Today I went to the British Film Institute to do some research: watching a 1928 silent film re-enacting some events of World War I – essentially a docudrama, spliced, I think, with some genuine wartime footage. The concept of a docudrama was clearly already in existence by then, though not the word: it was reviewed – along with other films – in the New York Times, where the word photoplay seems to have been used interchangeably with movie.
Extraordinarily, many of the major players in the action played themselves, ten years earlier, and looking, it must be said, considerably the worse for the years: after all, they had had a hard war and were lucky to escape with their lives. The suspension of disbelief was absolute though, since the story was rooted in their experiences. Some cinematic clichés were already apparent . . . The story was essentially Germans vs British, but we had American characters who helped save the day, with a view to the US market (though they were ironclads, not people); the use of characters such as *!% to indicate swear words in the dialogue captions which flashed up every so often; and the token black character who became the comic turn in what was otherwise quite a sombre movie. Fortunately, there were none of the hammy hands thrown up in horror, no faces gurning with emotion, no damsels in distress tied to a railroad, no speeded-up effect, no one suspended from a clock, no perfectly-executed sight-gag in which the hero has a lucky escape when the facade of a house blows down on him, for he’s standing where the window opening ends up. A very British stiff upper lip was kept by all concerned, even the Germans, who were, in any case, played by Britons . . . and you could lipread the “Germans” speaking English.
I loved silent films of that era as a child – absolutely adored them. Apparently I called the Keystone Kops the “binga-bonga men”, because the way they brandished their batons made a binga-bonga sound inside my head. (It made perfect sense then and still does, but obviously maybe that only works in my universe.) Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton all constructed a completely accessible world. Something odd happened today though. Throughout the entire 89 minutes’ running time, though I knew full well it was a silent, I couldn’t stop myself listening for the dialogue.