Depending on how you count, the first 40 years or so of motion pictures did not include recorded sound. As many have said before me, this doesn’t mean they were experienced in silence by the audience, but they did not have soundtracks, so we call them Silent Films.
Sound film went mainstream in 1929, and in short order all films made by the industry (I’m not including artists, students, and independent filmmakers here) arrived at the cinema with a soundtrack printed on the film right next to the picture. This standard lasts to this day, although as we all know, there aren’t that many new 35mm prints making their way to cinemas. Frowny face.
With the popularization of television thirty years after the advent of sound, fewer people went out to the movies, preferring to stay at home glued to the screen instead. In search of content to keep them in their seats, TV programmers would regularly show old films, preferably those in the public domain. The new “sophisticated” TV viewer simply didn’t appreciate silent films the way his or her parents did, and certainly watching a silent film at home alone is quite different from the contemporary audience’s experience.
In a bid for the younger TV viewer’s attention, producers created shorter, newly edited versions of silent films specifically for television. These versions, often showing silent, 18 frames per second films at sound speed (the noticeably faster rate of 24 fps), with sound effects and a comic narration, took the place of their originals in the pop culture memory for decades.
Some series were better than others, of course. One such was The History of the Motion Picture, which boasted several serious film collectors/historians on the production side: Paul Killiam, Saul J. Turell, and William K. Everson. These men took their silent comedy seriously. The History of the Motion Picture was released to the educational market, and later Ernie Kovacs brought the series to TV (1960-1961) as Silents, Please! with a filmed introduction by himself.
In an episode of Silents Please!, a narrator would talk over the action, describing the story, the history of the film or series, give background information on the production and stars, etc.. We watched an episode from the HFA’s collection recently, canine hero and superstar Rin Tin Tin in TRACKED BY THE POLICE (1927). It was a bit like watching an essay about the film, and since it both showed the film and talked about it at the same time, it was a real time-saver! The narration didn’t pause, even when there wasn’t much to say, so there were times when it was too much, other times when it was interesting. It included some dumb jokes, but was overall quite illuminating for someone who had no handle on silent films or Rin Tin Tin.
These film essays have gone way out of fashion. Their style is dated, their content may be good, but their reputation is not. They can be seen in retrospect as making fun of the silents, with their goofy jokes and fast running. In fact, they truly revived these films, turning many people on to silent cinema; the passion of the men behind them brought forth new cinephiles.
I believe silent films on television were the inspiration for most of the older film collectors who still walk among us. We often find silent films, abridged, with soundtracks, or as released, in collections from men who bought and traded films for most of their lives. These characters are mostly senior citizens now, and their collections are being broken up and sold or winding up en masse in film archives as they die off or move into smaller housing.
Today, silent films are seen less often on television, and certainly not in this educational manner. Perhaps the film is prefaced by Leonard Maltin or some other film fanatic speaking to its history, but the experience is neither that of the original theater-goer, nor that of the television viewer of the early 1960s. Nostalgic when new, these TV silent film essays are doubly nostalgic now.