Today, movies containing no recorded sound or audible dialogue would seem like experimental or niche filmmaking. But from the mid-1890s to the late 1920s, before cinematic audio was made possible by technological advancements, silent films were the norm.
The movies of the silent era conveyed their narratives, plots, and emotions visually, with occasional key lines of dialogue inserted into the film on cards called “intertitles.” Audiences weren’t usually forced to watch in total silence, however. The films were typically accompanied by a pianist or an organist — or even a small orchestra in larger theaters — playing live pre-written or improvised music.
The movie stars of the silent era were a unique breed. Without spoken words to fall back on, their performances relied heavily on their physicality and facial expressions. Physical comedy was hugely popular during the silent era; stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy used their vaudeville backgrounds to craft gags and pratfalls for the silver screen.
By the early 1930s, however, “talkies” had taken over. Some silent film stars seamlessly made the transition to talking pictures, but others returned to the stage or quit acting altogether.
Despite existing for a relatively short time, the silent era made a lasting impression on the art of moviemaking. Here are 15 quotes from some of the most striking silent film stars, including Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, and more.
I think the things that are necessary in my profession are these: taste, talent, and tenacity. I think I have had a little of all three.Lillian Gish
Known as the “First Lady of American Cinema,” Lillian Gish began her acting career in silent films, pioneering new film performance techniques that would help shape the future of cinema.
Silence is of the gods; only monkeys chatter.Buster Keaton
Keaton found worldwide fame in the silent movies of the 1920s. He was known for his impressive physical comedy and his perpetually deadpan expression, which earned him the nickname “The Great Stone Face.”
There is one thing in this good old world that is positively sure — happiness is for all who strive to be happy — and those who laugh are happy.Douglas Fairbanks
Known in his day as “The King of Hollywood,” Fairbanks defined the role of the swashbuckling hero with his star turns in classic silent movies such as The Thief of Bagdad, Robin Hood, and The Mark of Zorro.
Simplicity is a difficult thing to achieve.Charlie Chaplin
No one is perhaps more symbolic of the silent era than the British comedic actor Charlie Chaplin. His on-screen persona, the Tramp, remains one of the industry's most memorable and important figures.
If you have made mistakes, even serious mistakes, there is always another chance for you … You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing that we call “failure” is not the falling down, but the staying down.Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford was a trailblazing silent actress as well as a producer, screenwriter, and businesswoman. She founded the United Artists Corporation alongside her future husband Douglas Fairbanks, and she was also one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.John Barrymore
After receiving critical acclaim for his stage interpretations of William Shakespeare’s Richard III and Hamlet, John Barrymore (grandfather of Drew Barrymore) turned his attention to films, becoming a debonair leading man of the 1920s in silent movies such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Sherlock Holmes.
What is comedy? I don't know. Does anybody? Can you define it? All I know is that I learned how to get laughs, and that's all I know about it. You have to learn what people will laugh at, then proceed accordingly.Stan Laurel
Once an understudy of Charlie Chaplin, the English comedic actor Stan Laurel went on to become half of the legendary Laurel and Hardy team. Together, the pair made around 100 comedies between 1921 and 1950.
I never said, “I want to be alone.” I only said, “I want to be let alone!” There is all the difference.Greta Garbo
With her sultry and melancholic persona, the Swedish actress Greta Garbo became one of the greatest and most fascinating female stars of classic Hollywood cinema. She often portrayed strong-willed heroines — characters who were almost as enigmatic as Garbo herself.
I have gone through a long apprenticeship. I have gone through enough of being nobody. I have decided that when I am a star, I will be every inch and every moment the star!Gloria Swanson
Gloria Swanson was one of the most glamorous Hollywood stars of the 1920s. After appearing in numerous silent movies, she later made a triumphant return as the fading silent film queen Norma Desmond in the 1950 drama Sunset Boulevard.
I don't think I'm very different from any other girl — except that I work harder and have suffered more. And I have red hair. All in all, I guess I'm just Clara Bow. And Clara Bow is just what life made her.Clara Bow
Known as something of a wild child in her day, Clara Bow personified the vivacious and free-spirited “flapper” of the 1920s. Her appearance in the 1927 silent film It brought her global fame and the nickname “The It Girl,” making her the first of many so-called “it girls” to follow.
Women are not in love with me but with the picture of me on the screen. I am merely the canvas upon which the women paint their dreams.Rudolph Valentino
The Italian actor Rudolph Valentino was one of the first and most popular male sex symbols of the silent era. Nicknamed “The Latin Lover,” he starred in major silent films such as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Blood and Sand. His untimely death at just 31 famously caused mass hysteria among his fans.
The bigness of the West makes men quiet; they seldom talk unless they have something to say.William S. Hart
William S. Hart established himself as one of the leading heroes of the earliest Western films. His portrayals of stern, taciturn, and forthright cowboys made him one of the most popular actors of his day.
To be good is to be forgotten. I'm going to be so bad I'll always be remembered.Theda Bara
One of cinema's earliest sex symbols, Theda Bara became hugely popular for her femme fatale roles, which earned her the nickname “The Vamp.” Sadly, most of the 40 films she made between 1914 and 1926 were lost forever in the 1937 Fox vault fire.
The great art of films does not consist of descriptive movement of face and body, but in the movements of thought and soul transmitted in a kind of intense isolation.Louise Brooks
An actress and dancer during the 1920s and ’30s, Louise Brooks remains an icon of flapper culture, famous for both her silent movies and her trademark bob hairstyle — considered somewhat shocking at the time — that she helped to popularize.
Love is the closest thing to laughter and the closest thing to tears. Love is the motive power of everything in the universe that has beauty in it. Love is the reason for everything and the reward of everything.Harold Lloyd
Harold Lloyd was the highest-paid movie star of the 1920s silent era. Many of his nearly 200 comedy films included thrilling chase scenes and action segments, most famously a scene in which Lloyd hangs from the hands of a clock high above the street in Safety Last! (a scene later referenced in Back to the Future).
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