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A film with no spoken dialogue. Until the late 1920s, 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"; these films were not meant to be exhibited in actual silence. 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. In the grand movie palaces of big cities there might be an orchestra providing music. 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.

The Rise of the Talkies came more or less out of nowhere. The first film to have a synchronized soundtrack was 1926 film Don Juan, but that consisted only of a musical score. 1927 film The Jazz Singer upped the ante, by putting all of Al Jolson's songs on the soundtrack, as well as a single four-minute dialogue scene. (The rest of the movie was a conventional silent.). The film created a sensation. 1928 saw the release of Lights of New York, the first all-talking film. By 1929 silent film production had ended in Hollywood; the last silent produced by one of the major studios was MGM's The Kiss in November 1929.

As the talkies came in many 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 [1929]). 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 a-ha) 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 (1931/32).

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    Notable silent films 

Notable silents from the talkie era:

Notable talkies about the silent film era:

See also

Alternative Title(s): Silent Films, Silent Film