I've put together a list of twenty silent movies that I like and that I think you will also like. The list is hardly ex- haustive, more like a sampler. Silent movies can be difficult and rather than give you a list of fifty movies that mixes titles aimed at both devotees and a general audience, I put together a list of movies any one of which would be a good one to start with if you're a novice thinking about taking the plunge.
Most of these movies are in the public domain and are available in their entirety on YouTube—a cheap way to test the waters. You might have to search for all eleven parts of The Phantom Of The Opera, for example, but it's there.
The best place to check out silent film without a heavy commitment of time and money is Turner Classic Movies, what Washington Post critic Tom Shales calls the classiest network on cable t.v. Every Sunday night at midnight (Eastern daylight savings time), TCM opens the vault and shows a classic from the silent era.
In fact, on Sunday, April 19, 2009 (okay, April 20 for you East coast purists), TCM is showing one of the greatest of all silent movies, Charlie Chaplin's City Lights. Set the TiVo or the DVR and watch it at your leisure. I can tell you, if you don't like this one, you're not going to like anything else on this list.
Think of it as a nice test. Besides, if you've got basic cable, you're paying for TCM anyway. You might as well take advantage of it.
If you're really interested in silent movies, I recommend you visit Silent Era: The Silent Film Website. It's as comprehensive a site as you're likely to find on the subject of silent films—or anything else, for that matter.
For what it's worth, my list of silent movies to cut your teeth on, in chronological order:
1920 - The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (German Expressionism meets The Twilight Zone)
1921 - The Kid (Charlie Chaplin rescues an orphan)
1922 - Nosferatu (the vampire classic that makes lupner tremble)
1923 - Safety Last! (Harold Lloyd climbs a building)
1923 - Our Hospitality (Buster Keaton stumbles into a Hatfield-McCoy-like feud)
1924 - The Thief Of Bagdad (Douglas Fairbanks's best swashbuckler)
1924 - Sherlock, Jr. (Buster Keaton dreams he is a great detective)
1925 - The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin eats his shoe)
1925 - The Phantom Of The Opera (the best Lon Chaney movie)
1925 - The Freshman (a naive Harold Lloyd goes to college)
1925 - The Big Parade (blood and romance during World War I)
1925 - Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein's oft-imitated classic of the Russian revolution)
1925 - Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ (the second best chariot race in movie history)
1926 - Flesh And The Devil (Garbo and Gilbert get it on)
1927 - The General (my pick as the best movie of the Silent Era)
1927 - Metropolis (an early science fiction classic)
1927 - Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans (won the first Oscar)
1928 - Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Buster Keaton's last great movie)
1931 - City Lights (the Chaplin classic and the other obvious choice for best silent movie ever)
1936 - Modern Times (which is not silent at all, but if you've seen it, you know what I mean).
If you want a comedy, try Keaton or Chaplin, if you want a romance, go with Garbo, and if you want a little excitement, I'd suggest Nosferatu. Personally, I like them all.
Note: For various reasons, I left off several movies that others might consider essential: The Birth Of A Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919), The Last Laugh (1924), Greed (1924), Napoleon (1927), and many others. You might want to try them some day, but I can't really recommend them if you are approaching silent movies for the first time.
Or let's put it this way: any of the movies on my must-see list is probably a good first silent movie. The ones I've left off the list, well, if one of them is your first silent movie, there's a good chance it will be your last silent movie.
And that would defeat the purpose of the list.