A Need For Speed

I don’t know why Walter Kerr’s discussion of Silent Film projection speeds in chapter five hadn’t sparked my fascination with them earlier. But, I don’t think anyone was as fascinated as I was with what made that speed-up work — that the film was running faster than taking speed but did not look like it — as I was.

But for now, we take Mr. Kerr’s statement that Silent Film is supposed to run faster than its taking speed as one of the core elements of the medium. He grew up seeing these films in theaters in the 1920s, and so had first-hand knowledge and experience of viewing them this way. He gives a number of examples and bits of evidence to back up his own memories.

Mentioned also is the fact that — at the time of the book’s writing and publishing — variable-speed playback for television was not possible and so all silent movies broadcast were transferred at 24 frames per second which was fine for a majority of silents, but rendered many over-sped. The same was the case for presenters of silents on 16mm, as was the case for film collectors.

Walter Kerr had a sizable 16mm collection, and while 16mm projectors could run at either 24 fps (for sound film) or at 16 or 18 (labeled “silent” on the machines, for watching one’s home movies), he always ran silents at 24 when he showed them to me during the many visits I made in middle and high school.

I’ve been obsessed with this aspect of Silent Film for the last twelve or so years, and will dedicate a slew of posts down the road to what we refer to now as “undercranking”, outlining what I’ve been able to find out and understand about precisely how this overlooked and unnoticed aspect of cinematic sleight-of-hand in Silent Film worked during the making of the films.

The chapter actually opens with a discussion of the sound and role of musical accompaniment in Silent Film. I’m not going to cover that in this series of posts, but if you’re interested in my insights on this, there are currently 39 episodes of a podcast I’ve done on the subject available for listening.

The first post in this series is here.
The previous post to this one is here.
The next post is here.

The Silent Film Music Podcast with Ben Model can be streamed on my site here or can be found on most podcast platforms (Apple Podcasts, Amazon Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Overcast, Pandora etc.)
Copies of The Silent Clowns turn up on eBay.

5 1 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

“(Walter Kerr) always ran silents at 24 when he showed them to me during the many visits I made in middle and high school.”… My brain just exploded when I read that line. What an experience. When I discovered silent films/comedies around that age, I devoured everything I could about them. No internet so I spent a lot of time in the library. You were spending time with Walter Kerr. Mind… blown.