Movies Silently’s Top Five Silent Movie Directors

Well, we’ve covered actors and actresses. Now, it’s time to cover the people behind the camera. Here are my five favorite silent era directors.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

The directors will be judged by their silent films only. It may be that a really famous director made some silent films but if their best work was in the talkies, they probably won’t make the list. On the other hand, some directors were just smashing in the silents but fizzled in sound. They will still make the list because their best work falls in our period of interest.

The ultimate criteria: my pocketbook. The biggest factor in judging my favorites is to ask a question. If a new film of theirs is discovered and released, how long will I hesitate before buying it?

“I’m surprised you didn’t include (XYZ).” So am I! It’s almost like people have different taste or something!

Update: I suppose I should emphasize that these are my top five favorites. I’m not saying they are the five best silent directors of all time because how could that possibly be quantified? This is purely about my enjoyment of their work and I have never made any secret of the fact that I am an advocate for mainstream Hollywood crowdpleasers of the silent era. I hope this takes care of some of the more… impassioned responses I have received.

***

So here are the top five and it was extremely difficult to narrow it down, believe you me. I was obsessing and switching out directors right up to the time of publication.

Where applicable, I will link to my reviews of the films I mention.

5. Charlie Chaplin

Chaplin chows down in "The Immigrant"
Chaplin chows down in “The Immigrant”

He’s known as a comedy star but Chaplin almost immediately added directing to his list of accomplishments. His style is often dismissed as simplistic but he threw in just enough flourishes to keep things interesting. In any case, his real talent was coaxing performances out of his co-stars. While many of his comedy contemporaries made “The Girl” or “The Kid” a blank slate to splash gags on, Chaplin at his best made his co-stars the emotional center of his films. It wasn’t always an easy process but it is rewarding to the viewer.

What he made: While he did dabble in drama, Chaplin’s reputation is accurate: he was about the comedy and the emotion.

You should watch: This is a matter of opinion but I think The Kid and City Lights really capture what made Chaplin so popular with audiences in his day and why he continues to be popular now.

4. King Vidor

A bit of madness from "The Patsy"
A bit of madness from “The Patsy”

Vidor was a versatile director who jumped from genre to genre but he always managed to find the humanity in his characters. His movies aren’t the flashiest but the they are the most memorable.

What he made: I know, I know, The Big Parade, The Crowd, etc. You know what, though? What really won me over to the Vidor camp was the pair of comedies he made with Marion Davies at the end of the silent era. The Patsy and Show People showcased Davies’ comedic talents and her sparkling personality with great finesse.

You should watch: Go for extremes and watch a double feature of the war classic The Big Parade and the darling comedy Show People.

3. Paul Leni

Horror and comedy meet in "The Cat and the Canary"
Horror and comedy meet in “The Cat and the Canary”

Paul Leni has relatively few films available for viewing by the general public but what is there is amazing. Leni’s pictures were marked by a distinct and vivid artistic vision and a flair for the macabre. They also have a lightness and playfulness often missing from darker fare.

What he made: Leni’s available films embraced the dark side of human nature and looked for humor and redemption in flawed characters. He was also out to entertain and have a good time with his films and this sense of fun is a reason why his films are so accessible to newcomers to silent film.

You should watch: Contrast Leni’s more serious material in Waxworks (a carnival funhouse of paranoia and strange humor) with his light Old Dark House yarn The Cat and the Canary. Great stuff!

2. Ernst Lubitsch

Underwear confusion in "The Oyster Princess"
Underwear confusion in “The Oyster Princess”

This will probably come as no surprise. Lubitsch is a director who thrived in both silence and sound, bringing his distinct touch of wit and naughtiness to decades of motion pictures.

What he made: Lubitsch’s silent career in Germany was split between saucy comedies and enormous epics. Once he came to Hollywood, he dabbled in costume films once again but his talent for sophisticated comedy made him a valuable commodity.

You should watch: Enjoy Lubitsch’s transition from his raucous German style in The Oyster Princess to his Hollywood Style in The Marriage Circle.

1. Cecil B. DeMille

adams-rib-cinderalla-it-aint
DeMille tries comedy in “Adam’s Rib”

I thought long and hard about this selection. In the end, I had to refer back to my own goal for this post: Who is the director whose work I will buy without a moment’s hesitation? And the answer is DeMille.

I know, I know, his dialogue is dreadful. But we’re talking about silent movies, remember? 75% of DeMille’s body of work is silent but it is often completely ignored. If you are a brave little cineaste, though, and take the plunge, you will soon see that there is a lot more to DeMille than you may have thought.

He spent the first couple years of his career directing anything that came his way: drama, comedy, wartime romance, westerns, humorous westerns, social commentary… And then he discovered lavish marital dramedies. What? No biblical epics? Well, there were two (three if you count Joan the Woman) but DeMille’s default genres were westerns and those dramedies.

Geraldine Farrar shows what she's made of in "Joan the Woman"
Geraldine Farrar shows what she’s made of in “Joan the Woman”

I didn’t think much of DeMille myself until I had a viewing marathon to observe the centennial year of his debut and darn if I didn’t emerge really liking the guy and his movies. The plots are often nuts but that’s a lot of the fun. The costumes of prime DeMille silents are fabulous (many by Adrian and Natacha Rambova) but don’t overlook the relative grit of his early work. It’s rewarding in its own way.

Do yourself a favor and check out some of DeMille’s silent work. Even if you intermittently snickered and snored through, say, The Ten Commandments, give his silent stuff a try. You may or may not like it but I guarantee you will not find it boring.

What he made: DeMille’s name is synonymous with religious epics they make up a relatively small portion of his overall output. Romantic comedies and westerns were more his style in the silent era, though he worked in just about every popular genre of the time.

You should watch: The Cheat is a sleazy masterpiece without a single likable character to its name. Why Change Your Wife is a sassy marital comedy with gorgeous costumes. The Volga Boatman is trash but it’s fun trash and that’s all that counts.

22 Replies to “Movies Silently’s Top Five Silent Movie Directors”

  1. Pretty gutsy, putting DeMille at the top! I’m not sure I even could limit myself to five, even if I did restrict myself to directors from 100+ years ago. My list would probably include Bauer and Feuillade, but then there’s also Melies, Chaplin, Guy, Weber, Tourneur, DeMille…uh oh, I’m getting past five already! Anyway, thanks for sharing!

  2. I’m surprised, nay, FLABBERGASTED, you didn’t include Allan Dwan, Fritz Lang, and F.W. Murnau!!! Sorry, couldn’t resist πŸ˜‰

    So glad you included Paul Leni, a personal fave.

  3. What? No D.W.?? Hahahaaaa I love your list and I still have to see The Cheat which is high on my list. I love The Crowd and it is one of my favourites. I’m a sucker for F.W Murnau also

  4. First of all, I cannot agree with your not picking Fritz Lang! Nice that you chose Demille, when all you do is belittle and criticize his talkies! Worst of all is your continuous dumping on D.W. Griffith! He is one of the giants of American cinema, and you know this! He is responsible for some of the cinema techniques still used today. I don’t take into account his political and social views, as you obviously do. That doesn’t impact his renown as a cinema pioneer! I imagine that, with your pension of association, you don’t like Lillian Gish either! I have stopped reading many of your posts because; I got tired of your constantly demeaning Griffith. You do remember, don’t you, that he came from a different time and a part of the nation where those views were not considered altogether extreme? I do not condone or agree with them, but I think that he was one of the giants of early American cinema!!!

      1. Your reply sounds like the sarcastic reply of someone who doesn’t care! You didn’t refute my claims of Griffith’s deserving praise! I see that another reader was amazed that you didn’t name Fritz Lang of F.W Murnau. I spoke, personally, with Lillian Gish, for over an hour when she did a presentation at the University of Delaware in the 70’s. Suffice it to say that she did not share your disdain for Mr. Griffith! I feel that, when folks are pillaried for their social or political views, rather than the achievements that they have brought to their respective field of endeavor, The entire point of discussion at hand is being lost! I didn’t say that I had completely stopped reading this post! I wanted to see your reply. I am pretty convinced that your opinion of the social and political views of individuals is more important to you than their actual TALENT!

      2. “Your reply sounds like the sarcastic reply of someone who doesn’t care!” Yeah, that about covers it. I don’t, actually, but I will clarify one thing:

        Lillian Gish adored Griffith. I do not. I am not obligated to like the same things Lillian Gish liked. No one is. Griffith’s films had many, many problems that go far beyond his distasteful racial views. (And I detail these issues in my reviews of his pictures.) He had a trite mind, a love of cliche, a habit of infantilizing his characters, a tendency toward purple prose, a distinct flair for unfunny so-called comedy relief, a love of weird and inappropriate close-ups, an over-reliance on the “race to the rescue” trope and none of this is my cup of tea. I enjoy many of his Biograph films but find his features to be a trial to get through. And that’s BEFORE racism even enters the picture. Quite simply, this list is reserved for directors whose films make my day better. D.W. Griffith does not make my day better. Sorry, you don’t get to dictate what other people enjoy.

        In conclusion, yes, please continue to explain my opinions to me. It’s the highlight of my day.

  5. I must admit, I haven’t looked much at your other posts, but no F.W. Murnau? The man who directed Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, Faust and Sunrise doesn’t make your list? Each to his/her own taste, but I would rather get back one lost Murnau film than have to watch any more films ever made by Lubitsch or DeMille.

    1. I think there’s really only one proper response to this:
      “Why don’t you marry him?” πŸ˜‰

      PS – When Murnau intruded into Lubitsch/DeMille territory, we got The Finances of the Grand Duke. Oh dear.

  6. Some people get really heated don’t they? They need to realize everyone has their own opinion and blogging is to be fun and not take it so personally. I love your blog even when you go all Pauline Kael-hahahaaa I love your responses as well:)

    1. Indeed! It’s especially funny as Griffith’s racism is just one part of my overall dislike of his style. I hate his jejune plotting and insipid characters as well. Oh well, what do I know about my own favorite directors? πŸ˜‰

  7. Ohfergawshsakes, when one uses FLABBERGASTED (and !!!) in such a pedantic sentence as the one I concocted upthread re: Dwan, Lang, and Murnau, one assumes that all here get the humorous intent (the winky emo is normally a dead giveaway, mais non?). Our dear blog hostess no doubt did, and in my opinion has picked herself a smashing personal list!

    At any rate, came back to add that Paul Leni became a directorial fave due to The Cat and the Canary being one of a select few included year after year in our Halloween party’s movie list, along with Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera, Karloff’s The Mummy, Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace, Vincent Price in House of Wax, and a recent addition, The Shadow of the Vampire. That last one made the cut due to John Malkovich (as old friend Murnau) happily chewing the scenery right down to the floor boards throughout.

    Repeated viewings of Canary really have added to my appreciation of Leni’s sly fun with the haunted house genre πŸ™‚

    1. Hear hear! Leni wedded technical virtuosity with a killer sense of humor. I have no doubt that he would have outdone himself in Universal horror had he lived. I love The Cat and the Canary more each time I see it. (The Photoplay Productions release with the Neil Brand score… wow!)

      Yeah, I got your winkie. πŸ˜‰ And I’m glad that you enjoyed the list.

  8. Fritzi,
    I apologize if I sounded somewhat arrogant in my comments to you. I forgot, for a moment that; tempered discussion and mutual forebearance, where there is a difference of opinion, are very basic to any discussion!!! I was referring to his technical achievements, and losing sight of his style which, I will agree, was pretty hard to take at times! Your list, however, was good! No complaints there whatsoever!
    I had forgotten to ask you a question which I meant to bring up long ago. Have you heard whether there is available, a copy of that very early 1900’s version of some Shakespeare movie that was 2-3 hours long, in 2 strip Technicolor and in perfect condition that was found in an old studio employees garage collection? He passed away and his wife gave the collection to, I believe, Stanford, They found this pristine copy of the film, which the man cleaned every year, in one of the cans!!! I am curious as to whether it is available? I would appreciate any information you might have on that!

      1. Yes! That is it! I wasn’t sure, but I thought that’s what it was. Perhaps it was just tinted but; it was so clean that it looked like 2 strip Technicolor! I will have to check the link you gave and see if it is available. What I saw looked really fabulous! Thank you very much. If I might ask; do you happen to know of the availability of any tinted copies of Orphans of the Storm? That is one of my all time favorite silent films! I had that, and more than 20 others on vhs, which I taped from Paul Killiam’s Fidelity Bank silent film festival. They were all lost in a fire, and I was devastated! All were restored, retinted with musical scores at his personal expense! He was a credit to silent films and the Philadelphia area. Hard to find those copies!

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