Silents did it better: 5 silent films that are better than their talkie remakes

Silent movie fans spend considerable time and energy explaining that, yes, silent films are a unique and important form of artistic expression. But what about direct remakes? Silent films often shared source material with sound films and newer technology means a better movie, right?

Well, those of us who wary of remakes know that newer films with spiffy new special effects often fail to capture the magic of the original. We’re all familiar with modern cases (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, anyone?) but today, we are going to be looking at five silent films that were remade as talkies and lost their mojo along the way. In most of these cases, the silent has been overshadowed by its remake. Boo! Hiss!

The correct answer is: "No."
The correct answer is: “No.”

(As usual for my lists, I will be confining my selections to films I have already reviewed on this site and all films are in alphabetical order. I prefer to be addressed as “madam” in missives of rebuke. Enjoy!)

Ben-Hur (1925)

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The 1959 remake may have swept the Oscars but it pales in comparison to the sheer scope and imagination of the 1925 silent film. Model ships? Ha! We’ll see your models and raise you some full-size galleys. How do like them apples?

One of the biggest and most beautiful films in history, no expense was spared on the silent original and it shows on the screen. Additionally, Ramon Novarro is an appealing hero who manages not to get smothered by the gigantic sets and epic plot.

Read my comparison here (I also have tons of backstage gossip about the 1925 production).

The Enchanted Cottage (1924)

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The WWII-era remake about an injured pilot and the woman who loves him has its fans but its tweaks to the original story result in a steaming mass of… treacle with more than its share of accidental comedy. In the silent original, Richard Barthelmess and May McAvoy keep the story on an even keel and manage to be sentimental and romantic without sending their audience into diabetic shock. Additionally, the delicate beauty of the silent cinematography put the set-bound remake to shame.

Read my comparison here– and I warn you that I am ruthless.

The Indian Tomb (1921)

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Debra Paget may have shaken her pasty-clad fanny in the Fritz Lang-directed remake but minor kitsch can’t compete with the sheer epic madness of the silent original. Plus, the silent has Conrad Veidt as the nutty monarch who plans to deliver vicious revenge on his unfaithful wife and her English lover. Both films have a rather, er, European pace but the silent wins the day with crazy costumes, real tigers (as opposed to unconvincing puppets), an empowered heroine and Veidt’s bold and broad performance.

You can read my full comparison here, including the story behind Fritz Lang’s obsession with remaking the tale.

Scaramouche (1923)

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No, neither film features anyone doing the fandango but the 1952 version does feature the message that domestic violence is cute and funny! Oh, you fifties! You card! Stay away from my house.

Aside from that, the 1923 film is one of the finest Hollywood pictures on the French Revolution (and I’m very picky) and also contains star Ramon Novarro’s finest performance as a lawyer-turned-revolutionary. Like most of director Rex Ingram’s films, it is gorgeous and, unlike most of director Rex Ingram’s films, actually moves along at a rapid pace.

You can read my comparison here, complete with kvetching about the bizarre costume choices in the remake.

The White Devil (1930)

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This one is a bit of a special case but I am including it because I had so much fun contrasting the original and the remake. The silent original was a Russo-German production and one of Germany’s very last silent films. Never heard of it? You are not alone! You see, neither version of the film (it was remade as an Italian peplum flick starring George Reeves) is in any way famous but how often do you get a chance to compare two versions with such different artistic and commercial goals? The silent version wanted to be an arty action film. The Italian version wanted an excuse to show people in their undies. Did I mention both films are based on a novella by Tolstoy? Oh, it’s weird and wonderful!

Here is my full comparison of the films and I promise it is just as strange as it sounds.

But I like those sound films, they’re the bestest! How dare you?

You’re entitled to your opinion. I mean, you’re wrong but you’re entitled to your opinion.

bare-knees-wink-wink

12 Replies to “Silents did it better: 5 silent films that are better than their talkie remakes”

  1. You are so right about Ben Hur… I saw it at the AFI years ago and it’s burned into my brain. I don’t know the others in either version but will check them out!

  2. We are in luck. TCM’s Silent Sunday movie tomorrow night is BEN-HUR ! Personally, I have always found it hard to believe that the remake held the record for most Oscars won by a single film for decades. Just goes to show, Oscars are not always awarded on merit.

  3. I have to say that the 1927 version of The Cat and the Canary was much better than the 1939 version with Bob Hope. I liked the 1927 version but I didn’t care for the 1939 version.

  4. Totally agreed with Ben Hur and Scaramouche. I enjoy the 1952 Scaramouche remake well enough, but the 1923 blows it out of the ocean, it’s so much stronger in terms of visuals, narrative, and epic sweep.

  5. I watched Ben-Hur last night. It was the third time I had seen it, but I found that I appreciated it much more after reading your article about it.

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