Hey TIFF, Silent Movies Were Never Actually Silent

Posted by Brandy Dean December 27, 2012 2 Comments 3710 views

I woke up early(ish) this morning to be sure I had breakfast before heading out to a screening of David Copperfield (1913) at TIFF Bell Lightbox. This movie screened as part of TIFF Cinematheque’s Dickens on Screen lineup and this silent film fan was pretty stoked to see it. David Copperfield is not the most common silent film to catch on the big screen. You can buy a pretty ratty copy of the movie from Grapevine Video, but it’s, well, pretty ratty. So you can imagine that I was pumped and did not let even the gigantic snow drifts on King Street deter me from my appointed screening.

But, lo, when I stepped up to purchase my $12 ticket, I was informed that the film had no soundtrack. Well, duh, that’s the silent part of silent film. This is also why you quite often see a gentleman or a lady seated at a piano just beneath the screen at a silent film showing. When I queried the gal at the ticket counter to clarify her statement – no accompaniment at all, neither live or prerecorded – she confirmed and then asked, “Is that okay?”

This is not okay.  This is not okay at all. I could probably let it slide if it were some unfortunate mix up, a one-time deal. But it’s not a one-off.  Screening silent films without accompaniment has become a pattern of behavior and, frankly, it is completely disrespectful to the medium, the film-going public, and the community of people who love the art of silent cinema. It breaks my heart to consider the possibility that a silent film neophyte was in the audience this afternoon, perhaps giving the silents a first try. I imagine that person would walk away thinking this is all very silly and never extending the chance again. Don’t laugh, it could happen.

“Silent” cinema is a relatively modern term, one that applied only long after “talkies” hit the scene. What we call silent movies, were just movies in 1913, a somewhat supernatural phenomena that reproduced motion in photographs. They were movies because they moved. They were exciting and thrilling and emotionally moving and they always, always, always featured sound. Urban centers eventually built grand movie palaces with full orchestras, often billing the accompanists above the movie title. Small towns built less elaborate movie houses but installed an upright and a pianist who had honed his craft on vaudeville stages. Even a storefront movie shack at a dusty crossroads had at least a phonograph.

Have I driven this point home, yet. Silent movies were never actually silent. See. Here’s a photo of an Edison Kinetophone, circa 1895. See the earphones running from the machine to the dude’s ears? Even a 45 second film of a mostly naked lady belly dancing included music.

Edison Kinetophone, 1895


The Kinetophone lost out to projected movies, of course, but movies never fell silent. The very term synchronized sound is another indication of the state of movie sound. The fact that we make a distinction between sound synchronized with a film reel and other, less direct, means of scoring a film is significant. Again, silent movies were never actually silent.

It is an appalling fact that anyone would have to say this aloud to TIFF. It is an appalling fact that in a city that is as film obsessed as Toronto silent films would be presented with no accompaniment what so ever. It is an appalling fact that though Toronto is virtually lousy with talented accompanists TIFF would  opt to show a silent film in an aural vacuum rather than engage one of them.

TIFF does many things and does many things well. The TIFF Bell Lightbox is a beautiful cathedral of movie going, the nearest thing I’ll have to those movie palaces of yore. It is always a treat to see a film there and I always feel a thrill of delight when I step into the lobby. I am grateful for the varied and diverse programming of TIFF Cinematheque. But I’m sorry – to screen a film (any film!) in dead silence is unacceptable. It’s doing just half of the job, and really, why do it at all then?

Silent cinema is thrilling, interesting, and all around amazing. I accept that it’s not for everyone, but I insist that anyone who loves cinema should see a silent or two (or hundred). But I also insist that silent film should be screened properly. It’s a sad day when I would recommend that maybe you should just get that ratty copy of David Copperfield from Grapevine Video instead of going to the TIFF Bell Lightbox, because at least Grapevine respects the work, the audience, and the roots of modern cinema enough to include a soundtrack. Unless you can prove there was a horse standing on your piano, there’s really no excuse. If you can’t get a pianist in the house, could you at least plug an iPod into the audio system?

As those of us brave enough to sit through an utterly silent film filed out of the cinema, we were handed vouchers for free movie screenings. I appreciate the gesture. However, I also see it as an admission of guilt. TIFF should, and definitely does, know better.



About Brandy Dean

Social media consultant, blogger for hire, and lover of classic movies and silent films.

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There are 2 Comments

  1. Pingback Top 4 Masters of German Silent Cinema – The Little Jazz Baby

  2. Ross
    - January 10, 2013
      -   Reply

    I totally agree with your remarks. But I must say, I found your description of the situation totally funny! Attending a ‘silent’ silent movie. It could have been an opportunity for attendees to make comments, or you could have created a DADA event and have the audience provide the soundtrack. A little on the lighter side…

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