Beginning Silent Films

09 May

Buster Keaton behind bars (except it’s really just a gate and not jail, as he initially leads you to believe)

I’m somewhat nervous about writing a beginner’s guide to silent films because I am still so new to silent films and because my own path to silent film fandom was somewhat unorthodox. I have not seen many great classic silent films. However, I do believe that silent films are far more accessible than is generally supposed. Last month I showed my thirteen year old cousin two Buster Keaton shorts and he loved them and wants to see more. Sometimes, I think the trick is simply finding the genre or actor that appeals to you, rather than trying to watch the ones that are considered the best or most definitive.

However, there are a few things to keep in mind regarding silent films and in this post I would like to outline a few thoughts, as well as make a few recommendations for some good films to start with.

Some Silent Film Thoughts

Silent films are watched in a slightly different way than talkies. My sister likes to knit, cross stitch or crochet while watching movies, but she has discovered that it is harder to do so with silent films. You can more easily get away with looking up and down with talkies because a significant amount of information is conveyed through the spoken word, but in silent films you have to be watching the entire time. Blink and you might miss something significant. If my mind ever wonders or I look away, I will sometimes realize that I lost the thread of the action. As I’ve quoted before, biographer Scott Eyman (he’s written some excellent biographies on Mary Pickford, Cecil B. DeMille, John Wayne, as well as some others) says that silent movies affect our minds differently, putting us in almost a hypnotic state.

One thing I had to learn was that intertitles do not actually take the place of dialogue. They are there mostly to convey information or context that we cannot otherwise infer, but the bulk of communication is done visually, through facial expressions, gestures, mime and context. In Eileen Whitfield’s biography of Mary Pickford, she argued that silent films are just as easily compared to ballet as talkie films.

The music is also extremely important in silent films. A good score can vastly improve one’s enjoyment of a film, even a mediocre film. There are a lot of silent films available on youtube, but with only a few exceptions, most of them have wildly inappropriate music or often no music at all. I’ve found the most success with companies like Kino and Milestone, which always release films that are in pretty good shape and have been given a new score. Robert Israel, Carl Davis, and Jon C. Mirsalis are three composers whose names pop up most often (at least in the films I’ve seen so far). Music varies from organ, solo piano to full orchestra. I must confess that organ – though traditional – is not my favorite. I once fell asleep to an organ accompaniment to Douglas Fairbanks’s The Three Musketeers. Sometimes, organ accompaniment can be all-too soothing.

John_Barrymore_Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde_Motion_Picture_Classic_1920Some Silent Film Suggestions

I must confess that this list of suggested silent films is largely reflective of my own tastes in films in general, because they are the films that I have so far sought out, though I am hoping to broaden myself.

D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Shorts – from 1908 to around 1913, D.W. Griffith worked at the Biograph Studios making short films, which means mostly one and two reel films. Kino released a wonderful collection called Biograph Shorts and they are a fascinating window into a time before feature films (which got going in America in 1914 with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Squaw Man). So many future stars are in evidence: Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Lionel Barrymore. It was particularly fascinating to see a young Lionel Barrymore playing roles ranging from romantic lead to scruffy gold prospector. Griffith’s shorts range all over the place: romances, social drama, thrillers, historical drama, adaptations of poems and literature. It is here that he practiced those techniques that he would later be famous for, like the close-up and the exciting cross cutting used to create tension and a sense of motion (most famously at the end of Birth of a Nation).

Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton – it’s hard to go wrong with silent comedy. Many critics consider silent films to be particularly suited to comedy with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd as the finest practitioners of the art. Charlie Chaplin was The Little Tramp, who also combined pathos and a social conscience (pathos being a word routinely applied to him) to his comedy. Buster Keaton was called The Great Stone Face because of his impassive expression no matter what mayhem was going on around him and he brought a highly acrobatic, daredevil and inventive wit to his comedy. Harold Lloyd, on the other hand, was the American every man who usually got into trouble while trying to win the girl or win respect. All their work is full of delights, but to begin I recommend Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, Buster Keaton’s The General and Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman or The Kid Brother.

Chang and The Lost World – if you are a fan of King Kong, then you can’t go wrong with Chang and The Lost WorldThe Lost World is an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World and features dinosaurs, created with stop motion animation by Willis O’Brien, the same man who would apply this technique to the creation of King Kong. Chang is more of a fictional documentary created by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack – creators, directors and producers of King Kong. They spent time in Siam (Thailand) where they constructed a drama, that feels more like a documentary, about a family living in the jungle and dealing with tigers, monkeys and an elephant stampede. The footage of the animals, especially the tigers and elephants, is thrilling and it does give a good sense of how people lived.

Douglas Fairbanks and Swashbucklers  – do you like Errol Flynn and swashbucklers (or Rafael Sabatini novels)? Than try Douglas Fairbanks (the original swashbuckler) and his The Mark of Zorro, a delightful, exciting and highly athletic romp of a costume adventure. Also fun are the adaptations of several Sabatini novels – Scaramouche (1923, with Ramon Novarro) and The Sea Hawk (1924, with Milton Sills). Both films are far closer to the novels than their later remakes with Errol Flynn and Stewart Granger. It’s not exactly a swashbuckler, but the 1925 Ben-Hur (also with Ramon Novarro) is also excellent and stands up just as well as the 1959 version (the chariot race is awe-inspiring).

Das-Cabinet-des-Dr-Caligari-posterGerman Expressionism – German cinema was extremely inventive during the silent era and the film that started it all was the 1920 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss. When I first saw it, I think the music put me off (it was highly discordant), but the Kino edition that I saw offered multiple scores and next time I am going to choose music that is less stressful to listen to. Other examples of German expressionism include most anything directed by Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, though one of his loveliest films is Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, a tender romance which he made while in Hollywood that also demonstrates how sophisticated silent movie was.

Lon Chaney – Lon Chaney was The Man With a Thousand Faces. He did The Phantom of the OperaThe Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Unknown (with a very young Joan Crawford), and the crime drama The Penalty. Unrequited love, crime, physical deformity, beauty, redemption, revenge, longing and goodness are often his themes.

Josef von Sternberg – before he made his films with Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg made some gorgeous silent films. My favorite is The Last Command, with Emil Janning and William Powell. It takes place both in Hollywood and Russia during the 1917 Revolution. It’s not terribly accurate regarding the revolution, but the emotional and visual beauty is stunning.

Another way to get into silent movies is to take some favorite actors from the talkies and look for them in silent films. Greta Garbo, John Barrymore (my favorite of his films are Beau Brummel and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Mary Astor, Ronald Colman, William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Joan Crawford all appeared in silent films. Directors such as Cecil B. DeMille, King Vidor, William Wellman, Tod Browning (of Dracula fame) and even Alfred Hitchcock made many excellent silent films.

Where to See Silent Films

Silent films are admittedly much hard to get hold of than talkies. Most of the ones that I have seen have come either from the library or Classicflix, which has a far better selection of silent films than Netflix. All the DVDs I have seen are also available from Amazon, though some are rather expensive.

There are even many silent films available on sites like youtube, though often the quality of the film is poor and the music is either missing or doesn’t match. There are, however, a few decent quality silent films to be found there.

Buster Keaton’s silent short: “The Scarecrow”.

MV5BMTY3MTkyMTc0MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTI5MDgwMjE@._V1_UY1200_CR122,0,630,1200_AL_A gothic thriller (influenced by German Expressionism) with strong echos of Charles Dicken’s Nicholas NickelbySparrows is one of Mary Pickford’s best films. Along with Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, she was one of the biggest stars of the silent era.

Clara Bow personified the flapper in the late 1920s and her most famous film was It. This copy on youtube has a score by Carl Davis.

Lilian Gish and her sister, Dorothy Gish, made their debut in D.W. Griffith’s 1912 short “An Unseen Enemy.” The video quality is a little shaky, but the music is not bad.

In Grandma’s Boy, Harold Lloyd is a coward whose grandmother shows him that he has courage and can win the girl and defeat the murderous tramp who is terrorizing the community.



Posted by on May 9, 2016 in Movies


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16 responses to “Beginning Silent Films

  1. The Animation Commendation

    May 9, 2016 at 2:48 pm

    Nice guide!

    I’ve seen a few silent films. My favorite so far is Sunrise.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      May 9, 2016 at 4:24 pm

      Thanks! It is such a beautiful film, isn’t it? When I first saw it I was astonished at how sophisticated silent movie making could be.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. stephencwinter

    May 11, 2016 at 12:25 am

    Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts. I appreciate them very much. I was particularly intrigued by the thought that watching a silent movie can be a hypnotic experience. I found myself wanting to experience it!
    Silent Movies united their audience in a way that talkies can never do although I think the current crop of action movies designed for adolescent boys and their older equivalents are a kind of silent movie with a huge reliance on special effects and little on character or dialogue. I suspect that I would enjoy the swashbuckling adventures you mention far more. I must think ab why that would be.
    I have a family member on my mother’s side who is profoundly deaf. I remember staying with his family when he was a little boy. He used to love to watch Laurel and Hardy movies. Even the talkies were full of the physical comedy of the silents. He would laugh delightedly as he watched them and could share the experience with his hearing sister.
    I look forward to exploring some of the titles that you recommend. And once again, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      May 11, 2016 at 9:07 am

      You’re welcome! It was a pleasure to write and share.

      That is a fascinating idea that modern action movies are the equivalent of silent films! That makes a lot of sense. Someone was telling me that George Lucas said that he consciously tried to make the Star Wars prequels like silent films, which has made me very curious to watch them with the sound off and the soundtracks playing.

      There is something special about how silent films seem to bypass language and speak to us on a universal level. I was reading about Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks and how, every time they traveled the world, no matter what country they visited, people came by the thousands to see them, who loved them and their films.

      Liked by 1 person

      • stephencwinter

        May 11, 2016 at 12:19 pm

        And the same was true for Charles Chaplin who was thought to be the best known person on the planet at one time.

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          May 11, 2016 at 12:38 pm

          Yes, so true! Even now, it seems like he’s the ultimate iconic figure of the silent era.

          Liked by 1 person

          • stephencwinter

            May 12, 2016 at 12:11 am

            Around here it is believed that he was born in a gypsy camp in Smethwick, Birmingham. This story was retold in the first series of Peaky Blinders, a BBC drama series about a gangster family in Birmingham set in the 1920s when the adult Chaplin comes to Birmingham. But everything about Chaplin is legendary. I think he liked to maintain an air of mystery.
            I watched IT, yesterday, as my first silent movie. I expected to find it difficult to maintain attention through a 75 minute story but I found it charming. And there was a Carl Davis score again which worked perfectly. I noted he was commissioned by Thames Television to compose it, an independent TV company in the UK that no longer exists.

            Liked by 1 person

            • christinawehner

              May 12, 2016 at 11:33 am

              I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Carl Davis’ score does help tremendously. That is too bad the TV company no longer exists, but I am happy that they helped commission the score! Ironically, the DVD release of IT that contains Davis’ score is super expensive and rare and another DVD release, with a different, lesser score, is the one that is more easily available, so I was excited to find it on youtube.

              That is fascinating about Chaplin! He is someone I actually don’t know as much about, yet, though I’ve been meaning to find a good biography on him.

              Liked by 1 person

              • stephencwinter

                May 12, 2016 at 11:39 am

                What struck me was how modern in felt or maybe how modern Clara Bow was. She was both feisty and innocent. But was she a gold digger?
                It is probably largely fiction but Chaplin’s autobiography is a fascinating read.

                Liked by 1 person

                • christinawehner

                  May 12, 2016 at 12:44 pm

                  Yes, it’s surprising how many silent films feel even more modern that talkies from a later period. Is it the actors…or the way they filmed movies?

                  I might have to check out his autobiography at some point, then. Thanks!


  3. Silver Screenings

    May 12, 2016 at 11:10 am

    This is a terrific guide! Thanks for the link to Classicflix – it looks like a fab resource.

    You made an excellent point re: starting with films that appeal to you, and not feeling obligated to see all the “important” ones first. It was interesting to see that your young cousin enjoyed the Buster Keaton shorts so much… But then again, what’s not to love about Buster?

    It sounds like you’re developing a real passion for silent film, and it’s exciting to see. I already learn a lot from your blog, and I know I’ll learn even more about silents from you. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      May 12, 2016 at 12:25 pm

      Thank you! A great deal of credit goes to Movies Silently, whose blog really inspired my interest.

      True…I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who didn’t like Keaton. He seems so modern…and my cousin was particularly impressed that he did his own stunts. I’m actually going to be teaching a class on classic movies to a homeschooling co-op in the fall and I’m compiling a list of the best movies to show. I think those shorts definitely just made the list!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Silver Screenings

        May 12, 2016 at 12:32 pm

        Teaching a class like that sounds terrific! I bet it’ll be your students’ favourite class.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Eric Binford

    May 17, 2016 at 4:46 pm

    Great post! Love Fairbanks, Gish, Chaney and Keaton.

    My Top Ten:

    Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927, F.W. Murnau)
    The Unknown (1927, Tod Browning)
    Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang)
    The Gold Rush (1925, Charles Chaplin)
    The Last Laugh (1924, F.W. Murnau)
    The Crowd (1928, King Vidor)
    Sherlock Jr. (1924, Buster Keaton)
    The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927, Alfred Hitchcock)
    The Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
    The Golem (1920, Carl Boese, Paul Wegener)

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      May 17, 2016 at 8:22 pm

      Thanks for sharing your top ten! There are so many on that list that I want to see: The Lodger, The Golem, The Last Laugh, The Gold Rush. I’m not as familiar with The Crowd, for some reason.

      Liked by 1 person


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