The development of Drama in Silent Films

When we talk about drama in the context of any art form, we first need to acknowledge that it was all the way back in the Ancient age, that people started to tell stories about people. The most notable are perhaps those from Ancient Greece, as they managed to find their way in being preserved, quoted, and being inspired by throughout the whole European culture. Fast forward a little bit more than two thousand years and see that we now have the same story principles (such as story structure and character development) present in film, a whole new type of media of the modern age. However, there was a very long road to this and it all starts with the invention of camera and, later, the Silent Films.

The history of film

If we look at the first films, we can, as I’ve tried to prove in the previous text, observe that they are mostly shots of daily life, people doing things and almost every time plotless. The majority of films made by the Lumiére brothers were, therefore, rather meant to showcase the new amazing discoveries of science than tell a story. Film was at first a source of entertainment because of its sole existence, not because of the content.

What we don’t realize here is that it took people some time to come up with the idea to use this new technology for storytelling purposes. When we look at George Méliés, we can see that the motion pictures are getting some sort of substance. Where the Lumiéres would just record people leaving a factory or their family breakfast, Méliés started to record things commonly meant for entertainment even outside of the film industry. 

We can see him adapting pre-existing theatre performances and tricks used before, only now using all the advantages the new kind of medium provides him. It is now easy to spot the filming tricks he is using, the cuts for the magic tricks, multiplying his head on the screen, and perhaps many more. But the important thing here is to notice the way old culture makes its way into new technology.

Film as an industry of adaptation

If we stay with Meliés for a bit more, there is another thing worth analysing. Even though he’s had many contributions to the film industry, the film he is probably the most known for is The Landing on the Moon. Here we see him telling a story with science fiction elements through a motion picture and as I’ve tried to argue in the previous text, this is something way closer to what we would call a movie today. Most importantly for this text, however, it is very much plot driven, with no emotional or thematic development whatsoever. It is not the final step towards dramatic cinema.

Now films with plot continued to gain popularity. One notable film from this time period is the Great Train Robbery. It is worth mentioning because this movie starts to use action sequences and the illustration of certain emotions or action feats has to be done through exaggerated melodramatic acting.

Here we see a man being shot from behind. Now this is not, by any means, a way one would fall down upon being killed but the actor had to do that so that what happened was obvious to the audience. Now there are two ways to look at it – the first one is that they expected the general audience to not be familiar with this as much back then, since films have been around for only a short while. And even though this might seem plausible at first glance, what is also notable is the low quality of film used back then.

With the need for action and emotions, there comes also the need to be able to portray these things so that they do not confuse the audience. With lower quality film, there has to be a more obvious way to portray these less apparent things. This is the reason why silent film actors commonly used various types of make-up to help their faces be more visible and their facial features (such as eyebrows or lips) stand out more, therefore helping the audience recognize their emotions more easily.

Charlie Chaplin, a comedian(?)

This is around when Charlie Chaplin, the most prominent figure of the Silent Film era, steps into the story. When we take a look at The Kid in comparison with Méliés‘ plot or “wonder” driven films, we can see that Chaplin is slowly introducing yet another element into modern cinema, something that was long present in our culture but not yet in this new industry. This new element is drama and although the movie is still mainly driven by comedy and the dramatic aspect is rather subtle, it is also very strong at times.

While this movie is fairly entertaining and some of the stunts in it are truly unbelievable to this day, Charlie Chaplin also manages to help the audience feel emotions – not only that, he even helps them root for the protagonist when he’s at the low bottom.

One thing worth noting in Chaplin’s work is the way he builds suspense. What he usually does is that he reveals information to the audience earlier than revealing it to the characters which creates a situation based on the watchers being excited to find whether or not the character finds out. It could, however, be also used the other way around, with the characters knowing more than the audience. This responsible handling of information as a storytelling tool is an aspect of drama that was known to people even during the ancient times with the most notable place of use being probably the play Oedipus Rex.

Now here we do not see this used as a part of the build-up for dramatic suspense, but rather comedic. A lot of scenes that are funny are based on the Little Tramp getting himself in trouble not knowing what he was doing or not being aware of what is happening right behind his own shoulder.

However, the last ingredient that a dramatic and suspenseful film is dialogue. In The Kid, we clearly see the main conflict and feel the dramatic tension because the whole plot is very basic. And Chaplin is very good and clever with visualizing different kinds of moments and making them understandable to people. But in order to get more complicated situations, the audience needs something a bit more to hold on to.

In fact, we can see the rising need for dialogue in another one of Chaplin’s movies, Modern Times. The use of text frames to illustrate some plot important conversations or simply relationships of people suddenly become more frequent than earlier, with the movie still keeping some room for actual actor performances in dramatically tense scenes and staying in the genre of comedy.

Drama with the mask of comedy

What went on during the evolution of silent films was, in less words, adaptation of old culture to the new technology and working with the benefits and disadvantages that came with it. Humanity was only starting to learn about how to use this new type of medium and it quickly became a big money-earning business.

One last thing to notice, if I may speak in the poetic tone for a while, is what kind of people these men mentioned were. Lumiéres were mostly inventors, pioneers of this new technology, businessmen experimenting with what they found. Méliès was a person with theatrical background of doing magic tricks, shows – therefore it comes as no surprise that his films were performances (or stories) of wonder and spectacle.

When we get to Chaplin, however, we discover a way more interesting character. He was an orphan with a very sad background and even though we remember him mainly as a comedian, some of his stories are also very personal. The Kid tells a story of an orphan kid, Modern Times is about tensions in society and problems of the 30s…

If then Lumiéres were the inventors, and Méliès the showman sharing tales of spectacle, then Chaplin is the dramatist with a comedic face, telling stories about people.