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May 24, 2011

Security Blanket: Classic Silent Movies

Back when I was a kid, seeing old movies at the various repertory houses conveniently scattered around the Upper West Side of Manhattan, silent movies were still working their way back to respectability. Somehow over half a century of talkies, even the very best of the genre—Charlie Chaplin, say—had at some point become, in the national psyche, movies fit only for children.

This had started to turn around well before I was born, but the stigma was still around by the time I discovered them, and as I grew into a young adult I got kind of indignant about it. Classics like Chaplin's City Lights, Buster Keaton's The General, and Harold Lloyd's The Freshman were at least as smart, as well-made, and as funny as anything at the cineplexes—for adults. That anyone considered these movies were merely "kids' stuff" was ridiculous, I felt.

In the years since, the great work of the silent comedians has fully retaken its rightful place in the film pantheon, thanks to devoted film archivists (and, in large part, the cable channel Turner Classic Movies). Certainly there's no sense that the films of Chaplin and Keaton are the equivalent of Saturday-morning cartoons anymore. So it's with some amusement that I find myself on the other side of the fence now, selling these movies…as great to watch with your kids. (The key consistency, I tell myself, is that I'd still also sell them as great to watch without your kids, too....)

At any rate, we return to these classics again and again for family movie nights when my wife and I are feeling a bit tired of animation. We spent a recent weekend evening watching Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr. en masse. I can't think of a time when each member of our family, from the 42-year-old to the two-year old, enjoyed a movie so much, so equally.

The reason silents work so well for family viewing, I think, is that they were originally made to be watched by adults—but at a time when that didn't more or less require subject matter either inappropriate for or uninteresting to kids. So the best work of the masters is fully engrossing to parents—again, as funny and as dramatically moving as any movie ever made—while giving the kids plenty of slapstick to giggle at. (Okay, I giggle at it too.)

There are, of course, moments in some of these movies that reflect the prejudices of the time, especially racial ones. While such ugly scenes are rarer in the silent comedies than in the silent dramas (say, Birth of a Nation, a film I do not recommend watching with your four-year-old), they do show up from time to time, and many parents will either want to vet carefully or be ready with some historical explanations. (But frankly, there are fewer of these issues in these silent comedies than you find in the Tintin books, say.)

To me, the rewards make that effort worth it. Pixar films are rightfully lauded as movies for children that are fully enjoyable for adults, even to the point that many adults see them without the kids. Classic silents are much the same thing, except the other way around: They're perfectly enjoyable for kids...but they were made for us adults. For once, we get to turn the tables, and yet everyone's happy. It's a win-win!

[Photograph: Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons.]

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