Talk to those people who first saw films when they were silent, and they will tell you the experience was magic. The silent film had extraordinary powers to draw members of an audience into the story, and an equally potent capacity to make their imaginations work. It required the audience to become engaged – to supply voices and sound effects. The audience was the final, creative contributor to the process of making a film.
The finest films of the silent era depended on two elements that we can seldom provide today a large and receptive audience and a well-orchestrated score. For the audience, the fusion of picture and live music added up to more than the sum of the respective parts.
The one word that sums up the attitude of the silent filmmakers is enthusiasm, conveyed most strongly before formulas took shape and when there was more room for experimentation. This enthusiastic uncertainty often resulted in such accidental discoveries as new camera or editing techniques. Some films experimented with players; the 1915 film Regeneration, for example, by using real gangsters and streetwalkers, provided startling local color. Other films, particularly those of Thomas Ince, provided tragic endings as often as films by other companies supplied happy ones.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of silent films survive today in inferior prints that no longer reflect the care that the original technicians put into them. The modern versions of silent films may appear jerky and flicker, but the vast picture palaces did not attract four to six thousand people a night by giving them eyestrain. A silent film depended on its visuals; as soon as you degrade those, you lose elements that go far beyond the image on the surface. The acting in silence was often very subtle, very restrained, despite legends to the contrary.