By Spencer. If you’re anything like my friends, you saw 2011’s The Artist—the first silent movie to win the Best Picture Oscar since 1927—and were unimpressed. Obviously, a huge part of its win was the novelty and bravery of making a silent movie in modern times. But while critics raved, audiences yawned (if they went at all).
Even some classic film buffs have a hard time getting enthusiastic about the silent era. Yes, the pacing is much slower than we’re accustomed; the lack of dialogue requires overacting that comes off as unrealistic at best and shamelessly hokey at worst; and dammit, does there have to be so much reading? But if you’re willing to approach them with the right attitude, there are a handful of movies from the silent era that can actually be—gasp!—fun. You can’t just view these as movies; they’re pieces of living history. And best of all, since most of them are in the public domain by now, you can usually watch them for free in their entirety online! So if you’re feeling open-minded and you’re looking for a place to start, here’s your guide to silent movies that don’t suck.
The Kid (1921): You can’t go wrong with Charlie Chaplin. And The Kid is maybe the perfect illustration of why he was so beloved in his day. Even if you’ve never seen a Chaplin film, you know his “Tramp” character: bowler hat, box mustache, baggy pants and cane, with that awkward penguin shuffle and bashful smile that made him the very first superstar. In The Kid—the first of Chaplin’s feature-length comedies—the Tramp finds a baby on his doorstep and adopts him. As the baby becomes a toddler, Chaplin naturally finds ways of making him useful (most hilariously, by having him roam the neighborhood breaking windows, just as the Tramp walks by selling glass). Chaplin starred, wrote, directed, and composed the score, and it’s a hilarious (even today) and heartwarming movie—especially in the famous scene when protective services tries to take away the child and Chaplin desperately chases him down rather than give him up. If you like The Kid, don’t stop there; The Gold Rush, City Lights, and Modern Times are just as good. The latter two were actually made in the sound era, but Chaplin bravely continued to advance the silent artform for another decade before switching to talkies himself with The Great Dictator—his final masterpiece.
The General (1926): The only man who could remotely rival Charlie Chaplin for comedy stardom in the 1920s was Buster Keaton, and The General was groundbreaking both for its comedy and its directorial innovation. Keaton was best known for his stone-faced expression in the midst of so much comic chaos, but he was equally skilled as a filmmaker. The General tells the story of a Civil War train conductor trying to rescue his girl from behind enemy lines. As the two escape in a manic locomotive chase full of miscues and pitfalls, the sight gags come a mile a minute.
And the final train crash scene, filmed with a real locomotive in a single take (because that was Keaton’s only chance) is a milestone in movie action—not to mention the single most expensive scene in the history of silent cinema.
Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans (1927): Moving away from comedy, no list of great silent movies would be complete without Sunrise—not just one of the great silent films, but one of the most beautifully photographed movies ever made. German expressionist director F.W. Murnau (already famous for another film on this list, 1922’s Nosferatu) came to Hollywood to film this story of a husband and wife trying to patch up their marriage after his mistress pressures him to kill her. So they leave “the country” and spend a day in “the city,” an unnamed magical place of lights and jazz music and excitement that seems to exist as an escapist utopia, a place to put all their dreams for a better life. They find a new spark of happiness there, but is it too late? The story, though it’s surprisingly suspenseful, isn’t the real draw here: it’s the innovative directing of Murnau, who experiments with double exposure to rip his characters out of their reality and into their fantasies, as you see in the scene below.
Note the way even the dialogue cards break the rules, words moving about and distorting with the chaotic fantasy of the city imagery. And for a “silent” movie, Murnau makes creative use of recorded sound; the city is a noisy place of drums and shouting and wild music. The portrayal of the mistress, a flapper exuding jazz and sex, is surprisingly racy for its time (at one point, she’s shown unapologetically in her underwear). And then there’s the innovative tracking shots that give the viewer a first person perspective as the train from the countryside first ventures into the wonderland of the city, like the entrance to Oz or Shangri-La. It’s a beautiful film, so modern in its imagery and so daring in its scope.
The Lodger: A Story Of The London Fog (1927): I’ll sell you this movie in two words: Alfred Hitchcock. Decades before Psycho and Vertigo, Hitchcock got his start as a silent movie director, and he credited The Lodger as the first real Hitchcock film. Set at the turn of the century, a Jack The Ripper-style serial killer plagues London, and a family boarding house starts to suspect that their creepy new lodger might be the man. Here’s a scene that might remind you of another famous Hitchcock film from thirty years later:
The brooding atmosphere is almost choking and Hitchcock keeps you guessing right up to the very end, earning for the first time his nickname, “the Master of Suspense.”
Wings (1927): The very first Best Picture winner (though some would argue it deserves to share that honor with Sunrise, which won the now-defunct “Unique and Artistic Production” category that year), Wings is a romantic World War I epic about two aviators in love with the same girl back home. Meanwhile, the overlooked neighbor girl (played by Clara Bow, then one of Hollywood’s biggest stars) comes to France as an ambulance driver to win the heart of her best friend. Like most films of its day, Wings veers into sap. But the cinematography is stunning and larger than life. And Bow’s infectious performance creates the archetype of the “girl next door.”
Nosferatu (1922): The original vampire movie, Nosferatu is still iconic—and still creepy as hell. F.W. Murnau wanted to make a movie version of Dracula, but when he couldn’t acquire the rights from the Stoker estate, he just changed the vampire’s name to Count Orlok and started filming. Forget all your stereotypes of a well-dressed count in a cape with slicked back hair; Nosferatu‘s vampire is grotesque and offensive, with goblin-like features and long claws for fingers. A pioneer in special effects, Nosferatu lays on the spooky imagery as its vampire seems to levitate out of its coffin and glide around the shadows in otherworldly fashion.
The Phantom Of The Opera (1925): Also from the horror category, don’t miss Lon Chaney, Sr.’s portrayal of Phantom: a movie that will make you forget all about the sugary Broadway musical. This one’s dark and twisted, and while the Phantom is still in love with Christine Daae, he doesn’t take so kindly to rejection this time around. Chaney was an innovator of movie makeup, and the scene where Christine removes the Phantom’s mask was one of the first great movie shocks. Audiences actually fainted with fright.
The film also features one of the first extended color sequences in movie history.
Metropolis (1927): We talked about Metropolis at length during S&N’s World Cup Of Cinema, but it’s worth mentioning again, because of all the films on this list, it’s the most ahead-of-its-time. The sci-fi storyline, the special effects, the very world it creates, seem both classic and futuristic in the same shot. Its imagery is unforgettable. Its fantasy still resonates. Metropolis is required watching for any fan of movie history.
The Artist (2011): And then there’s The Artist—a movie reflexively avoided by too many and dismissed as a gimmick by too many others. That’s a damn shame, because it’s one of the more lighthearted and enjoyable Best Picture winners of the past decade (a time when Oscar only seems to reward heavy-handed, depressing, “issue” films). If you’ve seen Singin’ In The Rain, the plot is fairly similar: a silent film star struggles to adapt to the world of talkies. Its most famous scene is a dream sequence in which random noises intrude on the silence. But the final scene, in which Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo dance their way into the sound era with a lavish number lifted right out of those stunning 1930s Busby Berkeley musicals, is the perfect transition into our next installment of Movies That Don’t Suck—which will be devoted to the classic era of the Hollywood musical.
This is the first edition of a longer-term project on S&N devoted to finding the standout films within genres you might not otherwise enjoy. So check back over the next few months for musicals, westerns, horror flicks, and even a few romantic comedies that don’t suck.
For additional clips from these movies and a lot more, visit S&N’s YouTube Channel.