Questions about silent movies

I have recently started watching old Alfred Hitchcock movies and I saw a few silent movies that he directed. I have a few questions about how silent movies were made and presented to audiences:

  1. While watching these movies I noticed that the actors are in fact speaking words just like in a “talkie”, except of course, we can’t hear what they are saying. Was there an actual script that they were following? (I noticed there was an adaptation credit so I assume that someone wrote something). They could just be muttering gibberish for all I could tell since I can’t read lips. I guess it wouldn’t matter if one of the actors flubbed a line since nobody would ever notice it.

  2. Every few minutes or so there was a written message shown with either some dialog or something related to the plot. What determined when to show this info to the audience? Sometimes there would be a few of them in a row… then a long pause until another one was shown. There didn’t appear to be a rhyme or reason to how they were added in post-production.

  3. The DVD I watched had instrumental music playing along with the movie. I assume this was added when the DVD was put together since there wouldn’t have been a sound track when the movie was originally made, but how were these movies presented to an audience? Would there be pre-written music that a live band, orchestra or organist would play along with the movie? Would the band, orchestra or organist just play whatever they thought was appropriate for the action on the screen, or would there be silence throughout the movie?

Any books that you can recommend on the making of these kinds of movies would be greatly appreciated!

As far as (1) goes I recall reading that some of the studios got rather upset letters from some deaf viewers who could read lips. In at least some cases the actors were not talking about the weather or reading lines from a script, shall we say…

It was common to have musical accompaniment with silent movies. In small town theatres, this might be just a piano. In larger, fancier theatres, and actual pipe organ. The pianist/organist had skills in playing along with the action, and choosing/playing from memory appropriate music. (It would seem feasible for a director to select musical pieces he liked to accompany scenes in his movie, and to include sheet music for those pieces with the films when they were sent to theatres. But I don’t know if this was actually done.)

I had a friend who worked for a company that specialized in remodeling movie theatres. He said that they were often removing old, high-quality pianos or old pipe organs from the theatres. Often the best instruments to be found in small towns. Sometimes sold or donated to local churches – usually much better than what the church had currently.

According to my Subtitling teacher, yes it was. There were also some pieces which had rapidly become “standard,” so if the pianist started playing that particular piece you pretty much knew what was coming.

As for the signs, they were decided by the director, so he placed them wherever he thought they were convenient or necessary.

Scores were often written especially for big budget productions, and could be elaborate enough to require a full symphony orchestra (e.g. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, my favorite silent flick). Even lesser productions often produced sheet music of original scores for the theater’s organ/piano player.

If you’re ever in Atlanta, take a tour of the Fox theater. The Fox theater organ is a wonder to behold.

All the silent movies I have ever seen have music accompaniment. My first thought was, if they can add music, why didn’t they add talking? But now I assume that the music was added to a newer print of the movie years after it was made, for the purpose of showing it on TV, and that the film had no music on it as originally made and shown. Is this correct?

Well, it didn’t have a soundtrack, if that’s what you mean. Sometimes a popular silent film like The *Phantom of the Opera *was re-released with a soundtrack that included both music and some sound effects, but it didn’t happen often. I don’t recall that silent films were shown much on television, with the possible exception of comedy shorts. Sometimes public TV showed them (with a musical soundtrack, of course; I first saw Metropolis on public TV with an electronic music score). There were a very few theaters in large cities which specialized in silent films, but by and large the general public didn’t have much access to silent films until the advent of the VCR.

Fans of the Beverly Hillbillies will recall Cousin Pearl used to play “Pie-An-Nee” down to the moving picture show, which showed silent films. I recall Pearl being proud of the numbers SHE picked out to play while Ben Hur was showing

The placment of cards was left up to the directors and insterted by an editor.

It was a huge concern when talkie movies were made. Why? Because it was a very simple matter to edit out English cards and substitute French or Spanish or whatever cards. The actors mouths were made to synch to English and they had a script but it didn’t matter all that much because it would be sold to foreing audiences too where the lip movements weren’t as needed.

When talkies came in this simple substitution of cards went out the window

There would nearly always have been a script in the sense that a writer had described in detail what was to happen in each scene before shooting started. After that, how they handled the dialogue varies quite a bit over the several decades of the silent era, from country to country, from studio to studio, from director to director and film to film. In many cases the actors are speaking scripted lines that correspond to the story, in others it’s just stuff so that their lips move.

Writing the intertitles was often a different job from the scenarist, who wrote out the original story. Final decisions on what was needed and how to pace them was done at the editing stage. Which might not involve the director.
Hitchcock himself started in the industry in this sort of area - he submitted examples of drawn intertitles and got hired to design them. From his interviews with Truffault:

Hitch also states that he had a preference for trying to make silent films with an absolute minimum of intertitles - his ideal would have been none at all.

The Hitchcock-Truffault interviews concentrate on the later films, but are essential for anyone interested in him. Kevin Brownlow’s histories of the silent era are good: start with The Parade’s Gone By …. For the British industry that Hitchcock was working in at the time, the best memoir is the first third of Michael Powell’s wonderful A Life in Movies, though for much of the period Powell was working for Rex Ingram and based on the Continent.

There was no actual script like we know it today. The actors would be told what to do in the scene (the script – if there was one – was primarily a description of scenes). The actors were supposed to be saying lines relevant to the story and plot, and probably did most of the time, but they didn’t have to.

There was one instance the leading man was carrying his leading lady and where she was supposedly declaring her love, but lip readers discovered what she said was “If you drop me, you son of a bitch, I’ll kill you.”

And many movies – especially comedies – were ad libbed on the set. Buster Keaton’s first film role occurred when Fatty Arbuckle invited him to act in one of his films. Keaton showed up on set and ad libbed the part.

They were added as necessary to make the action clear. If it was a new location, they would set the scene, and they would highlight dialog that was considered important. It would also depend on the movie – many comedies, for instance, were ad libbed on the set (watch The Unknown Chaplin to see examples), but more dramatic scenes did have a listing of scenes and a more rigorous plan.

Note that the ideal was to produce a movie that didn’t require the title cards. This was rarely achieved (the film that achieved it was The Last Laugh – there is one title card, but it introduces a scene at the end that is really extraneous to the movie).

Different ways. In big-budget productions, the music was often written for the movie and a live band or orchestra would play (in major cities, at least). For small theaters and production, there was usually just a single piano player. Music was supplied, but many of the theater pianists just ad libbed to what they saw on the screen – if it was a romantic love scene, then they’d play romantic-sounded music, etc.

Chico Marx started out doing this; since he couldn’t read music, he just played what sounded right. Harpo tried it to but was fired because he could only play one song, which he played a different tempos for different moods.

A good example of this is shown in Singing in the Rain.