Silent Movies and Illiteracy

Last night I watched “The Big Parade” with John Gilbert etc. So many of the stars of the feature died quite young.

However, the question I have is, with silent movies, how did people understand what was going on if they couldn’t read the text on the screen?
I would think by the 1920’s most people would have been able to read, apart from really backward communities.

Does anyone have any idea i this was a problem, or were the majority of the population able to read in the 20’s? (Wiki tells me nothing)

Most people could read by then, but according to Wodehouse there was always an adenoidal girl who would follow the words out loud in a piercing voice.

Personally I find old B/W, like Japanese Anime too damn slow.

I think you are right. I tried to introduce my wife to silent movies last night and she fell asleep.

I hadn’t seen the movie in 20 years but, in reality, it was pretty ordinary- even given it is 90 years old.

One thing I noticed was what made a leading man and women then would not be in the mix today. The guy was too skinny, woman was not endowed with huge knockers and a slim build.

Weight Appreciation fluctuates. Around the early 20th century there was more love for the boyish little thing ( particularly with ugly bobbed hair ) who strapped down her breasts, whereas say, late 19th century opera singers — equivalent to film stars in the day — were somewhat heavy and lush. Like tons heavy.
[ One thing of interest is the prevailing style of weight unconnected to choice. 17th century people could be fat but not as an average, but a century later most of the Kings and aristocrats — the only people having their portraits commissioned — conformed to a eupeptic roundness. Compare Charles I and II to George III and IV. And now, many politicians in my country also resemble the smoothly plump well-fed look in the last decade or so. ]
As for Birth Of A Nation, do not be put off by it’s racist reputation: be put off by the fact it consists of people shaking hands non-stop *.

  • Except when they’re black hands of course.

In the US, literacy was pretty high (at least, among whites). Further, the goal of movie-makers by the 20s was to minimize or even eliminate title cards altogether.* Even if you couldn’t read the dialog, you could tell what was going on by watching the action of the players. This was especially true of comedies – the jokes on the cards were usually minor, but the funny parts were the actions. Similarly, you can easily see what is going on even without the titles; they just fill in some of the background.

*The ideal was Murnau’s The Last Laugh, which had only one, which was used to give a tacked on happy ending.

Lip readers were often able to follow the script. Or lack of one.

Intertitles were not introduced generally for a dozen or more years after movies began. They were more important in big - important - pictures taken from a book or play. Most ordinary movies used exaggeration of movements and settings to convey the plot. We find intertitles critical today because we don’t read the language of silent films. In short, we’re the ones who are illiterate.

I’m not quite certain I follow this (and I have probably got it wrong). When you say “intertitles” do you mean the text that pops up on the screen? If so I would have to slightly disagree on the basis of that one movie in that even from the actions of the people we couldn’t even guess what was going to happen next.

However, on reflection, I would agree. Everything is now shoved in our face so little thought is required.

Intertitles are title cards.

You weren’t supposed to guess what happened next. Intertitles were mostly inserted *after *dialog or action. They gave nuance to what you just saw.

If the actors were speaking your favorite language. There was a lot more international trucking of movies, because it was so easy to ‘translate’ the movie into another language - you just had to edit in new intertitles.

Thank God for that, too - a few Fatty Arbuckle shorts survive only because German/Spanish/French prints weren’t thrown out. I guess he didn’t become as much a pariah over there.

There’s a great lineup on TCM’s Sunday night silent programming tonight, by the way - really early one-reelers from 1909-1914. Ten of them, including one where Charlie Chaplin is in a small supporting role.

This legacy still strongly influences film today.

You can watch most well-made modern films without audio at all, and you’ll still be able to follow the plot and understand the characters. Film is moving pictures. The audio is supplemental, not essential.