As an avid fan of classic films, one would think I would have discovered silent movies, long before I finally did. However, as someone who loves the nuances of language and appreciates great dialogue, I was under the mistaken impression that a silent picture couldn’t possibly hold my interest, especially for the length of a feature film.
God bless Buster Keaton, because he was the one who finally broke through the prejudices I had formed. Fortunately, my affinity for comedy was too great. I took a chance on this legendary comedian and watched his much praised film The General. I was enthralled and began to seek out all of his films I could find. This led me also to discover the other two comedians of the silent film comedy triumvirate, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd and then the genius shorts of Laurel and Hardy.
My first memorable experience with a silent romantic drama was Frank Borzage’s Lucky Star. I was dazzled by the narrative, the performances of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, the cinematography. The fact that I could sit spell bound for almost two hours was proof that despite their differences from “talkies” silent films were just as powerful a story telling medium and just as addicting in entertainment factor.
Since then, I have continued in my personal discovery of silent films. I’ve sought out those by actors whose sound pictures I love, and also those whose popularity and success was greatest in film’s early decades. I’ve mostly watched silents featuring those with star power behind them; names like Norma Shearer, Pola Negri, Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, Greta Garbo and John Gilbert among others. I’ve discovered pictures I love and those I didn’t (I’m looking at you Salomé and Battleship Potemkin).
I’ve learned a new appreciation for this art form that changed significantly with the advent of sound. And yet even now, I still sometimes find them intimidating, especially the longer ones. Which is why I’ve only recently watched The Big Parade and Wings and still haven’t seen most of Lillian Gish’s most successful pictures. But whenever I bravely venture back into the world of silent films, I’m rarely disappointed.
It is 1914, and twenty-five-year-old Frances Marion has left her (second) husband and her Northern California home for the lure of Los Angeles, where she is determined to live independently as an artist. But the word on everyone’s lips these days is “flickers”—the silent moving pictures enthralling theatergoers. Turn any corner in this burgeoning town and you’ll find made-up actors running around, as a movie camera captures it all.
In this fledgling industry, Frances finds her true calling: writing stories for this wondrous new medium. She also makes the acquaintance of actress Mary Pickford, whose signature golden curls and lively spirit have earned her the title “America’s Sweetheart.” The two ambitious young women hit it off instantly, their kinship fomented by their mutual fever to create, to move audiences to a frenzy, to start a revolution.
But their ambitions are challenged by both the men around them and the limitations imposed on their gender—and their astronomical success could come at a price. As Mary, the world’s highest paid and most beloved actress, struggles to live her life under the spotlight, she also wonders if it is possible to find love, even with the dashing actor Douglas Fairbanks. Frances, too, longs to share her life with someone. As in any good Hollywood story, dramas will play out, personalities will clash, and even the deepest friendships might be shattered.
During a summer holiday, a modern young woman from the city visits the countryside. While there, she strikes up an affair with a once happily married farmer. It’s a destructive affair, leading the farmer almost to the edge of personal and financial ruin. Not to mention the breaking of his wife’s heart.
As the end of summer nears, the home-wrecking mistress begs the farmer to follow her back to the city. When he mentions his wife, she darkly suggests it would be great if she could “get drowned.” Under her spell, the farmer agrees to take his wife out on the lake. Suspecting nothing, his wife’s happy to have a day out to herself with her husband. Until she sees the look in his eye. But, when it comes time to follow through, the husband’s tormented by the memories of his wife’s goodness and their happiness together.
Watching Sunrise actually brought to mind Proverbs’ warnings to a young man about the dangers of an evil woman. Although I’m sure Sunrise had different inspiration, in some ways, I felt like I was watching those biblical admonishments come to life.
In The Sheik, Lady Diana Mayo is an aristocratic orphan visiting the African town of Biskra. With only her brother to guide her, she has become wild, independent and naively fearless. Diana plans an extended tour of the desert with no one other than a local guide to protect her. Her local fellow British aristocrats warn Diana about the dangers to a local single woman travelling alone, but they she ignores them.
The night before her departure, Diana visits a local casino. To her dismay, she is denied entrance because of a private party for a young sheik. In defiance, Diana disguises herself and sneaks into the casino. It is not long until she is discovered by the Sheik, Ahmed Ben Hassan. Though he expels her, she has also caught his eye. Diana finds him equally fascinating.
Not long after she heads into the desert, Diana and her guide are surrounded by what appear to be Bedouin warriors. But, as she soon discovers, it is Ahmed. He quickly abducts her, whisking her away to his desert camp. Ahmed has his own plans for Diana, but she refuses him at every turn. It is a battle of the wills and wits. The sheik is accustomed to immediate obedience but Diana is not about to surrender her independence.
Though, she attempts to escape, eventually Diana accepts her gilded prison. But she still refuses to yield her heart to Ahmed. Just when she finally comes to terms with her emotions towards the Sheik, she is kidnapped once again by a bandit with nefarious purposes in mind. This forces both Ahmed and Diana to face the truth about their relationship. Will the Sheik recapture both Diana and her heart?