About Silent Movies #3: My first 5 silent movies

So, what kind of silent movie fan are you? In my experience, they usually come in three varieties:

The Native Speakers:

Fortunate folks whose friends or family were lovers of the silent cinema and who introduced it to them when they were young. And, of course, the viewers who remember silent cinema from the first go-round.

The Accidental Fans:

These fans did not plan to love silent films but they stumbled into them. Maybe in an art class, maybe on TCM, maybe they just walked into the wrong theater. But they liked what they saw.

The Planners:

Finally, the people who decided that they would try silent movies and ended up loving them.

I am in the third category. I was raised on classic films of the 30’s and 40’s. When the other kids were watching Jem and Rainbow Brite (boy, am I dating myself), I was enjoying the films of Myrna Loy, Cary Grant, Errol Flynn and Katherine Hepburn. You think I’m kidding? No, sir! With the exception of Star Wars and Star Trek, I pretty much exclusively watched Golden Age American films for the first 10 years of my life. I branched out a bit as I got older but the 30’s and 40’s films remained my native cinema.

It was during this branching out period that I realized my knowledge of film pretty much started at 1930. I knew about silent movies but other than a few documentaries and some still photos in library books I had no first-hand knowledge. I set out to fix that. These were the days of VHS and the internet was only just starting to hit the mainstream. So I had to rely on my local video rental shop. And what an esoteric collection it turned out to be.

Here they are, my first 5 silent movies.

1. Sparrows (1926)

This was the very first silent movie I ever saw. Mary Pickford’s gothic swamp tale. I very sorry to say this (I am now a Pickford fan) but I did not like it. Not one bit. I had a hard time acclimating to the intertitles, I found the swampy setting oppressive, the lack of speech was strange…

I think a lot of people probably had a similar experience during their first silent film. What I did not take into account was that silent movies are not just sound movies with no talking. They are a totally different art form and they take some getting used to.

In spite of disliking Sparrows, there was something that made me want to give silent movies another try. Onward!

2. City Lights (1931)

Charlie Chaplin’s labor of love. This film was made when talkies were all the rage and silent films were considered creaking relics. This is also the movie that made me love silent cinema. Chaplin’s patented combination of humor and pathos remains as potent as ever. The clever intertitles, the great music…

Now this was a reason to keep going!

What icon would I take a look at next?

3. The Sheik (1921)

Rudolph Valentino is probably the first star that pops into people’s minds when silent films are brought up. I had to see what he was like on screen. And what better place to start than his signature role? Those of you who have seen the film or read my review know where this is going:

Me: That was awful!

Friend: Terrible!

Me: Want to watch it again?

Friend: Okay.

It’s a dreadful film and I thoroughly enjoyed it. More kitsch, please!

4. The Birth of a Nation (1915)

I was warned. I really was. I knew this movie was controversial but it is also the most famous silent film of all. How bad could it be? Famous last words.

My approximate thoughts while viewing:

“Hmm, nice scenery, nice costumes. You know, I keep hearing how racist this movie is. It seems a little racist but not all that– Oh, that was really racist. And that. And… What– The hero is forming the KKK? The hero is forming the KKK???!!!! What??!! I hate this movie, I hate it, I hate it!”

I finished it. Mainly because I kept hoping it would get better. It did not.

I am so glad that this was not my first silent film. I doubt I would have seen any more.

5. Carmen (1915)

I had to get the ick from Birth of a Nation out of my system. The silent Carmen is sometimes used as a punchline in film trivia books. “A silent opera?” they hoot. Yeah, well Carmen was a novella before it was an opera, smartypants.

Under the able direction of the then-young and nimble Cecil B. DeMille, Carmen shines as a great example of 1910’s movie-making I loved Geraldine Farrar and Wallace Reid, both of whom became two of my favorite silent actors. You can read my review here.

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More treasures awaited. But these were the 5 silent movies that started my on my journey and they helped me know what my taste was. I liked crowd-pleasers, kitsch, pathos and a good dose of melodrama. I was not so crazy about the critical darlings and it took me ages to warm up to any Griffith films. One thing was for sure though: silent movies had become my thing.

Oh, and I mean to give Sparrows another try now that I am properly acclimated. It’s been quite a few years. I hope to be pleasantly surprised.