The years before sound came to the movies are known as the "silent era" among film scholars and historians. The art of motion pictures grew into full maturity before the silents were replaced by "talking pictures", and a number of film buffs believe the quality of the cinema actually decreased for a few years, before the new medium of sound was adapted to the movies.
Since the films could not take advantage of synchronized sound for dialogue, titles were edited in to clarify the on-screen situation to the cinema audience or add critical dialog.
Showings of silent films usually were not actually silent: they were commonly accompanied by live music. Early in the development of the motion picture industry, it was learned that music was an essential part of any movie, as it gave the audience emotional cues for the action taking place on the screen. Small town and neighborhood movie theaters usually had a pianist accompany the film; large city theaters would have entire orchestras.
The medium of silent film required a greater emphasis on body language and facial expression, so that the audience could better understand what an actor was feeling and portraying on screen. Modern-day audiences who are not used to this form of acting may be uncomfortable watching films from the silent era, because the actors in these films may seem to be overacting to an outrageous degree. Because of this, silent comedies tend to be more popular in the modern era than drama, because overacting is a natural form of comedy.
Literally thousands of silent films were made in the years leading through the inroduction of sound, but a considerable number of those films (historians estimate between 80 and 90 percent) have been lost forever. Movies of the first half of the 20th century were filmed on an unstable, highly flamable nitrate film stock, which required careful preservation to keep from decomposing over time. Most of these films were not preserved; over the years, their prints simply crumbled into dust. Many of them were recycled, and a sizable number were destroyed in studio fires. As a result, silent film preservation has been a high priority among movie historians.
Notable silent films
- La Presa di Roma, Filoteo Alberini, 1905
- Ben-Hur, Sidney Olcott, 1907
- From the Manger To the Cross, Sidney Olcott, 1912
- Cabiria, Giovanne Pastrone, 1914
- The Perils of Pauline, Louis J. Gasnier & Donald MacKenzie 1914
- The Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffith, 1915
- Intolerance, D.W. Griffith, 1916
- Cleopatra, J. Gordon Edwards, 1917
- Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Marshall Neilan, 1917
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene, 1920
- Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau, 1922
- The Thief of Bagdad, Douglas Fairbanks, 1923
- Sherlock, Jr., Buster Keaton, 1924
- Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein, 1925
- The Gold Rush, Charlie Chaplin, 1925
- Safety Last, Harold Lloyd, 1925
- Greed, Erich von Stroheim, 1925
- The Phantom of the Opera, Lon Chaney, 1925
- The Big Parade, King Vidor, 1925
- The Lodger, Alfred Hitchcock, 1926
- The General, Buster Keaton, 1927
- Sunrise, F.W. Murnau, 1927
- Metropolis, Fritz Lang, 1927
- The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928
- Pandora's Box, GW Pabst, 1928