Our performers convey information and emotion to us in their movement, gestures and expressions. They have to. The movement styles and techniques we see in Silent Film range from obvious gesturing that is what some assume is typical of pre-1930s movies to profoundly underplayed emotional stillness. Some of that gesturing is so outdated it’s hard for a contemporary to decode.
A majority of the performers in silent movies came from the theater, and one major technique they knew and had used in their craft was a catalog of gestures and expressions outlined by François Delsarte. The gesture from the Delsarte method you’re probably most familiar with is one where the actor, wracked with anguish, clasps the back of their forearm to their forehead.
Buster Keaton spoofs this gesture in The Scarecrow and in The Goat. I’ve found that the gesture is so arcane to a modern audience that, for Buster’s joke to get over, I have to play a bar of schmaltzy melodrama-type music to help moviegoers out.
There are other gestures. Quite often, Chaplin has Edna Purviance make a loose fist and bite the forefinger of it when she needs to appear worried. In Keystone comedies when Mabel needs to let us or someone in a scene know she is in love with “Fatty” Arbuckle, she will point to her heart, describe a pair of parentheses in the air with her hands, then points to her ring finger.
These are over-simplifications, of course, and the use of Delsarte gesturing is not rampant in early film as many people assume. Just look at Griffith’s The New York Hat, or any of oa number of his Biograph shorts from 1909-1910. While it gradually disappears as acting techniques improve and actors find better and better ways of indicating without “indicating”, it doesn’t go away completely.
In Vidor’s The Crowd, during the very long take after “John” and “Mary” have had a big argument and John storms out to go to work, there is a very long and sustained take, during which Mary reacts to what has happened. Eleanor Boardman, who plays Mary, stands there and thinks through her situation and there is a moment when it occurs to her that (spoiler) she has some news she hasn’t told John. At which point, she gently clutches her stomach, and we realize she’s pregnant.
There is a balancing act that has to happen in Silent Film performance in order to inform us what it in the characters’ minds and what they are conveying to each other. Initially, the Delsarte catalog of gestures — which could certainly be choreographed to music in a dance, like the Macarena or Alley Cat — was the go-to method.