Movies Silently’s Top Five Silent Movie Actors

It’s time for the boys! Today, I am going to be sharing my five favorite silent movie actors. These are the actors who consistently entertain and impress me.

Note: I will be limiting the films I list to ones I have already reviewed for this site. There will be some inevitable overlap between this and my Top 10 Silent Films list. As I did with the ladies, I’ll list the actors and suggest two key films that really show off their qualities. Here we go!

5. Ramon Novarro

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Eternally misunderstood and badly described by people who have not seen his films, Novarro was not a Latin lover and I don’t appreciate him being used as a hammer to bash Rudolph Valentino. Novarro was his own man, a skillful actor whose signature ability was his talent for keeping things light and fun while never getting lost in the shuffle of epic surroundings.

What he played: The heroes of historical epics, sweet romancers, boyish heroes of every stripe.

See him in:

Scaramouche (1923) in which he plays a relentless man determined to avenge his friend’s murder on the eve of the French Revolution. Novarro’s best silent performance by far, this was the movie that made him a superstar.

Ben-Hur (1925) was Novarro’s signature role and certainly one of the biggest movies ever made, this film showcases its hero’s ability to both fit in with epic surroundings and rise above them to give a moving performance. (He does carry on a bit in spots but all in all, a net positive.)

He could also brood!
He could also brood!

4. Milton Sills

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Almost completely forgotten these days, Milton Sills had the punchy combo of brains, brawn and screen presence. He was studying philosophy and psychology at the University of Chicago when the stage beckoned and then he made the jump to the screen. Sills’ masculine and intelligent performances (those that are available) showcase a significant talent.

What he played: Brawny heroes, cops and the occasional psychopath, with a side helping of comedy and a dash of history. He was versatile.

See him in:

The Sea Hawk (1924) was universally considered Sills’ best film. He plays an English privateer who is betrayed by his brother and ends up as a Barbary pirate. Great stuff with wooden ships, iron men, etc. and Sills as its brooding center.

Miss Lulu Bett (1921) is a quieter film about a woman attempting to escape the chains of Victorianism for the safety of the modern world. Sills is not the main character but he is an ideal love interest and ally.

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Sills with Lois Wilson, another forgotten talent.

3. Lon Chaney

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Lon Chaney is famous for his makeup but let’s not forget that there was a skilled performer under all that paint and putty. In fact, some of his scariest parts were done with minimal makeup. The ultimate professional, Chaney threw himself deep into his roles and the darker the better.

What he played: Mad scientists, violent carnival performers, opera ghosts, vengeful magicians and even an occasional romantic lead.

See him in:

The Phantom of the Opera (1925) is Chaney’s most famous film, though not technically his best. However, his acclaimed makeup and his flair for the dramatic are on display,

The Penalty (1920) showcases Chaney’s skills as an actor. He plays a legless criminal mastermind out to take over San Francisco. The plot is just nuts but Chaney holds it together with one of best performances of his career.

A mask over his mask. That's dedication!
A mask over his mask. That’s dedication!

2. Conrad Veidt

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Conrad Veidt was an actor of great versatility but his greatest talent was creepiness. Unlike Chaney, though, he had a decent chance of surviving and/or winning his lady love. Veidt, you see, was scary but he was also sexy. He didn’t exclusively work in horror but he was certainly one of the best.

What he played: Mad maharajahs, sideshow performers, Lord Nelson, handless pianists, Ivan the Terrible and the original Joker.

See him in:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is Veidt’s signature silent role. He plays Cesare, a somnambulist who creeps in the dead of night and wields a fearsome dagger. And also totally rocks the black lipstick, under-eye liner look.

The Beloved Rogue (1927) was Veidt’s American debut. He played King Louis XI, a nose-picking goblin of a monarch who may or may not decide to decapitate John Barrymore on a whim.

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Recognize him? No? Off with your head!

1. Ivan Mosjoukine

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We all knew this was coming, right? Mosjoukine was born in Russia, fled the revolution and became an international sensation in France. An absolute chameleon, Mosjoukine could play light, heavy and anything in between. His ability to layer complicated emotions and convey them with just his eyes made him one of the finest actors of his generation. Also, good lord, look at him! (Swoon!)

What he played: Oh good heavens, anything! Shy country boys, Monte Cristo-esque vengeance seekers, Chechen warlords, men with an existential crisis or two…

See him in:

(This was very difficult to narrow down, by the way.)

The Burning Crucible (1923) is the movie that made me fall head over heels. It’s a zany spoof of mystery novels with surreal set design, flashing direction (Mosjoukine again) and held together by a humorous and appealing leading man.

The White Devil (1930) in which he plays a warlord who switches sides in order to save his family. It’s not his best costume part (Michael Strogoff is not on DVD) but even minor Mosjoukine is a good deal better than most anything else.

He could be normal, he could be weird...
He could be normal, he could be weird…

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I hope you enjoyed my top five silent actors. Who are your favorites?

15 Replies to “Movies Silently’s Top Five Silent Movie Actors”

  1. I’d have to put Conrad in my first spot, I like the actors you listed, but haven’t seen any of Sills or Mosjoukine’s films. I would add the Swedish actor who is so good in Wind and The Scarlet Letter, Lars Hanson, Richard Arlen from Wings, and a longshot, but this silent actor impressed me, Monte Blue, in White Shadows in the South Seas.

  2. 5. Richard Barthelmess, the essence of adorable

    4. Sessue Hayakawa, for his versatility and subtlety

    3. Conrad Veidt, equally horrific and seductive, though he could camp it up when the occasion called for it

    2. Lon Chaney, more than just a horror icon (like you said, he’s more frightening without make-up!)

    1. Buster Keaton, far from stone-faced since he had one of the most expressive faces in cinematic history in addition to his excellent comic timing

      1. The 5 slot was hard for me too! Lars Hanson and John Barrymore were also in the running, but I really do adore Barthelmess. Even the relatively dull part he has in Way Down East is made likeable and charming solely due to his boyishness and charisma.

  3. Milton Sills in an interesting case. I remember seeing clips of him with Colleen Moore in “Flaming Youth,” one of those landmark silents that are sadly mostly lost now, and wondering how good he (and she) were in the rest. It’s really a tease. I wonder how different any list would be if the survival rate of films was better.

    Love your list. I might have Chaney at #1 personally, but all solid choices.

    Another nice list might be favorite character actors/non-leading men. I have a soft spot for Werner Krauss, the great German actor, who played Caligari and other roles. Ditto for Rudolf Klein-Rogge, one of Fritz Lang’s favorite go-to actors, who played the mad scientist in “Metropolis,” Dr. Mabuse, and the head bad spy in “Spies.”

    1. Thank you!

      Well, according to Colleen Moore, Sills was a shameless upstager. He would try every trick in the book to get his co-stars to turn their backs to the camera. Moore was onto him and they were constantly moving out of the frame. Nice to see him putting his brain to good use. 😉 (The most blatant successful upstaging I have ever seen is what Stephen Boyd did to Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur. Heston spent almost every scene with his back to the camera.)

  4. It would certainly be hard to argue your picks, though I’m not very familiar with Ivan Mosjoukine.

    I suppose these ere would be my top five (I won’t say these are the best, just my personal favorites.)

    5. Erich von Stroheim (I love his over-the-topness.)
    4. William S. Hart—I like the psychological complexity of his characters, and his authenticity.
    3. Henry B. Walthall—Wonderful face; I mainly like him in the Biograph shorts and The Avenging Conscience. I guess he is good in BOAN as well, but I can’t stomach the film long enough to judge.)
    2. Milton Sills—I concur with your thoughts. I especially like him with Lois Wilson in Lulu (one of my top films; the subtlety of Wilson’s acting is superb!)
    1.Thomas Meighan—best all round. He was good with Swanson.

  5. My Top Five would be at this time(with my favourite film from each).

    5) Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East).
    4) Charles Farrell (City Girl).
    3) Thomas Meighan (Male and Female).
    2) Lon Chaney (The Penalty).
    1) Buster Keaton (Sherlock Jr.)

    It’s interesting that Charles Chaplin isn’t figuring in anybody’s lists as yet.

    Antony

    1. Great list, thanks for sharing!

      I made a point of omitting performers who were purely comedic (those are for another day) and included only dramatic actors or actors who swung between genres (like Novarro and Mosjoukine). However, I can say that on a comedic performer list, Charlie Chaplin would have the #1 slot.

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