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.
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 World. The 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).
German 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 Opera, The 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”.
A gothic thriller (influenced by German Expressionism) with strong echos of Charles Dicken’s Nicholas Nickelby, Sparrows 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.