent movies had to deal with censorship, missing frames and excessive copies. Although the golden era of silent films is long gone but the practitioners, actors and comics that brought life to cinema are still remembered


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    • tony55 profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Nigeria

      Hello Shyron,

      Thanks for the comments, Ben Hur is one of my all time favorites

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 

      4 years ago from Texas

      Tony55, very interesting and especially for silent movie buffs.

      I voted for Ben Hur in your poll, but that was just a guess, because I believe that The Ten Commandments (by Cecil B. de Mille) 1923, only half of it referenced the Bible.

      The Big Parade grossed 15 million in 2 years, The Birth of a Nation was proported to have grossed the most and maybe it did, but I think personally the Ben Hur did much better than the others, but maybe I am thinking of the later remake.

      Thank you Tony for the memories.


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