Early silent film actors seem so melodramatic to us today–really over-the-top. But they were performing to expectations of their time, following a well-known code that matched gestures with emotions. Certain exaggerated gestures conveyed particular emotions, and freezing the gesture for a couple seconds indicated heightened emotional intensity. For example, to show great despair and agony, an actress fell to her knees and stretched her arms up toward the sky as if imploring the heavens for intercession. One hand on the heart indicated a broken heart. To show distress, the actor put the back of his hand across his forehead and lifted his chin.
It was Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart” and the most famous actress of her day, who pioneered a different, more realistic style of acting in the 1910s. She toned down the melodramatic gestures in favor of facial expressions. That required closeup shots, something early silent films avoided. The idea in early films was to use the camera like the eyes of a person in the audience and show the actors’ entire bodies, head to toe, just as you’d see when you watched a stage show.
Closeups also required more subtle, natural makeup, something else Mary Pickford pioneered.