The Silent Screen has always been an interest of mine, especially viewed through a Feminist lens. Today, we are often inclined to find that films without live sound and spoken dialogue are dull, dated, and of interest only to a small group of aficionados. I have found that they provide insight into gender roles still intact today and their breakdown around male and female. We are still living down the legacy of the Victorian Era, whereby women were simply not allowed to acknowledge themselves as sexual beings. Silent film marks the beginning of the change from one era to another, and the high speed collision of two contradictory cultures can still be felt even now.
One of the oldest of hackneyed clichés, one still in evidence today, is that of the dangerous, ruinous, but sexually available woman. In the silent era, which begins to take shape around 1910 and runs until 1929, acceptable on-screen conduct for actresses was deliberately kept compartmentalized. The Virgin/Whore dichotomy produced actresses whose film persona was that of pristine, chaste, nearly sexless good girls. This often infantilized them, as they seemed nothing more than grownup girls, not fully realized women. The actress Lillian Gish might be the best example of this, as her youthful looks allowed her to play characters far younger than her years, while still retaining a kind of hand’s off primness. The Virgin figure is not far from a proud Prude.
Between two extremes were flappers, who teased, but still adhered to strict codes of conventional morality. They might flirt, but they certainly weren’t going to go much further than that. Clara Bow was the first flapper and It Girl. “It” was a euphemism for sex, and though the times have changed, we still use it. What the phrase really meant was “Sex Symbol”. Flappers were independent, free spirited, and always in search of a good time. But should an offending man confuse her real intentions, she was always quick to put him in his place. If any of these caricatures described Modern Womanhood during the period, the flapper probably comes closest.
At the opposite end of the spectrum were vamps, a shortened form of the phrase “baby vampires.” These women could and did provide sexual gratification, but you’d never take them home to Mother. They promised only danger and eventual entrapment. Male characters were frequently warned to keep well away. Theda Bara was likely the first on-screen vamp to win mainstream popularity. Vamps often were of foreign extraction or minority status, much like the exotic looking Bara who was both Polish and Jewish. This was a decision made deliberately, to ensure to distinguish that American women never acted this way. Bara usually was cast in the role of temptress, hailing from a part of the world that we would today refer to as the Middle East. This is another example of Orientalism, whereby a group of people project their own latent desires, fears, and aspirations onto others that they perceive as not like themselves.
To pivot to the subject of actors, men were also separated into categories. Few of these, however, depended on a combination of sexual availability and common decency. Instead they broke down around basic film personas. The Sheiks were mysterious heartbreakers, usually of non-native origin. Orientalism is present here, too, or at least an obsession with a culture distinctly different than one’s own. The Latin Lover archetype begins with Rudolph Valentino, though it is ironic, to say the least, that Valentino was actually Italian, not Latino. The Rogues were, much as their name describes, carefree playboys whose impulsivity and carousing was usually shown as charming. Sometimes, as in the case of John Barrymore, it was difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. The Comedians were skilled Vaudevillians, whose prowess at physical comedy had been honed on stage in a slightly earlier era. These are the performers best known to today’s audience. They include Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. Women sometimes were allowed to let their comedic skills shine, but it was still a boy’s club. Towards the end of the era, a final category emerged, that of the cowboy hero.
Though few these days refer to particular type and category when discussing screen talent, actors and actresses can still easily become typecast. In those days, the studio system was king, and cranking out product was more important than taking one’s time in crafting an artistic masterpiece. The few directors which challenged this model were renegades, whose attempts to commit high art to celluloid regularly soared over budget and were rarely appreciated by the moviegoing public. Female directors, then as now, were not numerous. The only director of the age to have success was Dorothy Arzner. A few years later, now in the sound era, a German actress named Leni Riefenstahl tried her hand behind the lens, and succeeded magnificently, albeit in the form of a Nazi propaganda film entitled Triumph of the Will. Women who take the role of director are still unusual in our own time and often have limited careers with short-lived success.
We may live in a more liberated epoch, but still we live in a world where female characters, to say nothing of women themselves are rarely allowed to be fully integrated beings. We may believe we are more tolerant of other cultures, but we regularly use stock figures from different cultures to say what we are incapable of saying about ourselves. And, we seem to think that entertainment cannot be confused with reality, instead of confronting what our cultural half-truths and even lies say about us. The fashion may have changed and a few things here and there may be dated, but that which was true eighty years ago is true today. We might beg to ask ourselves where real reform begins and ends.