The Speed of Silence

Issues in Silent Film Speed

Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914)

If they ever see one at all, most people from this decade onward will never see a film from the silent era in a theater with musical accompaniment. Chances are far greater that such films will be viewed on a television or computer screen, streaming from a Netflix Instant account or viewed in ten minute intervals off a blurry YouTube upload. Although even the most avowedly reverent repertory screening would be unable to fully replicate the original viewing experience, these new modes of film presentation are a further cry from theater-going in the early twentieth century. For silent films to continue to be appreciated and understood in even the most limited capacity that they are today, many factors must come into consideration for their presentation. If a film from the silent era is lucky enough to survive in our current era (most do not), the possible differences between the original film as it was first viewed and its present state are vast. Scratches, smudges and splices are highly likely; frames or whole scenes may be missing, and other material could have been added after the fact; intertitles differed from market to market; its color or tinting may be lost or faded; its aspect ratio might be incorrect; and the musical accompaniment will almost certainly be different. Along with these and other considerations, silent film speed is often misunderstood by those viewing these films in the modern era, and sometimes even by those preparing these films for presentation.

Modern stereotypes of silent films rarely involve the people on the screen moving at a normal pace. When movies or television try to mimic or parody silent dramas, oftentimes the actors will walk at a turgid pace, playing up the exaggerated motions of a theatrical style of acting that was admittedly present during the silent era. Modern takes on silent comedy, on the other hand, usually take the opposite approach. Sometimes co-opting the iconography of the Keystone Kops, the comedy side of modern silent film homage often involves action that is sped-up to a breakneck pace, taking just as much of a cue from Benny Hill’s cop chases as the silent era’s. While not as prominent as such parodies may suggest, these generalizations aren’t completely without merit. In Pandora’s Box, Louise Brooks’ motions feel completely fluid and natural (when presented properly, at least), but the same cannot be said of Fritz Kortner, whose movements often take on the leaden pace of the silent drama stereotype. Addressing the running speed of Tillie’s Punctured Romance, a Keystone comedy featuring an early performance from Charlie Chaplin, film preservationist Ross Lipman acknowledges that “the film’s climactic chase sequence has been (not surprisingly) shot undercranked in relation to the rest of the film, and would hence appear speeded up if the movie were projected at a constant rate” (Lipman). While this statement indicates that silent comedic chases took on a faster pace that other silent footage, it is also important to note that in many cases, silent films were not meant to be projected at a constant rate.

In Silent Films What Was the Right Speed?, film historian Kevin Brownlow’s seminal essay on the subject, instructions given by D.W. Griffith are cited as an example of how film speeds could differ within a single picture. For the 1914 film, Home Sweet Home, Griffith “recommended 16 minutes for the first reel (16.6 fps [frames per second]), 14-15 minutes for the second (17.8-19 fps), and 13-14 for each of the other reels (19-20.5 fps)” (Brownlow 166). Using hand-cranked cameras without a soundtrack synced to the image, silent filmmakers had more freedom to adjust the speed of the film within the camera. Offering an example from the silent era, film curator James Card points out that Thomas Ince’s scripts “often carried specific instructions to the cameraman to ‘Crank faster here’” (Card 53). As Brownlow notes, though, the speed at which silent films were filmed “seldom corresponded with the speeds at which films were shown in theaters,” adding that, “It is possible to check these because they were specified on the cue sheets” (Brownlow 165). Cue sheets were instructions given to the projectionists on how to properly run their films, and a chart provided in Brownlow’s essays offers a telling example of just how frequently and drastically silent films varied in speed: Blind Husbands (1919) had a probable camera speed of 16 fps, while The General (1926) was likely shot at 24 fps. The probable camera speed for Monsieur Beaucaire (1924) was 18 fps, but its suggested projection speed was 24 fps, while Foolish Wives (1922) had a projection speed of 18 fps and a probable camera speed of 16 fps (166). Considering this variety, if all of these films were projected at the same standard speed, the result would be many films presented either slower or faster than audiences were supposed to view them. Another film speed approach that this chart dispels is one that suggests that a silent film’s frame rate corresponds with the last two digits of its production year (Lipman sec: “Running Speed”); even this small number of examples shows that any such correlation is purely coincidental.

Discussing the ethics of film preservation, Paolo Cherchi Usai marks the field’s purpose as “making sure that the surviving artifact is not further damaged; bringing it back to a condition as close as possible to its original state; providing access to it, in a manner consistent with the way the artifact was meant to be exhibited” (Usai 66). As evidenced by the cue sheets, the way a film was meant to be exhibited is particularly complex when it comes to silent films, and the question of film speed is particularly unique to the silent era. With the coming of sound in the late 1920s, film theaters and studios adopted a standard film speed of 24 fps (Brownlow 167), and while this change made the film speed of sound films easier to deal with, it resulted in an increasingly muddled view of silent film speeds. As sound equipment became more prevalent, their methods for properly projecting silent films became more primitive. Kevin Brownlow laments the fact that “16mm sound projectors are fitted with a switch marked ‘silent’ and ‘sound’,” where the silent option meant as a standard film speed for projection “merely indicates the speed for films photographed on clockwork home movie cameras—16 or 18 frames per second” (164). According to Brownlow, the myth that these projectors perpetuated was even adopted by silent film cameraman themselves, who when asked about film speed responded that, “’The standard speed was sixteen’” (165). Between the potentially misremembered information of filmmakers and the instructions given on cue sheets, along with the available technology being less than ideal for silent film presentation, the goal of replicating a film speed that aligns with how the film was originally exhibited is already complex, but the exhibition practices of silent era theaters adds another complication to the process.

Recounting his research on silent era film screenings, historian Richard Kozarski paints a picture very different from the modern movie-going experience, one where “very few silent-film lovers today would be happy with what they would be seeing if they went back in a time machine to a theater” (qtd. in Tibbetts 89). Along with theater managers that “thought nothing of interrupting a movie for a short stage pageant” and “felt free to cut the film up and rearrange it, even take out the parts they didn’t like,” Kozarski’s research also revealed that some projectors “cranked too fast to get past the ‘dull’ parts” (qtd. in Tibbetts 89). In defense of these varying projection speed, he notes that, “The whole point of nineteenth century motion experiments was to show motion at different speeds” (qtd. in Tibbetts 89). Highlighting the same phenomenon of altered silent film speeds, James Card points to an economic motive: “Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin Hood, for example, might have been shown in two and a half hours during the slack periods of the day or in a little less than two hours during the evening, to squeeze in an extra show” (Card 53). While it’s possible that neither of these options would be how the filmmakers intended their film to be seen, any modern screening of a silent era film that wishes to present the film in its proper historical context would have to take the realities of silent era presentation into consideration. With the increasing unlikeness in our current digital age that the modern viewer would see a silent movie shown through a film projector, the nature of fast-forwarding a DVD or digital file as opposed to projecting film at a higher frame rate is another factor to take into consideration if the film were to be presented at a faster speed. The latter simply increases the number of frames shown per second, while the former usually involves skipping past frames to increase the speed, offering a more unnatural and incomplete viewing experience. (This is still a common practice with silent films, though. According to a graduate of the school, for example, a film course in Ithaca College fast forwards through Birth of a Nation in order to fit the film into a class period.)

Considering the frequent disparity between the intended presentation of films during the silent era and their actual presentation environments, along with the considerations relating to modern audiences, determining film speed is a frustratingly inexact science. Describing the process of determining the proper speed for the restoration of Tillie’s Punctured Romance, Ross Lipman brings up the possibility of trying to approximate “natural” movement, but suggests that, “Even if one were to aim for this, which is of course subject for debate in any situation, to achieve it would be extremely difficult” (Lipman sec: “Running Speed”). For the ultimate decision, he states that, “After extensive testing of each reel, 18 frames per second arose as a nearly ideal all-around rate. Some movement appeared slow, much natural, and some fast. The whole film seemed to come alive at 18 frames per second” (“Running Speed”). Individual opinions on the success of this frame rate would likely vary, though. Offering a personal example of a difference between himself and a co-worker, Kevin Brownlow notes that, “Everyone has a slightly different sense of rhythm; I tended to favour a frame or two faster than David Gill” (Brownlow 165).

Uniting the likes of Lipman, Brownlow and Gill, though, is a knowledge of silent film history and an ability to separate facts about its presentation from the myths. Not every silent film presenter possesses this knowledge, and as common misconceptions about the silent era persist in popular culture, this problem may grow more pronounced in the coming years. While specialty DVD companies like Kino and Flicker Alley will likely continue to release well-researched silent film packages, many YouTube users may simply upload the only copy available to them (usually far from the best), and lower-tier DVD companies often churn out poor quality transfers of public domain titles with improper film speed and inappropriate music scores. (Much to my chagrin, it was with one such copy of The General that I may have inadvertently turned a few of my friends off of Buster Keaton films. For a film where motion and momentum are utterly crucial to the execution of its gags, a sluggish film speed kills the comedy. The YouTube video below features a similarly slow speed.) For silent films to remain a viable, if rather niche, means of entertainment or study as the digital age continually widens the gap between their original exhibition and modern practices, it is crucial that preservationists take the issue of silent film speed into account when preparing films to enter the digital access arena.

Written for Michael Friend’s MIAS 200 course, Moving Image Archives History and Philosophy, Fall 2011.

Bibliography

Brownlow, Kevin. “Silent Films What Was the Right Speed?” Sight and Sound 49:3 (1980): 164-167.

Card, James. Seductive Cinema: The Art of Silent Film. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Lipman, Ross. “Tillie’s punctured legacy: Observations on the restoration of Chaplin’s first feature.” Early Popular Visual Culture 7.2 (2009): 127-143.

Tibbetts, John C. “Re-examining the silent film: Interviews with historians Charles Musser, Eileen Bowser and Richard Kozarski.” Literature Film Quarterly 23.3 (1995): 88-90.

Usai, Paolo Cherchi. Silent Cinema: An Introduction. London: BFI Publishing, 2000.

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