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IttDMB: In the Beginning...

May 5th, 2008 (09:04 am)

Yes, Virginia, there was dance in silent movies...

© 2008
D. Gordon

Although it may not seem logical at first, dance in the movies predates commercial sound by decades. In fact, one of the best-known of the Edison experimental films is the Dickson Experimental Sound Film, shot in 1894-5. Mr. Dickson, perched on a stool, plays the violin into a recording cone while two lab workers waltz across the screen, stuff, formal, and as unlike a couple as they can possibly make themselves (this is for Science, after all). We can only wonder: why? Why did Edison and his technicians decide to film a waltz? Why these two men, instead of professional dancers - was it that spontaneous? This was an ultimately unsuccessful test of the Dickson / Edison Kinetophone system, but did the men know just how long their fleeting images would last?

Dance was probably chosen because dance is one of the oldest activities known to humans. At times public, at times proscribed, it has appeared in some form for countless purposes throughout recorded time. Prehistoric Mesopotamian pottery and seals often feature dancers unspooling across their surfaces. Ancient Egyptian dancers swing their hips to silent sistrums across tomb paintings. So like the actualities filmed in the early days of film - locomotives pulling into a station, a shift change at a factory - dance would be familiar and natural, a way for those early audiences to ohh and ahh and relate to the new technology. Whether or not sound was present, the basic understanding was always there.

Obviously, the silent medium presents technical challenges to presenting dance. Much relies on the director's skill in bringing forth the appropriate underlying mood; much also depends on the accompanist's skill in underlining those moods on the screen and giving them added impact. For that reason, there are few silent narrative films solely featuring dance - but dance still makes quite a few appearances. For example:

  • Yevgenni Bauer, working in pre-Soviet Russia, made The Dying Swan (1917) with Vera Karalli of the Bolshoi / Ballet Russes. Although Miss Karalli's dance talents appear in several scenes, and she dresses for it several times, she never actually dances in service to the film; the story of an overly perfectionist painter doesn't rely on her being a ballerina to get its point across.
  • Hindle Wakes (1927), the story of a proto-feminist British factory girl with a decision to make, has nothing hanging on the presence of dancing. But it does use a mass dance at a vacation spot at the beach in Brighton to introduce the main characters, bringing forth the hectic crush of what is basically a singles' ball, in service to the plot.
  • In The Oyster Princess (1919), Ernst Lubitsch uses a dance sequence cum spontaneous outbreak of a foxtrot epidemic to send up everyone at a wedding party: the couple, his retainer (the groom's a penniless prince), her father (he's an industrial oyster cracker baron), the wedding guests, the conductor and the band, the waiters, the kitchen staff, and the servant in the hall. A little over the top, but funny and it gets its point across.

These are small examples, but there are more substantive ones...

So This is Paris (1926) is minor Lubitsch; although minor Lubitsch would be career peak for many others, Lubitsch did the basic plot much better in The Marriage Circle (1924) and its sound remake One Hour With You (1932). It's a throwaway comedy of errors involving a doctor and wife in Paris; the doctor bumps into an old flame which isn't quite extinguished, then uses various tactics to meet up with the old flame without the wife's knowledge - while the old flame's husband takes an interest in the doctor's wife. However, this throwaway film has one of the best-known and effective dance sequences in silent films, the Charleston at the Artists Ball. Lubitsch uses a number of tricks to convey the frantic movement and excitement of the dancers in the Charleston contest. The place is packed with dancers in outlandish costumes - it's the social event of the year. They're all moving to the jazz band swinging on the stage, frantic, sweating, on the floor, on the tables, shaking everything they can. Lubitsch has double and triple exposures of the movement, so that the screen is constantly filled with it, then shifts to a kaleidoscope effect full of arms flailing, legs moving, sax player with cheeks puffed out, so that the viewer sees neverending movement. Dr. Giraurd and Madame Lillé may be at the front of shots, doing quite admirably, but they aren't the focus here; it's the never-ceasing energy that comes out of the screen. The accompaniment is important: I've seen this twice, and each time called for (and received) an almost frantic jazz Charleston to keep up with the dancers, but without the images the music would be next to nothing. In about 2 minutes and 45 seconds, Lubitsch says more with silence than many who came after him with sound.


Despite Lubitsch's more than able use of dance in his comedy, it's Rudolph Valentino's tango in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalyse that's likely the best known example of dance in a silent. Horsemen is a drama about World War I and its effects on one family; Valentino is the favored son of one branch of that family. The setting: Rudolph and his grandfather stop in at a bar. There's a couple on the floor, dancing a tango; while it's not bad, it's a little automatic (it's possible that the dance was downplayed to make Valentino's pop out more in comparison). Valentino knows he can do better; breaking in, he takes the woman into his arms and begins to glide with her across the floor.

Valentino was a very good dancer in real life; he supported himself early on as a taxi dancer in New York, and during a two-year break in his career, supported himself by holding dance demonstrations with his wife around the country. But his dance in Horsemen was in great part responsible for bringing him to national attention.

And the magic in this dance is what Valentino brings to it: it's sensual, it simmers, it tells us right away that this is a dangerous man capable of drawing the viewer to him like Icarus to the sun. Valentino glides across the floor with a smoothness that few would be able to match. There's something there that supercedes not just the movie, but the era; Valentino's got sex appeal that's wends its way across the screen and crawls out into the viewer's lap.

The lack of sound is often used as an explanation of the limitations of silent film. But silent directors were always capable of overcoming the lack, and it's more a function of skill whether dance - or anything - can be represented fully.


Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: May 5th, 2008 05:36 pm (UTC)
Dance in silent film

A lovely article! Evgeni Bauer's wife was a ballerina and appears in A Child of the Big City as a dancer, so he was obviously familiar with the milieu.

Dancers were highly sought after for silent films because they were assumed to know how to move and emote. Anna Pavolova did a feature with Lois Weber, The Dumb Girl of Portici which is sadly not available on DVD. Griffith hired Ruth St. Dennis to choreograph the Babylonian dance sequences in Intolerance. Martha Graham appeared in a silent film in the early 1920's as I recall. And Louise Brooks was hired in part based on her dancing background. There is an informative book (though not the easiest of reads) on the subject of silent film choreography entitled Dancing in the Sun: Hollywood Choreographers 1915-1937.

There's been a lot of research being done on opera singers in silent films as well. Paul Fryer came out with a book on this subject a year or two ago.

Lastly, there's been a slew of modern dances with tributes to silent films and silent film stars starting with Pina Bausch and more recently with Susan Stohman.

Milestone F&V

Posted by: lady_wakasa (lady_wakasa)
Posted at: May 7th, 2008 11:34 pm (UTC)
Re: Dance in silent film

Thanks for the comments, Dennis! I'll definitely have to find the book and look up your references.

The more I thought through possible silents for this writeup, the more I realized just how prevalent the form was. There could easily be quite a few books on it.

Although I always thought Louise B., as much as I love 'er and think she was talented, was hired based more on her "friendships" in the business... %^D

And I can tell you now - Guy Maddin's Dracula is mentioned under independents; I did have a bit of a conflict deciding whether I should put it here or in that section.

P.S. - I'm just going to say... Uchida box. (Pleeese???) There, I've said it.

Edited at 2008-05-08 12:50 am (UTC)

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: May 5th, 2008 06:51 pm (UTC)

Yes, yes, yes, Valentino's tango really is an epitome of silent film dancing. It communicates so much without sound, even without accompaniment.

I'm reminded of another sensual dance that I still remember years after seeing the film--Anna May Wong's dance on the table in Piccadilly.

Posted by: lady_wakasa (lady_wakasa)
Posted at: May 8th, 2008 12:49 am (UTC)

Yes - Piccadilly! I think many people key into the dance she does on the floor of the club, but the table dance is much, much more significant - and arresting...

A few weeks back I stumbled across a paragraph on a website devoted to dance stating that dance movies weren't possible without a soundtrack. Wrong, wrong, wrong...

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: May 5th, 2008 06:53 pm (UTC)

That was from me, Lady W.


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