Academy Awards, Buster Keaton, Carl Theodore Dreyer, Charlie Chaplin, F.W. Murnau, George O'Brien, historical comedy, History of Film, Joan Crawford, John Ford, King Vidor, Lon Chaney, silent cinema, silent comedy, silent film, silent films, silent horror, Tod Browning
What to Watch is a continuing series that showcases some film recommendations in a specific category.
I love silent films. It was a true art form that sadly, many people have never experienced. Silent films were never truly silent because they were often accompanied with live music. The golden age of silent cinema was in the 1920s until The Jazz Singer, the first feature length film to feature sequences with synchronized dialogue, was released in 1928. Silent films quickly became a thing of the past. It can be argued that most films of the 1930s do not have the same level of visual artistry found in silent cinema. Some filmmakers, such as Charlie Chaplin, continued making silent films, though. Unfortunately, many silent films have been lost but there are still a plethora of silent films available to enjoy. One cannot call themselves a true cinema aficionado without having experienced the beauty of silent film. The following are some of my personal favorite silents.
1) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Logline: A deranged scientist uses a Somnambulist, who he claims has slept for twenty-three years since birth, to commit murder in a small community.
Comments: Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the earliest examples of German Expressionism in film. This film movement sought to convey the inner struggles of characters through the use of sharp, distorted sets and camera angles, shadow, and contrasts between light and dark. Caligari is one of the most well-know examples of German Expressionism and is also notable for being one of the first horror films. With its stunning visual compositions, Caligari remains a highly influential and deeply compelling work.
2) The Kid (1921)
Logline: The Little Tramp raises an abandoned child, but a series of events puts that relationship in jeopardy.
Comments: Charlie Chaplin’s first feature length film, The Kid remains one of the filmmaker’s greatest achievements. It contains a mix of comedy and pathos, something for which Chaplin would become known. Jackie Coogan, the first child star, is wonderful as the little boy. The film is a poignant masterwork from one of silent cinema’s greatest auteurs.
3) Nosferatu (1922)
Logline: The vampire Count Orlok targets a man’s wife.
Comments: One of the earliest adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu is my favorite vampire film and it features the remarkable Max Schreck as Count Orlok. Nosferatu was the first and only film produced by the German film studio Prana. The company declared bankruptcy in order to avoid copyright infringement suits from Bram Stoker’s widow for adapting her dead husband’s novel without permission. Nosferatu remains a highly influential horror film and one of the best examples of German Expressionism in the cinema.
4) Our Hospitality (1923)
Logline: A young man becomes embroiled in a generations-old feud between two families.
Comments: The silent kings of comedy were Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. Keaton’s comedy was more physical and acrobatic than his contemporaries and stemmed from his vaudeville training. Keaton did all of his stunts, which were often very dangerous and death defying. Our Hospitality was Keaton’s first feature length film which is often paired with two of his later films, The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) as being part of his “Southern trilogy.” These historical comedies, all of which are great, take place in the South and share similar elements. The General may be Keaton’s greatest achievement but Our Hospitality is my personal favorite. There are many laughs and thrills, two elements found throughout Keaton’s silent comedies.
5) The Iron Horse (1924)
Logline: A boy grows up to realize his father’s dream of a transcontinental railroad.
Comments: John Ford, known for such classic westerns as The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), started his career in the years of silent cinema and The Iron Horse remains his best from that period. Racial stereotypes aside, The Iron Horse is unabashed entertainment with a winning performance from leading man George O’Brien.
6) Sherlock Jr. (1924)
Logline: A film projectionist who longs to be a detective puts his skills to the test when he is framed for stealing.
Comments: In a tight forty-five minutes, Sherlock Jr. shows Keaton at the top of his game. There is not a second wasted. The brilliant dream sequence is still an astounding achievement. While performing his dangerous stunts, Keaton would injure himself from time to time. In one scene in Sherlock Jr. for instance, Keaton pulls the draw rope of a large spout and water comes rushing out. The force of the water caused Keaton to hit his head on the train rail. It was not until years later that an X-ray revealed Keaton had a fractured neck as a result of that accident. The man was dedicated.
7) The Gold Rush (1925)
Logline: A lone prospector sets out for the Alaskan wild in search of gold.
Comments: The Gold Rush may be my personal favorite Chaplin film. At times, both hilarious and deeply touching, The Gold Rush shows Chaplin in top form. There are many unforgettable scenes including a sequence in which the two starving prospectors resort to eating a boiled boot for sustenance with the Tramp twirling the laces with his fork as if they are spaghetti. In another scene, the two prospectors realize that their shabby cabin is teetering on the edge of a cliff. Then, of course, there is the iconic dance of the dinner rolls. It is all so perfect. Chaplin re-released The Gold Rush in 1942, adding a musical score that he composed, replacing the inter-titles with his own narration, and making some slight editing choices that reduced the original running time by several minutes. Both versions are available and both are worth watching.
8) The General (1926)
Logline: During the Civil War, an engineer’s beloved locomotive is stolen by Union spies and he is forced to pursue them through enemy lines.
Comments: Often regarded as Buster Keaton’s greatest achievement, The General is both a technical marvel and a hilarious historical comedy. As is the case with many great films, The General was both a critical and commercial failure. Over time, its status has changed and it is now regarded as not only one of the greatest silent films but one of the greatest films of all time. Filmed in Cottage Grove, Oregon, the film includes Keaton’s usual amazing stunts and an impressive sequence in which a bridge collapses as a railroad train crosses it.
9) Sunrise (1927)
Logline: A married man living in the country is seduced by a woman from the city, who tries to convince him to drown his unsuspecting wife.
Comments: F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise is easily my favorite silent film. Murnau was one of the leading figures of German Expressionism and he was invited to make a film in Hollywood by William Fox himself. The result is Sunrise, a poetic masterpiece that was very innovative in its use of sound. The soundtrack includes recorded sound effects that often match what is happening onscreen. Titles are used very sparingly. Instead, the story is told through beautiful visual compositions and an incredibly mobile camera with tracking shots that remain impressive to this day. The film’s technical and visual artistry was recognized by moviegoers of the time. At the first Academy Awards in 1929, Sunrise won the award for “Unique and Artistic Picture” and Janet Gaynor became the first actress to receive an Academy Award for “Best Actress in a Leading Role.”
10) The Unknown (1927)
Logline: A criminal on the run hides in a circus as a knife thrower and hopes to marry a carnival girl.
Comments: Tod Browning’s The Unknown is one of the most twisted silent films I have ever seen. Browning, who would go on to direct Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932), collaborated with Lon Chaney, ‘the man of a thousand faces’ and the pair made several films together, with The Unknown being the most well-known and regarded of these features. This macabre tale features a young Joan Crawford as the scantily clad carnival girl. The film was missing for many years until a print was found in 1968. Chaney is brilliant to watch as usual and Crawford, not yet the movie queen diva she would become, is quite captivating.
11) The Circus (1928)
Logline: The Little Tramp finds work at a circus, where he meets the girl of his dreams.
Comments: The most overlooked of Charlie Chaplin’s silent feature films, The Circus is essential and hilarious. Its production was beset by problems, such as a studio fire that halted production and problems in Chaplin’s personal life, including the death of his mother and a divorce with his second wife Lita Grey. Despite its numerous production issues, The Circus was one of the highest grossest films of the silent era and remains one of Chaplin’s masterworks.
13) The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Logline: The young woman, who would be canonized a saint, is put on trial for heresy in fifteenth century France.
Comments: Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is a stunning masterwork. Anyone who says that silent film stars did not know how to act needs to see this revelation of a film. Renee Maria Falconetti delivers an unforgettable performance as the young maiden who died for God and France. With a radical emphasis on the actors’ facial features in close-up, The Passion of Joan of Arc has an unusual and unique visual design.
12) The Crowd (1928)
Logline: A young man and woman struggle to make ends meet in a large, sprawling metropolis.
Comments: King Vidor’s The Crowd is a poignant film about human struggle. F.W. Murnau’s style was a big influence on Vidor when he made The Crowd. The film includes stunning visual compositions. The Crowd is always timely and was released just as sound films arrived and forever changed the cinema. The sound technology imposed new limitations, meaning that the kind of mobile camera movements seen in The Crowd would hardly be seen for at least another decade.