I remember seeing an interview several years ago with someone involved with Blake Edwards’ “Victor/Victoria“ who said that one of the challenges in moving the film to stage was that you couldn’t have those close-ups of different characters thinking “wait a second, is that person actually…?” Which is half of the whole concept of the film. This cinematic ability allowing the viewer to know the thoughts of a character is a facet of cinema that Silent Film utilizes even more freely and more frequently than you can with sound film.
In the same way as I’ve discussed before that intertitles in Silent Film can possess viewpoints of multiple characters within a film, the use of reaction shots in Silent Film do not need to be limited to a main character. Or to just one or two characters, as might be the case in a Laurel and Hardy film.
With Stan and Ollie, when we watch and take in their mental states, it’s done with purpose. Ollie looks into the camera, asking us for sympathy; Stan looks into the camera not so much to connect with us as to allow us to us a window into the slowly turning cogs in his mind. It’s the same with Langdon.
With Silent Film, however, this is still possible without characters breaking a fourth wall. And it can happen with as many characters as the filmmakers wish. Dramatic action and beats can happen without a character’s being in conversation or interaction with another. A mark of a great screen performer is their gift for us being able to know what they’re thinking without obvious eyebrow raises or indicating anything deliberately.
There’s a moment in The New York Hat (1911) when Mary Pickford thinks about and pines for the fancy hat we’ve seen her observe longingly in a shop window. It’s practically a monologue or soliloquy, purely of thought, which we can follow. The lead character in Lois Weber’s Shoes (1916) has a similar moment late in the film in which, without hints in titles or anything else, we watch her consider her circumstances and make the decision she’s been grappling with for the entire duration of the film.
In both cases we are invited in to the characters’ internal monologue or thought process.
This is possible with two characters interacting in the same scene. The sequence I described in an earlier post from He Who Gets Slapped (1925) works because in addition to knowing what the simple actions shown represent, we are also providing for ourself the thoughts of both characters, even though neither says anything to each other. The opening sequence of Pudovkin’s Mother (1928) functions the same way, but with three perspectives — the laborer husband, the wife he comes home to, and their son who watches his father take the clock off the wall and his mother struggling with him.
None of them speak during the sequence and not only are we providing their thoughts for ourselves, there are two things the sequence gets away with and only because of the lattitude of expression allowed in this medium. We accept the interaction and conflict even though in real life these three people most probably would have said things to each other. Also, because we are only introduced to the reason the husband has taken the clock, again without titles or any other deliberate explanation, by our being shown the next scene…when the husband enters a pub, and tries to pay for a drink with the clock. Oh…that’s what he was thinking when he got home in the previous scene.
One of my favorite examples of how far this can be taken is Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925), directed by Ernst Lubitsch. All the characters in the film are constantly trying to figure out what the others in the scene with them are up to, or are reacting to something the other has done and trying to figure out why. Sometimes the titles clue us in, but mostly it’s left to us viewers to enter the mind or mindset of that character, and then the next when we cut to them, and then to the next. A good deal of the film’s dramatic action and storyline is told entirely through reaction shots. Reaction shots which, in a sound film or a stage play, would have included the character responding verbally in some way.
But Silent Film allows multiple characters in its stories a non-verbal reaction, one which we accept without any dialogue, and one in which we know what they’re thinking or considering.
Here’s a YouTube video cued up to the sequence from the beginning of Mother (1926) directed by V. Pudovkin that I was describing:
To watch Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925) here’s a YouTube video of it.