From Stage to Silent Screen

The unique form of Silent Film allowed the performers, directors, scenarists, gag writers and stunt performers to unleash their imaginations. The medium became for them a jumping off point into what turned out to be the universe of Silent Film, and not a end point or culmination of their days, weeks and years of performing and creating for a live audience.

Sometimes I am a little too close to my subject matter and forget there may be a sliver of it I need to cover. Thankfully, occasionally a comment or question from one of the readers of this blog will remind me of something I’ve inadvertently slid over. Such a thing happened in a comment on the previous post “Impossible Gags”, thus:

“Is the acceptance of unreality, at least in part, because of the missing elements as you noted in another recent blog, so that the mind has to conceive of narrative with missing pieces, might it not open up other possibilities and freedoms? Or does it have more to do with the tradition of silent comedies roots in pantomime, magic lantern, vaudeville and it simple evolved that way?”

It’s really a combination of the two. What’s both fascinating and baffling is how this realization happened, and how it spread throughout the silent filmmaking community. It does seem to have happened somewhere in the 1913-1916 range. This is when Keystone, established in 1912, really hit its stride stylistically and when the popularity of serials really took hold. Yes, not all Keystone shorts were wildly physical and not all serials were full of chases. But in both cases, as well as with the comedies made by L-Ko and eventually even Vitagraph, there is a stretching of the limits of reality.

It’s hard to imagine that there were people sitting around talking about film theory like they were cinema studies students in the 1960s, musing about the notions I’ve been outlining as far as elements being left out and being filled in by the audience’s imaginations. But something clearly happened, and developed. A gradual understanding that you could pretty much get away with anything, without explaining it or justifying it by showing the main character eating Welsh rarebit then falling asleep.

Physical comedians and stunt performers may have stumbled onto some of these techniques by happy accident, noticing something in watching rushes. Maybe they caught a picture in a theatre on its last show of the day, when the projectionist was over-speeding his cranking because it was late and he wanted to go home. And then they reverse-engineered the piece of business, or realized they could take the idea they saw ever further and tried it in the scene they were taking the next day.

There’s a moment, although gradual, when the title that announced what was about to transpire stopped being used. How did this happen? Who thought “well, this is overkill”, and wrote a title that poetically introduced the scene instead…only to find that audiences weren’t confused.

I have to imagine that many people were doing what Maurice Costello said he did when he came upon the idea of what he termed “slow-motion acting” (discussed earlier, here). He tried it out in a picture he was making, got away with it during the taking of the scenes, and then it played in a moving picture theater and it worked.

So much film was being made and released and viewed and reflected on, on a weekly basis, that you could get an idea for something that had as its basis the mechanics of a physical comedy move or routine, and build on it. And push how far it could be taken, since leaving things out, sometimes just by cutting, was working and amplifying movement through cranking speeds was, too.

Who figured out that someone could dive head first out a window in an interior shot, and then in the next shot outdoors land on their feet would look like one continuous movement, and one so quick that no one ever noticed the continuity mistake? Somebody gave it a shot, and found out the illusion worked when the shots were cut together and projected as a faster-than-taking-speed rate.

What develops in the 1920s takes this even further, at least with the comedies. So many gags are created where the notion that what’s going to wind up on the screen can not exist in reality and is not a gag in real-time, but can become one if staged a certain way, and cranked at a specific speed. There’s that thing in Larry Semon comedies when people are running down a street, the camera following alongside in a car, where it looks like Larry’s or the cops’ legs aren’t moving. Somebody figured that out, with the car and performers running at a specific speed and the camera also being cranked at a specific speed.

The “step right up and call me Speedy” jig in Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925) cannot be performed in real life the way it appears onscreen. And yet, when viewed at what I’m estimating was cranking speed for the takes with the jig, the steps Lloyd takes are very simple, and the jig is not funny. Until it’s projected at 24 fps (or faster).

The more you look at silent film sequences at their cranking speeds, the more you see the reverse-engineering of the physical actions, from dramatic scenes to wild slapstick. And everyone was in on it.

What’s really bizarre is how little they spoke about it in interviews, both during the silent era and even when being interviewed by Kevin Brownlow for The Parade’s Gone By or the Hollywood series.

Here’s the jig from The Freshman, at projection and cranking speeds, from my “silentfilmspeed” YouTube channel.

The first post in this series is here.
The previous post (#53) to this one is here.
The next post (#55) is here.

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The explanation of the jig is extremely clear – these posts are revealing things about these movies that I’d never previously suspected, and it only makes me more admiring of the skills of those who made these movies.

Last edited 10 months ago by Mike
Rex Fermier

The thing that amazes me is the fact that these cameras were all hand cranked. How do you develop the skill to crank at 16 fps or 24 fps? Did they have a metronome ticking so that they could time the cranks? What trade school teaches film camera cranking?