I don't know about you, but to me Saturday night at home with your loved ones after a long brutal work week (yeah, I used to have those; Katie-Bar-The-Door still does) is not the time for cuddling up to impenetrable symbolism and stern lectures. You want stupid fun, preferably more fun than stupid, but in any event, something to turn your brain off for a while.
So do I have a choice for the best fun-stupid movie of the Silent Era? Well, sort of.
To be honest with you, I'm not sure I'd consider any silent movie to be a casual, Saturday night popcorn movie.
As I've said before, in some essential way, silent movies aren't movies at all but a sometimes puzzling, sometimes boring combination of kabuki theater and a bad Power Point presentation, all set to repetitive Wurlitzer organ music. It's also true that the farther back in time you go, the more alien is the look and feel of a movie—its themes, its pacing, and critical to the fun-stupid experience, the amount of adrenaline you can expect to find coursing through your system.
And there's also a complete absence of scatological humor and Seth Rogen's genitalia, two vital components of current comedy.
Even on a technical level, the widescreen picture (an aspect ratio greater than 1.33:1) wasn't invented until 1953, so if you own a widescreen television, you have to adjust the picture setting from "Full" to "Normal" (or whatever they call it on your system) or else even whippet-thin Audrey Hepburn looks like that pear-shaped guidance counselor you vaguely from your high school days.
So I'm warning you ahead of time that silent movies are never going to fall into the category of a fun-stupid rental.
But if there is such a thing as a fun-stupid silent movie, then that would be—well, actually that would be Buster Keaton's The General, which also just happens to be my choice for the best movie of the Silent Era.
But The General might be a little hard to come by. You have to buy it or put it on your Netflix queue and wait for it. I doubt it's sitting at the corner Blockbuster waiting for you to rent.
Instead, how about a silent movie almost as much fun that has a musical score, sound effects and narration, and best of all, you can watch for free?
That perfect storm of a movie is Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush, a 72-minute comedy about a gold prospector in the wilds of Alaska, chock full of laughs, action and some of the most inventive bits of business ever committed to film.
I mean, there is something pretty entertaining about watching a man eat his own shoe.
This is also the movie that in- troduced two oft- imitated bits, the one where a starving man thinks his partner is a chicken and the one where Chaplin spears two dinner rolls with forks and does a little soft-shoe with them under his chin.
Throw in a little romance, an attempted murder and a happy ending and you've got the recipe for a real good time.
Too bad it's a silent movie, right?
Well, in 1942, Chaplin added a music score, sound effects and his own narration and re-released The Gold Rush as a sound movie. This version is available in its entirety on YouTube (search for the version broken into 10 seven-minute parts) and functions as a sort of "silent movie for cheap, lazy idiots"—which may explain why I liked it so much.
If you're worried about violating somebody's copyright, you might consider that Chaplin himself purposely let the copyright lapse so that The Gold Rush, his favorite among all his work, would always be available to anyone who wanted to see it.
So have at it.
Incidentally, this re-edited edition of The Gold Rush was nominated for two Academy Awards, for sound editing and music score, a remarkable achievement considering the movie was seventeen years old at that point and one that would be impossible under today's rules. It's a measure of how beloved the movie truly was.
For the purists among you, both the sound and silent versions are available on the 2-disc special edition DVD. Many prefer the purely silent edition, arguing that Chaplin's voice is too refined and educated to fit The Tramp he played and that Chaplin is one of the few silent stars who really doesn't need any dialogue or explanation. Chaplin himself, however, considered the 1942 sound edit to be the definitive version—who am I to say he was wrong?
I rate The Gold Rush 10/10 as a movie and 6/10 as stupid-fun.