Making converts: What are the best silent films for newcomers?

In order to love silent films, all you need is an open mind and the right movie. But what is the right movie? Which titles are the best for winning people over to the silent side?

Obviously, it all depends on taste but there is no doubt that some silent movies are more beginner friendly than others. A bad choice can put someone off silent films forever.

As silent comedy generally gets more respect than silent drama, a good number of “first” silent films are on the slapstick side of the spectrum. However, I have had success with kitsch (The Sheik), serials (Judex), artistic milestones (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and romantic comedies (My Best Girl). And thanks to Hugo, Georges Melies is enjoying quite a bit of name recognition.

What are some of your favorite titles to show newcomers? Or, if you are a newcomer yourself, what was the silent film that really won you over?

58 Replies to “Making converts: What are the best silent films for newcomers?”

  1. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Mary Philbin and Norman Kerry aside, it has gothic horror, romance, comedy, a Technicolor ball and an iconic performance by Lon Chaney. Who could ask for anything more?

  2. I was first drawn to the silents by Richard Oswald’s 1924 Carlos und Elisabeth, with Conrad Veidt, William Dieterle and Eugen KlΓΆpfer – but that’s because I have a slightly obsessive fondness for Schiller’s Don Karlos. I don’t think I’d use it to make converts, though… Veidt’s performance is great, and KlΓΆpfer knows what he’s doing, and the skewed visuals are interestings – but the story is butchered to the point of being hard to follow.
    Scaramouche, perhaps? Epic, lovely to look at, with a good, strong story that is not entirely unfamiliar.
    But much depends on the convert, actually: I once won over a friend with Wings on the strength of the aerial fight sequences…

      1. Oh, and The Lodger. Early Hitchcock, very atmospheric, plus the tinting to show not all silents are black and white…

  3. When I taught a course in silent cinema at USC, I often opened with THE STUDENT PRINCE IN OLD HEIDELBERG, BEN-HUR: A TALE OF THE CHRIST, or STELLA DALLAS. Yes, Keaton is a no-brainer but an impressive silent drama shows aspiring filmmakers that they have something to learn from silents. I think the phrase is “shock and awe” but I try not to remember who said it.

  4. Seeing The General with live accompaniment at the Kennedy Center converted my wife.

    Living in the D.C. area, we get a lot of silent films with live music at the AFI-Silver — that’s what I use to give people their first exposure. A comedy is usually the most immediately accessible, but Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate was also a good one.

    You know, the type of live music can make a difference. I know some people like a band that’s playing and the silent movie is more like a visual backdrop — I’ve seen Nosferatu and Intolerance that way — but I definitely prefer music specifically designed to pull you into the movie itself, so much so that you wind up forgetting the musicians are there. A personal preference, but a strong one.

  5. If I could choose one right now, it would be WINGS. Saw it again on Netflix recently and was blown away.

  6. “Woman in the Moon” (“Frau im Mond”) from 1929 will always be my favorite and one I recommend to curious newbies. The visuals are wonderful, the storyline is interesting, and the launch shots look like NASA footage with the color removed.

  7. Aside from the Laurel & Hardy shorts in general, I think the best silent film to introduce people to may be Nosferatu. It is similar enough to the Universal and Hammer films, as well as more recent horror movies, that most people today can appreciate it.

  8. Birth Of A Nation!

    Just kidding. πŸ˜›

    This is a perennial question with no definitive answer as tastes are different so what will work for one won’t work for another. πŸ™‚

    Personally, I would start with some comedy shorts such as Laurel & Hardy (Two Tars/Big Business) or a Keaton feature (Seven Chances) or Lloyd (Safety Last). For features, probably “Nosferatu” purely for atmospherics or “The Wind” for the power of emotive dramatics. And if I was a bit more adventurous maybe Murnau’s “City Girl” before unleashing the usual heavy hitters on them ;-).

    Or, if they haven’t seen it already – and this may be a controversial choice – “The Artist” might be a good primer for the uninitiated. πŸ™‚

  9. I grew up watching Charlie Chaplin with my dad when I was a kid, but as an adult I had the impression that silent movies were either really long dramas (like Birth of a Nation) or short comedies. The movie that showed me otherwise was John Barrymore’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I picked it up at the library randomly because I was watching all Barrymore’s talky films I could find and I loved it!

  10. Started by watching Buster Keaton with my Dad so I have a soft spot for those films. First drama was actually BED AND SOFA and then THE SEA HAWK! And now Judex of course! I saw METROPOLIS in between but wasn’t as thrilled by it as I was by the others.

  11. A few off the top off my head:
    Show People
    Sunrise
    Sparrows
    These films don’t fit any silent movie stereotype, aren’t terribly long and are quite magical!
    For knock-your-socks-off visual quality, City Girl – the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray is astonishing looking.
    For those with a taste for the truly bizarre, The Penalty.

  12. Charlie Chaplin in THE GOLD RUSH. It’s the first silent film I ever remember seeing, and its just as hilarious now as the day it was filmed.

  13. I have always had good luck with the basics, like “The Boat” or The General or almost anything by Chaplin, but I am more inclined towards silent comedy.

  14. Keaton’s stunts generally wow people used to films where CG is the end all, be all way to shoot an action scene. Good non-comedy picks are The Student Prince of Old Heidelberg, Caligari, and The Unknown.

  15. As a newbie myself, I can say that The Man Who Laughs really won me over the first time I watched it, mostly due to the atmosphere and the performances (well, most of them). Another weird example is the Indian Tomb, which actually lead to my sister in being interested in watching Conrad Veidt movies with me!

    As others have stated before, Buster Keaton movies work really well too, at least in my circle of family and friends, as my parents love his movies ever since I showed the General to them and my young nieces get a giggle out of his antics.

    Interestingly enough, I often find that comedies typically get the best response when I show silent films to people. I wonder why that is? I guess humor really is a universal language!

    1. Also, silent drama requires a pretty deep emotional investment and an engagement of the imagination that most modern viewers are not used to experiencing with a movie. Talkie dramas, for the most part, only call for relatively passive viewers. (There are obviously exceptions but most of those are art films, I’m talking about mainstream, popular hits.)

      1. I agree! I think that modern viewers who aren’t comfortable with those type of films may feel a bit isolated and/or confused for the first few times, especially if they’re primarily aware of mainstream films. I remember I had to get used to the difference when I watched my first non-comedy silent movies, and perhaps that’s the same for other newbies as well. The best analogy I can think of would be like reading classic literature if one was only familiar with modern prose in books. It’s a bit confusing at first, but eventually they will get used to it.

  16. My first silent movie was Metropolis. Then I took a class about early films at university and watched very old stuff like the Great Train Robbery or the Dog Factory.
    What really got me was Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari. πŸ™‚ And I like old series like FantΓ΄mas and Perils of Pauline.

    But I am looking for more inspiration for starters. So I will keep an eye on the comments here. πŸ˜‰

  17. I’ll weigh in with Silk Stockings, Feel My Pulse and/or Sythetic Sin (or any other Colleen Moore you can find). It’s the wit and sophistication in silent comedies that I think opens eyes and minds. One doesn’t get the shock of discovering something new when one sees an iconic figure (Chaplin, Swanson, etc., etc.) in a silent film; it’s hard to leave preconceptions at the door, as it were.

  18. When I was eleven I saw Tarzan (1918)version and was hooked. Today I would suggest The Mark of Zorro or Show People. Basically anything with Douglas Fairbanks or Marion Davies. Some people I know have been won over by Steamboat Bill Jr.

  19. I always thought “The General” would be just about perfect for this: brilliant humor, but in the framework of a strong dramatic story against a beautifully realized historic. Then a friend whose opinion I greatly respect mentioned he saw it and didn’t find it funny (or interesting) at all. So there certainly is no one right answer.

    But if pressed, I’d still go with “the General” or “City Ligjts.”

  20. Oh wow, there’s so many, but I always recommend The Unknown. With Chaney and Browning in one of the greatest pairings in cinema history, you can’t go wrong. The film will satisfy the horror fan, circus lover, thriller fan, and those looking for an altogether novel silent film.

    Other films I would mention:

    The Sheik – Valentino
    Grandma’s Boy – Harold Lloyd
    The Cat and the Canary by Paul Leni
    The Thief of Bagdad – Douglas Fairbanks

    Love the site.

      1. Thanks, David. I was fortunate enough to see The Sheik at Hollywood Forever Cemetery accompanied by the late and great Bob Mitchell on organ. It was truly a magical experience. After the viewing it, I came to realize just how powerful Valentino’s mystique really is.

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