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:
- 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.)
- 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.
- My blog is highly Hollywood-centric so the majority of my selections are American.
- My blog is also highly drama-centric so there wasn’t room for the Big Four. Please see #7 for further instructions.
- “Why no D.W. Griffith?” Ha! Excuse me while I smirk malevolently. Please see #7 for further instructions.
- “Why no XYZ?” Either I haven’t reviewed it or I am a hopeless philistine. Please see #7 for further instructions.
- 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.
- “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)
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.
9. West of Zanzibar (1927)
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.
8. Barbed Wire (1927)
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.
7. The Sea Hawk (1924)
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.
6. Stella Maris (1918)
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.
5. Hell’s Hinges (1916)
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.
4. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
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.
3. Judex (1916)
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.
2. The Wind (1928)
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.
1. Michael Strogoff (1926)
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?