Obscure Even for Us: Which off-the-wall silent films do you unreservedly recommend?

There are maybe five or six silent films that are famous enough to be mentioned by Jane Q. Public. Metropolis, Battleship Potemkin, things like that. The list of “essential” silents– the films most silent film fans have heard about– is longer but there is still a long tail of obscure pictures that need advocates to get the word out.

Let’s play advocate! Share some silent film titles that you feel deserve to be on that list of essentials. Happy, sad, silly, serious, any genre and any period. (Modern too, if you like.)

Reveal your picks!

Readers of this site know that I am an absolute fanatic for The Fighting Eagle, The Wishing Ring and anything with Ivan Mosjoukine but I want to know your obscure choices.

Of course, obscurity is relative and so is taste. There are no wrong answers; if it’s obscure in your neck of the woods and you like it, please share. I’m sure everyone else will be very happy to get some new entries for the old to-watch list. (Sharpens pencil.)

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100 Replies to “Obscure Even for Us: Which off-the-wall silent films do you unreservedly recommend?”

  1. Sadie Thompson, The Crowd (not obscure per se, but you’d be surprised who hasn’t ever heard of it), The New York Hat, Sparrows, Brown of Harvard, Show People.

  2. EXIT SMILING (1926), starring the incredibly talented stage actress Beatrice Lillie as a stage hand for a decrepit traveling theatrical troupe who dreams of stardom. Beatrice channels Charlie Chaplin and then somehow makes it all her own in this wonderful bittersweet comedy. This film should be near the top of silent film must-see lists. My highest recommendation.

  3. Whispering Shadows (just watch last night and it’s terrific!), Children of Divorce, Wished on Mabel, A Flirt’s Mistake, Fatty’s Plucky Pup, His Marriage Wow, Peter Pan (1924), The Three Ages, Smoldering Fires, Shoes, That Little Band of Gold, Two Tars, The Devil’s Needle …and the flivver’s run out of gas for now ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Up in Mabel’s Room and Blonde for a Night, both with Marie Prevost. I don’t see much attention for these two films and they both are available on DVD.

    1. Marie Prevost films in general do seem a little scarce on the ground. May have to do something about it. ๐Ÿ˜‰ (Especially since “Blonde” is a programmer from DeMille’s studio. Love their stuff!)

  5. The pioneers are fascinating, especially those working in the one- and two-reel formats in those days more than a century ago from 1905-1915, when everyone was experimenting, nothing was standardized, and no one’s father had been in the industry before them. Give me a whomp ’em story crammed into a tight single reel any day, such as those Bronco Billy films; daredevil George Larkin in any of his serials, Max Linder’s Pathe comedies, Griffith’s Biographs, Sennett’s crazy madcaps, or Clara Kimball Young’s and Norma Talmadge’s Vitagraph melodramas. Probably more than 90% of the films made during those years are lost, so the few that survive through serendipity are great treasures. I prefer them to a long-winded turgid 10-reel drama any day!

  6. Nell Gwyn with Dorothy Gish, True Heart Susie, To’lable David, Stella Maris (THS, TD, SM should not be considered unknown, but they seem to get little play), The Golden Chance is a gem, The Doll and anything with Ossi Oswalda who was a delight in everything I’ve seen her in. And about 3 dozen more.

  7. To add to Dwight’s Marie Prevost recommendations, GETTING GERTIE’S GARTER (1927) is also part of that string of films and is really fun. There’s one more of that series of Prevost farces that I’m trying to track down: THE GIRL IN THE PULLMAN (1927).

  8. The best of Ozu’s late silents: Tokyo Chorus (1931), I Was Born But… (1932), Dragnet Girl (1933) and Story of Floating Weeds (1934). PS: TCM is showing Tokyo Chorus this Sunday night!

  9. “The Female of the Species” A 1912 Griffith Biograph one-reeler. Very interesting, Mary Pickford only co-stars and plays a very unsympathetic character.

  10. I second Sadie Thompson. I would also nominate Bare Knees, A Woman Scorned, and a film that appears high on some lists but still for some reason is somewhat obscure — The Wind. An impressive list generated today. I might have to put them all in a list and work my way down as there are many I have not seen.

  11. West of Zanzibar, the phantom carriage, man with the motion camera, diary of a lost girl, the penalty, the lost world, woman in the moon, are a handful of less-than-well-known titles that come to mind…

  12. I’ve recently seen The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, For the Love of Zero and Lot in Sodom, and was blown away by all three. Also Haxan and Cabiria, which are not well-enough known, if not exactly obscure. And Jean Vigo’s first two films – Apropos de Nice and Taris – have synchronised sound tracks, so may not qualify as silent, but they are brilliant and disappointingly little known.

    1. That’s an interesting topic: what is silent? I personally count films with synchronized effects (like Sunrise, for example) as silents as they are still telling their story visually. It’s really no different from the sound effects often employed by live accompanists.

  13. I vote for Winsor McCays “The Pet”! The animation quality and sense of humor of McCay’s films are likely to surprise a lot of people who think the world of a hundred years ago was stuffy and old fashioned, and that Walt Disney invented cartoons…

  14. CASTLE UNDER THE WIND AND CLOUD (I’ve lost the Japanese Title) produced by Kinugasa in 1927, THE NEW SCHOOL TEACHER Chick Sale directed by Greg La Cava, LE COUPABLE Andrรฉ Antoine directs Sylvie, THE SAFETY CURTAIN Norma Talmadge directed by Sidney Franlkin and THE STAIN with Theda Bara doing a bit part.

  15. “The Oyster Princess” never fails to cheer me up (in fact the sight of Julius Falkenstein in anything), and “Die Bergkatze” – Lubitsch & co clearly had a blast making that film, it’s as ridiculously over the top as anything Mel Brooks ever did.

  16. No surprise to anyone who knows me, I’d like to see Warners get proactive with the MGM silents of Marion Davies. To my knowledge, BEVERLY OF GRAUSTARK, THE CARDBOARD LOVER, THE FAIR CO-ED, LIGHTS OF OLD BROADWAY, TILLIE THE TOILER (this one may only be at Eastman) are all complete and in good shape. I’m not sure who owns rights to LITTLE OLD NEW YORK, and this one may have some issues with its color footage and sequencing, but this is about equal to the great WHEN KNIGHTHOOD WAS IN FLOWER as far as being a blockbuster with a great performance by Marion Davies.

  17. Good idea, I hope to discover some hiddem gems. Here’s my choice:

    White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929) by Arnold Fanck and G.W. Pabst, starring Leni Riefenstahl.
    A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) by Anthony Asquith
    St. Jorgen’s Day (1930) by Yakov Protazanov
    Les Misรฉrables (1925) by Henry Fescourt
    Kean (1924) by Alexandre Volkoff
    Blind Justice (1916) by Benjamin Christensen
    Von Morgens bis Mitternacht (1922) by Karl Heinz Martin
    After Death (1915) by Yevgeni Bauer

  18. Some of these got me hooked years ago. Definitely need to ask the viewer their preferred genera. From the top of my head…Pandora’s Box, Throw of the Dice, The Cheat, L’ Inhumaine, La Rue, The Phantom Carriage (AMAZING FILM!), Kean (any Ivan film, actually), The Freshman (or any Lloyd film), The General (my choice for best Keaton film), It, and too many others to mention. And documentaries Everest, etc. and Berlin; Symphony of Great City, and then there are the other expressionist films beyond Caligari.

  19. The only one I can think of is The Bells.In addition to an engaging story, Lionel Barrymore as a sympathetic villain, and an early appearance by Boris Karloff, it’s unusual in that it’s a horror type movie with redemption in its ending.

  20. Early DeMille, like “The Squaw Man” and “The Cheat” should be seen as essential, as should Feuillade. Going back further, Alice Guy-Blache deserves to be as well-known as Melies. For comedy, everyone should see “The Kid Brother.”

  21. These were all mentioned above, but I will second:
    Shoes
    The Goose Woman
    A Cottage on Dartmoor
    (And thank you San Francisco Silent Film Festival for introducing me to all of these).

  22. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Lang’s Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, Murnau’s Sunrise, Keaton’s The General, Ozu’s silent Floating Weeds, Pandora’s Box. Chaplin’s City Lights is technically a sound film, but is mostly silent and is his best.

  23. The comedies of Jaques Feyder that are available at the Gaumont treasures vol. 2-film set are my current favourites. I enjoyed Heads… and the women who use them (1916), but the one I really like is Friendly Advice (1916). Friendly Advice is about a European classical violinist who falls in love with an American modern girl. These films are both short and have simple plots, but they are well shot and employ a lot of close-ups, and are funny in a gentle way. The actors are understated, but at the same time they have striking faces, as i they come from comics from that time period.

    Mostly, I just relish well-made movies from the 1910’s. Apart from a few epic movies and some milestones, I think most of the ones available are relatively obscure. I adore Judex. The Wishing Ring is definitively on my watchlist!

  24. Let’s see…Traffic in Souls; Tell It to the Marines (Chaney in an excellent non-horror role); The World and the Woman; Our Dancing Daughters/Our Modern Maidens (they seem to go together); Her Wild Oat (which really needs to come out on DVD); Hot Water…the list could go on and on.

  25. The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrovna, starring Brigitte Helm and Franz Lederer, directed by the criminally unknown Hanns Schwarz. A heartbreaker.

    A Kiss For Cinderella starring Betty Bronson and Tom Moore, directed by Herbert Brenon. Really inventive, funny and ultimately touching. Unfortunately the film is in very poor condition….but it’s still well worth your time.

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