Cows? What cows…?

The silence in Silent Film can be selective. It’s not just the fact that there were no microphones during filming. The characters onscreen could be selective about the absence of sound or a particular sound. And as the audience, we are too, cued by the reality the person in the scene believes or conveys to us.

This is used often in comedy in Silent Film as part of a gag set-up, and so slyly we are unaware that the reality we are observing has been warped. It’s unknown when performers, gag-writers and directors knew they could take the selective-hearing concept that originated in live performance to greater and expanded use, but clear that it was a ‘given’ of the Silent Film universe.

In Buster Keaton’s Go West (1925), during the film’s chase sequence a herd of cattle races through the streets of Los Angeles. At one point a couple of automobiles collide in an intersection and a police officer arrives on the scene to handle the situation. While he is writing up a ticket, the cattle enter the shot and mill about the intersection around the cars.

The policeman does not look up. In fact he does not “get over” that he’s noticed anything until a significant number of cattle have entered the shot and been onscreen long enough for us to register this. For us to register this. It is only then that the cop registers that there is something unusual going on near him, turns around and is shocked to see all those cows crowding around the cars in the intersection…and then reacts to this.

We don’t think, “Why doesn’t he hear all those cows? Why doesn’t he smell those cows?” We buy what we’re seeing, which is namely the reality the cop experiences for the purpose of the gag, and which is the rhythm of the gag. Automobile accident, policeman arrives, policeman is engaged in activity that serves as a distraction, several dozen head of cattle enter, cattle fill the area, cop senses something, cop notices cattle.

In a sound film this could never happen, because the in-scene reality would be heard by both the onscreen players and by us as viewers. In the universe of Silent Film, the reality can be shaped or determined by the filmmakers and we viewers follow along.

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Robert Towers

Love that sequence! And your comments were very revealing. Watching silents is, indeed, a unique experience.

Rex Fermier

I wish someone would have asked Buster about this topic after he moved over to sound pictures. How has sound limited your options for comedy?