Silent Film You Love?

by John Holbo on June 23, 2011

Of course, there’s more to life than stuff with big words aimed at early readers. There’s stuff with few words aimed at early viewers! Here’s a good deal on a nice, quite comprehensive collection of the very earliest silent films, Landmarks of Early Film, Vol. 1 [amazon]. I lectured about some of this stuff in my Philosophy and Film class last semester, because I focused on sf – crossroads of speculation and spectacle. It’s a common critical complaint that Lucas/Spielberg-style special effects blockbusters killed a lot that was great about American cinema, in the 1970’s. Then again, film was industrial light and magic from the start, pioneered by the industrious likes of Edison and Georges Méliès (stage magician). No film could be truer to the authentic roots of the medium than whatever Michael Bay is working on right now. Probably that new Transformers movie or something. Maybe that explains why so many of these early films are boring. But in a fascinating way.

What are your favorite early/silent films? What early cinema do you really, honestly, just love to watch. No grading on a curve or so-bad-it’s-good ironizing. I watched quite a bit of Charlie Chaplin, while I was reading Sunnyside. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I’ve posted before about loving Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc. I’ve never watched any Buster Keaton; never watched The General, for example. Should I? I love Metropolis but I recently watched Fritz Lang’s Woman In The Moon and didn’t really get into it. It veered between dull and draggy self-seriousness and extreme silliness. Although Fritz Rasp (a.k.a. The Thin Man, from Metropolis) was fun.

Who do you think should get the moon gold, should it exist? Defend your answer. (Maybe that inter-title should be an inspirational poster.)



Random lurker 06.23.11 at 8:59 am

I liked a lot Nosferatu, Metropolis and A Trip to the Moon by Meliès.
If “A Trip to the Moon” is what you refer to when you say “industrial light and magic”, i think that there is some difference between it and current sf blockbusters:
“A Trip to the Moon” is pure special effects, and the plot is totally unimportant an just an excuse to put some special effect on-screen; on the other hand, today blockbusters like, say, the marvel movie on Thor, have usually a really simple but emotionally charged plot, and special effects are usually used to increase the emotional effects of various scenes IMHO.


ndg 06.23.11 at 9:07 am

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. I am too lazy to try and verbalize why, so will instead point to this review by Roger Ebert.


Linca 06.23.11 at 9:46 am

And Der Letzte Mann by the same !


Matt 06.23.11 at 9:58 am

Dr. Mabuse the Gambler and maybe Destiny by Lang are probably my favorites though it’s been so long since I’ve seen Destiny that I can’t say for sure now. It’s sort of hard to believe that a silent film as long as Dr. Mabuse could be watchable (it’s something like 200 minutes) but it is- very captivating.


Ginger Yellow 06.23.11 at 10:09 am

“I’ve never watched any Buster Keaton; never watched The General, for example. Should I?”

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. That was going to be the first film I named. Keaton’s phsyical comedy is way better than Chaplin’s, although Chaplin’s films have other merits. See also Steamboat Bill Jr.

Anyway, other silent (I hesitate to call them early unless they’re pre-DW Griffith, to be honest) films I love: Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Nosferatu, Battleship Potemkin, Safety Last!, Modern Times (not techincally silent), Sons of the Desert.


Matt McGrattan 06.23.11 at 10:19 am

What Ginger Yellow said. Keaton is far better than Chaplin at the physical comedy. While I always felt I was missing something with Chaplin or it seemed too historically distant or strange, with Keaton it’s just instantly funny, and clever. I also have quite a bit of affection for Harold Lloyd’s ‘Safety Last!’.


Jim 06.23.11 at 10:38 am

I saw the restored version of Franz Osten’s Indian romance ‘A Throw of Dice’ in Trafalgar Square a few years back, and it was wonderful. And yes, Buster Keaton is hilarious, modern sensibilities and all.


John Edmond 06.23.11 at 10:40 am

Bar his earliest couple, Women in the Moon is probably the least of Lang’s silent films – so still check out his other silents. Dr. Mabuse the Gambler is probably my favourite, but at 4 odd hours feel free to ignore me. Spies is probably a far better entry point, more exuberant than silly.

5 random silents:

Ozu’s I Was Born, But… – A pair of brothers (and leaders of the local gang) go on strike after discovering their father humiliates himself to get ahead at work. Worth it for the dead-eyed sociopathic lil’ rascals let alone seeing an Ozu film before he completely codified his approach.

Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat – Another social awareness film. If I taught silent film I’d scrap showing The Birth of a Nation and instead show three hours of his earlier shorts. A Corner alone provides ample justification. has a copy.

Sternberg’s The Docks of New York – Glossy black falls in love with matte white; I’m stuck thinking of a more beautiful film.

Murnau’s City Girl – The key pastoral influence on Malick, but far less silly. Worth viewing just to see what a silent in perfect condition looks like (due to the film’s lack of success barely any prints were struck off the negative, careful storage did the rest). Track down the UK blu-ray release if possible (or at least have a look at it at DVD Beaver), you could take fingerprints off some of the shots.

Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora – Part of his loose Ukraine folklore trilogy, all of which are equally superb. Like his fellow USSR filmmakers, Dovzhenko is a director of montage, but here editing is used to supercharge the environment with an animist spirit – in Dovzhenko’s films horses are equally likely to backchat or sing as be ridden. I don’t think there has been a US release, but the UK release is nice and cheap.


Tom 06.23.11 at 11:22 am

Keaton, Keaton, a thousand times, Keaton!


bob mcmanus 06.23.11 at 11:34 am

Too many to list, really. Sunrise and The General and City Lights are very near the top of the list of all-time greats. Ozu made a half dozen silent masterpieces; Naruse at least two. Silence bothers me no more than black and white .

Flesh and the Devil, It, and Pandora’s Box astonished me.

But if you are talking about early silents, before 1920, I can’t help you as much.


Matt 06.23.11 at 12:21 pm

Pandora’s Box is really good.


roac 06.23.11 at 1:23 pm

I saw the title and said “I’ll go there and put in a work for Keaton.” But I’m way late for that. Nobody however seems to have mentioned Sherlock Jr., a fine example of post-modernism avant la lettre (and also funny).

Also: The Passion of Joan of Arc.


chris 06.23.11 at 1:27 pm

Who do you think should get the moon gold, should it exist?

Even if the gold were just laying in heaps on the surface of the moon, no mining required, would it be worth the effort of going there to get it and bringing it back to Earth? Space travel is hard, and Earth has gigatons of gold already.


ejh 06.23.11 at 1:35 pm

I’ve seen Greed just the once, but I thought it was great stuff.


rm 06.23.11 at 1:49 pm

I second the nomination of Sunrise.

With other silent films I had a reaction like yours to Chaplin — I see why this is great, but it’s foreign to me. Sunrise is as good to watch as the best modernist literature of that era is to read — it’s news that stays news — it’s real good cinema.

Now, I don’t endorse the gender essentialism of a fable in which The Woman From The City ensnares The Man with her wiles, but when she whistles you can hear her whistle in your mind, man. Every female Film Studies major I knew in college wanted to be her. The film really works.


Matt 06.23.11 at 1:52 pm

Also: The Passion of Joan of Arc.

I had mixed feelings about this one. I can see the greatness of some of it, but also, the director should have been told that shots other than extreme close-ups on the actors’ faces were possible. (I read that, for the time, lavish amounts of money were spent on the sets, but that they mostly went to waste, as so many of the shots are close-ups on the faces. They are great, but get to be a bit too much after a while. Or so I thought.)


ajay 06.23.11 at 2:05 pm

13: Gold is just under $50,000 a kilo at present. Taking a line from Apollo, you could probably manage a cargo carrier ascent stage that was 25% dry weight, 25% payload and 50% fuel, and descent stage is twice that. So if you want to get a tonne of gold back you need to put eleven tonnes of hardware on the surface – about the total size of the LEM. Use a low-energy Hiten-type transfer orbit and that equates to a single medium-heavy launch. Which costs roughly $50 million.
So, not quite worth it really.


alph 06.23.11 at 2:15 pm

The seven chances, by Keaton. His chases are the fastest thing that have ever been filmed. No matter how fast starships go, they will never go faster than Keaton on the handle-bars of a motorcycle (in Sherlock Jr.) or Keaton running down a slope as boulders chase him. The pure thrill of speed.

There is a scene in Seven Chances where Keaton is running from a mob; by devices and divagations he loses them, and his pace slows to an easy loping run. Suddenly the mob appears from behind, and his burst of acceleration is not only breathtaking, but hilarious as well. He makes speed funny.

Agreed about Lloyd’s Safety Last, and his Speedy is good too.


Matt McIrvin 06.23.11 at 2:25 pm

Metropolis. I initially saw it in a terrible VHS dumpware release that made the story almost impossible to follow (the transfer was so bad that the picture was often impossible to interpret visually), and it seemed unbearably tedious.

Then I saw the glorious Kino restoration in a theater. This was the before the recent discovery of almost all of the missing footage, but they’d put in new title cards explaining the missing parts of the plot in detail, and the German titles were also translated in an engaging fashion. But the best thing about the Kino version was the score: for the first time in ages, they’d reunited the movie with a new recording of its original opening-night score, which turns out to be a brilliant suite of movie music.

And Metropolis turns out to be a great piece of social science fiction, capable of standing on its own without special pleading. Highly recommended.


bill.who 06.23.11 at 2:29 pm

— Keaton. Good, surprisingly honest and direct emotion. Entertaining and well structured stories and a good appreciation for the nature of the medium.
— Battleship Potemkin etc.
— I’m surprised that I have not seen any mention of Man with a Camera yet. It’s not narrative but has its own charm and beauty and is a reminder of how very varied silent films were.
— I think that Mark of Zorro might be worthwhile, but it has been while, and I suspect that I’m grading on curve.
— Completely wrong, of course, but I always remember Alexander Nevsky as a silent with a really good score.


Alan 06.23.11 at 2:32 pm

I only read this in one source years ago, but it was claimed that Lang’s Woman in the Moon invented the countdown, which later became standard part of V-2 launch operations. If true then that would be cool.


Dave Maier 06.23.11 at 2:34 pm

Sunrise is breathtaking. I also like Dovzhenko’s Earth, which was not at all what I expected.


bob mcmanus 06.23.11 at 2:46 pm

15: Chaplin—I see why this is great, but it’s foreign to me.

This is a good thing.

There is something about that generation of actors that appeals to me, modern yet with the memories of the pre-modern. They just seem slightly different, a little freer and less inhibited. Like pre-WWII athletes.

I have been trying to express the impressions the great silent stars made on me. Clara Bow was “just folks,” but also her charisma seem more amplified to me than the stars of the 30s. I maybe am just imagining I am seeing the effects of industrialised cinema, commodified society.

Or what Gloria said in Sunset


sbk 06.23.11 at 2:50 pm

It’s impossible for me to imagine that you would not love either The General or Sherlock Jr, given all existing evidence of your tastes. When I was 20 or so I also remember really enjoying Eisenstein’s Strike (1925, apparently), but it’s possible that the intervening decade would change my assessment. For big dumb entertainment, Murnau’s Faust had its moments…but like an earlier commenter, I can’t help much with pre-1920 stuff. I am sure “Greed” is good (yes, yes), but my memory is of turning it off halfway through: that might have been one of those ill-advised attempts to start watching a film at midnight, though. Turns out you will not make it through Andrei Rublev that way.


Gene O'Grady 06.23.11 at 2:54 pm

Avoiding films already mentioned, The Wind and the Lillian Gish versions of The Scarlet Letter and La Boheme (although it’s been a long time since I saw the latter).

It makes an enormous difference how and where you see silent film. Romola on a wide screen with excellent live accompaniment is exciting, on (a not very high quality) VHS tape on my TV not so much.

Also, early Clara Bow, not great movies but she’s wonderful to watch in things like The Plastic Age.


ajay 06.23.11 at 3:04 pm

I have been trying to express the impressions the great silent stars made on me. Clara Bow was “just folks,” but also her charisma seem more amplified to me than the stars of the 30s.

I wonder if this is because they’re silent – so you’re focussing much more on their faces and their expressions than you would if the plot were also being conveyed through the soundtrack. Also, camerawork is much simpler – fewer pans or zooms or crane shots – so there’s less movement except for people moving and facial expressions changing.


roac 06.23.11 at 3:18 pm

Matt@ 16: De gustibus. Tight focus on faces throughout was a very deliberate aesthetic decision by Dreyer. (Refusing to let any of the actors wear makeup was a big part of it.)

I saw it, BTW, with the Richard Einhorn oratorio Voices of Light, written to be performed as a score to the film. Quite an experience — although the visibility of the performers (Anonymous Four and the Fairfax Choral Society) was arguably a distraction..


Modulo Myself 06.23.11 at 3:42 pm

Les Vampires is about as true to the spirit of serials and French subversion as one can get.


The Modesto Kid 06.23.11 at 3:56 pm

Passion of Joan of Arc is great, as is Dreyer’s later film Day of Wrath (which is I guess too much later to be considered an “early film”, but still.


yeliabmit 06.23.11 at 3:58 pm

For any Keaton fans who haven’t seen it: The Railrodder. Neither black and white nor silent, but a lot of fun.

I first saw this when I was seven, shown on movie day, and it made a lasting impression on me concerning both visual comedy and my idea of Canada. I don’t suppose that 7 year olds get shown short films in class once a month anymore.


The Modesto Kid 06.23.11 at 3:59 pm

@roac — the Criterion DVD of Joan of Arc has “Voices of Light” on it as an option.


rm 06.23.11 at 4:19 pm

bob mcmanus, I take away a similar impression from the first fifteen years or so of recorded pop music. The Victrola era, I guess, when a lot of people were being recorded (on wax cylinders I don’t think they got much beyond established stage pros, but I could be wrong) but when everyone had learned music and formed their tastes in the pre-recording era.

I started to like that stuff because I wondered why I could read Modernist literature and find it comparatively contemporary and fresh, but find music from that era ancient-sounding. I started to change how I listened.


rm 06.23.11 at 4:21 pm

I thought mit had mis-typed “Railroader,” but no, the title is actually “The Railrodder.” I will watch it.


mcsmack 06.23.11 at 4:23 pm

@10 I saw ‘Sunrise’ as a kid and it had this huge effect on me. I’d love to see it again. I remember it as sublimely beautiful and I now wonder if it is maudlin. But perhaps not.

Ivan the Terrible. Most of my silent movie watching happened as a child though so I’m not to be trusted on this.


Henri Vieuxtemps 06.23.11 at 4:36 pm

Ivan the Terrible is silent? I don’t think so.


Massilian 06.23.11 at 4:42 pm

To complete the classics quoted above, I’d like to add a few french silent movies.
The extraordinary NAPOLEON of Abel Gance, projected on three screens. Abel Gance was a Coppola before Coppola.
Zero de conduite, by Jean Vigo is the father of Truffaut “Les 400 coups” .
Fantomas and it’s 4 sequels by Louis Feuillade are still fun to watch, but can’t compete with the modern tempo and fx of present day action packed blockbusters.
I’d like also to mention the films of Pierre Etaix shot in the 60’s but mostly silent as most of Jacques Tati (Well not exactly silent, sounds play a great role, but not spech). Etaix was a great admirer of the slapstick artists, Buster Keaton of course but also the french director and actor Max Linder.
I’m waiting to see “The Artist” by Michel Hazanavicius a silent movie presented at the Cannes film festival in 2011 and much appraised, yet to be released in october.


Keith 06.23.11 at 4:53 pm

Metropolis is one of my favorites. I was watching the restored version recently and surprised that the nearly-complete cut of the film comes in at two and a half hours, which is almost Beysian in it’s excess, but still enjoyable. It also hit home that Metropolis is by no means a subtle movie. We modern audiences demand subtly and complexity to our films but Metropolis beats you over the head with the themes in a way that few films do. The closest modern example that comes to mind is Moulin Rouge.

A close second is Guy Madden’s Dracula: Pages form a Virgin’s Diary. He does the Dracula ballet as a silent film, complete with elaborate, Expressionist sets and different color filters (and even spot colors: the lining of Dracula’s cape is always blood red, even in the sepia or blue scenes). It really plays up the sexual politics that are subtext in the book and Bela Lugosi film version. Plus it’s just a beautiful fucking ballet.


Jared 06.23.11 at 5:01 pm

I second Dovzhenko’s Earth, and let’s not forget Vertov and Pudovkin. And as everyone has noted, Keaton is fantastic. Like Chaplin he mixes slapstick and pathos, but in a different combination.

I prefer the Lubitsch silents to his talkies. Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Marriage Circle are fantastic. And so is Vidor’s The Crowd.

For experimental silents (surrealism and cubism mostly) see Kino’s “Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema.”


Keith 06.23.11 at 5:02 pm

Modulo Myself @27:

Is there an American edition of Les Vampires? I’ve been looking high and low for one and all I can find is a low rez version on YouTube.


HP 06.23.11 at 5:27 pm

Ditto on the Kino Metropolis with the reconstructed original score.

I’ve had more than one silent movie completely ruined by inappropriate music on the DVD. (Note to DVD packagers: Great as Jelly Roll Morton is, he does not belong on a silent film soundtrack. Not at all. That goes double for films made before 1920.)

Is there no love on this thread for Lon Chaney? There’s a scene early in Phantom of the Opera where he first appears to Christine only as the shadow of his hands on the wall, and it’s one of the most astonishing performances I’ve ever seen.

I’m also fond of Barrymore’s Jekyll and Hyde.


Matt 06.23.11 at 5:41 pm

The Kino version of _Earth_ (or at least one version) also has _The End of St. Petersburg_ and _Chess Fever_ (about obsessed chess players) by Pudovkin on it. Both are pretty interesting. There’s a horrible scene in _The End of St. Petersburg_ of a horse dying that I’ll never forget.


alph 06.23.11 at 6:01 pm

I raved about Keaton’s speed and athleticism earlier, but forgot to mention his face. One of the silliest falsehoods in film history is the claim that Keaton was a stoneface. In fact, his face is infinitely expressive, endlessly varied.

One way of noting this is that he is the clear model for the contemporary film actor who best carries on the silent-film tradition, namely Gromit the dog. Pretty much Gromit’s entire repertoire of expressions comes from Keaton.


George 06.23.11 at 6:03 pm

Napoléon, by Abel Gance. Very watchable on its own merits, and rather stirring in a Heinleinian sort of way…a guilty pleasure.


Tom Hurka 06.23.11 at 6:05 pm

I second (or third) Keaton’s Seven Chances. Pretty nondescript for the first 3/4 and then a chase scene to end all chase scenes for the last 1/4. Just spectacular. Saw it with my son — Silent Sundays at the local rep cinema — and then had to see it again.

The Railrodder is National Film Board from the 1960s, when Keaton was old and largely forgotten. But Stoneface with wrinkles is the best Stoneface.


bob mcmanus 06.23.11 at 6:37 pm

“Is there no love on this thread for Lon Chaney?”

There is love. I prefer him with a little less makeup etc where you can see what a great actor he was.

Just this week, I was researching Bluebird Photoplays, which was early Universal’s (1915-1925) quality line and extremely popular and influential in Japan, and came across a site discussing some early Lon Chaney and Rex Ingram films.

I was going to mention Thompson and Bordwell, who are into early silents, but I presume there are lots of sites out there.


Jim Flannery 06.23.11 at 6:43 pm

Second Les Vampires. Also A Page of Madness. Ménilmontant. Man with a Movie Camera. The Barrymore Don Juan. Underworld. The Unknown. Where to stop …


Ian Woodke 06.23.11 at 6:56 pm

Keaton, Eisenstein, Vertov, Dovzhenko, and Murnau are my favorite silent directors. I’d check out the major works from them.


js. 06.23.11 at 6:59 pm

Seconding (or fifthing or something): Les Vampires — it’s really really amazing. Fast paced and fun to watch, visually stunning (great use of filters, among other things), really can’t say enough good things about it.

Sunrise and Pandora’s Box are also really brilliant (as several people have mentioned).

To mention one film no one else seems to have (surprisingly): Battleship Potemkin — thought this would be a relatively obvious one. Yes, maybe a few of the scenes don’t hold up as well, but the Odessa Steps sequence just by itself is worth most films ever made (also, for people who haven’t seen the film, it’s worth noting that the sequence is much longer than you might imagine it being — it was certainly much longer than I’d expected it to be).



Dave Maier 06.23.11 at 7:19 pm

Alph said:

[Keaton] is the clear model for the contemporary film actor who best carries on the silent-film tradition, namely Gromit the dog. Pretty much Gromit’s entire repertoire of expressions comes from Keaton.

Interesting, esp. when one realizes (as I did not at first) that Gromit has no mouth. So he’s basically forced to be a silent-film character. (Or a character in a Harlan Ellison story.)


gocart mozart 06.23.11 at 7:26 pm

I have to echo others with “Watch Buster Keaton fer chrissakes!” Also, Battleship Potemkin (saw it in a college history class) The ’80’s movie ‘The Untouchables” stole the “baby carriage rolling down the steps” scene almost frame for frame from Potemkin. Visually it was way ahead of its time.

How about a Tom Mix movie. I say this only because I am distantly related, 5th cousin 3 times removed I think.


Frank in midtown 06.23.11 at 7:27 pm

per Chris and Ajay it’s a military expedition then!


ejh 06.23.11 at 7:37 pm


Sam Hankins 06.23.11 at 7:46 pm

“Nanook of the North” was pretty special to me when I was a kid; haven’t seen it since. Nanook’s director, Robert Flaherty, made a gorgeous melodrama, “White Shadows in the South Seas” which is notable for being filmed on location in Tahiti and presents a rather powerful indictment of Western exploitation of the serene Pacific Islanders. It’s very beautiful to look at.


Fargo North, Decoder 06.23.11 at 7:50 pm

Douglas Fairbanks! His Thief of Baghdad is wonderful–thrilling, magical, and more than a little sexy.


Gene O'Grady 06.23.11 at 7:54 pm

For what it’s worth I found Battleship Potemkin dull and Metropolis overpraised, but it’s about forty years since I’ve seen them. Much prefer contemporary Hollywood studio stuff. On the other hand, Sunrise is every bit as good as they say. To some extent the usual impression of silent film is based on the 1916-1925 period, whereas in the last few years in movies like Sunrise and The Wind (or Hitchcock’s English comedy The Farmer’s Wife, a much lesser movie) they seemed to be moving toward a new film grammar that was liberated from the sometimes oppressive titles.

Since someone mentioned Nanook of the North, I should say I always get a thrill out of the much earlier Land of the War Canoes (the least offensive of its titles), directed I believe by the photographer E S Curtis.

Am I the only one to prefer Harold Lloyd to Keaton? Very fond of Girl Shy, partly because I’m fond of aborted wedding films, a genre that apparently died with The Graduate. On Keaton, I have a standard humorous argument with my kids on whether the most famous movie ever shot in Cottage Grove was The General or Animal House. At least Belushi and friends refrained from starting a forest fire like Keaton did.


gocart mozart 06.23.11 at 7:59 pm

Harold Lloyd is well worth watching also.


musical mountaineer 06.23.11 at 8:31 pm

I see one mention of Jean Vigo on this thread, but nothing about L’Atalante (1934). I’d have expected everyone to pile on. If nothing else L’Atalante is the best date movie ever, approaching the best date movie theoretically possible.


ben w 06.23.11 at 8:34 pm

Well, it’s not an early film, but it is silent: I really like Dracula: Pages from the Virgin’s Diary.

Actually early silent films I esteem: Hamlet with Asta Nielsen; The Cottage on Dartmoor (a silent film in which the characters attend a talkie, which is depicted in the film itself!); He Who Gets Slapped (possibly simply owing to the circumstances in which I saw it, crouched on the floor of a restaurant in Chicago with music provided by Califone); The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and, like everyone else, Sunrise.

Not Nosferatu, though. I’ve seen it multiple times and each time I discovered anew what henceforth I hope to remember: it’s kind of boring.

I’ve only seen the beginning of Girl Shy but the scenes anticipating the seduction [initially written, incorrectly but somewhat happily, “sexuction”] techniques crowd are funny.


ben w 06.23.11 at 8:37 pm

On review, “sexuction” is a horribly unattractive word.


alph 06.23.11 at 9:22 pm

As opposed to “-unction” and “-auction”.

I have nothing against Harold Lloyd. But when his on-screen persona is put next to that of Keaton or Chaplin, he comes across as somehow lightweight.

I seem to recall reading somewhere that Lloyd’s character was one of the models for Maxwell Smart. I’m not sure how that could be verified or disproven. But their method of eye-widening double-take is surely similar.

“Sir, thus it is,” said Dr. Johnson, “this is the proportion. As Maxwell Smart is to Gromit, so is the proportion of an Harold Lloyd to a Buster Keaton”.


andrew 06.23.11 at 9:30 pm

I’ve never really been able to get into most of the feature-length (by today’s standards) silents – mostly I watch them for historical reasons, or in the hopes of being surprised – but Keaton and Lloyd’s shorts are pretty good. There some Keaton on the Internet Archive, like One Week, here. Overall, I really prefer Lloyd to Keaton and Chaplin.

I second the recommendation of The Crowd. One of the few full silents I really have enjoyed.


andrew 06.23.11 at 9:38 pm

Oh, The Unknown is that Lon Chaney film with [spoilers omitted]. I really like that one too. Although his one talkie where he plays a ventriloquist pretending to be an old woman who sells parrots is my favorite of the Chaney films I’ve seen (admittedly, not many).


Brainz 06.23.11 at 10:33 pm

Les Vampires is full of amazing images. It’s also how I learned that I wasn’t stuck with the piano music on the DVD — I recommend early PJ Harvey as the soundtrack. Polly Jean makes a great Irma Vep.


Tony Lynch 06.23.11 at 11:29 pm

Chaplin hated his movie “The Circus” – he doesn’t even mention it in his autobiography – but the hall of mirrors scene still send me into hysterics.


Ben Alpers 06.23.11 at 11:30 pm

Among the silent films I simply love (most of which have already been mentioned) are…

Murnau’s Sunrise and The Last Laugh

Vidor’s The Crowd (this hasn’t been mentioned yet but is wonderful)

Pabst’s Pandora’s Box

also Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera

All are wonderful movies and great works of art.

I have in the past taught some of the early Griffiths. A Corner on Wheat is terrific and teaches well. But I particularly like showing The Lonedale Operator (1911) and The Girl and Her Trust (1912) (the latter is available at and on various DVDs; the former in the Treasures from American Film Archives DVD set). The second is essentially a remake of the first. And it’s fascinating to see how Griffith had complicated his filmic language over the year that separated them (Griffith was directed something like eighty films a year at the time).


bill.who 06.23.11 at 11:39 pm

Jared’s comment about Lubitsch and Vidor reminded me of another favorite. King Vidor’s “The Big Parade” has an emotional directness and a great feeling of honesty that almost subvert the movie as entertainment. I suspect that subversion was intentional.


maidhc 06.24.11 at 2:09 am

Yes, Keaton, all of Keaton. Laurel and Hardy.

Caligari and Potemkin must be seen because they are real pioneering works. The same is true of Birth of a Nation, despite its subject matter. But I rather liked a couple of the films Griffith made as an apology for BoaNIntolerance (especially if you’re a Grateful Dead fan) and Broken Blossoms. Way Down East has the classic ice floe sequence in it that should be seen. I haven’t seen Orphans of the Storm, but with the Gish sisters in it, it could be promising.

I rather like Max Linder, who was a big influence on Chaplin. His films really give you the feeling of a by-gone age. He was the first to do the mirror scene that the Marx Brothers used later. Unfortunately real success eluded him. He was too racy for America; apparently he was very popular in Russia. Lupino Lane was another under-rated comedian.

I love Winsor McCay’s animations, most of which are based on his Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend comic strip. You can see a number of scenes there that were copied in later films (particularly King Kong).

Most of Lon Chaney’s films are good — Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame are ones where he set the bar for later versions. Nosferatu is another horror film worth watching, although I find it uneven.

Thief of Baghdad I saw with full live orchestral accompaniment, and that was really something. Wings has its moments, but The Big Parade is better. Robert Flaherty’s films are interesting, but a lot of the action seems to have been staged. Anything directed by von Stroheim. The Last Laugh (a favourite of Roger Ebert). The Crowd.

You are going to be busy for a long time if you follow everyone’s recommendations, but you will see some great films.


jeems 06.24.11 at 2:25 am

the silents and the talkies are two differant mediums. comparing them is pointless. i am a HUGE fan of silents and i love watching them. yes, the acting might be hammy but they are almost like moving paintings.


Gene O'Grady 06.24.11 at 3:00 am

Note that in Lon Chaney’s very last film (I think he was dying of cancer at 47) he plays a character called Mrs. O’Grady. No relation. And not germane to this discussion because it is also his only talking film.

I didn’t mention Way Down East because most versions represent the quite unintelligent truncation when it was rereleased in the thirties, and even the academically correct version is frustratingly incomplete. Of course the incomplete (I believe that’s now true rather just lost) silent film I really want to see is the 1925 Great Gatsby, partly for interest and partly to get a sense of pre-canonical Fitzgerald.


Nababov 06.24.11 at 4:13 am

Erotikon‘s got some hot dance sequences in it.


Pinky Tan 06.24.11 at 4:25 am

The only silent films I remember watching are the ones by Charlie Chaplin… cant forget that classic slapstick comedy.


Lemuel Pitkin 06.24.11 at 7:23 am

Man With a Movie Camera as several people have mentioned.

Blue Angel as, surprisingly, no one has.


R.Mutt 06.24.11 at 9:43 am

Blue Angel is a talkie.


Massilian 06.24.11 at 10:16 am

L’Atalante by Jean Vigo is NOT a silent movie ! It was Vigo’s last film and was released in 1934. But I agree it is a very good movie, one of Michel Simon’s best act.


Lemuel Pitkin 06.24.11 at 10:39 am

R. Mutt- you’re right. Funny I remembered it being silent.


chris y 06.24.11 at 10:52 am

Un chien andalou.

I’ll get me coat.


R.Mutt 06.24.11 at 11:07 am

* Lon Chaney is amazing in The Unknown as a criminal with double thumbs who has his arms amputated to win the love of Joan Crawford.

* The Alps are very beautiful in the melodrama Visages d’enfants.

* A Page of Madness is the Japanese Caligari.

* In The Mysterious Lady Garbo is breathtaking.

* Asta Nielsen as Hamlet.

* Rudolph Valentino: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

* Others have already mentioned The Man with The Camera, but there are more good city symphonies: A propos de Nice, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City

* Many recommended Murnau, but somehow everybody forgot Tabu.

* Frank Borzage’s great trilogy Seventh Heaven, Street Angel and Lucky Star.


AntiAlias 06.24.11 at 12:16 pm

Buñuel’s L’ âge d’or, all the way.


Matt 06.24.11 at 1:53 pm

Funny I remembered it being silent.

One thing I find interesting about a number of early “talking” movies is that people talk in them _a lot_ less than in modern films, and have less background sound, too. This is so with Lang’s early “talking” movies- M, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, films like Ecstasy, and so on. One I watched recently (I can’t remember which it was now) had no talking for 20 minutes or so, including places where you’d expect it, making me think it was a silent movie. Maybe it was expensive and difficult, and people didn’t expect much talking yet.


Lee A. Arnold 06.24.11 at 2:11 pm

I like Chaplin, but I love Buster Keaton. Chaplin has more sentiment, but Keaton’s gags take more ingenious advantage of camera and frame. This combines with his great acrobatic talent to make a new sort of character in a slightly different physical universe. He is funny, but I just find him to be dazzling. The effect is enhanced by watching the 16 frames per second at 24 fps, a sort of happy accident in the history of film projection. (By contrast, some of Chaplin’s emotional scenes, such as the end of City Lights, might work better at original speed.)

My favorites are Seven Chances, Steamboat Bill, Jr., and The General. There are some great shorts. There is an early short, I think it is called “One Week”, in which Keaton and his new bride are pushing their new house on rollers across train tracks, and a train just misses them. I won’t give you the end of the gag. Dazzling. I want to live in a Buster Keaton world!


Matt 06.24.11 at 2:58 pm

Carl Dreyer’s “Vampyr” is one of the most atmospheric things you’ll ever see. His “The Passion of Joan of Arc” deserves all its praise. It is an exhausting thing to watch, but exhausting in the best way.

I also love Hubbard’s “Mysterious Island” though that might not qualify as a silent film, because Barrymore does speak a line and music was appended to later prints.

I think that Lon Chaney, Sr. is one of the best actors there is. When I watch silent film, I’m mindful of what pioneers those people were. I believe that for most of the silent era, the convention was very nearly to film a stage play, so I keep that in mind when I watch early films.


R.Mutt 06.24.11 at 3:33 pm

Buñuel’s L’ âge d’or, all the way.

Technically, another talkie. Some scenes still use inter-titles, but there are nice dialogues too. (“What joy! What joy in having killed our children!”)


annie 06.24.11 at 4:01 pm


SusanC 06.24.11 at 4:06 pm

I’m a big fan of German expressionism, in film and other media.

So it’s not surprising that I’d recommend:

G. W. Pabst Pandora’s Box

F. W. Murnau Nosferatu

Fritz Lang Metropolis

.. all of which have already been mentioned.

Diary of a Lost Girl, the other G. W. Pabst/Louise Brooks collaboration, is pretty good too.


John Holbo 06.24.11 at 4:11 pm

Fun thread! But will no one confess to being bored silly by silent film? C’mon, you can’t ALL love it.


Jim Harrison 06.24.11 at 4:28 pm

I’m not a big fan of silent movies, though I believe my indifference to them has more to do with unfamiliarity than anything else. I do know they can be extraordinarily powerful. After watching Napoleon by Abel Glance at the grand old Castro Theater in San Francisco many years ago, I was ready to invade Northern Italy.


David Frye 06.24.11 at 5:03 pm

I see a couple of comments have recommended Harold Lloyd already. I’d second that, though I’ve only managed to see one of his flicks. Among the great silent US (-filmed) comics, Keaton is as great as they say, and most of his films are pretty watchable and technically advanced for their time, though the plot tends to drag, and you’re always waiting impatiently for Keaton to get back on the screen. (The General is great as a movie of its era, but its pro-Confederate p.o.v. kinda creeps me out.) Chaplin is both funny and brilliant in bursts, but he also has a ponderous tone and Dickensian sentimentality that threaten to overwhelm each movie. I happened across Lloyd’s The Freshman in my public library and found it unexpectedly hilarious and as fresh as the day it was made. If you like that sort of comedy, that is.


Gene O'Grady 06.24.11 at 5:16 pm

I’m probably the exception, but contrary to Mr. Holbo’s last post I really do love silent movies and find almost anything made in the last twenty years with its slickness, quick cuts, and glorification of the rich and cool to be totally boring.


andrew 06.24.11 at 6:03 pm

I come pretty close to being bored silly by silents sometimes. At least, I find they often test my attention span, which is probably why I prefer the comedy shorts.

On talkies that seem like silents, there are a number of transitional films that seem to have been shot originally as silents but then re-done – dubbed and re-edited, sometimes with scenes re-shot for speech – as talkies. Harold Lloyd’s Welcome Danger and Capra’s Younger Generation are both like this. I’m sure there are many more.


The Modesto Kid 06.24.11 at 6:09 pm

Thanks for the Keaton suggestions, all; we’re going to watch The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr. this evening.


phosphorious 06.24.11 at 6:10 pm

“Fun thread! But will no one confess to being bored silly by silent film? C’mon, you can’t ALL love it.”

I didn’t want to be “that guy,” but since you insist. . .

I don’t really like silent film, and the ones I do like (Lang’s Mabuse, anything by Keaton) I like for their genre value (crime/detective, comedy) rather than as “silent.”

I would argue that sound replaced silent in a way that color did NOT replace black and white. As jeems notes above, silents and talkies are two very different kinds of things.

And talkies are better. Discuss.


Gene O'Grady 06.24.11 at 6:13 pm

Not only are there silents that were redone as talkies, but Hitchcock’s Blackmail was made as the first English talkie and then redone as a silent since most theatres weren’t equipped for talkies. The version I have seen is in fact a composite; weird effect when the talking starts one or two reels in. Plus the lead actress (Any Ondry, married to Max Schmeling if anyone is interested) couldn’t speak English without a thick accent, so someone else did the speaking. Shades of the Lillian Gish Scarlet Letter, where the costar and director were Swedish.


The Modesto Kid 06.24.11 at 6:27 pm

The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr.

(…or possibly Go West and Steamboat Bill, Jr.)


Jim Flannery 06.24.11 at 7:05 pm

Maybe it was expensive and difficult, and people didn’t expect much talking yet.

Yes. The equipment was bulky and difficult to set up (cameras weren’t really soundproof yet, etc.) , so there was a big loss in the ability to move the camera expressively — what really stands out in the early talkies is how static they are visually compared to the late silents, which had developed a whole language of camera movements that had to be put on the shelf for years; so sometimes the dialog was still stinted in the interest of looking like something more than a filmed play. (Hint: if you’re finding a mid-20s film boring, watch the camerawork!)

Also, sound came late to Japan, so their late silent period (into the 30s) skipped that regression and kept developing otherwise … that stuff is amazing.* And more “modern” acting styles came much earlier to Japanese silents; pretty much anything from the 20s feels much more naturalistic than the US work of the time.

*For folks in the Bay Area: Ozu’s 1933 Dragnet Girl is at Pacific Film Archive at 7pm today (Friday 24th). GO!


bob mcmanus 06.24.11 at 8:57 pm

92 is exactly right.

For something different, people might rent or look for Mizoguchi’s Water Magician or Orizuru Osen. These DVD’s included Benshi narration. I loved it.

As the film industry and art form developed in Japan, the presence of a benshi came to be part of the film. Benshi not only read the interstitials on silent films, and voiced all on-screen characters—perhaps most significantly for filmmakers, benshi would also add their own commentary, explaining what was happening in a shot or describing what had happened in confusing edits or sudden transitions. Some benshi were known to interpret and add to a script, for example reciting poetry to accompany a moving visual.

When you watch Dragnet Girl tonight, or I Was Born…But, or Apart Fron You remember the directors knew the benshi would be there, although the relationship did get complicated, e.g., the long takes might have developed to give benshi room to talk, and quick cutting made their jobs more difficult.


Ben Alpers 06.24.11 at 9:06 pm

Maybe it was expensive and difficult, and people didn’t expect much talking yet.

That certainly describes the very early semi-talkies like The Jazz Singer (in fact, Sunrise, which is of course a silent, was also one of the first films originally released with a synced musical soundtrack).

But it doesn’t describe the early Lang sound films. Lang was the last major German director to film with sound. M, his first sound film, came out four years into the sound era. And while in certain ways it’s very like a silent film (in that it doesn’t have a lot of dialogue) it is incredibly creative in its use of sound. In a sense, Lang waited to film with sound until he had come up with something interesting to do with this new technology.

It would be interesting to have a thread devoted to early sound films that we love. Though, at the end of the day, most of my favorite films are from the sound era, these early sound films are, on the whole, harder to like than the silent classics. The sound revolution happened very fast and filmmakers didn’ t really know what to do with sound or how to adapt to the often cumbersome equipment that went along with it. Early on in the sound era, cameras had to be encased in huge bubbles designed to insulate the microphone from the camera noise. While many of the great late silents we’ve been discussing featured incredibly mobile cameras (think of the Lady from the City’s night walk in Sunrise or the Coney Island sequence from The Crowd), early sound films were incredibly static.

And only a few filmmakers came up with really creative ways to use sound in these early years. Lang is one of them. Another one is René Clair, whose early musical comedies Sous le toits de Paris (1930), Le Million (1931) and À nous la liberté (1931) still hold up pretty well. (Here’s the opening sequence of Le Million)


bob mcmanus 06.24.11 at 9:12 pm

93: It’s called the “Talking Silents” collection, you can search at Amazon. The benshi narration is in Japanese with English subtitles, more lively and emotional, and frankly more intelligent and artistic than I was expecting.

There are questions about the inexplicable shots of objects and “pillow shots” in movies by Ozu and Naruse that might be answered by getting our hands on a benshi script. Watch Dragnet Girl with that in mind.


Ginger Yellow 06.24.11 at 10:25 pm

The equipment was bulky and difficult to set up (cameras weren’t really soundproof yet, etc.) , so there was a big loss in the ability to move the camera expressively—what really stands out in the early talkies is how static they are visually compared to the late silents,

Part of it, as you say, was the lack of soundproofing. Part of it was also the poor microphone technology. A fun game with early talkies is “spot the hiding place for the mike”.


Matt 06.24.11 at 11:31 pm

But will no one confess to being bored silly by silent film?

Well, I’m pretty discriminating as to what I’ll watch, and I’ll admit to paying close attention to the length of the film in most cases. (Mabuse is a clear exception, though I did watch it over a couple of nights.)

Thanks also to several people for the information on the early talking films. Very interesting.


J Edgar 06.25.11 at 5:10 am

I landed in the middle of the comments, and before I got to the original post, I was thinking of Woman in the Moon as a silent movie ahead of its’ time with clever concepts. Like Metropolis, there are little theatrical touches throughout (a lot of corn, also). And it was visionary in the rocket launch sequence. The up-right rocket is carried on a giant tractor from the hanger to a launch site, there is a count down, and it is a multi-stage rocket. And when they are orbiting the moon they watch the craters roll below them, a lot like the Apollo movies – until you realize that it is a actual roll of painted crater images that is rotating beneath the camera.
Woman in the Moon does not touch the emotions, but it did not need sound to be a great film. I was fortune to see a beautiful loaned German print at the Castro Theater, with organ accompaniment.


andrew 06.25.11 at 5:22 am

I remember reading somewhere, maybe even on Wikipedia, that Mamoulian reportedly said that he would move the camera anyway, sound problems notwithstanding, because he thought the audience would be so interested in the visual that they would forgive the momentary drop in sound. I don’t know how that worked out in practice, but his films really are more dynamic than many others.

How are people defining early sound? I haven’t been keeping close track, but it seems like I’ve seen very few pre-1931 talkies, and quite a few more from 1931-1933 (mostly I try to catch them on TCM, if I can). I actually quite like the uneven, experimental aesthetic of early 1930s films, which isn’t quite the same as saying that I love many of those films, just that I seem to be more forgiving of their quirks. This may be as much about pacing, editing and plot as it is about sound and camerawork, though. Admittedly, once I decided to try to watch more early sound films regardless of plot, I started to come across a lot more dull, plodding, stationary films.


gocart mozart 06.25.11 at 6:17 am

Harold Lloyd’s “Safety Last”- 1923 [only 7.5 min. ]


The Modesto Kid 06.25.11 at 2:04 pm

Benjamin Christensen’s silent Häxan (1922) was remade in 1965 with a voice-over track by William Burroughs. Witchcraft Through the Ages


Platonist 06.25.11 at 2:32 pm

Keaton is essential but very, very overrated. For comedy, I prefer Harold Lloyd. “The Freshman” is a favorite. Chaplin is a god, but not of laughs, but melancholy beauty. He’s closer to, say, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment than conventional comedy. Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times are all superb. Monsieur Verdoux is an overlooked existentialist classic.

I think in silent films the official must-sees are usually inferior to other films by the same director. So watch not that, but this:
Not Keaton’s The General, but Sherlock Jr, Our Hospitality, or Steamboat Bill
Not Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, but Diary of a Lost Girl or Joyless Street
Not Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, but October or Strike

Murnau, Sunrise: Song of Two humans, no question
Vertov, Man With a Movie Camera (absolutely astonishing, miles ahead of contemporary film)
Vigo’s l’Atalante (wonderful, wonderful)
King Vidor’s The Crowd

There are many wonderful, nearly forgotten Swedish silent films, especially by Sjostrom (including The Wind which stars Lillian Gish) and Mauritz Stiller (Gosta Berlings Saga, starring a young Greta Garbo).

For lighter stuff, with fun special effects:
Haxan: Witchcraft throughout the ages.
Thief of Bagdad.
Absolutely everything by Melies, including of course Voyage to the Moon.

As for the notion of being bored by silent films, this is misguided in so many ways. First, it makes as much senses as finding sound films non-boring *as a class*. It’s just too broad. Second, it’s a lot like great literature–there are boring bits that can be essential to the appreciation of the whole. Finally, it’s usually the viewer’s fault. We’ve been trained to look at movies as virtual theater, so we get bored because we’re looking for the wrong things (this is often true of graphic novels, too). Watch silent films with your eyes primarily, like you’d look at a painting or a photograph or a landscape. They’re boring like the Grand Canyon is boring.


Platonist 06.25.11 at 2:42 pm

Matt 06.23.11 at 1:52 pm

“I had mixed feelings about this one. I can see the greatness of some of it, but also, the director should have been told that shots other than extreme close-ups on the actors’ faces were possible.”

In a run of the mill film, I’d understand this sentiment, but who would want this mad, gorgeous, intense, unique film to look like every other? It’s powerful precisely because the camera never lets up the intensity, never gives you a break from face to face, eye to eye contact with the living, sweating, pore-marked human beings who will kill or be killed. Absolutely no way could it have been filmed differently.

Plus, you get to see Antonin Artaud act! How is that not the best thing ever?


Platonist 06.25.11 at 3:21 pm

Almost forgot, in the fun effects category: The Adventures of Prince Achmed.

An animated film based on Arabian nights and made from cut paper silhouettes, it’s surely to appeal to Holbo’s love of retro graphic illustration. I also suspect it’s the inspiration for the recent popular Sita Sings the Blues.


Gene O'Grady 06.25.11 at 3:40 pm

About the closeups in Passion of Joan of Arc, I saw that movie in 1966 and the faces of the female lead whose name I forget and Artaud are still vivid in my mind. So no complaints here.

Also, The Wind is not a Swedish film even if it had a Swedish director and male lead. It was sponsored by Gish and Irving Thalberg, made by a major US studio, and filmed near Bakersfield.


John Holbo 06.25.11 at 4:18 pm

“About the closeups in Passion of Joan of Arc, I saw that movie in 1966 and the faces of the female lead whose name I forget and Artaud are still vivid in my mind. So no complaints here.”

The commentary track on the Kino Joan disc has some information about the close-ups, which are of course striking for the lack of make-up. Dreyer had access to some new film stock that allowed for the no-makeup approach. Apparently before this point heavy make-up was required because the film wouldn’t register certain tones. I don’t know exactly how that makes sense but apparently it would have been impossible to make a film that looked like “Joan” before it was made, because the bare skin would have looked bizarre rather than naturalistic.


Harold 06.26.11 at 1:40 am

The Thief of Bagdad and Napoleon. Though I haven’t seen many of the other worthy ones mentioned here. I also loved Mamoulian’s early sound “Love Me Tonight”. I also loved Mel Brooks’ “Silent Movie” in which only Marcel Marceau spoke.


Gene O'Grady 06.26.11 at 2:32 am

I should add that I hadn’t a clue who Artaud was when I saw the film; didn’t find out until my Seneca seminar six years later. But I remembered the face.


David Frye 06.26.11 at 11:35 am

Since writing my post above, I’ve actually seen one more silent flick: an early Hitchcock movie, “The Manxman” (1929). This was Hitchcock’s last fully silent movie, of at least six that he directed. (His next film, “Blackmail,” also 1929, was shot silent and then turned into a talkie, sort of like the recent movies that have been 3-D’d after the fact.) Curious film. You can definitely tell it’s a Hitchcock — and you can also tell that Hitchcock was straining after the suspense and plot pacing that he only really achieved with the talkies. Like “Joan of Arc” (as remarked in comments above), its “naturalistic” closeups of the actors’ faces make it seem much more modern than earlier silent films, and you can tell that the film stock is much better than what had been available only a few years earlier. (One of the three lead actors in The Manxman, a veteran of the silent screen, still seems to be wearing the face paint, which makes him look like he stepped out of a 1920 film into one from the 30’s…)

But the bottom line on “The Manxman” is that, good as it is, by the last hour I turned to the one saving grace of silent films: when you get bored with the pacing, you can hold down the fast forward button and still get the entire story in 1/3 the time!


Tony Lynch 06.27.11 at 5:52 am

If this isn’t sublimely funny, then nothing is. Chaplin & Keaton together in Limelight:

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