by Silent Film Quarterly contributor Olivia Gilmer
I had my first experience with silent film at the age of 14—but what captivated a 14-year-old girl in Ireland, where there is no such thing as a “silent film weekend” or a “silent film community,” into an impassioned spiral that eventually led her to watch every silent film she could possibly get her hands on, from obscurities such as Young Mr. Jazz to classics such as Safety Last?
From as young an age as I can remember, I have had an irrational obsession with the past. I spent much of my childhood visiting my great aunt, who had one of those quintessential Edwardian, red brick, sash-windowed houses near a railway line in London—a house you would imagine to be a setting for a Paddington bear adventure. The house reeked of elegance and charm, it still had a lot of its original features—from the parquet floors to the lace pillow cases. Each room had a servant’s bell adorned with a pearl handle which you twisted all the way around, and as you turned it you could hear the old iron bells ring in the kitchen downstairs. As a young child I would spend hours playing with the bells, I felt like I was in a Frances Hodgson Burnett novel—to me that felt like paradise, I was in another world, and it was a beautiful world which still mystifies and enchants me today. It was this fascination with a world which appeared so beautiful and mysterious, so close yet so far, which lead me to start watching silent film.
In school, instead of maths class (I would go on to fail maths seven times), I would go to the library and watch silent films—I began by watching Cecil Hepworth. These films were very simple early shorts from around 1900 to 1910, one of his films being titled How It Feels To Be Run Over—a one-minute-long film from 1900 in which a motor car is quickly coming toward the audience—an intense film to say the least. I imagined the audience gasping as the car approached the screen, I imagined the actress in the pretty hat sitting in the car as the scene starts, and Mr. Hepworth behind the camera directing her on a sunny day in the English countryside in 1900.
In the midst of this wistful dreaming about what seemed like another world, it was the realization that this all really happened—these films are frozen snippets of time, poor or rich people really watched these films in their local picture houses, a lady really sat in front of Mr. Hepworth in her pretty hat and the audience really gasped when a car came toward them. In watching Hepworth’s films, I felt the same feeling I had as a child in my great aunt’s house, ringing the same bell a lady would have rang a hundred years before me. It was the world which seemed so close, yet so far.
There is a film which changed my life perhaps more than any other. It catapulted me into my passion for silent film—it was not Metropolis, it was not Sunrise. It was perhaps the worst film ever made—a film I bet my life you have never heard of—Cook Papa Cook, a short from 1928. The plot is thus: a working class married couple argue about who will make breakfast, resulting in the husband burning down their kitchen in a failed attempt to make bacon.
It wasn’t the breath-taking cinematography of German Expressionism which seduced me into silent film. It wasn’t the heart-wrenching, tear-jerking love stories of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. It wasn’t the powerful, tragic performances of Lon Chaney. It was the bickering couple in a 1920s B-movie.
It was the experience of watching something everyday people watched for a lift in their everyday lives, something everyone could relate to. Young or old, rich or poor, my great grandparents even—they found everyday joy in these simple, innocent, uplifting films. I was able to experience exactly what people experienced a hundred before me. To me it was, and still is, quite simply, time travel. And who doesn’t find the idea of time travel magical?