It is impossible to recreate the experience of watching a movie in a theatre back in the silent era. So many things have changed – from the technology of projection, to the challenge of recreating the music, to the audiences for whom talking films were still in the future.
One consideration is that the film prints – the specific copies – seen in small towns were at the end of their lifespan. Prints were run repeatedly as the film finished its downtown run, then to second run and then to neighborhood houses. The exchanges would cannibalize prints, pulling the best reels and then best shots from numerous copies to produce one showable print. In the exhibitor reports published in trade magazines in the 1920s there were numerous references to prints defaced by scratches and missing scenes being shown in rural towns.
The February 16, 1924 issue of Exhibitors Herald had numerous representative examples:
This letter to the editor from a theater manager in Soldier, Kansas, appeared in the Exhibitors Herald issue of January 5, 1924. It provides a good overview of how few options the small town exhibitor possessed, and includes surprising praise of Paramount. Paramount’s general approach to exhibition was that they wanted to capture all of the profit at every level of the industry. They knew how to squeeze out that revenue, and if the exhibitor didn’t receive the print they ordered, no rental would be paid.