Looking for silent film recommendations but tired of the same old same old? This is the list for you! We’re going into uncharted territory with a selection of undeservedly obscure silent films that all but guarantee you a delightful evening’s entertainment.
I have already chosen my top ten silent films overall and some of them are indeed obscure. However, this list is going to be limited just to the films that are comparatively unknown and deserve more recognition. Once again, I will be limiting this list to films I have already reviewed on the site.
Here are my rules:
1. These films cannot be staples of any top ten lists
2. If a film is already on my top ten overall list, it is not eligible for this list
3. I will attempt to include films that have had home media release so that readers can also enjoy these buried treasures
Obviously, dedicated silent movie fans will probably have heard of some of these movies. However, I hope my selections will include at least a few films that are off the beaten path. For beginners and dabblers, just be assured that you cannot go wrong with any of the titles I am listing.
As with my general top ten list, I will be following my site’s focus and emphasizing silent drama and Hollywood offerings, with some French, Russian and German goodies tossed in to keep things interesting. Oh, and lots of quirkiness. I’m into quirky. Also, character studies. Lots of those.
10. Beyond the Border (1925)
Even if westerns aren’t normally your cup of sarsaparilly, you may find a lot to like about this incredibly quirky film. Wild west veteran and John Wayne mentor Harry Carey plays a sheriff who agrees to take the identity of a criminal so that his little sister will not learn of his outlaw ways. Complications obviously ensue but what really put this film over are the oddball tangents. For example, Carey finds himself accidentally quarantined after a man with a strawberry allergy is misdiagnosed with smallpox.
9. The Power of the Press (1928)
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. is an ambitious cub reporter who tries to get a scoop by pinning a murder on Jobyna Ralston. She’s innocent, of course, and the duo form a team in an attempt to track down the real culprit. Director Frank Capra was really starting to show his stuff at this point. The plot moves along at a brisk clip and the characters are both tenacious and smart. Plus, we get a gander at the vintage newspaper printing equipment, which should be fun for history geeks. (And, let’s face it, a Venn diagram of silent movie fans and history geeks would be a perfect circle.)
8. His People (1925)
Occasionally, a movie comes along that is so beautiful and so human that it takes your breath away. Rudolph Schildkraut (father of Joseph) gives the performance of a lifetime as a Russian-Jewish scholar who must make his living as a peddler when his family comes to America. As his two sons grow up, he must learn to deal with their American ways (there is a nod to Jacob and Esau) and his own attachment to the past. This is an exquisite character study with humor, empathy and some of the best acting of the silent era.
7. Eve’s Leaves (1926)
This eccentric action-comedy features one of the most independent heroines of the silent era and it’s a lot of fun too! Leatrice Joy is charming as a sailor who really, really would like to find a fella when she goes ashore in China. Consulting some love almanacs, she applies the romance test to William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd and decides he is the man for her. He thinks she’s nuts and so she shanghais him. The rest of the film revolves around Joy’s attempts to romance Boyd. Joy is delightful and Boyd is a good sport as the dude-in-distress. (Alas, the Chinese setting does mean that ethnic cliches are employed liberally in the film. Viewers are duly cautioned.)
6. Chicago (1927)
Before Renee Zellweger, before Ginger Rogers, the first onscreen Roxie Hart was played by Phyllis Haver, the delightful Sennett comedienne. This sassy, saucy film doesn’t need to fake the 1920s, it IS the 1920s. The satire is sharp, the wit is deadly and everyone seems to be having a great time in this spoof of murder and publicity. Cecil B. DeMille is the uncredited director (he didn’t want his name on a scandalous film while King of Kings was still in theaters) and if you only know him through his religious epics, be prepared for a revelation.
5. The House in Kolomna (1913)
Believe it or not, Russian cinema existed before the Soviet Union and it’s really good too! Russians have an undeserved reputation for dour cinema and this feather-light comedy more than proves that they were capable of cinematic merriment. (Don’t get me wrong, they love their tragedies but they also love to laugh. It’s almost like Russians are… human.) In this case, a naughty teen sneaks her boyfriend (a very young Ivan Mosjoukine) into the house by disguising him as the new cook. Everything goes wrong, of course, but getting there is all the fun. The cast is adorable and they play the farce with a broad wink.
4. Asphalt (1929)
One of the last major German silent films, Asphalt is not nearly as famous as the works of Murnau and Lang but it deserves to be rediscovered. Directed by the underrated Joe May, it’s the story of a stiff traffic cop and his fateful run-in with a beautiful jewel thief. A stylish character study, the film benefits from good performances by American leading lady Betty Amann and Gustav Froehlich, who is considerably more subtle here than he was on Metropolis. Twenties fashion buffs will be particularly interested in Miss Amann’s wardrobe.
3. The Wishing Ring (1914)
This isn’t a movie so much as a confection. Maurice Tourneur’s luscious cinematography perfectly sets the scene for this “Idyll of Old England” concerning a bratty runaway heir and the sweet parson’s daughter who wins his heart. While the story is happy and gentle, it never descends into treacle, thanks mostly to the mischievous performance of forgotten leading lady Vivian Martin. This movie looks great, has a charming script and excellent performances. What more could we want?
2. The Canadian (1926)
This subtle character study is a staple of silent film festivals and it’s easy to see why. The performances are skillful, guided by William Beaudine, a criminally underrated director. It’s the story of an upper class Englishwoman who goes to live with her brother in Canada and enters into a contract marriage with Thomas Meighan, one of the farmhands. The pair must learn to sort out their differences and work together in order to build a life. The story is so good that it was ripped off by The Wind (1928) and The Purchase Price (1932).
1. The Burning Crucible (1923)
How do I even begin to describe this film? Ostensibly a domestic dramedy about a detective hired to find and return a wife’s affection to her husband, it soon veers off into surreal territory. What saves it from pretentiousness is a healthy sense of humor and the winking ability to not take itself too seriously. Leading man Ivan Mosjoukine wrote and directed it and infused every frame with eccentricity. I guarantee that you’ve never seen anything like it. Just trust me on this: you must see it.