About Silent Movies: Begging, Bribing and Blackmail

All right, you like silent movies. In fact, you love silent movies. The problem is that your movie nights are, to put it nicely, a rather solitary affair. Let’s face it, we’re in the minority.

Like any enthusiast, you’re ready to make converts. You may be able to persuade your friends and family to try one silent film, maybe two, but careful selection is in order. Bribery in the form of baked goods also helps.

As I mentioned in the previous article, many modern filmgoers take their views of silent movies from Singin’ in the RainSunset Boulevard and The Three Amigos. While the first two are confirmed masterpieces and the third is goofy fun, all three films (and movies set in the ‘twenties in general) give an unrealistic view of the silent movie: That they were corny at best, populated by lunatics at worst, jerky movements, men in lipstick, actors with weird voices, melodrama in a bobbed haircut.

The best gift that you can give your would-be convert is a silent movie that breaks that mold. Admittedly, some silent movies live up to the bad reputation. Fortunately, there are dozens of selections that are fresh, clever, and artistic.

I have gathered a selection of my pet films. These films are ones that have appealed to non-fans of silent cinema. Apologies in advance for missing anyone’s favorites.

The Comedies

Comedies are where silent movies shine. Even when silent dramas were being maligned, Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd had respect. For the most unwilling viewers, comedies, especially one or two reelers, are the way to go.

Crazy Like a Fox (1926)

For my money, Charley Chase is the funniest man of the silent era and Crazy Like a Fox is his funniest movie. Charley is a rich fellow whose father intends him to marry a woman he has never met. Charley meets the woman of his dreams on the way to see his fiancée and he immediately hatches a plan to free himself of his unwanted intended: He will play crazy.

He does his work too well. You see, his unwanted fiancée and his dream girl are one and the same. Be careful with this one, though, because it is not entirely politically correct.

City Lights (1931)

Chaplin is still the most recognized silent performer, though his reputation has suffered lately. “Keaton was better!”, etc. The fan rivalry seems a bit silly (can’t a person like them both?). Anyway, City Lights displays Chaplin’s artistry for all to see. A skillful blending of pathos, comedy, able direction and clever title writing make City Lights an accessible film.

Of course, I’m biased. City Lights was the movie that made me gaga over the silent era.

Go West (1925)

I know, I know, The General is Keaton’s masterpiece. But I have a soft spot in my heart for Go West. Keaton is a tenderfoot who finds himself on a cattle ranch. His only friend is a Jersey cow named Brown Eyes. That’s basically it. Maybe I just like cows.

Go West is a simple film and an unusually sweet one for the stone-faced Keaton. There is a cattle stampede and a train holdup in the third act but it is not nearly as kinetic. There’s cute chemistry between Keaton and Brown Eyes (!) and I have had good success showing it to animal lovers.

My Best Girl (1927)

Mary Pickford remains one of the great talents of her era but some modern viewers are perturbed by her child parts. In this film, Mary plays an adult woman but sacrifices none of the innocent charm that made her America’s Sweetheart. Mary is a shop girl who unwittingly falls for the boss’s son.

This is a romantic comedy so you probably have an idea of where this is going but it doesn’t make the journey any less enjoyable. This is one of my most successful choices for first-timers.

I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918)

If your friends are more adventurous, or if you want to prove just how liberal silent films were, I Don’t Want To Be a Man is an innocently naughty way to make your point. Originally titled Ich möchte kein Mann sein and directed by the incomparable Ernst Lubitsch, it tells the story of a mischievous girl who decides to change her sex for the night.

Dressed as a man, she learns the advantages and the disadvantages of her new gender: cigars (gross), women (complicated), champagne (oh, the headache!), and the art of flirtation (but with who?). And which restroom is she supposed to use anyway?

You can enjoy a clip from this film by following this link.

Adventure and Horror

Adventure and horror films are ideal choices for guys and groups. Silent adventure films are all the more impressive if you point out that there was no rear projection for most of the era. Someone was really performing the stunts. And some of them still make you say “ouch!”

The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Douglas Fairbanks was the screen’s first Zorro and he’s still my favorite. This is the film that transformed Fairbanks from a stunt-prone All-American Boy into a stunt-prone swashbuckler. It features a snappy pace and is generally more fun than his later, more elaborate films. All of Doug’s grace and athleticism are on display. For anyone who doesn’t already know, Zorro is a Robin Hood figure of old California. Robbing from the rich, etc. etc. , while romancing the lovely Lolita (back when the name could be given to an adult woman).

The Eagle (1925)

Even today, Rudolph Valentino is generally viewed as a film idol for women. Star of lusty romances and such. The Eagle is a refreshing surprise. Valentino steals a page from Fairbanks’s playbook and portrays a Russian Robin Hood, code named you-know-what.

This film played very well to the men I have shown it to. It has adventure, stunts and the very lovely Vilma Banky. What’s not to love? Plus, it has the playful quality that Valentino’s last films used so effectively.

The Penalty (1920)

This movie is sick. I mean really sick. And Lon Chaney could pull off sick like no movie star before or since. It’s the tale of a legless criminal mastermind who dreams of revenge and a smashing new pair of gams. Along the way, he seduces a policewoman, poses as Satan for a statue, and plots the takeover of San Francisco by a band of anarchists.

It doesn’t get much better than this! This is the perfect film to eliminate any thoughts that silent films were staid and full of Victorian clichés.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

I’m sure not alone in my belief that too many films hailed as art do not deserve their reputations. Caligari is one that actually lives up to its high standing. The skewed set design, contorted movements and wonderfully stylized acting all create a world that transcends time.

The plot involves a series of murders. The narrator begins to suspect Dr. Caligari, who runs a concession at the carnival, and his sleepwalking assistant, Cesare. But nothing is what it seems. There is an excellent surprise ending, somewhat spoiled by the number of subsequent films that borrowed it. Still, Caligari can shock and delight. For more adventurous viewers. Oh, and do check out the cute Portlandia Caligari sketch.

The Dramas

This is probably the most difficult genre to sell modern viewers on. Images of over-the-top acting, melodramatic situations, and florid intertitles fill the heads of many a movie buff when silent drama is brought up. However, any fan of the silent screen can tell you that a well-done silent drama is one of the great pleasures of cinema. Here are a few choices:

The Wind (1928)

Lillian Gish was one of the most accomplished actresses in silent cinema. Her distinguished 75 year career in motion pictures boasted many successes and The Wind is definitely a highlight. Combining the talents of Swedish director Victor Seastrom and Swedish leading man Lars Hanson with her own artistic sensibilities, Gish creates a stark psychological drama.

She plays a delicate Southern girl who moves into the desert of Texas and is slowly driven mad by the harsh land, harsh people and, most of all, the harsh wind. Hanson plays the rancher who tries to save her but his rough ways only make matters worse. The climax is hailed as one of the richest examples of the silent cinema style.

Sunrise (1927)

Another successful combination of European direction and American movie stars, Sunrise is the story of love and retribution. An unfaithful husband attempts to murder his wife. When he is unable to go through with the crime, she flees to the city. He is filled with remorse and follows to try to win back her love. Sunrise was designed to be a prestige picture and director F.W. Murnau was given a blank check by Fox studios. The result is a gorgeous bit of cinema.

The almost ethereal quality of the direction is balanced by the charismatic performances of Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien. Sunrise won an Oscar for Best “Unique and Artistic Production” at the very first Academy Awards ceremony. This was also one of the roles that allowed Gaynor to scoop up the first Best Actress prize.

The Cheat (1915)

Another decidedly un-politically correct film, The Cheat is also one rip-roaring jewel of a melodrama. It features interracial affairs, blackmail and a branding iron. Cecil B. DeMille, before he developed a taste for bloated epics, helmed this lean picture. Another great choice for proving that silent drama was anything but boring.

As I said before, this list is by no means exhaustive. Just a few selections that I have had success with. Enjoy!