Acting and Storytelling in Silent Cinema

Is Silent Cinema The Basis of Expressions in the Art of Cinema?

After the Lumiere brothers in France invented the cinema, perhaps the most significant development could be that The Jazz Song is the first sound film. However, silent films, which were a turning point in cinema’s history before sound films, form contemporary cinema. Such films featuring artists like Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Louise Brooks, and Theda Bara may have convinced the audience of cinema’s current development, brought audiences together in theatres, and contributed significantly to contemporary cinema’s formation.

Pioneering films of the silent cinema era, such as Modern Times (1936), Pandora’s Box (1929), or Metropolis (1927), are the milestones that brought the art of cinema to contemporary culture in terms of storytelling. When we look at Hollywood-made silent films in terms of costume and art direction, the French Haute Couture fashion culture meeting with the American audience was influential in forming the collective fashion understanding of the 20s. Therefore, silent cinema has developed the cinema’s artistic expression in every field in terms of unique acting style, using sound effects and indications of reality.

Gloria Swanson retrieved from

Acting in Silent Cinema

While Charlie Chaplin criticized society with his satirical films in his new understanding of reality while distorting reality, he undoubtedly managed to put the audience into a film structure without dialogue with black comedy elements. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the films, where we see the first examples of the development of every episode in cinema, from light to editing, from costume to art, especially in Hollywood, is the actors /actress’s performances. Gloria Swanson’s legendary character “Norma Desmond” in Sunset Boulevard (1950) describes the difference between silent cinema and sound cinema by saying that,

“We didn’t need dialogues because we had a face.”

When we look at the examples of silent films, we see that the actors play with sound effects and epic music background in a very artificial way. According to the acting under-standing of different directors, although we saw relatively powerful acting examples in that period’s films, the realistic acting understanding had not found its place in Hollywood yet as we saw examples on many featured films in post 60s cinema.

Especially if we examine Louise Brooks’ films Diary of the Lost Girl (1929) and Pandora’s Box, which contain dramatic acts, we see that the theatrical expressions and unnatural acting style. The dramatic structure, which creates an alienation effect on the audience, is not established through dialogue. It makes a meaningful and cinematic form thanks to music, light, and intervening texts on the screen. Its silent cinema structure is prone to an acting approach that requires different mimics, a particular type of gag reflex, and timing. Further, the gesture-oriented acting technique has not broken the effect of alienation in silent cinema.

A New Style

On the other side, Charlie Chaplin has created a new acting style in silent cinema with his reflex concept regarding trajectory gags with the right timing. And with Charlie Chaplin’s acting, his understanding of creative acting in silent cinema was stratified and moved to another dimension. Unlike other actors /actress, Charlie Chaplin transformed the silent film structure into a positive technique for acting in the Hollywood world.

The brave actor Charlie Chaplin, who preferred to reflect the society with black comedy elements in his films, successfully adapted the concept of satire and comedy he wanted to silent cinema, using the technical inadequacies in cinema.

Besides, in Chaplin’s Modern Times, loud machines suppress people’s potential voices and move all the characters faster and hastily than they are. This situation serves the dramatic nature of the film within the black comedy structure. In an interview in 1930, Charlie Chaplin summed up his point of view on sound cinema at that time: “To me, dialogue always slows down action be-cause words of action must wait.” And he preferred to use all the disadvantages of silent cinema to advantage in a personal style.

However, the untimely success he achieved with the movie The Great Dictator (1940) caused his art to grow rather than slow down and take his place in cinema history.

Final Thoughts

With the aging of the concept of theatre acting in Hollywood, the use of voice and dialogue has become widespread, and actors and actresses like Gloria Swanson and Charlie Chaplin have achieved larger works using silent film careers.

Silent cinema has taken its place in cinema theories over the years as a respected and referenced art practice. Its value has been understood over the years as it forms the basis of the potential effects of cinema on the audience. The preferences of costume, editing, art direction, and lighting in silent cinema created a resource for enriching the expression of reality, especially in independent cinema.


“Charlie Chaplin’s Battle With Sound.” Alex Bauer, 25 Sept. 2017,

“Peak of Silent Cinema.” Ian Christie, 13 Aug. 2020,

“Sunset Boulevard “, IMDB, 1950.

“Modern Times”, IMDB 1936.

“The Gag Reflex”, October 2004, David Cairns

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