Too often, “silent” films are defined by the negative implicit in the term: There's no talking. What's left out is the positive pleasure of not having your communion with the screen interfered with by the buzzes, clacks, and clicks of speech and sound effects. Silents, less limited by quotidian reality than our modern cinema, toggled easily between screen-filling spectacle and close observation of the players.
The two evening programs of this weekend's Silent Film Festival illustrate this effect: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) is a flavorful epic full of tangos and war, and The Circus (from 1928, the closing-night offering) is built around the face and frame of Charlie Chaplin, mugging as he's mugged by monkeys while walking a tightrope. An unheralded picture, The Circus showcases Chaplin's mime even better than his more famous work. Other stars on view this weekend, in vehicles designed to exhibit their potent appeal, include Rudolph Valentino, Norma Shearer, Sessue Hayakawa, and, above all, Ruan Lingyu, cast as a tragic prostitute in the 1934 Chinese movie Shennü. In a better world Ruan's name would be as well known as Gish's or Garbo's — she's that good. By comparison, stars nowadays don't seem as magical; they're plebeians who do talk shows.
For magic, see a delight like The Blue Bird, in which two children hunt for the title's embodiment of happiness as costumed incarnations of Light, Night, Water, and Fire help or hinder them along the way. The spectral special effects in this 1918 film are every bit as effective in conjuring another world as our finest newfangled efforts. Similarly, a flood wiping out a small town in the 1919 Douglas Fairbanks comedy When the Clouds Roll By, illustrated with a table full of miniatures getting sloshed, works as well as its equivalent in The Day After Tomorrow.
When the Clouds Roll By also suggests a proto-Truman Show, as an evil psychiatrist manipulates every detail of Fairbanks' life. Few contemporary movies display the whimsy of this Victor Fleming film: When Fairbanks eats spicy foods we see dancers dressed as a lobster, an onion, and a slice of mince pie cavort in his stomach. In watching old pictures one often searches for a point of comparison with our own era, but that can be unjust to both new and old. Comedies like The Circus, When the Clouds Roll By, and the farcical What Happened to Jones (a brilliantly worked-out contrivance that forces its protagonist into a series of outrageous costumes and ruses) all seem cooler in their intelligence than any of today's gaudy knockabouts. We're of a different age, with a culture harsher, sillier, and above all louder than the time of silent films. But if you watch carefully, such movies still speak volumes.