Must-See Silent Films: Making a List

I am working on a project (honestly, when am I NOT working on a project?) and I want to include a list of essential silent films. As the list should reflect more universal taste and because I will just put down a bunch of Ivan Mosjoukine films if left to my own devices, I am asking for your help.

Which silent films do you consider to be absolutely essential? Leave a comment below (for the sake of brevity, please limit the list to ten or fewer titles) and I will start compiling!

These aren’t necessarily the best silent films or your favorite silent films, they are the titles that you think will give a newcomer the best well-rounded viewing experience. I know the limit is hard but please take it as a challenge.

Feel free to list fewer than ten, if you like. Heck, if you only want to list one, that’s fine by me. Modern silents are fine as well. Outside-the-box choices are welcome and encouraged, though some classics are classics for a reason. There are no wrong answers, this is all a matter of your opinion. If you need some inspiration, here is Silent Era’s Top 100 and 50 Great Films listed in Classics of the Silent Screen.

If you prefer more privacy, you can submit up to ten titles with this survey but remember that publishing your list in the comments may inspire others, give them ideas or let them second your choices.

I look forward to seeing which titles you choose!

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42 Replies to “Must-See Silent Films: Making a List”

  1. 1. Sinking of the Lusitania (1918)
    2. Flesh and the Devil (1926)
    3. City Lights (1931)
    4. Sunrise (1927)
    5. Sadie Thompson (1928)
    6. Shoes (1916)
    7. I Was Born, But (1932)
    8. A Page of Madness (1926)
    9. A Fool There Was (1915)
    10. The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

  2. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) You KNEW I would go there
    Die Puppe
    Sunrise
    Miss Lulu Bett
    The Sea Hawk – You knew I’d go there, TOO
    The Son of the Sheik
    Woman of the World
    The Single Standard (best titlecard: Coffee and pistols for two?)
    The Thief of Bagdad
    Stella Maris
    I’d also recommend The Shakedown but it is harder to see.
    Jeez, I could list another 10 or 20…

  3. Hi Fritzi. The list is a great idea. These titles will probably be on several peoples’ comments, but I think anyone would benefit from seeing these:
    1 The Gold Rush
    2 City Lights
    3 The General
    4 The Navigator
    5 Safety Last
    6 The Kid Brother
    7 The Immigrant
    8 The Boat
    9 Never Weaken
    10 The Great Train Robbery

  4. Here is my list:

    1. City Lights
    2. The General
    3. Sunrise
    4. The Mark of Zorro
    5. Napoleon
    6. Intolerance
    7. Pandora’s Box
    8. Metropolis
    9. The Kid Brother
    10. Hells Hinges

  5. The Great Train Robbery
    Robin Hood (1922)
    Sparrows
    The Kid
    It
    The General
    Ben Hur
    Flesh and the Devil
    Safety Last
    Son of the Sheik

    And many, many more, of course!

  6. Sunrise 1927
    It’s a film I watched that first sparked a renewed interest in silent films.

    What Happened to Rosa 1921
    Very funny and not what I had thought silent films offered, it felt contemporary to me.

    The Strongman 1926
    I liked Harry Langdon’s less is more approach to silent film acting.

    The Docks of New York 1928
    Beautifully lit and great acting from Betty Compson.

    Hoodoo Ann 1916
    Mae Marsh shines in a roller coaster drama.

    The Flapper 1920
    Lots of outdoor scenes and seeing the energy of the cast was wonderful. It was like seeing all my grandparents and great aunts in their youth.

    A dog’s Life 1918
    Lots of talent from Charlie Chaplin and a well put together story.

    The Avenging Conscience 1914
    I was really surprised how well the special effect worked. I don’t think today’s effects are that much better.

    The Patsy 1928
    Marion Davies is funny in this, I love her silent film star impressions, especially Lillian Gish!

    I still have lots of silent ‘must see’ films to watch but these are ones I would personally recommend at the moment. They have all made a lasting impression on me. Looking forward to watching lots more silent films, they are fantastic!

  7. 1. One Week
    2. Fatty and Mabel Adrift
    3. Potemkin
    4. A Page of Madness
    5. The Dragon Painter
    6. The Cheat
    7. Mighty Like A Moose
    8. Stella Maris
    9. The Mark of Zorro
    10. Napoleon
    Echoing remarks upthread, could give you thirty-forty more shorts and features, and then there are all those wonderful serials……

  8. Talk about a thankless task “a list of essential films” is certainly there. Everyone will argue about the good ones you left out, and the (in their view) not-so-good ones you included… So you going with good (as seen in modern eyes) or historic – or both? My one suggestion is to consider some of the French silent serials – like Judex.

  9. 1. Sunrise
    2. Metropolis
    3. Caligari
    4. Passion of Joan of Arc
    5. City Lights
    6. The General
    7. The Freshman
    8. Poor Little Rich Girl
    9. It
    10. Musketeers of Pig Alley

  10. Too hard, but with some regretted omissions, and not ranked:

    Birth of a Nation

    The General

    Dr Mabuse , der Spieler

    Earth

    Man with a Movie Camera

    Battleship Potemkin

    The Lodger

    Napoleon (Gance)

    The Passion of Joan of Arc

    The Gold Rush

  11. Sunrise
    The Cure
    The Toll Gate
    The Penalty
    Steamboat Bill jr.
    the thieving Hand
    Til The Clouds Roll By
    Barbed Wire
    Cinderella
    Different Ffom The Others

  12. The Cameraman
    The General
    The Kid
    Safety Last
    Passion of Joan of Arc
    Cabinet of Dr. Caligiri
    Dr. Mabuse the Gambler(yes its long, but I was blown away by it and its so great it doesn’t seem 270 minutes)
    Sadie Thompson(as Norma Desmond says: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”)
    Sparrows(this is the silent equivalent to Night of the Hunter and shows the star of Mary Pickford)
    Robin Hood 1922(this is Fairbanks at his best, sorry Errol Flynn your still a far second)

  13. Alrighty then.

    The Immigrant (1917)
    Girl Shy (1924)
    The Last Laugh (1924)
    Exit Smiling (1926)
    3 Bad Men (1926)

    My Best Girl (1927)
    Sunrise (1927)
    The Cameraman (1928)
    Liberty (1929)
    Movie Night (1929)

    A bit heavy (ha!) on the comedy, but who doesn’t like to laugh?

  14. Nosferatu (1922) Sherlock Jr (1924) The Blot (1921) The Wind (1928) Diary Of A Lost Girl(1930) The Crowd(1928) Scarlet Letter (1926) Hypocrites (1916)Greed (1923) Show People(1928)

  15. The majority of F.W Murnau, Fritz Lang,Sergei Eisenstein Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin’s Silent work should certainly be on the list.

    I would also add the following films.

    The Phantom Carriage (1921)
    A Trip To The Moon (1902)
    Shooting Stars(1928)
    Wings(1927)
    The Goddess (1934)
    The Passion Of Joan Of Arc(1928)
    The Thief Of Bagdad (1924)
    The Penalty(1920)
    Broken Blossoms(1919)
    Pandora’s Box (1929)

  16. The Crowd (Vidor)
    The Goddess (Wu)
    The Last Laugh (Murnau)
    The Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
    Napoleon (Gance)
    Pandora’s Box (Pabst)
    The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
    Sunrise (Murnau)
    True Heart Susie (Griffith)
    The Wind (Sjöström)

    This list was made from the artistic point-of-view. If one is interested in the history of cinema or understanding the silent era audiences, the list would dramatically different.

  17. These are just ordered as I think of them, not by importance!

    1 One Week
    2 Big Business
    3 The Lost World
    4 Nosferatu
    5 Safety Last
    6 The Immigrant
    7 The Dog Factory
    8 Hell’s Hinges
    9 Pass the Gravy
    10 Go West

  18. I really can’t argue with any of the choices above, particularly when it comes to later period silents, but I’d like to add a few from the early experimental, nickelodeon and pre-Birth of a Nation feature eras, to give people a good idea of how film developed:

    Boxing Cats (1894). Just about any Lumiere or Edison film from the experimental era will do to show how far we’ve come, but with this one you can also tell people you’ve seen the earliest surviving example of the “cute cat video” trope.

    Life of an American Fireman (1902). Somewhat clunky but interesting example of experiments with cross-cutting. Make sure you see it in it’s original version, not the later one with the scenes rearranged to use more modern film editing techniques.

    Voyage to the Moon (1902). Although not my favorite director, the influence of Melies on film narrative cannot be denied. Great example of an early science fiction film.

    The Great Train Robbery (1903). Justifiably celebrated, and can either be enjoyed as a piece of film history or a remarkably fast paced little picture. Also one of the first westerns, which became a huge staple of the nickelodeon era.

    The Lonely Villa (1909). Griffith wasn’t the first to use parallel editing to heighten dramatic tension but, particularly in his short films, he was really, really good at it. And it has Mary Pickford, too.

    The Picture Idol (1912). A funny and touching little Vitagraph short, and a perfect example of the skill they and other companies brought to the nickelodeon era. Vitagraph did a lot of what would be later called “domestic comedies”, and they did them well.

    Traffic in Souls (1913). One of a wave of “message” films produced in the early 1910’s, this is a good example of an early silent feature. Proof that BOAN wasn’t the first feature film (and it’s a heck of a lot more enjoyable than that picture anyway).

    Of course, surviving films by any of the companies operating in that period (Keystone, Thanhauser, Essanay, etc) are always worth looking for, these are just the ones that come to mind for me.

  19. I’m sure some of the films will list have already been mentioned by others, bu there goes:
    The General
    The Crowd
    The Mystery of the Leaping Fish
    The Mark of Zorro
    Sherlock Jr.
    The Cameraman
    Safety Last
    Nosferatu
    The Phantom of the Opera
    Battleship Potemkin
    Pandora’s Box
    The Thief of Bagdad
    Dr. Mabuse der Spieler
    Destiny
    The Lodger

    I could list more, but I don’t want to be here all day!

  20. I’m probably duplicating quite a few choices, but some essentials for me are:
    1. Spione
    2. The Unknown
    3. West of Zanzibar
    4. The Penalty
    5. Sunrise
    6. The Adventures of Prince Achmed
    7. Safety Last
    8. The Navigator
    9. The Gold Rush
    10. Diary of a Lost Girl
    And the list goes on…

  21. A bunch of pre-war stuff (plus a Lubitsch I adore):

    Un homme de têtes (Méliès, 1898)
    Dévaliseurs nocturnes (Velles, 1904)
    Les Résultats du féminisme (Guy, 1906)
    Le cerceau magique (Cohl, 1908)
    The Airship Destroyer (Booth, 1909)
    Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy (Blackton, 1909)
    The Cameraman’s Revenge (Starewicz, 1912)
    Suspense (Weber/Smalley, 1913)
    The Golden Chance (DeMille, 1915)
    The Oyster Princess (Lubitsch, 1919)

  22. These would be the 10 plus a bonus one I would show a newbie to introduce them to silent movies – after that they can explore the full three decades of film magic
    Big Business
    The Gold Rush
    Safety Last
    College
    The Strong Man
    Pollyanna
    The Thief of Baghdad
    Blood and Sand
    Broken Blossoms
    Wings
    The Last Laugh

  23. I really wouldn’t argue with the nominations so far. The shorts/features issue is difficult, but if the aim is giving someone a well-rounded view of silent film, they need to be included, as does a documentary or two. The current nominations may also be a little more US-centric than is compatible with a well-rounded view. So my suggestions are:

    A compilation of live action shorts, including at least some Alice Guy and Melies classics, For the Love of Zero and Jean Vigo’s Apropos de Nice and Taris.

    Where are My Children (or something else by Lois Weber)

    Peach Blossom Weeps Tears of Blood

    Cabiria

    Haxan

    The Phantom Carriage (possibly my favourite film)

    Man with a Movie Camera

    Napoleon

    Fantomas/House of Secrets or a similar French serial

    A city symphony – maybe Berlin

    A compilation of short animations, including at least some Felixes, an Out of the Inkwell, the Nose and the Cameraman’s Revenge.

    The Passion of Joan of Arc

  24. This list is in no particular, but here goes: 1. Comicalamities (Felix the Cat), 2. Safety Last, 3. Sherlock Jr., 4. The Phantom of the Opera, 5. City Lights, 6. Pandora’s Box, 7. Metropolis, 8. Big Business, 9. It, and 10. The Big Parade
    Extra: Great Guns (Oswald the Lucky Rabbit)

    Thanks, Fritzi!

  25. Seventh Heaven for its simple sentimentality.
    The Unknown for being borderline perverse.
    Fig Leaves for being comical and, surely, the inspiration for the Flintstones .
    Cabiria for introducing the epic movie.
    Most De Mille silents.
    The Docks of New York for being the film I always recommend to first-time silent film watchers.
    Everything mentioned by previously posters.

  26. Pandora’s Box
    The Circus
    Safety Last!
    The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
    The General
    Strike
    Cabiria
    Berlin: Symphony of a Great City
    Man with a Movie Camera
    People On Sunday

  27. I could come up with ten, but here are some that weren’t on any of your suggested lists.

    A Dog’s Life
    The Italian Straw Hat
    True Heart Susie
    Judex
    Menilmontant

  28. My list is.-

    1. SUNRISE
    2. THE GENERAL
    3. ONE WEEK
    4. MY BEST GIRL
    5. METROPOLIS
    6.THE PENALTY
    7. CHICAGO
    8. THE WIND
    9. GIRL SHY
    10.THE GOLD RUSH

    No surprises but all must see silent films.

  29. Making this list was nightmarish for me as I love way too many silent films. However, since you asked for it nicely, here are my top ten silent films that I’d force my nieces/nephews/future family members/present family members/friends/pets/anyone fortunate to meet me/colleagues to watch:

    1. The Kid (1921)
    2. Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
    3. A Trip To The Moon (1902)
    4. The Adventures Of Prince Achmed (1926)
    5. Sunrise: A Story Of Two Humans (1927)
    6. The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920)
    7. Man With A Movie Camera (1929)
    8. Falling Leaves (1912)
    9. Hell’s Hinges (1916)
    10. The Goddess (1934)

    Honorable Mention: Modern Times technically doesn’t count as it uses sound effects to tell its story, but since it was my introduction to silent films, I’m including it here just to acknowledge its awesome existence.

  30. City Lights,Gold Rush, The Kid, Sherlock Jr., The Freshman, Intolerance, The Crowd, Nosferatu, Sunrise,The General, and many more.

  31. You’ll have to settle for an even dozen from me (listed in no order):

    City Lights
    Sunrise
    Steamboat Bill jr.
    Girl Shy
    The Wheel (La Roue)
    Napoleon
    Broken Blossoms
    The Passion of Joan of Arc
    My Best Girl
    The Wind
    Greed
    The Docks of New York

  32. The Wind, The Crowd, Sparrows, Skinner’s Dress Suit, The Cat and The Canary, The Last Warning, Lonesome, Show People, The Patsy, and The Divine Lady!

  33. I always like to emphasize that the history of film embraces so much more than the output of Hollywood–so my list has no American films. Instead, they are German, Russian, French, and British, concluding with five Japanese films from the 1930s (reflecting that country’s productive extended silent era, a source of lesser-known films to cherish!)

    The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
    Battleship Potemkin
    Metropolis
    The End of St. Petersburg
    Napoleon
    A Cottage on Dartmoor
    Tokyo Chorus
    Dragnet Girl
    Every-Night Dreams
    Japanese Girls at the Harbor
    A Story of Floating Weeds

  34. Breaking through my indecision, here’s my hastily assembled list, after reading everyone else’s:
    The Wind
    Street Without End
    Street Angel
    Les Vampires
    Faust
    Strike
    Sparrows
    Foolish Wives
    Intolerance
    Show People

  35. – The Thief of Bagdad (Raoul Walsh)
    – Destiny (Fritz Lang)
    – The Last Laugh (F.W Murnau)
    – The White Hell of Piz Palü (Arnold Fanck)
    – The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger)

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