What was the first silent movie you ever watched?

Some of us will have to dig back to our childhoods, others will have to go back a few weeks but let’s share our earliest silent film memories.

When I was a kid, I had a VHS tape of the silent Mutt and Jeff cartoons, which were redrawn in the 1960s or 1970s and had a groovy soundtrack added. For some reason, it never really occurred to me that these were silent films.

My first official silent film was Sparrows (1926) and… I hated it. The tape was faded and the organ score was warped and droning. (Don’t worry, I like it now. You can read my review here.) It taught me very early that who releases a silent film is almost as important as the movie itself.

Fortunately, I followed up with Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights and the rest is history.

So, what about you? Do you remember your first silent? Please share!

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119 Replies to “What was the first silent movie you ever watched?”

  1. We had an 8mm copy of one of the Disney “Alice” films, so I would guess that it was the first silent film (aside from our own 8mm home movies) that I saw. I saw a lot of the classics – Chaplin, “Caligari”, “Potemkin” fairly early, but I suspect that the first silent feature I saw was “Tillie’s Punctured Romance”.

  2. Well, seeing Days of Thrills & Laughter on TV as a kid multiple times was my first look at assorted silent comedies. But I think my first full film was Metropolis (well, back when it was still an incomplete kinda fuzzy VHS mess).

  3. My first silent was probably something on Fractured Flickers or a similar show, but the first one I can identify was The General. I was sitting in my grandparents’ rumpus room with my grandfather and we watched it on a small television. I remember laughing and I remember my grandfather saying how much he had liked Buster Keaton when he was young. My grandfather came to the US speaking no English and silent films were a great comfort.

  4. I was 16 when I saw my first-it was Chaplin’s “The Fireman”. Ironically, it isn’t considered one of the best Mutuals, but it showed me my assumptions about Chaplin had been wrong-I had thought he was kind of weird, based purely off seeing only impersonators.

      1. Exactly! Chaplin impersonators tend to stick only to his obvious traits. Without Chaplin’s superb acting, it just seems awkward and a bit uncomfortable to watch. What you need is the whole package.

  5. “The Cameraman”. Which initially was just to see classic footage of Yankee Stadium since I’ve always knew and already seen the footage of Buster in the film and knew how much of a baseball fan he was.

  6. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” with Lon Chaney. The local PBS station would show silent films on Sunday afternoons or evenings in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s. I had always been fascinated by that story, and the silent version just seemed so much more intense without dialogue, and with Chaney’s fantastic makeup. It probably helped that my father had grown up on silent movies, and he would occasionally talk about what it was like “back in the day,” so the concept of silent films wasn’t something weird or off-putting to me.

    1. My first silent movie Γ s well. Then moved on to Phantom of the Opera, Nosferatu, etc. All on Super 8 reels from Blackhawk Films. I loved it when I got a film catalog from Blackhawk. Like Christmas every month. I freaked whenever a newly discovered Chaney print appeared on the cover. What fun that was!

  7. I started going to the movies on my own in 1945 at age 8. There were two small neighborhood movie theaters within walking distance. The owner or manager of one of them must have been a film buff because a classic film was sometimes shown in the middle of the week, usually one from the early 1930s. On one occasion the film was a silent — “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” I was familiar with the plot because I had read the Classics Illustrated comic book version of the novel. I vaguely recall some kids walking out, but I must have enjoyed it well enough because I stayed to the end — of course, I wanted to get my ten cents worth. The theater always showed a double feature, but I don’t recall what talkie accompanied the silent. At that theater I remember seeing the newly released “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

  8. I’m not sure what the first silent film I ever watched is, but I do know the first I saw in an actual theater! A small local movie house near me occasionally shows free silent films with live piano accompaniment, and the first of those I went to was Hitchcock’s The Lodger. It was a great time, and also taught me that silent movies could have color tints!

  9. I *think* my first silents were some Chaplin shorts on 8mm that were shown at a friend’s birthday party when I was maybe 8. If I recall correctly, one of them was “The Tramp.”
    The first one I have a clear memory of was “Metropolis,” which came to theaters accompanied by music by the Eurythmics and others when I was about 13. That’s now remembered as some kind of blasphemy. Actually, I rather liked it.

  10. I was a late comer to the silents. When I studied Film at University I properly got a taste. I think I had seen Chaplin movies in college but never really engaged until 6 or 7 years ago. Melies’ La Voyage Dans La Lune in my film history module was probably my first silent love – that and DalΓ­’s Un Chien Andalou. These were the films to really catch my attention!

  11. Of course I saw many excerpts from Chaplin, Keaton and the Keystone Kops as a kid but the first full film was “The Passion of Joan of Arc”. Maria Falconetti completely blew me away. You could feel the confusion and fear and anguish of her character.

  12. We had several VHS tapes of old, public domain cartoons when I was young, and some of those may have been silent, at least originally. I’m not absolutely positive what my first “official” silent was, but I suspect it was either Nosferatu (after it was referenced on an episode of Spongebob Squarepants) or He Who Gets Slapped (thanks to the intriguing title, mainly).

  13. Wow, those college days are kind of a blur. I think my “first” silent must have been “Cabinet of Dr Caligari” or “Metropolis,” but now that someone mentioned it, maybe it was “Nosferatu.” Loved those German Expressionists. The most memorable silent I saw was “Metropolis” because there was live music by Wolf with a theremin, which is a very spooky and divine musical instrument perfect for an Expressionist movie. I also went on a day trip out-of-town to see “Thief of Baghdad” with a live orchestra – amazing!

  14. Before I was old enough to go to school, probably when I was 4 or 5 in 1959 or thereabouts there used to be a kid’s show on TV that showed Mac Sennett comedies all the time. I can’t tell you what the film was, but I do remember seeing the Keystone Cops and Ben Turpin – a lot!

  15. I used to watch Silent Sundays on TCM in elementary school (1990s) and I so wish I could remember what my true, true first was but I did start exploring Buster Keaton not long after and then that turned into exploring silent film across many genres and discovering all kinds of new-to-me stars. Now I try to watch any I can get my hands on!

  16. Our PBS affiliate in Austin used to show Nosferatu pretty often back in the late ’70s. My dad and I used to watch it, with my dad providing humorous commentary. But finally got to see one in the theater with organ accompaniment 2 years ago in LA. What an AMAZING difference!

  17. I am sure my first silent exposure was with my Dad on his old (I still have it) 8mm projector showing films we would loan from the library. My first theater silent film experience was “Hunchback of Notre Dame”. I wasn’t into silent films, and overall a forgettable experience from that standpoint. One thing I do remember, and oh do I wish I had paid more attention. There was an older gentleman playing the Wurlitzer, and before the show started he was introduced to good applause that as a teenager he had played to silent films when silent films were all you could see. As far as the silent film that got me hooked…I really don’t have one like so many people do. I remember watching “Beyond the Rocks” and that was interesting enough that I watched others. So, I did not have a lightbulb event but rather kept coming back for more until at some point, I was (and am) hooked.

  18. I remember seeing Sennett Keystone films at my grandparents’ house, probably one of the Robert Youngson compilations; I think the first full silent I ever saw was the Time/Life version of Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman, circa 1978, which is a good place to start.

  19. Mine was Huckleberry Finn (1920), I think, I’m not sure if it is the 1920 version, though. But I didn’t see it all the way through, so my official first that I saw all the way through was Silent Movie (1976).

  20. I can’t remember my very first silent, but I clearly remember when I “got it” about silent film. I was watching “Flesh and the Devil” on PBS (pre-cable) There was an extended close-up of Greta Garbo that absolutely blew me away. I have not revisited the film for fear of damaging an important memory from my teen years.

    Fortunately, we lived within walking distance of a major film archive, so I was able to easily explore my new found interest through weekly silent film showings. Over the years, I even got to meet Blanche Sweet, Viola Dana, and Louise Brooks!

  21. I think for me it was The Great Train Robbery. I was taking a film history class in college and the professor started it off with a bunch of short silent films. I remember seeing the guy shooting at the camera and was reminded of the ending of Goodfellas with Pesci…

  22. The General, I remember it was one of the “Killiam Classics” and it was running on the local Our TV at the time (Lord this shows how freakin’ old I am) didn’t get UHF channels, so I went to the neighbors house and watched it on her little 12″ Black and white portable.

  23. For me, The Volga Boatman. I was anxious to see William Boyd in one of his most popular silent films. Before seeing it, I was looking for information about the film online and was led to your fantastic review here on Movies Silently – then I was really anxious to see it! I’ve loved it ever since.

  24. Watched silent Ben Hur as DVD extra while recuperating from a injury. Spent rest of short term disability devouring ailments.

  25. No doubt about it! First were the silent ‘Felix the Cat’ cartoons on Saturday morning tv in the mid 1950s. Intertitle cards for sounds and sometimes just words written on the screen like “OUCH!” Lots and lots of tiny mice always running around! Even my 7 year old mind knew these were from the past, and I loved them! Thanks for the memories, Fritzi!

  26. I grew up in New York City in the 1960’s and remember watching silent movies on the local PBS channel WNET-13. I remember two gentlemen (one of whom was a silent film enthusiast named Herb Graf) hosting late Saturday nights night marathons of the Chaplin Essanays and Mutuals. And then there was Lillian Gish hosting “The Silent Years” in the 1970’s, where I caught many great silents for the first time…

  27. The first silent film I ever watched was “The General” on PBS back in 1970. The silent film that got me excited about the art form was “Scaramouche” (1923). Then started my interest in the life and career of Ramon Novarro – and the rest is history…..

  28. Remember watching on PBS in the 70’s silent movies…Sally of the Sawdust….Thief of Bagdad….The Gold Rush…Intolerance…Hunchback of Notre Dame. Probably was the “The Silent Years” program, don’t remember Orson Welles intros. Not sure which movie was first. Do remember Killiam/Perry names on the production credits. That hooked me until I was able to watch more movies on AMC then onto TCM…Been hooked ever since 😎

  29. I remember watching Comedy Capers and Fractured Flickers on TV as a kid (I’m 60 and Australian), so it was probably a Sennett Comedy. I dimly remember a lot of Keystone Cops and Ben Turpin, though that may have been the opening credits of Comedy Capers. Also Felix the Cat cartoons. I think the first silent I saw at a cinema was Nosferatu, Battleship Potemkin or Metropolis, each of which popped up at University film clubs a lot in the 70s.

  30. Embarrassed to admit that, for years, I just didn’t “get” silents, until being hooked by Sadie Thompson on one of TCM’s Silent Sundays three years ago. I’ve travelled backwards since, making up for lost time.

  31. In England we had a bloke, Bob Monkhouse, who had a fine collection of silent comedies which were shown on TV.
    The first non-comedy I watched was ” Phantom of the Opera”.
    I have most recently watched “Hearts of the World”, maybe other subscribers would like to reveal their most recent.
    Keith S.

  32. I believe that mine would be the Harold Lloyd shorts that made up “Harold Lloyd’s World Of Comedy”, a half hour show that featured two redacted shorts, sans intertitles, with a male voice over to explain the story.

    They used to show it on weekday afternoons on UK TV back in the early 80’s when I was still a sprog of 7 or 8 but the silent aspect never really occurred to me until a few years later when I saw Nosferatu for the first time.

  33. I recall some clips of Chaplin Mutuals on Nickelodeon’s TURKEY TELEVISION. There is also Keaton’s THE ELECTRIC HOUSE on Showtime sometime in the 1980s. The first feature film I do vividly recall was THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (probably a Killiam print) on Arts & Entertainment in November 1988.

  34. i was fascinated by the channel TCM on our cable. one day, i stumbled upon the cameraman and i had no clue that it was one of buster keaton’s classic movies. i stayed through it, enjoying his misadventures with his camera and monkey. from that moment, my curiosity with silent movies grew!

  35. I was introduced to silent films by TV series called Silents Please. This led to an obsession with Theda Bara, Pola Negri and the Gish sisters. The first full length silent film I saw was The General.

  36. I first watched a handful of Chaplin shorts (The Rink, The Tramp, Making a Living, and His Favorite Pastime) and his feature, The Gold Rush. The Gold Rush was a bad dub of the Rohrhauer print which had already been ordered destroyed, I think… And the organ score was the same four songs OVER AND OVER AND…you get the idea.

    BUT I WAS HOOKED! Phantom of the Opera was a couple of years later and the rest is history, I guess.

  37. My parents got a VCR for Christmas 1984 and my great-aunt and -uncle got us two VHS of silent movies: Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera and Chaplin’s Tillie’s Punctured Romance. One afternoon not long after, my parents were headed out for an hour or two, leaving me home alone. I asked if I could watch one of the new movies. They told me to *not* watch Phantom because I’d be too scared. Guess what I watched? I was transfixed… even though it was a horrible print and there was no musical score. (And yeah, I got a little scared, too.)

  38. When I was a kid in the late ’60’s -early 70’s, you could borrow 8mm silent movies from the library. While the central library downtown had a large collection, our local neighborhood branch only had about a dozen films. So we watched those same dozen films over and over. I don’t remember which movie we saw “first”, but I remember that the dozen which made up our repeat viewing included Laurel & Hardy’s “Two Tars” and “Big Business”, Chaplin’s “The Immigrant” and “The Gold Rush”, Keaton’s “One Week”, “Cops”, and “The General”, Lillian Gish in “Orphans of the Storm”, and Mary Pickford in “Sparrows”. We enjoyed them all, though our special favorites were L&H. (We adored Stan and Ollie so much that we had bed sheets and pillowcases with their pictures cartooned all over them.)

    We wanted to make it seem like a “real” movie theater, so we would make a poster advertising movie night and inviting parents and grandparents. We’d make popcorn, put an instrumental LP on the record player (usually Dad’s Scott Joplin record), and screen the movie on the off-white wall of the darkened living room.

  39. First silent movie I ever watched was HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME with Lon Chaney, Sr. On 10 Super 8, 400ft reels from Blackhawk Films way back in 1972. I was hooked from then on. No score or sound effects but was still a great experience.

  40. I know I saw some silents when I was a kid, but can’t remember any of them (they obviously didn’t make much of an impression). Then my first semester of college I was required to watch City Lights as part of a literature class. It’s safe to say I was hooked.

  41. The first silent movie I ever saw was THE ARTIST, right after it first came out. I liked it, but it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve really started to seek out silent films. The one that really got me hooked was THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. Turns out I’m a huge German Expressionism fan. πŸ™‚

  42. Something (title???) with Ben Turpin in local school hall; probably a fundraiser. I was about 10.
    Ten years later C.T. Dreyer’s ‘Passion of Joan of Arc.’ at a film society, with obligatory Bell & Howell 16mm projector chatter in the background and atonal music via an LP, which worked quite well, as I remember it.

  43. I usually say it was The Jazz Singer. πŸ™‚ In fairness, it was the first time I saw a film with intertitles. I guess that the first real silent movie I watched was an unrestored print of Wings. My first exposure to the style of silent films was probably Pink Panther cartoons on TV.

    Once one knows what to look for, there are traces of the silents everywhere.
    2001: A Space Odyssey. is very nearly a silent film. You can see the visual DNA of the silents in a lot of Alfred Hitchcock’s talkies. Honestly, i think that as a graduation project, every film student should have to shoot a short silent film; it would teach them to show, not tell.

    After saying all that, i have to confess that I am not really a “silent movie guy” so much as just a “movie guy”… I like ’em all!

    Ron

    P.S. Flicker Alley are releasing The Lost World on Blu Ray!

  44. Great question! Love the varied responses.

    My first silent(s): Laurel and Hardy shorts, which aired on a local TV station 6:00am on Sundays. I fell in love with them, and they proved to be my “gateway” films to classic movies.

  45. I recall watching endless Koko the Clown cartoons on TV when I was a kid. Also Popeye, but they all had sound, in a manner of “speaking”. First feature film on a big screen? It may well have been “Birth of a Nation”. I don’t recall what I made of the cartoonish racism of the second half, only a more recent viewing made me think no verbal description could capture the jaw-dropping experience of a viewing.

  46. My great-uncles had worked in silent Hollywood (one was a cameraman for Tom Mix, the other for Max Sennet) so my mom would borrow super 8 prints of silent films from the local library to show us kids–I think the first one was SON OF THE SHEIK, followed closely by HUNCHBACK and others. My first “theatre” silent was THE GOLD RUSH in film class–and as you might guess, those screenings still resonate with me to this day.

  47. My first exposure to silent films was watching Harold Lloyd features on the local PBS station out of Madison in junior high in the mid seventies. Even though it may not have been the first one I saw, the one that sticks in my memory most was Girl Shy, and that one put the hook in me. I branched out after that, trying to catch as many as I could (not an easy task for a kid in a small town in the pre-cable, pre-VCR days) I did manage to see most of Harold Lloyd’s work; Valentino’s Blood and Sand and the Sheik; The Jazz Singer (whichis, for all practical purposes, a silent film); and a few others through high school. I remember taking a Mass Media class in my senior year, and the teacher screened Caligari. Not only was I the only one who had seen it before, but I was the only one in the class that had even seen a silent film.

    1. I’m sure the teacher was pleased, it’s always difficult to get over that “I don’t waaaaanna” hump with older films if the students are unfamiliar with them. πŸ™‚

  48. Metropolis was my first. While it will never be a film that I will call a favourite, it will always hold a special place in my heart for making me a fan of the Silent era. Its visuals never fail to leave me open mouthed in awe either.

    Before seeing this, I had no interest at all in watching films with no dialogue. We were shown the film in a film class when I was in College and I was just blown away. What I thought would be a boring film transfixed me completely. I was really impressed by the visuals (I think they remain some of the greatest ever made in film history). I slowly started to check out other Silent films after this and they are now one of my favourite types of film.

    I am 29 and I just wish that more people my age and younger would give Silent films a go, if they don’t they are missing out on moving art, impressive visuals (done long before CGI) and a different form of acting (one that is all about emotion and letting you share the characters emotional state.)

  49. I accidentally lied to you in my previous comment. I only remembered seeing the German Expressionists in college, then after reading other people’s comments, I remember seeing clips of comedy silents on TV in the 1970s, especially that Harold Lloyd clip where he is hanging off the clock. Think the TV exposure was the “gateway drug” that predisposed me to lie silents as an adult!

  50. Back when A & E ran silents on Saturdays and/or Sundays, it would have been either The Phantom of the Opera or Chaplin’s The Vagabond–I was ten. Looking back, I can’t believe that in that limited cable age (36 channels from the local company, thank you!) silent films would have been part of the daytime programming. 1987 for the win!!

    I “taped” The Phantom of The Opera and watched the ending over and over again (when Erik is holding the “bomb”). Just the look on Chaney’s face combined with William Perry’s score as he revealed that he wasn’t holding anything captivated me. It was masterful (not that I knew that word meant back then).

    More awkwardly, I didn’t understand what the abbreviation “Mlle” meant at the time. So, when a title card or two commenced “In Mlle…” I believe that I thought “Mlle” was some suburban location in France–not too far from Paris, of course. Such an odd child.

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