Just Enough For Us to Decode

There is an aspect of physical performance in Silent Film that lies somewhere between what I’ve been writing about and not doing anything different that you’d do in a sound film. It allows for just enough information to come across to us out in the theater or on our sofa that we can decode what’s transpiring or being said.

In early 2018, I was in rehearsals for The Final Reel, a show being created by Parallel Exit, a physical comedy theatre company based in NYC. The show takes place in an about-to-shutter vintage movie house where a fictional silent feature comedy — whose last reel has long been missing and has now been found and restored — is about to be shown. That silent film is shown but during reel one something happens that’s a cross between Sherlock Jr. and The Purple Rose of Cairo and…well, here’s hoping The Final Reel gets presented again and you can find out for yourself.

The silent movie “shown” in the theater was live-performed. I was cast as Ben Model, the silent film accompanist who is the theater’s house pianist. I attended all the rehearsals, so I could gradually build the score on the action while it was being staged and blocked. It also helped the performers as they’d be hearing the music during rehearsals.

A moment from “The Final Reel” (2018), photo by Jim R. Moore. L to R: Scott McCord, Darien Crago, Ben Model, Peter Michael Marino

A moment came during rehearsal where a good deal of the show had been blocked, with the performers saying their “lines” out loud, and everyone knew what was going on. Mark Lonergan, the show’s director, then told us we’d gotten to the point where — since this was a silent movie — everyone would have to stop talking. They’d “speak”, but couldn’t make any sound.

And suddenly, everyone interacting with one another in the scenes had no way of knowing what was going on. Nor would anyone watching.

What I was able to contribute at that moment is this performance style hybrid that I’ve noticed and which I alluded to at the top of this post. Something unique to Silent Film, and which dribbled over a little into early talkies in the actors who’d been in silents for several years or more. And that is a technique of gently gesturing in a way that illustrates what’s being said.

Not the literal point-to-eye, cover-heart-with-hand, point-to-someone gesturing to mean “I love you”, but a more scaled-down gesture or head move or combination of these. Something that refers to the object being discussed or the action they’re suggesting be taken. The spoken dialog still happens, but in real life you wouldn’t tap your wrist if you asked someone what time it is, gesture over your shoulder if you were talking about something behind you, but it conveys enough that we can take in the gestures and facial expressions to decode what’s being discussed.

Not too much, not too little…just the right amount.

And, because of the realm or universe of Silent Film being what it is, we accept this as viewers. As you watch silent movies now that I’ve pointed this out, you may start to become aware of this performance language. You may even start using it yourself to help convey things to people, now that it’s not always easy for us to understand each other through our COVID masks.

The first post in this series is here.
The previous post (#14) to this one is here.
The next post (#16) is here.

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Randall Skretvedt

If you watch early talkies starring performers who were used to acting in silent films, you will often notice them using slightly exaggerated gestures which would be appropriate for silents but seem overdone in talkies. William Haines does this in his early sound films. Slightly exaggerated facial expressions, hand gestures, body language which isn’t as necessary now since his dialogue is conveying the point. (The same thing happens in early television when “radio lines” creep in, such as, “Oh, there’s the phone, I’ll get it.” Maybe a necessary line in a radio show, but not in a TV program where… Read more »