The art and charm of silence

As the controversy over ``colorization'' makes clear, many people truly appreciate the great black-and-white films of the past. Yet those other classic films - those without sound - are hardly appreciated at all. Much of the blame rests with television entrepreneurs, the vulgarians who are now presenting ``colorized'' versions of movies - ``The Maltese Falcon'' and ``Casablanca,'' to name just two - whose artistry stems in large part from their lack of color.

The average person's exposure to silent films has been primarily the speeded-up, ``sound enhanced'' versions shown occasionally on TV - the greatest of all enemies of thoughtful, imaginative silence. Few people have seen silents as they were meant to be seen, accompanied by live music and projected at a slower camera speed.

No blaring TV sound tracks were added to films that had been carefully crafted to be seen but not heard. No bubbly-voiced TV narrators explained the films that had been made to explain themselves.

It was a creative experience unlike any other. It required special skills of the film directors, film editors and players, who could not rely on the crutch of words and sounds to reach the audience. Viewers were not denied their rights to interpret cinematic actions and imagine for themselves the retort of the gun, the scream of the heroine, the lonesome whistle of the train.

Silent films are not the primitive, herky-jerky relics television has made them seem to be. They are not simple-minded, dated precursors of the slick movies of today. They stand alone. Technological improvements in filmmaking have not diminished their excellence. The best of them are timeless, like the best of any other art.

They are like books that are no less worthy of attention for having been produced with the techniques of a past era or having been made into films. They are like plays that are no less worthy for having been forerunners of films. They are like the black-and-white sound films whose lack of color enhances them.

The silent film was a genuine and distinct art form. It was designed to move - to show by movement rather than tell by words and sounds. It was at least as artistic, far more experimental and daring, and certainly as imaginative and innovative as the talking picture that supplanted it.

Compare, for instance, the 1925 version of ``Ben-Hur,'' its gripping chariot race that took 42 cameramen and 200,000 feet of film to record, its massive sea battles, its grandeur and overall magnificence, with the ineptly imitative ``Ben-Hur'' of 1959. I write not as a nostalgic old-timer harking back to the films of the good old days. The films of my youth were filled with talking, singing, bang! bang!, and the marvels of ``color by Technicolor.''

I'm writing, rather, as an adult who climbed up, a decade ago, into the balcony of the Avenue Theater in San Francisco - then the only theater anywhere to show silent films on a regular basis. I had anticipated an evening of quaintly amusing entertainment, only to return again and again for immersion into this artistry.

Few talking pictures could surpass what we viewed at the Avenue, accompanied by that soaring instrument known most appropriately as ``the mighty Wurlitzer.''

Few actresses, however well spoken, could match the sheer skills of Louise Brooks, few actors match the skills of Lon Chaney, few better explore the human condition.

No comedians, whatever the words they choose, could possibly equal the silent genius of Chaplin, or Lloyd, or Keaton.

Passionate energy, beauty? My grandfather, and yours, were correct. Clara Bow did indeed have it, and in quantities and of a quality not even Marilyn Monroe could display.

No one ever has seen more dramatic, exciting, and truly engaging films than the ``Greed'' of Erich von Stroheim, the ``Big Parade'' of King Vidor, ``Intolerance'' of D.W. Griffith, or, most especially, the ``Napoleon'' of Abel Gance.

``It would have been more logical,'' as Mary Pickford said, ``if silent pictures had grown out of the talkie instead of the other way around.''

Dick Meister is a San Francisco author.

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