This post is by Talia Smith, a Teaching with Primary Sources program intern at the Library of Congress.
Recently, I have taken a special interest in using silent films as a teaching tool for students, exposing silent film’s similarity to modern day short form internet videos and connecting silent films to Shakespearian works. These connections can help young people notice just how relevant silent films are in 2023. However, it is no secret that one major setback to young people taking interest in silent films is, in fact, the silence. But what if that silence is actually an entry point to exploring these often overlooked narratives? Supporting students in adding their own sounds to the silence helps them develop a better understanding of storytelling techniques, story structure, and how sound—dialogue, music, and narration—serves as a storytelling device.
In the Classroom
Music, dialogue, and narration are great entryways into audio storytelling. Using a silent film as a blank canvas, students must first understand the story’s structure in order to determine how sound can be used to enhance the film. While students watch a silent film for the first time, ask them to observe moments when a sound effect could enhance the meaning of a scene. Is there a crash? A yell? A train? Next, guide students to add more sounds to that moment. Are there people talking? What could they be saying? Are there other noises in the background? Finally, determine if the scene would be more interesting if there was background music. And if so, what type of music would enhance the scene?
While music has a great historical tradition in silent films, adding spoken words gives students the opportunity to fill in the gaps of a story by adding their own interpretations of scenes. By adding character dialogue, for example, students are challenged to define characters via language and interpret the intentionality of those characters through their body language. Narration, on the other hand, allows for students to describe what they are witnessing on screen as well as the potential inner thoughts of the characters.
While there are many silent films in the Library’s collection, there are two silent films that work particularly well with students:
- Jack and the Beanstalk (1902): Using fantasy films is a great way to engage students’ imaginations. This particular story is generally better known to students and may be easier for students to understand with less context.
- The Little Train Robbery (1905): This all-child actor film is a parody of The Great Train Robbery as well as the “chase scene” genre popular at the time. This film has inspired many of the child-actor, genre-genre based parodies you see today.
Additional Resources about Adding Sound to Silent Films at that the Library
- Learn more about the Library’s silent film accompanist, Ben Model
- Discover sheet music used for films, now in the public domain
- Find out more about how the Library is restoring sound to silent films
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