Help Wanted: I’m looking for the most stunning shots in silent cinema

There’s a video knocking around the internet that purports to tell the story of a century of cinema (1915-2015) by showing the best shots of each year. Naturally, there are some issues with the silent era. The main one: booooooooooooring!

I was not surprised, interested or charmed by the selections. There was not a single film that was unexpected or unknown. I want personality, texture, not this sterile Movies 101 nonsense! To make matters worse, the selected shots were sometimes not even the best in the picture!

Griffith, Griffith, Chaplin, Chaplin, Griffith, Germans, Chaplin, Germans, Lloyd, Keaton, Potemkin, Keaton, Germans…

captain-january-bored

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…….

I’m sorry, the limited, narrow vision put me to sleep. I’m kind of glad this video was released because it precisely demonstrates the kind of shallow understanding of the silent era that I am always complaining about. Turn the 1915-1929 selections into a list and you’ll have the core of 95% of the “top 10 silent films” articles ever written. It’s not that I’m saying these films are bad or that they are not artistic, it’s just that this homogeneousness creates the false notion that these films are ALL the silent era has to offer, no further exploration needed.

Harumph! If you want to do something right…

This is where you come in! I want your outside-the-box suggestions for the finest shots in silent cinema. The more obscure the better! I should note, though, that the film or films you name must have been released on home media (I need to view it!) and be silent. That’s it!

What I want: Your favorite shots from silent films released from 1895-1930s that are available on DVD/Bluray.

Just leave a comment and tell me your selections!

I’m new to silent films, I’ve only seen a few but I have some favorites already. Is that okay?

Yes! Whether you’ve seen one silent film or a hundred, I still would love to hear about your favorite shots.

I’ve seen tons of silent films and have lots of shots! Is there a limit?

Nope, fire away! Share as many great shots as you like.

What will you do with all these shots?

I’m not sure yet. This is still in the planning phase but I promise it will be good!

***

Here are some of my ideas. They’re just off the top of my head so I am probably missing something amazing but that’s what you’re here for!

1901: The swallow from The Big Swallow

1905: The dog’s run in Rescued by Rover

1910: Mary Pickford’s hat kick in The Dream

mystery-of-the-rocks-of-kador-boat

1912: Alone at sea in The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador

1915: The town scene in David Harum

hells-hinges-flares

1916: Touring the inferno in Hell’s Hinges

1918: Double vision in Stella Maris

indian-tomb-gold-veidt

1921: Conrad Veidt painted gold in The Indian Tomb

1925: The leap of death in Variety

1927: The brawl from The Chess Player

***

I’m sure you’ll come up with some fabulous ideas!

(H/T: Debra Vega)

38 Replies to “Help Wanted: I’m looking for the most stunning shots in silent cinema”

  1. I have to pick The Adventures of Prince Achmed. Pretty much any frame from that film is a work of art onto itself. Specially when you put it into the context of the era. When people think of Silent era animation, Felix The Cat is normally the first thing that comes to mind. Felix is great, but it’s not exactly visually stunning by today’s standard. On the other hand, if Prince Achmed were released for the first time today people would still praise it’s style and beauty. It’s that far ahead of the game.

  2. One more that came to mind is The Little Match Seller(1902):
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MyeqvRr7BE8

    A brilliant example of complex storytelling from the early days of film(Take that D. W. Griffith!) that is as beautiful as it is sad. This will pull on the heart strings of even the most jaded person today.

  3. Lonesome (1927): The couple dancing in that one beautifully tinted shot.
    Menilmontant (1926): Axe murder close-ups!
    The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928): Like, any shot of Falconetti
    The Unknown (1927): Chaney’s breakdown laughter
    Greed (1924): The final shot in the desert
    Ace of Hearts (1923): Bird’s eye shot of them dealing the cards
    Foolish Wives (1922): Stroheim shooting over the sea
    The Phantom Carriage (1923): Main character chopping through the door in a scene that predates The Shining by about 60 years
    The Eagle (1925): The dining room tracking shot
    The Son of the Sheik (1926): Extreme closeup of Vilma Banky’s tear-stained, hate-filled eyes
    The Cameraman (1928): Shot-reverse-shot close up of Marceline Day and Buster Keaton
    The Wind (1928): Letty freaking out at the window as the sandstorm threatens to uncover the dead body she just buried
    The Cheat (1915): Hayakawa crumpling against the paper doors and leaving a trail of blood against it

  4. There are so very, very many, but just off the top of my head:

    Any of the battles at sea from The Sea Hawk and/or Milton Sills in full Arab regalia from same, Doug Fairbanks sliding down the sail in The Black Pirate (how could they miss this one?), Louise Brooks’ wedding dance scene from Pandora’s Box and/or the backstage variety theatre scenes, Marion Davies’ MGM Commissary scene and any of her scenes as snooty Patricia Pepoire from Show People, Lon Chaney eavesdropping atop the Paris Opera House from Phantom of the Opera and/or his Red Death costume scenes, The amusement park scenes from The Crowd and/or famous crowd pullbacks, Margaret Livingston seducing George O’Brien with tales of the Big City in Sunrise, Pickford saving the children one by one in Sparrows, Mabel Normand spots her boyfriend Charlie spooning with Marie Dressler in Tillie’s Punctured Romance, Joan Crawford dancing on the table top in Our Dancing Daughters, John Gilbert and Eleanor Boardman boudoir scenes from Bardelys the Magnificent and/or the banquet scene from Bardelys with Roy D’Arcy chewing the scenery to great effect, Stan and Ollie demolishing Jimmy Finlayson’s house in Big Business….

    …ok, I’m figuratively out of breath but wow, why didn’t the clip compilers look around just a little bit? Yay for the Chaplin clips, but way too much Griffith, for one thing, and they skipped far too quickly to the talkies years!

    1. Wonderful picks! Totally forgot about Red Death, glad you reminded me. Yeah, I was happy to see Chaplin too but ONLY his work and Griffith’s to represent the 1910s???? I was like “But, but, but France, Italy, Tourneur, DeMille, Hart, Weber…”

  5. Yeah, while folks like Griffith, Chaplin, Keaton, and Murnau obviously made some swell films, to use them alone to represent fifteen years worth of movie history– come on!

  6. Perhaps the most stunningly beautiful shot in all of cinema….the ship trapped in the ice shot by Hurley in the Shakleton documentary South…….

  7. I’m going to break this into two comments, because WordPress thinks it’s too long for one, I guess.
    Well, of course, you need some Feuillade. I’m sure you can pick something from Judex better than I can, and Les Vampires is kind of a given, but what is my top shot from Fantômas? Possibly this one https://centuryfilmproject.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/murderous-corpse.jpg with the hooded figure lurking behind the man at his desk.
    For Méliès, the classic rocket-in-eye-of-moon is so obvious it falls into the same category of done-to-death (though they missed it anyway), so maybe a shot from “The Man with the Rubber Head” would be more original.
    With Lumiere, the train coming into the station or the workers leaving the factory both have their charms, but maybe the “Baby’s Meal” is most representative of the comfortable home-life that so many of their films portray.
    For Edison, I have to vote for “Fred Ott’s Sneeze” (actually 1894, but I assume you’ll allow it).

    1. Yes, the first decade of projected cinema was such a fascinating period of contrasts: extreme artificiality (i.e. Melies and his charming fantasies) with the wonderful actualities. And seriously, no love for Feuillade or any French director of the silent era? Unforgivable.

  8. I think my favorite single shot from Alice Guy would have to be “The Cabbage Fairy” (1896).
    For George Albert Smith, there’s “The X-Rays.” Any shot that gets the skeletal umbrella in will work.
    It’s hard to find a shot to compete with the iconic close-up in “The Great Train Robbery,” but a high-quality shot of the image of the man dancing while the bandit fires at his feet would be good.
    The man flying through the air on his bed would be good from “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend.” (1907)
    I know you’ll have plenty of Mosjoukine in mind, but the shot of him as the Devil in “Christmas Eve” would be a good addition.
    Trying to think of a single, iconic Bauer shot is really hard. So much of his work depends on seeing the complexity of the movement. There are some nice stills on my site from “Children of the Age” and “A Life for a Life,” but you might be able to do better by scouring through “After Death.”
    And, I think a shot of Fatty Arbuckle with Mabel Normand would show what great chemistry they had together. Perhaps the two of them sharing a soda from “Mabel and Fatty’s Wash Day” would work!

    1. Yes, there are definitely issues with telling the story of cinema through single shots alone. Bauer is a good example but I have had trouble capturing the feel of directors like Dupont based on still images or limited clips in GIF form. Some silent films are best seen in their entirety to be properly appreciated.

      Thanks for the great list!

  9. A little Sunrise goes a long way. Maybe a Nanook note, some chewing gum antics by Gilbert, Fairbanks swiping a handful of food, a Turpin cross-eye stare, push it to 1932 have a Wild Rose shot, et cetera, et cetera… you can have a whole silent era video that’s more interesting than that 100 years clip job.

  10. So many to choose from ! But let’s start with …….
    THE WIND (1928) wedding night scene, Gish and Hanson staring at each other
    THE PENALTY (1920) Chaney’s sudden grabbing of the girl worker by the hair
    LOVE (1928) final shot on Garbo’s face as she realizes Gilbert has returned
    A KISS FOR CINDERELLA (1925) the look on Tom Moore’s face in the final shot as he holds Betty Bronson. Also, although the sequence is badly decomposed, the ballroom section originally must have been stupendous-looking !
    THE COOK (1920) Fatty Arbuckle reenacting Cleopatra being bitten by an asp
    PASS THE GRAVY (1927) The impromptu indoor football game with the chicken leg instead of a football, culminating in the simultaneous leap by all parties on to the leg

  11. I hesitate to enter the fray of such an erudite bunch of silents mavens, but I find the first entry of the Lodger in Hitchcock’s eponymous pic very memorable.

      1. Well, oooh. That gave me an idea of a video featuring ONLY eyes (and faces) from different silents as a lot of emotions in those flicks was conveyed with subtle to exaggerated expressions. I bet that would be a learning experience for those who think silents are “boring”… 😀

  12. Some of my favorites
    The Four Horsemen (1921): the couple embracing among the graves at the ending https://youtu.be/_v3XekoTskA?t=2h10m31s
    Way Down East (1920): Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess talking to each other while the sun is setting, or Lillian Gish floating on the ice-caps, or Lillian Gish posing as Elaine of Astolat
    Robin Hood (1922): Enid Bennett tracing Fairbanks’ profile in the castle wall.
    Carmen (1915 – the DeMille one): Geraldine Farrar throwing Pedro de Cordoba a rose, or Geraldine after drawing the “card of death” again, or the final scene (the entire film is rich in cinematography)
    The Cook (1918): Roscoe with his huge fishing pole in the sunset

  13. From the British film “Shooting Stars” (1928) – there is an awesome overhead tracking shot in the beginning which follows the lead actress as she walks through a film set, up a flight of stairs and into a second film set on the floor above. 🙂

  14. What a great list of stunning shots- really enjoying reading this thread! I have a couple to add just because we watched these films once again this evening: Antonio Moreno meeting Alice Terry in the ruins of Pompeii and/or Terry facing the firing squad in Mare Nostrum; the last meeting of Lon Chaney and Mae Busch near the end of The Unholy Three and/or the film’s final scene with Chaney back in the side show.

  15. I vote for the parting of the Red Sea in 1923’s The Ten Commandments; when Ben-Hur, the racing hero enters the city in two-strip Technicolor or when the star shows where Jesus was born in Ben-Hur, 1925; or just any shot in 1918’s The Blue Bird.

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