About Silent Movies #8: How to get started watching silent movies

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One thing that I learned from writing this blog is that a lot of people want to get into silent movies but have not been able to for various reasons. Some don’t know where to begin. Some are intimidated by how different silents are from sound films. Some had a bad experience in Film 101 and are understandably wary.

Of course, plenty of folks get into silent films with no trouble at all but I thought it would be fun to write an encouraging post to help the viewers who may need a few tips or recommendations to get started.

Tip #1: Remember that silent films were made for viewers just like you

Popular entertainment was, of course, made for the everyman. However, as time marches on, references become obscure, language shifts, tastes change. As a result, yesteryear’s pop culture is often claimed by today’s academia. Now I have no problem with scholarly work on the silent era, it’s wonderful stuff. But viewers should never lose sight of the fact that these films were meant for the masses. As such, they deal with basic human emotions like love, hate, greed, sorrow and joy.

True, a new viewer to older films may not get every single pop culture reference thrown their way but the basic humanity in silent films means that they are quite accessible to modern audiences. You don’t need to have a degree in film studies to enjoy them.

Tip #2: If at first you don’t succeed…

I have a confession: I didn’t like the first silent movie I saw. I don’t think I’m alone in this. You know what, though? It’s all right not to like a silent film. We modern viewers tend to lump silent movies into one genre but they were extremely varied in content and tone. Romance, comedy, horror, action… It’s all there. Plus, what we call the silent era lasted from 1895 (when the first motion picture was projected before a paying audience) to 1929 (when the last of the silent titles were released by major American studios). That’s 34 years of movies! So if you don’t like a silent movie, try one in a different genre or from a different decade.

Tip #3: Try to watch the highest quality version available

Many silent films are out of copyright, which means they are in the public domain. The downside of this is that there are some very low quality silent movie releases out there. (I wrote a whole article on finding the best available version) If you want to try silent movies for the first time, higher quality versions will give you a much better experience.

Tip #4: You like what you like, don’t let anyone tell you different!

Some silent fans, in their enthusiasm for their favorite star, can sometimes make newcomers doubt their own taste. How do they do this? By suggesting that a particular star or film or director is just not worth the time of a real silent film fan.

Meow! And, while we are at it, la-dee-da!

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(If you have never run into this, just know that it exists.)

Am I saying that it is wrong to have a negative opinion about a performer or film? Of course not! My regular readers know that I can savage a turkey with the best of them and that there are certain performers I just cannot bring myself to appreciate. What I object to is attempting to make devotees of a particular artist feel like an inferior sort of silent fan. Not cool.

Plus, the rudeness often backfires. Take the great Chaplin vs. Keaton debate. I like Buster Keaton very much but after a run-in with some particularly venomous Chaplin bashers, it took me a few months to see Keaton films again. I just wasn’t in the mood.

(The Chaplin vs. Keaton thing is probably the most common battleground but the European Art vs. Hollywood Crowdpleaser can also be  minefield and there is always the Latin Lover/Great Lover/My Swarthy Heartthrob is Better than Your Swarthy Heartthrob thing.)

Again, nothing wrong with healthy debate and differing opinions make things fun. However, there is no Grand Poobah of the Silents who decides which films and actors must be loved by “real” fans, which is the impression that comes across sometimes.

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My vision for Grand Poobah of the Silents

Popularity is not some kind of limited resource. Love for one actor or film does not mean that there is less love available for another.

If you like Keaton better than Chaplin, fine. If you like Chaplin better than Keaton, fine. If you don’t care for either one and prefer Mabel Normand, fine. If you love them all, fantastic! Enjoy the movies that appeal to you and don’t let anyone tell you different.

Suggested Films:

These films are titles that I like to show to newcomers to the silents. Some have been recommended by my wonderful readers and some I have discovered through trial and error. The list skews heavily toward comedies as these are generally the most successful gateway films.

I decided to limit this list to films that have only one official version available on home video. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Phantom of the Opera are amazing and popular films but the many, many, many available versions can be confusing to the newcomer.

I live in the U.S. and all copyright information and film availability applies to my neck of the woods only. Copyrights and availability vary from country to country. Also, I will only be covering streaming services with a confirmed track record of legal and legitimate business practices: Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu and Fandor.

City Lights (1931)

City Lights
City Lights (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This was the first silent film that I loved.

Charlie Chaplin was the last major Hollywood holdout when sound came to the industry and I think City Lights proves that he was right to keep his silence a little longer.

Chaplin is, arguably, the most recognizable and iconic figure of the silent era. City Lights features that blend of comedy and pathos that was his trademark. It works as a Chaplin movie, it works as a silent movie, it works as a movie.

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Safety Last! (1923)

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(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That guy hanging from the clock. How many silent movie retrospectives feature the iconic image of Harold Lloyd holding on for dear life? I lost count.

On the practical side of things, Harold Lloyd comedies are fast-paced, breezy affairs. His screen persona was a cheery go-getter who will do whatever it takes to get the job done. As a comedian, Lloyd was second only to Chaplin in box office appeal.

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The General (1926)

The General (1926 film)
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am going to make one exception to my “Official Release Only” policy for this post: Buster Keaton.

Often considered Buster Keaton’s masterpiece, this is the story of a man and his true love: a locomotive named The General. Oh, and there’s a girl too… somewhere.

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The Oyster Princess (1919)

(photo source: filmweb.pl)

If you think that German films are dour, heavy affairs, be prepared to be proven wrong in the most charming way possible! I recommend Ernst Lubitsch’s film The Oyster Princess because it is madcap, hilarious and you have probably never seen anything like it. The zany plot, witty intertitles and goofy characters all represent the very best in silent cinema.

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Sunrise (1927)

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Let’s step over into drama for this selection. F.W. Murnau’s 1927 drama was honored with a special Academy Award for “Unique and Artistic Production” and it certainly deserved it. It’s the story of a country husband and wife and one day spent in the city. The love story is beautiful, the setting is beautiful, the set design is beautiful.

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I could go on but I think limiting the selections to five is a good way to keep things simple.

Have some beginner-friendly titles to suggest? Leave a comment!

24 Replies to “About Silent Movies #8: How to get started watching silent movies”

  1. One thing I would add, is that if the opportunity arises to view a silent film at a theater, particularly with a live musical accompaniment, take advantage of it. For me, it’s easy to sit at home and watch silent comedies which don’t necessarily need one’s full attention, but I have a hard time watching the dramas. A few years back I went to a screening of “The Big Parade” with a multi-piece orchestra and was transfixed the entire time. However, I seriously doubt I would have gotten through the whole movie while watching it at home. Some of the most memorable theater experiences I have had were silent films.

    Thanks for the excellent and insightful posts.

  2. Although you have only mentioned comedies, I would also like to add Sergei Eisenstein’s immensely terrifying masterpiece Battleship Potemkin. Its Odessa Sequence is so frighteningly surreal with the rapidly cutting images. Yes, the movie does drag on a little towards the end but I think most guys would love at least 2/3rd of the film.

  3. As for that Buster Keaton vs Charlie thing, I’d say Buster’s earlier shots were far better than Charlie’s. I got really weary of the repetitive butt-kicking in one of Charlie’s earlier films. Buster at least moved on and tried to create new kinds of madness everywhere he went in his short films.

    As for feature films, I do have a copy of The General on my lappy but I haven’t seen it yet. City Lights on the other hand is simply the best, almost unsurpassable.

    1. I love them both pretty much equally. It’s a pity that a tiny minority of overzealous fans (so many silent film fans are delightful people) feel that viewers MUST choose one or the other. There is room for one or the other or both or neither. Whatever makes the individual viewer happy is great. 🙂

  4. Wow – what a great article! This is great for someone like me who just recently got into silent movies. Flesh and the Devil really turned me on to silents and then, right after having watched that one, I watched Wings which just convinced me even more how great silent movies actually are! I’m going to go ahead and watch some of the films you suggested 🙂

  5. Yet another fabulous piece by you!! I love this and want to share on my page for those interested in silent film. I do not have any friends that like black and white movies let alone silent films. No one I know personally “gets” them. I love how you laid it all out and those are great beginner suggestions! Thank you!!!

      1. I was thinking of doing something similar about those to want to try classic movies from the time frame of 1920s – 1940’s. You have definitely set the bar on this…hopefully I can be just as helpful!

  6. I have recently begun to rediscover silent movies myself ―literally devouring everything from Chaplin to Lang. You are very right about how there is a huge variety of silent films out there; there really is something for everyone.
    Thanks for this insightful, hilarious post!

  7. I’ll throw in a vote for Broken Blossoms and one for the Poor Little Rich Girl. For one, these star two of my favorite actresses, and each are relatively simple plots but delightfully tragic or playful! (Poor Little Rich Girl is what suckered me into silents)

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