The Silent Worker

Granville Redmond and Charlies Chaplin

Granville Redmond and Charlie Chaplin

While preparing a post on the digitisation of newspaper collections (which you’ll receive some other time), I came across one journal of such particular interest that it had to have a post to itself.

The Silent Worker was a popular American journal for the deaf, published between 1888 and 1929. Most of the articles were written by hearing-impaired authors. The entire run of the journal has been digitised by Gallaudet University Library. If you go to the search options, and click on subjects, you will find 70 articles on ‘Movies and Deaf’.

I don’t know if there has been much in the way of studies made of the relationship between deafness and silent cinema, though the Chicago Institute for the Moving Image has a Festival for Cinema of the Deaf which has included silent films, and in 1891 the pre-cinema pioneer Georges Demenÿ famously used a proto-moving image camera to show someone mouthing the words ‘Je vous aime’ as a demonstration of how moving images might aid deaf mutes in learning to speak. And there are many anecdotes of deaf lip-readers discovering the fruity language spoken in films like What Price Glory? which had escaped the eye of the censors. And it has been argued that Lon Chaney’s particular acting gifts came in part through both his parents being deaf.

The Silent Worker reveals a rich world where deaf audiences, and deaf creative talents, engage with the silent picture. For example, an article entitled ‘Cinema and “Signs”‘ (October 1916) compares the art of pantomime with that of the silent screen, with particular reference to Billy Merson and Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin gets many mentions, and there is an engrossing piece, ‘Moving Pictures and the Deaf’ (June 1918) by Alice T. Terry (not the actress Alice Terry), who describes a visit to Hollywood and the Chaplin Studios, where she encounters Granville Redmond (illustrated above with Chaplin), a painter and deaf-mute, who acted in A Dog’s Life and The Kid. Chaplin is revealed to have been notably accommodating towards the deaf (has anyone written on this?). Her opinions are full of interest:

Unlike the spoken drama, the deaf can enjoy moving pictures as much as the hearing do. Some may say that the deaf lose, as they do not hear the music that acompanies the pictures. But I do not think we lose; there are various ways in which we are compensated but the hearing would hardly understand if we tried to explain. For myself I hate the noisy show, that is where some struggle or a battle is going on with its accompanying loud imitation battle din. To me the vibrations are a continuous, growling thunder – or worse than that – which sickens me soul and body. In fact most all musical vibrations irritate me. But by many of the deaf I know that the vibrations are enjoyed, especially by those with some remnant of hearing.

She also has trenchant opinions on D.W. Griffith, whose The Birth of a Nation “worked a great injury to the colored race”. Elsewhere, there are reports on the production of films for the deaf, including a Professor G.W. Jones who filmed speeches from Shakespeare.

One article, ‘Preserving a Famous Film’ sounds remarkably archival for April 1912, though its subject is actually the preservation on film of notable practitioners of sign language. The are also reports on Helen Keller, who starred as herself in a dramatised film of her life in 1919, entitled Deliverance (her teacher Annie Sullivan also appeared in the film).

That’s what I’ve gleaned through a quick inspection, and clearly there much more that could be unearthed. Here’s some last words, written by Alexander L. Pach, for the October 1919 issue:

We deaf people must thank the screen-art for the one biggest offset to our infirmity. Good pictures and by good pictures I mean the kind that educate and elevate, are the levers that lift us from the deadly dullness and monotony of total deafness, to the highest pinnacles of delight. They restore our hearing as nothing else does. We know every word that is spoken as well as the hearing do, for they are all projected on the screen. We only miss the music, and this is such a slight loss it doesn’t count … All the best plays of the spoken stage that have delighted millions of hearing people find their way to “Screenland”, and such big hits as “Common Clay”, “Daddy Long-legs”, “The Thirteenth Chair”, “Secret Service” etc. etc., are ours through this media. An evening at a good picture house now means one of those hits of the drama; a News-Weekly that has the whole world for its field … a more or less “funny” picture that makes us laugh whether we want to or not and then Burton Holmes shows us the people, the customs and the homes of some far away denizens of the other side of the earth. After an evening of delightful entertainment of this order one may go home utterly forgetful of the fact that an important sense is missing. He has come away refreshed. The tedium of the every day work of store, office of factory has been relieved in great measure, and we feel it’s a bully good little world after all …

There are such treasures to be found on the web. Let’s all keep on looking.

6 responses

  1. Glad to see that you’ve discovered the rich online “Silent Worker” treasure trove. One can spend hours having a pleasant browse there. “TSW” first noted the new invention called “television” in its June 1929 issue—the final issue of its original run, which was terminated for political reasons. John S. Schuchman, a CODA (child of deaf adults, as Lon Chaney was) has written the definitive history of deaf actors and actresses (and deaf characters and stereotypes) in the silents, talkies, and TV—”Hollywood Speaks: Deafness and the Film Entertainment Industry” (Chicago: University of Illinois Press). It’s indispensable reading for anyone who’s curious about Granvile Redmond, Albert Ballin, Emerson Romero, and how deaf people fared as actors and audiences diring the silents and talkies. There were also a few intrepid Deaf filmmakers.

    I haven’t yet found any further commentary on Chaplin’s attitude towards Deaf actors, although it’s well-known that he gave Redmond studio space, purchased several of his landscapes, and hired him to perform in a few of his films. According to Schuchman, Redmond appeared as one of the pompous speech-making dignitaries at the statue-unveiling in the first scene of “City Lights,” but the joke remained a private one since the public didn’t know that Redmond was deaf.

  2. Thanks for your informative comment. I think the post on The Silent Worker is the one I’m most pleased about on the blog so far. It was just such an exciting discovery – a window onto a whole new history of film, or a way of approaching film, that I hadn’t considered before. I shall certainly look out for John S. Schuchman’s book. I’m also really impressed by some of the online resources on deafness and film: http://www.thedeaflens.com, Gallaudet University Video Library (must write a post on that soon – I’d no idea the silent films there existed or could be seen online).

  3. Pingback: Gallaudet University Video Library « The Bioscope

  4. The Royal National Institute for the Deaf used to have a 16mm film library and certainly used Chaplin films. It would be great to know if their use of film went beyond the sphere of entertainment.

  5. Pingback: Reflections Through a DeafLens

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