“Do not squint”: How to Act in Silent Films, Circa 1910

“The sooner the stage people who have come into pictures get out, the better for the pictures.”

—Marshall Neilan


As anyone who’s ever watched one knows, silent films contain a very distinctive kind of acting.  This is because they come from the same starting point: the stage. Prior to film, actors were trained for theatre. So, when it came to film, it was natural to act as if one was on stage—and that meant using Victorian theatre conventions, which were highly melodramatic in and of themselves. An example of this is “the point,” where the actor had a protracted moment of “intense physical or emotional action which was momentarily frozen in a powerful attitude or tableau.” Michael R. Booth, in his book Theatre in the Victorian Age, offers a fine example of an actress completing a “point”: “’she strode down to the right hand corner, returned to the centre, and then came to anchor, her right hand clutched on the back of the great oaken chair, her left hand thrown out toward Walter, her blazing eyes fixed on him denunciation and defiance.” Long, overly dramatic moments like these were enhanced by slow, drawn-out speech, exaggerated actions, and a preference for playing directly to the audience, rather than imagining a “fourth wall” between the two parties.

On film, this kind of acting can come off to modern audiences as overblown, forced, and, well…slightly ridiculous. For example, take a look at Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Baghdad (1924) here:

To modern eyes, he looks a bit, well…silly, doesn’t he? There’s lots of arm waving and laughing at fallen foes and posing heroically for the camera in there. Don’t get me wrong: I love Douglas Fairbanks and silent films in general, but looking at Thief I can understand why some people can’t bear to watch a silent film.

I think it helps, however, when one considers  the lack of sound. Not only did these films lack voices or sound effects, but even the musical accompaniment was spotty at best. Thus, an emphasis on body language and facial expression was crucial to early film acting. The actor or actress had to emote very strongly in order to connect with their audience.

By the late 1920s, however, more natural and intimate acting was becoming the norm. Once more actors realized that they didn’t need to act in such a melodramatic way to connect with the camera or their audience, many stopped. It also helped that more actors were coming from backgrounds like vaudeville, which prized flexibility in performance. When “talkies” were introduced in 1927, film acting changed again, and again and again….until we have the much more naturalistic, intimate that style we’re used to these days.

Today, however, I’d like to flash back to the early days of silent film history: 1910, to be exact! 🙂 It was a pretty good year: Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein was filmed for the first time ever, and the state of California saw it’s very first movie shot among its famous hills. It’s also a time when actors were just beginning to learn how to act on camera. 

Today’s little acting gem comes from the appendix to Adam Selzer’s excellent book,  Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry. It’s an acting guide from 1910 that would have been handed out to actors at the Selig Polyscope Company, a Chicago-based production company that was one of the first places to set up shop in Los Angeles. It’s  quite the read! Film acting has changed quite a bit since 1910, hasn’t it? 😉



ACTION – When the director gives you the word for action at the start of a scene, don’t wait and look at the camera to see if it is going. That will be taken care of and started when the action settles down to where the directors think the scene should start.

LOOKING AT THE CAMERA – Never look toward the director when he speaks to you during the action of a scene and while the camera is running. He may be reminding you that you are out of the picture, or of some piece of business that you have forgotten. Glancing toward the camera near the finish of a scene to see if it has stopped is also a bad habit. The director will inform you when the scene is over.

EYES – Use your eyes as much as possible in your work. Remember that they express your thoughts more clearly when properly used than gestures or unnatural facial contortions. Do not squint. You will never obtain the results you are striving for if you get into that very bad habit.

MAKING EXITS – In making an exit through a door, or out of the picture, never slack up just on the edge; use a little more exertion and continue well out of range of the camera. Many scenes have been weakened by such carelessness.

LETTER WRITING – In writing before the camera, do so naturally. Do not make rapid dashes over the paper. You are completely destroying the realism you are expected to convey by so doing. When reading a letter mentally count five slowly before showing by your expression the effect of the letter upon your mind.

READING A LETTER – When a lady receives a letter from her sweetheart or husband she must not show her joy by kissing it. That is overdone and has become so common by usage in pictures and on the stage as to be tiresome.

KISSING – When kissing your sweetheart, husband or wife, do so naturally – not a peck on the lips and a quick break-a-way. Also use judgment in the length of your kiss. Vary it by the degree of friendship, or love, that you are expected to convey.

GESTURES – Do not use unnecessary gestures. Repose in your acting is of more value. A gesture well directed can convey a great deal, while too many may detract from the realism of your work.

STRUGGLING – Avoid unnecessary struggling and body contortions. Many scenes appear ridiculous by such action. For example, if in a scrimmage you are overpowered by superior numbers, don’t kick, fight and squirm, unless you are portraying a maniac or a man maddened beyond control. Use common sense in this.

SHUTTING THE DOORS – Be careful in opening and shutting of doors in a set, so as not to jar the scenery. Carelessness in this respect causes make-overs, with a considerable loss of time and film, both of which are valuable.

IN PICTURE – Be sure that you stay in the picture while working. Mentally mark with your eyes the limitations of the camera’s focus, and keep within bounds. You can do this with a little practice without appearing purposely to do so.

SMOKING – Don’t smoke near the camera or where the smoke can blow across the lens. Take just as good care about kicking up a dust. If you are on a horse it is not necessary to ride circles around the camera. Throwing dust into a camera will cause scratches, and bring down upon your head the righteous wrath of the operator.

GOSSIP – Avoid discussing the secrets of the business you are engaged in. Remember that much harm is done by spreading the news of all the happenings of the day in your work. Revealing to outsiders the plots and names of pictures you are working on or have just finished is frequently taken advantage of and causes great loss to your firm, by some rival concern rushing a picture out ahead that they have on hand, of the same nature. All gossip of an injurious nature is deplorable, and will not be indulged in by any people who appreciate their position and wish to remain in the good graces of their employer.

PROMPTNESS – Come to work on time. An allowance of ten minutes will be granted for a difference in watches, but be sure it is ten minutes BEFORE and not ten AFTER. There are no hardships inflicted upon you, and you owe it to your employer to be as prompt in this matter as you expect him to be in the payment of your salary.

MAKE-UP – Regarding make-up and dress, do some thinking for yourself. Remember that the director has many troubles, and his people should lighten his burden in this matter as much as possible. For example, if you are told to play as a “49” miner, figure out in your own mind how you should appear, and don’t ask the director if high-laced boots will do when you should know that they have only been in use for a few years. Don’t ask him if pants with side pockets will do, when you know they were never worn at that period. A poor country girl should never wear high French heels, silk stockings and long form corsets; nor should her hair be done in the latest fashion. She would look very much out of the picture in such make-up carrying a milk pail. Do not redden lips too much as a dark red takes nearly black. Likewise in rouging the face, do not touch up the cheeks only and leave the nose and forehead white. The effect of such make-up is hideous in photography. Get in the habit of thinking out for yourself all the little details that go to complete a perfect picture of the character you are to portray. Then, if there is anything you do not understand do not be afraid to ask the director.

BEARDS – In the making of beards one cannot be too careful. This is an art that every actor can become proficient in, if he will only take the pains to do so. Remember that the camera magnifies every defect in your make-up. Just use your mental faculties to give some thought to your character studies and you will win out.

SLEEVES – Avoid playing too many parts with your sleeves rolled up. Cowboys and miners use the sleeves of their shirts for what they were intended. If you are playing tennis, or courting a girl at the seaside, you may display your manly beauty to your heart’s content. Do not let common stage usages govern you in this matter.

PROFANITY – Let the gentleman exercise care when in the presence of ladies and children to use no profanity. It is just as easy to express yourself without it if you will only try it.

USE NO PROFANITY IN THE PICTURES – There are thousands of deaf mutes who attend the theatres and who understand every movement of your lips.

PARTS – Do not become peeved if you are not given the part you think you ought to have. The director knows what type person he wishes to use in a particular part, and if it is not given to you it is because some other person is better fitted for it.
We should all work for the general good. By giving our employer the best we have in us, we are greatly benefiting him, and by so doing are enhancing our own value.


Works Cited:

Reiher, Peter. 1994. “Silent Films – Are They Worth Watching?” 

“Silent Film: Acting Techniques.” Wikipedia.

 Booth, Michael R. 1991. Theatre in the Victorian Age. Google book link. p 124-125.

About lupachi1927

My name's Megan, and I'm a writer with an interest in history. While I might not be a real historian, I'm a very thorough researcher. As an amateur historian, this blog is my place to post about all the interesting historical tidbits I find that can't use in the novel I'm working on, which takes place in Chicago in 1927. If you're looking for research help, writing feedback, or just want to say hi, feel free to drop me a line! :)
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8 Responses to “Do not squint”: How to Act in Silent Films, Circa 1910

  1. jazzfeathers says:

    Enjoyed it a lot. It seems a completely different world from today. And yes, I think we often don’t realise how the differences in the media did count in the way film were actually done.

    I’ve read a preview of a novel about an actor set during the silent era. The book opened with the a scene from a movie being filmed. It was so interesting. The actors talked to each other and directed each other, pretending they were talking as the film required. I really enjoyed that snippet. It gave me the sense of how different it was back then.


    • lupachi1927 says:

      That book sounds fascinating. When does it come out and what’s it called? I’ve always wondered about the words the actors are clearly mouthing to one another, and the fact that there was a script at all when the lack of sound made it kind of moot. I suppose it helped the actors act and stay on track with the film. I had no idea they would direct one another, however—that’s very cool!
      I recently read a novel featuring silent film actors as well, though it focused more on behind the scenes stuff: “Silent Murders” by Mary Miley Theobold. It’s the second book in a mystery series featuring a vaudeville actress turned Hollywood script girl who solves murders behind the scenes. It’s a fun, light mystery series if you’re interested. The first book is called “The Impersonator.”


      • jazzfeathers says:

        Ah, I know that series. It’s on my TBR list, but I haven’t gotten around to read it yet, though I read a preview and really liked it. I’m happy to know you appreciate it, it’s an additional incentive to read it 🙂

        The book I’m talking about it ‘Slapstick’ by Laura Mazzuca Toops. It’s the second book in a trilogy that also focuses on a vaudeville actor. I just read the preview, but it was very nice.

        Hey, by the way, I’ve challenged you on my blog 😉


      • lupachi1927 says:

        Yeah I’d recommend it they’re a lot of fun. I’ve been talking to the author a bit too and she’s really nice. I’ll have to look up the “Slapstick” one. I assume it’s about silent comedy? And yes I saw your challenge. Thanks! I’ll try to get to it later this week. 🙂


  2. Hi guys — I’m the author of “The Latham Loop” and “Slapstick.” They’re historical fiction ranging from the World War I era to the early ’30s. You can get them at Amazon. Enjoy!


  3. Janne Wass says:

    Thanks for the Selig Polyscope list! Splendid!


  4. Pingback: Research- Silent Protagonists

  5. Steve Frank says:

    I know I am late here, but wanted to thank you for posting this. I’m one of the few, I guess, who love the melodramatic acting style of silent movies and early talkies. Not so much the gestures, but rather the way people talked, with excellent annunciation and feeling. I do appreciate the acting styles of today, but some can come across too real in a medium I consider an escape from reality. Everyone is an actor, and if it is strictly realism we look for, a car salesman may be one of the best actors we will meet in life……or anyone using the guise of true friendship and admiration for the person he or she is trying to get to do something, or buy something. Politicians are great modern actors…..and always have been great actors. Think back to some of the early political speeches recorded along with the visuals, and think about how much that has changed….from the more dramatic and animated to what we have now, a more natural way of speaking, but with the same goal as the car salesman, or scammer or anyone trying to get you to do something for them.
    So I truly LOVE that old acting style!!!
    I’m certain you’ve seen it, but if not, check out the 13 part series on Silent Movies…..a remarkable work that thankfully was done while many of the actors, directors, camara-men, etc were still alive and could be interviewed. The name was “Hollywood” and it was produced by Thames TV in the UK. The single best thing ever made for silent movie history. Here is the wikipedia entry for it, and you can search out the entire 13 part series which is now readily available on the internet, using google search if youtube took it down, just use the google search with “video” and “Longer than 20 minutes”. Of course, you can search youtube for the playlist. They are in order, but it is not necessary to follow it strictly. (although I would watch “The Beginning” first. It would be impossible for me to come up with my favorite episode, because as much as I loved the Swanson and Valentino episode, I enjoyed other episodes as much….maybe not quite as much, because people tell me how much I look like Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella………aka Rudolph Valentino………okay….my grandmother said that once in the 70s just before she died……lol….
    Thanks again!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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