Beginner’s Guide To Silent Films

By @BJ_Boo
Beginner’s Guide To Silent Films

In the spirit of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival taking place this weekend, I thought I’d compile a list of titles that I believe are great gateways for those unacquainted with the wonderful world of silent film. The silent era is a glaring blind spot for many a cinephile (me included, up until just a few years ago), which is truly a shame. A lot of the greatest films of all time were created before sound was introduced (some of which are listed here), and approaching contemporary movies with a measure of knowledge about where their ideas and techniques came from enhances the experience tenfold.

These films aren’t necessarily the greatest of the silent era and perhaps not even the most influential. There are TONS of great silents to fall in love with. These selections are simply good spots in the giant pool of silent films for newcomers to dip their toes in. For those that think silent films are boring or dated, you’ll quickly see just how fun and entertaining these films are, even by today’s standards. If you or a friend or a group of friends have been reluctant to give silent films a try or never had the desire to, I encourage you to give one or more of these films a try. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The absolute best way to see a silent film is to see it at a theater with live music accompaniment, but that unfortunately isn’t an opportunity available to most of us. That’s what makes festivals like SFSFF so special. If you’re in the Bay Area, don’t miss the show! Check out our interview with Anita Monga, the festival’s artistic director.

City Lights (1931)—Charlie Chaplin

City Lights silent film

Of all the great characters in silent cinema, none are more iconic, touching, likable, or inviting to newcomers than Chaplin’s Tramp. City Lights is arguably the best representation of Chaplin’s style, a masterpiece of slapstick, immaculate staging, “Aw shucks” giddy romance, and graceful physical expression. It’s one of the most enchanting romances of the silent era, with the Tramp’s amorous gaze set on someone who can’t return it—a spunky blind girl played by the wonderful Virginia Cherrill. The Tramp also makes friends with an alcoholic millionaire (Harry Myers), with their unlikely bromance providing some of the funniest scenes in any Chaplin film. Interestingly enough, City Lights was made three years in to the talkie era. The decision to keep the dialogue muted was a masterstroke. Chaplin knew the Tramp didn’t need sound to express himself. Once you bear witness to Chaplin’s grace, physical prowess, and effortless storytelling, it’s hard not to give in to the film, turn off your iPhone, get cozy, and do exactly what Chaplin wanted us all to do—smile a big smile.

For Fans of: Johnny Depp, Disneyland, pratfalls, cartoons, having a wholesome good time

Watch City Lights clip:

City Lights is available on Hulu Plus

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)—F.W. Murnau

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans silent film

If you see only one film on this list, make it this one. F.W. Murnau’s salty/sweet romance masterpiece stirs every bit of me each time I watch it. It’s about a man and woman whose marriage has hit rock bottom (that’s a huge understatement) and how they climb their way out of the depths of resentment to rediscover the love they’d lost. Sunrise can be buoyant, terrifying, spiritual, tragic, haunting, and joyous, often all at once. There’s so much emotion wrapped up in every gorgeous frame that it can be overwhelming, but in the best way possible. Murnau, the greatest German expressionist of the era, seemingly defies the laws of space and gravity with his camera, which glides impossibly over seemingly obstructed terrain. The film runs on the power of the dreamlike imagery, and though the plot may seem basic, its simplicity is necessary to convey the story’s enormous emotion. Sunrise changed the way I watch movies, and I hope it will for you as well.

For Fans of: Terrence Malick, Blue Valentine, fancy camerawork, Martin Scorsese, fucked up romance

Watch Sunrise clip:

A Trip to the Moon (1902)—Georges Melies

A Trip to the Moon silent film

Made virtually the minute cinema exited the womb, Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon captured the minds and imaginations of everyone who saw it at the time. Some will say it’s a special effects movie that looks like a 1st grader’s slapped together diorama compared to today’s computer vomited visual wonders. To them I’d contest that A Trip to the Moon is a supremely impressive work of art considering it’s OVER 110 FREAKING YEARS OLD! What makes it required viewing for every film buff is that it acts as a beacon for us to assess just how far we’ve come in terms of technology. It’s a lot of fun to imagine how awestruck audiences must have been in 1902 to see the group of astronauts visit that distant light in the night sky, but what resonates most about the film today is the spirit of Melies’ boundless imagination. The band Air provides the (fantastic) soundtrack for the restored hand-colored version of the film above.

For Fans of: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, mushrooms, astronomy, video games

Watch A Trip to the Moon clip:

The General (1926)—Buster Keaton

The General silent film

Though I personally slightly prefer the zanily whimsical Sherlock Jr., The General is inarguably the paramount accomplishment of Buster Keaton’s career. A speedy adventure brimming with spectacle, it follows “The Great Stone Face” (a name given to Keaton referring to his perpetually deadpan countenance) as he single-handedly takes on an army while aboard the titular train, all for the sake of love. The stunts concocted here are breathtaking enough to captivate any moviegoer, with Keaton tumbling and daredevil-ing all over the locomotive like an acrobatic madman. The  creativity and inventiveness of the film is only rivaled by Chaplin, but Keaton’s work is less saccharine and jibes better with today’s dry, unsentimental brand of humor. My wife usually resigns to the bedroom when I start watching my “classic movies”, but she always seems to linger when I throw old Buster on.

For Fans of: Mel Brooks, Jackie Chan, Rube Goldberg machines, dry humor

Watch The General:

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)—Carl Dreyer

The Passion of Joan of Arc silent film

Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is said to contain the single greatest performance by an actor ever captured on camera, by an enigmatic woman known simply as “Falconetti” (in her only acting role.) Sound like hyperbole? Watch the film. Even if you don’t agree, you’ll have at least seen a wonderful film by one of the most visually powerful directors to ever live (if you’ve never heard of him, do yourself a huge favor and study up.) There’s something unsettling and a bit otherworldly about Joan of Arc, as if it exists outside time and space. It’s like an out of body experience, transporting you somewhere cold, dark, and unfamiliar. Falconetti’s full-screen face is so riveting and tangible it’ll make you shudder, perhaps even weep. Even the greatest actors of today can’t hold a candle.

For Fans of: Amazing freaking acting

Watch The Passion of Joan of Arc clip:

The Passion of Joan of Arc is available on Hulu Plus

The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari (1920)—Robert Wiene

The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari silent film

German expressionist Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari may be the first horror film ever made, and if so, it sure set the bar high. Visually, the film’s angular, twisted black and white style can be felt in countless modern films, in the works of Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro, the animated films of Henry Selick, and countless horror flicks. The film’s visual style even helped birth film noir. What’s remarkable is that despite its age, Dr. Calgari stands head and shoulders above most of its descendants. The plot—a macabre murder mystery set in a small German town—isn’t particularly innovative, but it’s the film’s striking, dreamlike imagery that makes it so enduring. Several remakes, books, and even an opera have stemmed from the original film, and with good reason–Wiene was a trailblazer who created a timeless classic.

For Fans of: Tim Burton, set design, Darren Aronofsky, horror movies, punk rock, twist endings

Watch The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari:

Honorable Mentions

Metropolis (1927)—Fritz Lang

The Birth of a Nation (1915)—D.W. Griffith

Sherlock Jr. (1924)—Buster Keaton

Battleship Potemkin (1925)—Sergei M. Eisenstein

Nosferatu (1922)—F.W. Murnau

What was the first silent film that you fell in love with? Let us know in the comments!

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  • Audrey

    I think you should have included a Garbo silent . They were so enchanting and luminous.

  • Peggy Gordon

    Lon Chaney “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was what started it for me 🙂