Is there anything more heartbreaking than the disappointed face of a child who didn't find a silent movie in his or her Christmas stocking? Probably, but why risk it? If the little shavers on your shopping list are anything like me, they hunger and thirst after a working knowledge of the silent film era. Don't let them down!
"But Monkey," I can hear you say, "I don't know where to start. What movies would you recommend to help start my son's or daughter's (or even my) silent film collection?"
Glad you asked. Here are a baker's dozen guaranteed to make you an expert in no time. (And no, I have no financial stake in my recommendations or your choices.)
Landmarks of Early Film, Vol. 1 [Image Entertainment]
With film pioneer Georges Méliès back in the popular consciousness thanks to Martin Scorsese's terrific new film Hugo, maybe it's time to figure out where he actually fits in the history of film. You could read about it here, but why waste valuable eyeball space on my yack and blather when you could fill your senses with the real thing? This DVD is a good way to dive into the work of film's earliest pioneers, including works by Méliès, Thomas Edison, D.W. Griffith and the Lumière brothers, among others.
(I understand there's a five-disc collection of Georges Melies's work from Flicker Alley which purports to include every Melies film in existence, 173 in all. Holy cats. But I haven't seen it and it's temporarily unavailable at Amazon.com.)
Chaplin at Keystone: An International Collaboration of 34 Original Films [Flicker Alley]
A magnificent restoration of all 34 of the films Chaplin made at Mack Sennett's Keystone studios, including the first feature-length comedy ever made, Tillie's Punctured Romance. This is not only a nice introduction to Chaplin, but also includes terrific work by Roscoe Arbuckle, Mabel Normand and Marie Dressler. Start with The Rounders, move on to Tillie, then go back and see them all.
Are you a connoisseur of mind-blowing cinema? Then watch this D.W. Griffith epic and consider your mind blown. Still belonging on a short list of the most ambitious movies ever made, Intolerance (from the "Griffith Masterworks" series) weaves four storylines from different points in history together to examine and expose man's inhumanity to man. Its kaleidoscope of images influenced filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein, its depiction of the fall of Babylon and a woman racing a train to save an innocent man from the electric chair are unforgettable, and Constance Talmadge is a hoot. Also includes orgies, beheadings and the life of Christ—something for everybody!
Male and Female [Image Entertainment]
What silent film collection wouldn't be complete without an entry from director Cecil B. DeMille and his favorite star, Gloria Swanson. Although DeMille would later become known for his turgid Bible epics, he really made his name with a series of sophisticated sex comedies, most starring Swanson. In this one, aristocrat Swanson winds up stranded on a desert island with her butler, and when the hired help are the only ones who know how to get things done, upstairs quickly becomes downstairs and vice versa. Norma Desmond was right—they didn't need dialogue; they had faces!
Nosferatu (The Ultimate Two-Disc Edition) [Kino]
You're going to want at least one example of German Expressionism, one of the most influential artistic movements of the 20th century, and one film from F.W. Murnau, who directed some of the most beautiful films of the silent era. Why not kill two birds with one stone and go with the vampire classic, Nosferatu. Be careful, though—there are many versions of this film floating around, some virtually unwatchable. Me, I'd go with the two-disc edition from Kino.
The Black Pirate (Blu-Ray) [Kino]
There never was a better movie pirate than Douglas Fairbanks—not Errol Flynn, not Tyrone Power, not Johnny Depp. And this early color film (using a primitive two-strip process) might be his best. With the graceful and athletic Fairbanks at its heart, The Black Pirate is as fluid as a ballet while at the same time serving up a rip-snorting yarn filled with all the swash you'd ever care to buckle. (Don't have a Blu-Ray player? Don't despair. Try The Thief of Bagdad from Kino instead.)
The General (Blu-Ray) [Kino]
There are no wrong choices when it comes to Buster Keaton on Blu-Ray. So I'll just go with the best choice—The General. Not only is it one of the greatest comedies ever made, it's also an action film that puts most of its modern counterparts to shame. Based on an incident from the American Civil War, the story—about a lovelorn engineer who finds himself battling spies who hijack his train—features a spectacular chase involving two, then three speeding locomotives, daredevil stunts, explosions, burning bridges, comic mishaps, sight gags, split-second timing, all while Keaton woos the girl. Keaton's famously understated reaction to the chaos around him only adds to the modern feel of the production. (No Blu-Ray? No need to feel blue. It's also available from Kino in the "Ultimate Two-Disc Edition.")
The Complete Metropolis (Blu-Ray) [Kino]
If The Black Pirate is a swashbuckling ballet, Fritz Lang's Metropolis is a science fiction opera, and in this newly restored edition, as close to Lang's original vision as we're likely to get. Its story of a world divided into haves and have-nots, with a populist political movement secretly controlled by the corporation it aims to topple, feels as up-to-date as anything you're likely to see at the theater this year. Oh, and it boasts a beautiful robot played by Brigette Helm. What more do you want? (Also available as a DVD.)
TCM Archives: The Garbo Silents Collection [Warner Home Video]
Flesh and the Devil was the first pairing of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, who would soon become one of movie history's most torrid, tempestuous couples. Garbo created a sensation with her ethereal beauty, cool, exotic manner and thoroughly modern characterization of an amoral woman who slept with whomever she wanted, while Gilbert further cemented his reputation as the screen's greatest lover. The collection also includes The Temptress and The Mysterious Lady. Considering it's going for $8.99 at Amazon.com, that's an exceptional bargain.
Prefer your sex symbols served hot? Then you don't want to miss It, starring the original "It" Girl, Clara Bow. This mischievous comedy catapulted Bow to superstardom—and tabloid notoriety, most of it, unfortunately, pure fiction. The disc also includes the documentary Clara Bow: Discovering the "It" Girl, which will give you insight not only into the troubled life and times of Clara Bow, but also into the transition from silents to talkies, the most pivotal event in Hollywood history since the invention of the camera. (Note: The DVD of another Bow picture, Wings, winner of the first Oscar for best picture, finally goes on sale January 24, 2012.)
TCM Archives: The Lon Chaney Collection [Warner Home Video]
The obvious choices for an introductory Lon Chaney film would be The Hunchback of Notre Dame or The Phantom of the Opera (Image Entertainment just released a Blu-Ray of the latter in November), but I'm going with this collection that includes The Ace of Hearts, Laugh, Clown, Laugh and The Unknown. Laugh, Clown, Laugh shows off Chaney's acting chops at their finest, while The Unknown (from legendary horror director Tod Browning) captures Chaney at his creepy, crazy best.
The Passion of Joan of Arc [The Criterion Collection]
The true story of the trial and execution of one of history's most famous leaders, The Passion of Joan of Arc is beautiful, engrossing and deeply moving. It's also startlingly fresh, telling truths about the self-serving, corrupting nature of power as current as today's headlines, proving once again that our forefathers were much more modern that we currently dream of being. That, I think, is one of the hallmarks of true art, an ability to speak across generations in a unique and unforgettable way. Or leaving all that aside, it's just a great, very watchable movie.
Pandora's Box [The Criterion Collection]
Virtually unknown in her day, Louise Brooks today might be the silent era's most recognizable actress. Playing the prostitute Lulu with a unique combination of wide-eyed innocence and unabashed sexual appetite, Brooks created a character so unforgettable that twenty-five years later French film historian Henri Langlois declared "There is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich, there is only Louise Brooks!"
What? No Mary Pickford? Well, I'll tell you. There are some good ones from The Milestone Collection, but they're all out of print and going for $50 and more through third-party sellers on Amazon.com. If you want to spring for one of her films, I'd say go for Stella Maris—it's my favorite Pickford film.
Likewise, Harold Lloyd is out of print again. I have The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection Vols. 1-3 myself—7 discs of absolutely wonderful comedy. If it ever shows up again, I'll let you know.