Silence Is Golden: A look back at the spectacular era of silent pictures

Almost 100 years have elapsed since silent pictures gave way to the ‘talkies’, but fans of this classic genre of film remain ever-loyal to the medium. We take a look back at the golden age of cinema.

A silent film is a film with no synchronized recorded sound, especially with no spoken dialogue. The silent film era lasted from 1895 to 1936. In silent films for entertainment, the dialogue is transmitted through muted gestures, mime and title cards with a written indication of the plot or key dialogue.

The idea of combining motion pictures with recorded sound is nearly as old as film itself, but because of the technical challenges involved, synchronized dialogue was made practical only in the late 1920s with the perfection of the Audion amplifier tube and the introduction of the Vitaphone system. During silent films, a pianist, theater organist, or, in large cities, even a small orchestra would often play music to accompany the films. Pianists and organists would either play from sheet music or improvise; an orchestra would play from sheet music.

The term silent film is therefore a retronym—that is, a term created to distinguish something retroactively. The early films with sound, starting with The Jazz Singer in 1927, were referred to as “talkies”, “sound films”, or “talking pictures”. Within a decade, popular widespread production of silent films had ceased and production moved into the sound era, in which movies were accompanied by synchronized sound recordings of spoken dialogue, music and sound effects.

The vast majority of the silent films produced in the late 19th and early 20th century no longer exist. A September 2013 report by the United States Library of Congress announced that a total of 70% of American silent feature films are believed to be lost.

There are numerous reasons for the loss of so many films; most were destroyed on purpose, but many others have been lost unintentionally. Out of a desire to free up storage space, film studios would often destroy silent films decades after their theatrical runs, perceiving them to have lost their cultural relevance and economic value.

Due to the nature of the nitrate film stock on which many silent films were recorded, many have deteriorated over time or been lost in accidents such as fires, as nitrate is highly flammable and can spontaneously combust when not stored properly. Many films not completely destroyed survive only in fragmentary form or in badly damaged prints. Some lost films, such as London After Midnight have been the subject of considerable interest by film collectors and historians.