Watching Silent Movies with Children


Recently I watched a century-old film with my three older children (ages eight, five, and two). Actually, the oldest parts of the film are more than a century old, dating to 1902; other scenes were added as recently as 1905 (see The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ).

For many mainstream movie watchers, silent movies represent an inaccessible world into which only film experts and historians dare to tread; but children, as C. S. Lewis once noted in an interview, are "so terribly catholic" — so uncritically open to everything, from mind-numbing sing-along songs to Gregorian chant, from the crudest cartoons to the high-mindedness of Fantasia, from Barbie costume jewelry to rosary beads and holy medals.

The open-mindedness of the young obviously imposes a huge responsibility on parents to watch what their children are exposed to. But it also represents a tremendous opportunity to expose children to valuable and worthwhile experiences that for many of their peers will be lost, possibly forever, by the time they are teenagers.

Silent films make splendid family viewing, for several reasons. Silents are often (not always) easy to follow, wholesome, and entertaining. Modest production values, primitive special effects, and exaggerated acting pose no obstacles to children. Because there is no dialogue, children can ask questions and adults can clarify and explain without the need for constant pausing and rewinding. My children and I discuss silents freely as we watch them, providing our own impromptu commentary track. (This reflects the actual practice of some cultures during the silent era, when a silent screening would be accompanied by live commentary.) My eldest reads the title cards aloud for the younger two, and even the two-year-old watches attentively.

My children know the stories of Jesus’ life, and they loved noting details in the century-old tableaux of the 1905 Life and Passion — the unobtrusive word that Mary speaks to Jesus before he turns the water to wine; the rooster that flaps into the lower left-hand corner of the screen after Peter’s denials; the soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ clothes during the crucifixion.

The older two were both intrigued by the differences in the various stages of cinematic art: When I pointed out that the Life and Passion has no closeups because they hadn’t been invented yet, they began recalling closeups from 1920s silent films they knew as evidence of how the movies had changed by then. When I alerted them to the fact that the camera almost never moves in the earliest films, they called out every time the Life and Passion does one of its stiff little pans.

The Life and Passion isn’t the only silent film I’ve watched with my kids. They’ve also seen a couple of Douglas Fairbanks actioners (The Mark of Zorro and Don Q, Son of Zorro, some Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton comedies, and another early Jesus film, the 1912 From the Manger to the Cross.

Watching silent films with children is like exposing them to another culture — it broadens their horizons, expands their imagination, enriches their inner world. It instills in them at an early age an appreciation of a medium that many adults have lost the ability to appreciate.