Which silent films have you shown to newbies? Did they work?

Here’s a question that crops up time and again: You like silent movies but your friend, date, spouse, kid has never seen one. Which titles are best for newcomers?

I know some fans believe comedy is the one and only way to go and while it definitely has its appeal, I think there is something to be said for thinking outside the box. Here are some films that have brought me success:

Go for iconic: While I am a big advocate of oddball, forgotten and generally strange silent films, there is something to be said for presenting a famous film. I have had great success with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and A Trip to the Moon— people want to get the references associated with these films. I personally would never choose it but I know some have had success with Metropolis and good for them.

Go for polish: Silent movies are hardly the creaking, scratchy, sepia relics that many people believe them to be. I have had success showing friends such polished entertainment as Mary Pickford’s My Best Girl (perfectly classic rom-com) and Louis Feuillade’s Judex (an addictive revenge serial). The British genius dog film Rescued by Rover is another great pick. If a silent film makes you stop and say, “Now THAT is quality filmmaking!” then chances are other people will feel the same way.

What about you? Have you had success showing a particular silent film to a newcomer? Share! It may help someone else introduce a friend to the wonderful world of silents.

Obviously, the films will depend on your personal taste (I obviously have a great fondness for French silents) and the taste of your audience, there are no wrong answers.

If you’d like to see my curated list of silent films for newcomers, check out the Your First Year of Silent Films series.

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57 Replies to “Which silent films have you shown to newbies? Did they work?”

  1. Short comedies only

    Laurel & Hardy
    Chaplin Mutuals
    Keaton Shorts
    Harold Lloyd — but only the last shorts

    Don’t get too clever. This stuff works. Get the best possible picture quality and a score that is neither ricky-ticky, nor avant-garde. Bowl straight up the middle for a strike.

    Accepting the conventions of silent drama is a second-level task.

    1. Getting the best quality in picture and music is definitely a must but I must say that I have had some pretty good success with the dramas I’ve shown. But, again, the taste of one’s friends/family is very much a factor.

  2. Some silent films transcend eras successfully because they radiate something timeless, such as the Americana and outdoorsy TOL’ABLE DAVID, the overly made-up silly clown hilarity of THE CIRCUS, the sci-fi content of METROPOLIS, the genuine horror thrill in PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, the children in SPARROWS, and the clever silliness rampant in any short with with Fatty, Charlie, or Buster. I’ve used these successfully.

  3. Live performances are likely to achieve the most success. I recently drew about four curious millennials from my office to see William Gillette in Sherlock Holmes at the Toronto Silent Film Festival. A couple of them started cheering and reacting to it with the energy of a sports fan. (They were not expecting to enjoy it so much!) I took my older sister and her nephew to see Gold Rush. My 23-year-old nephew appreciated the film for its many dimensions. My sister? Not so much. I took a date to see a Marion Davies film. She couldn’t get over Davies’s bad teeth, hammy acting and mediocre looks. Maybe the critics weren’t so wrong after all! Greta Garbo in Flesh in the Devil is a good example of a film that almost dates very well and is very accessible as a home viewing–except that one should not forget the odd and perhaps unintended homoerotic relationship between John Gilbert and Lars Hanson. And never, ever show Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. You won’t win any friends there!

    1. Yes, live screenings are wonderful and if you have access, go for it!

      I will fight to the death for Marion Davies, though! (I’ll wager the film wasn’t Show People or The Patsy.)

      1. You are correct! The film in question: When Knigthood Was in Flower. With respect to her talents, Show People and especially The Patsy are somewhat redemptive. There should always be a special place held for Marion. She played a significant part in film history.

  4. Hmmm…
    I was watching the big chase scene in “Seven Chances” once when my younger sister walked in. She watched the rest of the movie with me and seemed pretty awestruck at the stunts.
    My dad also went with me to see a screening of “The Cat and The Canary” and he enjoyed it quite a bit.

    My family has seen other silent movies with me and so far they seem to be alright with them. The biggest negative reaction I’ve gotten so far is them getting a bit weirded out by the way family members in these movies show physical affection for each other. (“Why would you kiss your brother like that”?)

    Overall, I’d say anything that isn’t too weird and goes at a fairly quick pace is good. I’d go for comedy or horror. And of course, avoid any films that contain overt racial stereotypes or black/yellowface.

    1. Forgot to mention The Cat and the Canary! What a gem that one is.

      Yes, there are certain cultural elements that can definitely seem odd to modern viewers (too much family kissing!!!!). The stereotype issue is one reason why I like to show Chaplin; he did not like to include that sort of thing.

  5. I have a wrong answer, but it turned out okay. My love and I finished watching something on the DVR and afterwards the TV happened to be on Turner Classic Movies showing the Larry Semon Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Fortunately something ridiculous was going on and my love was intrigued, and this turned into a successful sampling. I explained — only after my love asked — the plot points we had missed and what I remembered about how the movie was made and why it’s so weird and why the inter titles are so little text compared to how much speaking the actors plainly do on camera.

    So, it all turned out well and while my love isn’t a silent-movie fan, is interested and eager to see more. But it was a screwy way to get there.

  6. Live performances are a great way to get started. When I was in college, I took a date to see Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera at what is now the Overture Center in Madison, Wisconsin. The date part didn’t really work out too well, but she did tell me that I made her a convert to silent films.

    Usually, I like to start newbies out with Safety Last or The General. Both films are accessible to a new viewer, high quality copies are relatively inexpensive, and they have the advantage of being very funny.

    Oh, and don’t show the 1910 version of the Wizard of Oz. My daughter saw that with me, and she was not impressed at all (of course, she’s 13, so nothing I do will impress her anyway). My son has expressed some interest in Our Gang comedies, but only the sound ones.

    1. Yes, pre-feature cinema without, say, the Melies brand or a cute dog is always a bit of a risk. I confess to not being an enormous fan of Selig’s output on the best of days. Now Gaumont…

      1. I’m not as familiar with Gaumont as I probably should be, alas. My personal favorite studio from the nickelodeon era is Vitagraph. I ran across Eye Film Institute’s YouTube channel a while back, and spent an entire weekend watching most of their Vitagraph postings (even thought the subtitles are in Dutch). Their films tended to run more to dramas and domestic comedies rather than slapstick, which holds a lot of appeal to me. And The Picture Idol is a sweet and funny film, easily my favorite pre-feature movie.

  7. No matter which film(s) i choose, i prefer to introduce silents at a theatre with live accompaniment – usually organ or piano. Cinefamily, formerly The Silent Movie Theater, in Hollywood, shows silents with live accompaniment once per month. (It used to be “always”!)

    That said, no matter the age of the silent newbies, i stick with showings of well-known classics: Steamboat Bill, Jr., Phantom of the Opera, Metropolis, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. These films are timeless, and always result in “silent converts”.

  8. It’s so interesting to read the other comments for this post!

    Here’s a list of films we’ve screened that managed to spark the interest of our “I’ve never seen a movie before where people don’t talk” visitors and even had some requesting more:

    Features (no particular order)-

    East and West, Ben Hur, The Kid, The Crowd, The Sea Hawk, Show People, Ella Cinders, The Merry Widow, The Cheat, Pandora’s Box, Sunrise, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Hell’s Hinges, Sherlock Jr., Seven Years Bad Luck, A Fool There Was, The Unholy Three, Carmen, Hotel Imperial, Barbed Wire, Safety Last, South, The Black Pirate, The Phantom of the Opera, Eve’s Leaves.

    Shorts (again, no special order)-

    One Week, The Scarecrow, The Goat, Fatty and Mabel Adrift, Mabel’s Dramatic Career, He Did and He Didn’t, Two Tars, Big Business, Double Whoopee, Shivering Spooks, Derby Day, Kid Auto Races at Venice, Love, Speed, and Thrills, Wished on Mabel, The Immigrant, The Rink, The Bangville Police, Fatty’s Faithful Fido, Haunted Spooks, His Marriage Wow, The New York Hat, Bad Buck of Santa Inez, The Playhouse.

  9. I saw a live revival of CITY LIGHTS when I was still in High School and it changed my whole attitude toward silent films. I have used it often to introduce silents to friends and loves. Sometimes, I get, “its cute”. But mostly, I get responses from awestruck viewers. They might not be silent film converts, but at least they will have a knowledge that not all films from the silent period are “corny”: or “hard to watch”.Chaplin and Keaton and Lloyd and Pickford are the perfect entree’s.

  10. Hi,

    A friend of mine at work asked why I liked silents so I suggested he watch One Week, The Immigrant & The General to find out. He watched all of them and was amazed. I must admit though dramas are a lot harder to sell. Another friend doesn’t get the way the title cards work expecting them just to be all dialogue and was disappointed that characters were clearly talking but the words were not being put up on the screen. However, the one film that really seemed to impress him was The Penalty with Lon Chaney, it seems so modern and still shocks.
    My daughter loves The Doll with Ossi Oswalda and Girl Shy with Harold Lloyd so they would also be good starting points.

    Antony

    1. Yes, any film contains a certain set of conventions that the audience of the period just accepts. I sometimes wonder how viewers of the future will react to characters moving around to pop songs on the screen but not seeming to “hear” them.

      Ossi is always a delight!

  11. Had great success with “The Freshman” for a multigenerational audience as well as “City Lights.” These are great films and still funny after all these years. They also have a very human quality

  12. Metropolis and Cabinet of Dr. Caligari were more or less my gateways. I’ve had some luck with “Fantomas,” especially with friends who like the Surrealists or Edward Gorey. The problem with silent comedy is that it tends to confirm certain intellectuals’ bias about “primitive” and “uncouth” early film. That said, something more refined, like “City Lights” or Keaton’s “The Cameraman” can work wonders.

    1. Very true. And some viewers never make the jump from comedy to drama. Not that there’s anything wrong with having a comedy preference but it is a shame to never dip one’s toes into drama.

      Caligari worked quite well on a Tim Burton fan of my acquaintance.

  13. I have had good luck with Keaton shorts and Chaplin Mutuals. I went with a friend and his school friends to a double bill of Broken Blossoms and Way Down East. They weren’t impressed by Broken Blossoms. I could tell they really got into Way Down East. One guy said that when Lillian Gish named Lowell Sherman as the father of her baby, “He really (pooped) a brick.” I saw that as a sincere appreciation.

  14. In these circumstances, I tend to agree with Popegrutch : comedy shorts can reinforce stereotypes, even though the neophytes may enjoy them. I have a 100 percent success rate with Nosferatu, Phantomas and Sunrise. Also worth a try are Haxan, the Phantom Carriage, the Adventures of Prince Ahmed, the Iron Horse, any of Chaplin’s silent features and most of Keaton’s, Cabiria and House of Mystery. I think you have to try to match the film to the individual you’re introducing it to. I wouldn’t introduce most people to silent film via the Passion of Joan of Arc or Abel Gance’s Napoleon, but I have shown them very successfully to people I thought would appreciate them as much as I do.

    1. Oh yes, definitely. It’s also useful to choose films that feature stars, directors or other personnel who made the jump to talkies and have a modern fanbase. Someone who may not sit through a German silent film under normal circumstances may do so to see Conrad Veidt.

  15. I had success by showing The Yankee Clipper (comedy/romance/adventure) and The Volga Boatman (drama/romance). Fantastic films with great quality – my gang really enjoyed them!

  16. What genre of silent movies people might like can be gleaned from what kind of current movies they like. For instance, people more interested in art cinema and spectacular visuals might go for German silents like Caligari or the output of Murnau. I showed Metropolis to a guy with a theatre background and he enjoyed the exaggerated physical performances. My sister loves the silent rom-coms of the late 20’s almost more than I do. My dad is interested in WWI and he likes Wings. I have as a general rule to never EVER present Intolerance as the first silent movie for people to see, but I made an exception for a guy who is extremely mellow, patient, open-minded and into weird stuff. He didn’t hate it.

    Maybe I have a lot of arty, political friends, idk, but in my experience, the thing that can put people off silents is not so much the acting as the different values. Wings and Flesh and the Devil’s homoerotic moments aren’t as much of a problem for modern-day audiences as the way the leading ladies in those two movies are treated, for example. Then there is the frequent plot point where a woman gets judged by the leading man for her presumed promiscuity. See It, Tess of the Storm Country, Street Angel, Joyless Street, Why be Good, Our Dancing Daughters. In Why Be Good and Our Dancing Daughters the woman in question at least calls out the man and defends herself. The Garden of Eden and Way Down East stand out because the leading man DOESN’T slut-shame the heroine, so they work more as romances for me – I can believe the leading man is not a complete moron. Meanwhile, in Joyless Street, Greta Garbo’s love interest shames her for being a prostitute at an establishment he himself is visiting as a customer, while in Street Angel Charles Farrell tries to strangle tiny Janet Gaynor because he suspects she is a whore. This kind of blantant double standard can be hard for modern-day viewers to stomach. Even if they get that it’s a different time, it can hinder their enjoyment of the movie. I think the different social mores of silent movies are a part of what makes them fascinating, but not everyone is going to be able to look at them in that way.

    1. Yes, indeed. If someone likes modern rom-coms, chances are they will enjoy silent ones as well. Absolutely agree that comparing and contrasting modern life to what was shown in silents is a ton of fun.

    2. I agree with you! Thats one reason I enjoy Way Down East so much. In The Red Lily with Ramon Novarro, same thing happens when he realizes what his girlfriend does to support herself, but atleast he is sorry for being cruel to her in the end. Great analysis!

  17. This is a great comment!

    I have often mentioned to others how many of the recurring themes in silent films explore (exploit?) the double standards associated with gender dynamics. A man can cavort all he wants but a woman’s entire life can seemingly be fu$&#d by a single reputation-damaging affair, act of lust, or a desperate need to sell or compromise her sense of self. For me, I think the films that you mention, along with many others like Hindle Wakes, Sadie Thomson, The Goddess, or even Lubitsch films certainly make powerful and interesting arguments about gender equity and feminist-related issues which still exist today, even though the social context in 2017 has evolved to no longer single out women who are single parents, deal with unwanted pregnancies, or who–God forbid–assert their sexuality as much as men.

    Films like Joyless Street, Street Angel or Ménilmontant can certainly be very disturbing for today’s uninitiated silent-film viewer to comprehend (and contextualize) but I think that given the overall precariousness of gender equity in our society, these films are not so distinct from the world in which we live today. As an aside, I recently watched Criterion’s collections of Japanese silent films by Ozu and Naruse where men are weak and the women must prevail–a whole different perspective.

    And maybe we haven’t advanced that much after all? In 50 years, I’d like to know how people will view our treatment of women in film today where idealized body-image issues, tight clothing, and highly sexualitied superhero-type characters are the norm. Greta Garbo never looked so good!

    But to your comment, maybe the silents films that you mention can serve as an acute and painful reminder for us to be more respectful to each other (i.e.,notably women) as we navigate the precarious waters of gender equity.

  18. I loved reading all the responses here, and of course I can see how default choices like Chaplin’s CITY LIGHTS, Keaton’s THE GENERAL, and even METROPOLIS would be ideal tests for those who have never seen a silent or even have no interest in them. Yet, there is only one film, which I have been using as an intro for many years and it has worked every single time I have shown it to friends and, in one case, a classroom of high school students. And the film in question would be Harold Lloyd’s THE KID BROTHER (1927); all of those I have shown it to had the exact same reaction I did when I first watched it which was absolute astonishment. The physical comedy in the film is of course pure gold, but I firmly believe its the romantic comedy element, the underlying sweetness in which Lloyd injected which made it I think timeless. It also boasts the perfect length, a marvelous score from the great Carl Davis, a lovely and irresistible Jobyna Ralston (as you should know, it was the last film she made with Lloyd making it all the more sentimental) and a truly terrifying villain in Constantine Romanaff. The climax on the boat has never failed to raise the hairs on not only the back my neck but on everyone’s I’ve screened the film.

    I know historians tend to write off Lloyd as the “third genius” of silent movie comedy but, to me anyway, Lloyd is still not given enough credit. For example, in 1001 Movies to See Before You Die, it’s incredible that the author included 5 films EACH of Chaplin and Keaton, yet the sole entry from Lloyd’s resume was—you guessed it—THE KID BROTHER. Lloyd’s daughter on the DVD commentary makes the bold statement that her father actually created the romantic comedy (which is certainly debatable), yet that early scene where Lloyd climbs the tree and asks Ralston three questions, each time going higher and higher, is to me a quintessential example bolstering the argument. The laughter during the night-to-morning sequence with Lloyd and his brothers as they all attempt to woo Ralston (complete with Lloyd fooling them while in drag) has always received practically deafening laughter from everyone who has watched it with me. And how about that ending? Sweet, sublime, perfect and just audience-pleasing. When I met Kevin Brownlow several years ago, he seemed to be in agreement that THE KID BROTHER, even if it’s not mentioned nearly as often as Chaplin/Keaton films, is nonetheless a masterpiece and I think 21st century audience responses has absolute confirmed that, at least for me. I love many silent films, but I think THE KID BROTHER is my personal favorite; it’s just impossible to dislike and to me a perfect choice for non-silent audiences who have yet to experience an unfortunately extinct genre.

    (By the way Fritzi, it’s been awhile since I responded to your blog entries, but I have done so under the alternate name of Mick Travis. Thank you very much for clarifying the runtime/ending of THE WIND for me, much appreciated.)

    1. Correction, forgive me: Lloyd doesn’t technically go in drag when his brothers bring him in breakfast, but he still fools them by means of some shower curtains as bracelets….hilarious!

    2. Thanks for sharing! Yes, I am very opposed to the humor hierarchy that has cropped up around silent comedians. Humor is so subjective and what people consider a “good” comedy vs. a “great” comedy varies considerably. This notion that there is an objective method for measuring funny is just ridiculous. We all like what we like.

      Glad to help with The Wind! It’s a perfect example of a “fact” that so many of us accept until it collapses once someone digs into the archives. (In this case, Charles Affron did the digging.) If I had a dime for every person who claimed they were holding out for the “European ending” then… I would have a lot of dimes. 😉

  19. Both as a kid showing silent films to other kids way back when and as a parent showing my own kids silent films much later, I had a lot of luck with The Navigator as a first exposure to silence. I also remember both kids and adults really liking Harold Lloyd’s From Hand to Mouth as a “beginner” silent film — they immediately got what was going on and the humor as well. Wings went over really well with older kids and adults, and later on Dr. Mabuse, Spies, The Hands of Orlac, Nosferatu, The Mark of Zorro, Robin Hood all seemed really accessible depending on tastes (and fed into all kinds of other films). Man, there are just so many good films — I know I’m leaving out a ton of great stuff :-). Looking at my impromptu list, I think one thing is that I tended to avoid “slower” silents at first (except maybe Orlac).

    One thing I never had any luck with, though: Charlie Chaplin. I love his work, but in my own personal experience it hasn’t gone over well with viewers who aren’t somewhat experienced with silent film. This has been true of both his shorts and full length films, even the really good stuff! I don’t know why. My daughter really didn’t like him at all when she saw some of his First National shorts. A couple of years (and several silent films later), she really liked his work.

    I’ve always only shown first silent films to friends and family in an informal atmosphere though, where, for example, stereotyping, sexism, and racism can be discussed and not endorsed implicitly. The Navigator has some really awful “natives”, and I sure didn’t show Birth of a Nation to my kids until they were old enough to recognize it as groundbreaking evil propaganda. I would tread very carefully presenting a first silent film in a more formal environment to a “real” audience. Maybe Steamboat Bill Jr.? One problem is that I remember a film as being quite good, and tend to edit appalling scenes out of my memories, which can lead to surprise discussions of 1920s homophobia, for example.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing! I’ve had success with Chaplin but that absolutely depends on the audience, setting, etc. Yes, there is so much historical background that needs to click into place before some silents can be properly screened. Also (I know this has happened to me) some silents that I saw when I was younger contain scenes or themes that I didn’t properly process at the time, leading to a bit of a jolt upon re-watching. For example, A Cottage on Dartmoor explicitly asks us to sympathize with an obsessed stalker and would-be murderer, something I didn’t realize when I saw it the first time and was taken in by its razzle-dazzle.

  20. I have always had success with Safety Last, but often my silent converts insist that they only want to watch new Lloyd films and I have to show them The General, but then they insist that they only want to see silent comedy and nothing else. But, I guess thats better than nothing 🙂 I did try Phantom of The Opera (1925) once, and it did not turn out well, the person i brought along fell asleep :/

  21. A late entry here, but not too late, I hope: “Docks of New York” is a film which I think can be safely shown to a newbie. It’s not too long, the store is simple but strong and the cast is good. Baclanova is fascinating, as she also is in “The Man who Laughs” and “Freaks” (can anyone recommend other existing films. Gustav von Seyffertitz, for me, is also worth a watch.

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