Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Starter Set: Twenty Silent Movies To Cut Your Teeth On

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.


lupner said...

Thank you for this list, Mister Parker -- have seen a few silents, but not enough, and this will be oh-so-helpful in my quest to see more w/o picking wrongly . . .

It's funny that Modern Times is not a silent, b/c I saw that one in the same college venue as The General and I would've said it was silent. Either I'd been drinking beer (which I almost NEVER did in college, of course) . . . or was perhaps preoccupied with having seen my boyfriend skulking into the theatre w/another chick just as the lights went down. . . but that's another story. That is the one where Charlie is walking amongst the cogs of a large machine at one point, yes?

Mister Parker said...

You've got a good memory for someone traumatized by a cheating boyfriend. I remember the first time I saw a pre-Katie-Bar-The-Door girlfriend out with another guy -- I sure don't remember what movies I saw that weekend.

Oh, wait, the official story is that there were no pre-Katie girlfriends ...

Modern Times is silent in the sense that there is no dialogue -- Chaplin resisted as long as he could, in part because he knew that once The Tramp had a voice, audiences would no longer perceive him as an Every Man champion of the working poor but instead as an educated English millionaire, which is what Chaplin was.

Modern Times isn't strictly silent though because it has a music score, sound effects and human voices speaking over intercoms and whatnot. As a matter of fact, the old Nat King Cole standard "Smile" (smile though your heart is breaking ...) was written by Chaplin for Modern Times and features prominently in the score right at the end.

Also, Chaplin himself sings a song with nonsense lyrics at one point.

But it's what I think of as the last great silent movie ...

lupner said...

Okay, that makes sense -- was specifically thinking that I couldn't remember him speaking, so at least that wasn't a factor of trauma-induced obliteration of the senses.

Love the song "Smile", knew he wrote it but don't remember it in the film. Obliterated. Pretty much all I remember (other than trying to spontaneously develop night vision) is the cogs in the machine, which is famous enough that it was likely mere recognition. Will just have to see it again . . .

One of the funny things about 'Smile', btw, is that is that it seems to make one want to start sobbing uncontrollably. But in a good way.

Perhaps pre-girlfriends to Katie-Bar-the-Door, just none that MATTERED, right? Certainly none that merited her own award . . .

Mister Parker said...

I would say once Katie-Bar-The-Door came along, it's as if there were no prior girlfriends. You know, a "how can you keep them down on the farm once they've seen Paris" sort of thing.

Re: "Smile." Maybe you don't remember it from Modern Times because Chaplin only uses the tune -- no lyrics. It's a bittersweet song and it perfectly captures the mood of the bittersweet end of the movie.

If you want to see Modern Times again, Turner Classic Movies is showing it next Thursday, April 16, at 12:45 pm. If you have TiVo or a DVR or something, you could set the machine. Or you could just call in sick. They're also showing The Kid at 8:30 a.m. and The Gold Rush at 11:30 a.m.

This is what sick leave was invented for ...

lupner said...

Always lovely to hear a husband declare true appreciation for his Missus . . .

Thanks for the tip re: the upcoming silents on TCM, will alert my taping source (am not techno-up-to-date myself). Would agree they are worthy of a sick day, but as a private contractor I must keep those to a min when possible, esp. as I come to the end of a blissful but penniless week of Spring Break. Mucho worth the lack of penny, however!

Anonymous said...

Great list, but I would add "Broken Blossoms" and the first "Merry Widow"...both are excellent silent films.

Mythical Monkey said...

Great list, but I would add "Broken Blossoms" and the first "Merry Widow"...both are excellent silent films.

They are great movies. I think Broken Blossoms is the best movie of 1919, and is my favorite D.W. Griffith movie. And John Gilbert and Mae Murray are terrific in The Merry Widow.