Movies Silently’s Top Ten Silent Films

There are quite a few “top silent film” lists floating around the internet but (with a few exceptions) they all seem to draw from the same pool of about 25 movies; the sort of films that get shown in Movie History 101.

“For their Top Ten Silents post the blogger sent to me: one Melies, two Soviet films, three Germans, the Big Four, five gooooooold rings…”

That’s all well and good but I get tired of reading the same basic list over and over and over again.

Before we begin, I have a few caveats:

  1. This is not a list of the “best” silent films of all time. Instead, these are my personal favorites, films I love warts and all. Basically, if I knew I was going to be marooned on a desert island, these are the movies I would take with me. (Instead of, you know, a satellite phone or a homing beacon.)
  2. I am limiting this list to films I have reviewed for the site already. That way, you can read my reasons for their inclusion in detail.
  3. My blog is highly Hollywood-centric so the majority of my selections are American.
  4. My blog is also highly drama-centric so there wasn’t room for the Big Four. Please see #7 for further instructions.
  5. “Why no D.W. Griffith?” Ha! Excuse me while I smirk malevolently. Please see #7 for further instructions.

    Like so!
    Like so!
  6. “Why no XYZ?” Either I haven’t reviewed it or I am a hopeless philistine. Please see #7 for further instructions.
  7. Here are a few tips to help you with your “How dare you?” letters. First, I prefer to be addressed as “madam” in missives of rebuke. It makes me feel terribly important. Second, I prefer to be berated in an English accent, preferably from Yorkshire as I am a big fan of James Herriot.
  8. “But I’m still surprised you included/didn’t include (XYZ).” I’m surprised at me too! Boy, I’m sneaky that way.

And now, the list!

10. Show People (1928)

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Perky, peppy and cute as a button, those showbiz comedy is also wicked funny, thanks to the talents of Marion Davies and Billy Haines. This is a backstage spoof with a spring in its step and more than its share of meta humor. A delight from beginning to end.

Read my review here

9. West of Zanzibar (1927)

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This is a sleazy, slimy, repulsive film. It slithers across the screen displaying the worst possible taste. Obviously, I loved it. Lon Chaney delivers an astonishing performance as an illusionist whose back is broken by Lionel Barrymore and who spends the rest of the film plotting nasty revenge. Chaney’s sensitive performance holds it all together. Not for the easily offended.

Read my review here

8. Barbed Wire (1927)

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A bittersweet romance for grownups, this film was Pola Negri’s best Hollywood vehicle and it’s also one of the most mature looks at the everyday horrors of war. Love in a POW camp is the theme but this optimistic film never becomes dreary.

Read my review here

7. The Sea Hawk (1924)

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If you simply must swash your buckle then this is the movie for you. It has everything. Pirates, wooden ships, iron men, duels, plenty of combat, revenge and a spot of religious conversion to keep things interesting. Big, bold and a heckuva ride.

Read my review here

6. Stella Maris (1918)

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Mary Pickford enters Dickens territory with her dual role in this grim melodrama. She plays both a beautiful invalid and an orphaned waif. The film touches on topics such as child labor, child abuse, spousal abuse, murder and suicide but director Marshall Neilan also skillfully weaves in enough humor to relieve the mood.

Read my review here

5. Hell’s Hinges (1916)

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William S. Hart is all apocalyptic fury in this stark western. He is his usual antihero who finds love and/or religion but what really puts this film over the top is the fiery climax.

Read my review here

4. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

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A delightful puzzle box of a picture, this movie has been hotly debated and studied ever since its release but there is always more to see. Brilliant concept, influential look and more fun than a coffin full of sleepwalkers.

Read my review here

3. Judex (1916)

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Pulpy, anarchic and with style to burn, this serial is for people who think they don’t like serials. It features a proto-superhero protagonist who sports an impressive cape. It’s also addicting as heck. Seriously, it should come with a warning label.

Read my review here

2. The Wind (1928)

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The anatomy of a nervous breakdown, this film showcases Lillian Gish at the height of her acting powers. It’s a psychological western with lots of juicy symbolism, deep character development and one of the most famous finales in all of silent film. It’s grand.

Read my review here

1. Michael Strogoff (1926)

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And, surprising exactly no one, Michael Strogoff comes in as my favorite silent film. It’s epic (I love epics!) and smart (I love smart!) and directed with panache (I love panache! Especially the walnut kind!) and it deftly balances crowd-pleasing spectacle with thoughtful character study. Based on a novel by Jules Verne (masterfully adapted, by the way). What more do you need?

Read my review here

38 Replies to “Movies Silently’s Top Ten Silent Films”

  1. What I like about your list is that it gives me a bunch of things I haven’t already seen to work with. If it was just the Usual Suspects, I’d have nothing new to look for. In this case, I’ve seen exactly two out of eight (“West of Zanzibar” and “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” – I suppose that gives away my leanings), but I even judging from those two, I can say it’s worth seeing the rest.

    1. Thanks so much! That was exactly my goal. I mean, I love Battleship Potemkin, A Trip to the Moon and The Great Train Robbery but one gets a a bit tired of seeing them appear again and again on top 10 lists.

      1. I started thinking about what my own top ten might be, but gosh, it’s so hard! But here’s my best try at desert island picks: The General, Sherlock Jr, Scaramouche, The Gold Rush, He Who Gets Slapped, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, The Wind, The Eagle, Steamboat Bill Jr, and The Passion of Joan of Arc.

  2. interesting list. I’ve seen two (Caligari and The Wind) and only heard of one other (Stella Maris) so this is quite enlightening. πŸ™‚

  3. Madame, how DARE you not include ORPHANS OF THE STORM (1921)! Not including Chaplin or Keaton is one thing, but if you MUST do dramatic schtuff the least you could do is include the most bestest ever French Revolution adventure! I mean, there’s riding through the streets on horseback to save the Gishes from the guillotine! What’s not to love?! Eh by gum! (That’s a little Yorkshire for you…)

    http://margaretperry.org/conservatism-in-revolution-the-gish-sisters-in-d-w-griffiths-orphans-of-the-storm-1921/

    JK, this is an awesome list and I can’t wait to catch up with the ones I haven’t seen yet. Don’t tell anyone I haven’t seen CALIGARI yet…

  4. Hooray for Judex and The Sea Hawk! I have Show People and West of Zanzibar but have yet to watch them…and The Wind is on my DVR. I would love to see Barbed Wire and Hell’s Hinges though!

  5. Ok, Here is my ten: 10. Thief of Bagdad(whimsy at it’s best.9.The Bat(the ultimate dark comedy).8.Grandma’s Boy(The mothball scene and the part where he knocks out all the generals are hilarious).7.Steamboat Bill Jr.(features greatest comedy stunt of all time).6.The Mark of Zorro(Douglas Fairbanks’ signature role).5.Show People(Marion Davies at her best).4.The Crowd(heartbreaking).3.Ella Cinders(comedy gold).2.(Tie)The Big Parade and Tell It To The Marines(Lon Chaney in a non evil role is fantastic). 1.WINGS(my favorite WWI film other than All Quiet on The Western Front, not to mention it has Clara Bow in it. Honorable mentions go to “It”,Safety Last!, The Golem and Wild And Wooly.

  6. What I enjoy about your postings is that I always learn about films I’ve never seen as well as films I have seen (or at least, heard about).

  7. Thanks for this list. Apart from Caligari, I’ve never seen any of them and look forward to watching some of these πŸ™‚

  8. thank you for sharing! among those you’ve mentioned i’ve only seen das cabinet des dr. caligari. a classic.

    i wonder where do you get copies of those movies? some of them are quite difficult to find! especially pola negri films.

  9. Yeah, A top ten is hard to do. I own about 50 silents now and narrowing it down to a top ten is almost impossible.

  10. Having seen several Lon Chaney movies ( including WEST OF ZANZIBAR) I can see why he was a major star. He wasn’t young or handsome, but he was a powerful actor.

  11. My list would have to include The Man Who Laughs, The General (though it’s hard to single out just one Keaton title), The Sea Beast, and for Chaney it would be The Penalty.

  12. I’ve only seen the one of these (Dr Caligari) although that does have the happy implication I’ve got a good number of top-notch films to see yet.

    I must think what I’d pick for my top-ten though.

  13. I love Barbed wire Show People and The Wind .I love any movie with William Hart Did you ever read William Hart’s autobiography?. He spent his first 16years in the west He really was a Cowboy. He could ride the wildest Horses and he was doing his own stunts till he was 60 years old He really loved his Horse Fritz who was in so many of his movies

    1. Hi thanks for writing in. Yes, Hart was great. His autobiography requires a grain of salt (like 95% of all other silent film memoirs) but it’s quite fascinating.

  14. Thank you I look forward to your review of the Artist. I thought that movie showed a love for old Hollywood. Something I think is lacking for most of present Hollywood I am still mad that Anita Page’s death was not mentioned at the Academy Awards when the deaths for 2008 was shown.

  15. A very nice collection! Thank you for not including the usual suspects like Wings and Pandora’s Box. This list breathes fresh life into a wonderful genre.

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