A film with no spoken dialogue
. Until the late 1920s or so, this was a technological limitation, though filmmakers certainly made the most of it
. Almost from the beginning of the medium, people attempted to combine moving pictures with prerecorded audio, but none of these technologies achieved commercial acceptance and success until Warner Bros.
/First National Pictures introduced its Vitaphone sound-on-disc system in 1926. After the mid-1930s, it was as much an artistic decision
as Deliberately Monochrome
became after the introduction of color.
Note that we said "no spoken dialogue". Many silent movies (especially the big-budget ones) did
have a soundtrack in the form of a custom musical score either for the entire movie or just a few key scenes, intended to be performed by live musicians in the theatre. Even if the filmmakers didn't prepare custom scores or recommended musical cues, exhibitors usually screened these films with atmospheric live organ, piano, or other musical accompaniment.
Some scores even called for sound effects, also performed live, and a few called for important bits of dialog to be read out by live actors. Unfortunately, most of the scores have been lost.
In Japan, the last above option played a different role with the Benshi, on stage performers who narrated a silent film and read the inter-titles in character. It was so popular that silent films remained an important part of Japanese culture until sound films became too popular and cheap to show on their own.
During the Rise of the Talkies
(1926-1931), studios accommodated theaters that hadn't rushed to invest in talkie technology by offering some of their features in both silent and sound versions (e.g., Hitchcock's Blackmail
). Other late silent films were offered with optional recorded soundtracks (synchronized music and sound effects, but no dialogue).
See also: Early Films
, Films of the 1920s
See also Mime and Music-Only Cartoon
, which are basically animated silent films. And then there are music videos
. Any video that attempts to tell a story (for example, the famous "Take On Me" video by aha
) is basically a short silent film with musical accompaniment.
A bit of trivia: Did you know that the first four Academy Awards
for Best Cinematography all went to silent films? Because of the cumbersome sound-synchronization cameras and recording equipment of the early talkie era, they were rarely shot on location, giving silent film cinematographers a distinct advantage. Those first four winners were
- Sunrise (1927/28) — Charles Rosher and Karl Struss
- White Shadows in the South Seas (1928/29) — Clyde De Vinna
- With Byrd at the South Pole (1929/30) — Joseph T. Rucker and Willard Van Der Veer
- Tabu (1930/31) — Floyd Crosby
Lee Garmes won the first Best Cinematography Oscar to go to a talkie for Shanghai Express
Notable silent films:
Notable silents from the talkie era:
- City Lights (1931) — Charlie Chaplin's first refusal to acknowledge talkies
- Tabu (1931)—the last film of F.W. Murnau, about a forbidden romance between two Pacific Islanders
- The Goddess (1934) from China and A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) from Japan—silent film hung on for a bit longer in Asia
- Modern Times (1936) — Charlie Chaplin's second refusal to acknowledge talkies
- The Thief (1952) — spy thriller starring Ray Milland, told without any dialogue
- Silent Movie (1976) — Mel Brooks makes a tribute to silent slapstick
- Koyaanisqatsi (1983) — Kind of a documentary, but really more of a film collage portraying the state of modern civilization, told without any dialogue or narration
- Sidewalk Stories (1989) — remake of Chaplin's The Kid, set amongst the homeless of Greenwich Village, without any dialogue or any title cards
- Brand Upon the Brain! (2006) — Le Film Artistique from Guy Maddin, accompanied by narration from Isabella Rossellini
- Daft Punk's Electroma (2006) — film about two robots trying to become human; no dialogue, lots of desert trekking
- Tejut (2007) — Hungarian film composed of multiple silent static Oners.
- The Artist (2011) — A deliberately Retraux romantic comedy about, appropriately enough, a silent movie star who struggles to adjust to talkies
- All Is Lost (2013) — Robert Redford as a sailor alone on his yacht who struggles to survive when the yacht founders. Almost completely dialogue-free.
Notable talkies about the silent film era:
Notable silent film stars: