What was your most surprisingly positive silent film experience?

Last week, we talked about silent movie disappointments, films that we hoped would be good but turned out to be awful or at least meh. This time, we’re going in the opposite direction.

Has there been a silent movie that just didn’t look interesting? Or had a cast or crew that failed to excite you? Or you heard it was dreadful and not to bother?

But then you ran out of other silent films. Or someone frog marched you off to see it. Or it was sandwiched between two films you really wanted to see on television or at a film festival. Or a strange urge just came over you.

And then you finally watched that movie and… wow! It was good!

For me, I had that experience with The Wishing Ring. I find Maurice Tourneur’s films to often be beautiful bores and only watched this 1914 feature because another film on my schedule fell through. And was I ever glad I took the plunge! Instead of dull and dry, the film was fast-paced, funny and cute. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Your turn! Which silent films did you expect to dislike but ended up enjoying? Of course, this is all a matter of opinion and there are no wrong answers.

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14 Replies to “What was your most surprisingly positive silent film experience?”

  1. Just recently, saw Fatty Arbuckle’s ‘Love’ and I loved it! I’m not a diehard Arbuckle fan, but this one really got to me. The stunts were so beautifully choreographed, and costar Winifred Westover out-Mabeled Miss Normand in the physical dexterity she displayed. Plus it was really a sweet story.

  2. In 1975 in a film studies class in a large auditorium, our prof told us we would be watching a short film starring Mary Pickford. I groaned. I had never seen a Pickford film, but like many in our class i was expecting to see a saccharine silent shirley temple, What i saw was “The New York Hat,” a mini-masterpiece with a wonderful performance by someone i was not expecting at all. i never underestimated her again.

  3. I first saw some of the comedies, notably Safety Last, and the Keystone Cops, when I was a kid. The first silent that really connected with me was Metropolis. Still love it. But the silent that actually got me into them was the 1923 Hunchback with Lon Chaney. It was lashing in the public square scene that I had a visceral reaction to. I think I realized that these are actually “real” movies. I followed that up with Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera and I’ve waded in and out of silents over the years.

  4. I recently had the opportunity to watch The Oyster Princess (for the first time) in a theater on a big screen with live musical accompaniment. The film is absolutely delightful and the viewing experience made it surprisingly more so.

  5. My great surprise was Wings, bizarrely enough. I had seen it years ago and thought it was OK, but with a pretty mediocre love triangle. I’m not fond of war films in general, which also didn’t help. Last year I saw a restored 70mm print with a synchronised sound track on a very big screen, and I realised what people had been raving about for decades. The love triangle up close had some fine, nuanced acting and the battles in the air were shot and edited so they were very exciting, ninety years after they were filmed. It was a valuable reminder to me that I should give another chance to films I have only seen in cut-down versions or poor prints or on a tiny screen.

  6. For me, it was Children of Divorce. I love Clara with my entire heart so I watched it, but I was expecting total propoganda-adjacent, preachy nonsense with a title like that. But nope, it actually was realistic and sensitive with its topic! And Clara was awesome, as usual.

  7. True Heart Susie

    As a new silent fan, I wanted to explore Griffith’s work because of the “father of film” lore. I found some excellent qualities in many of his films, but all of them contained something that destroyed the excellence of the entire film.

    But then, surprisingly, everything in this “minor Griffith” worked and raised it above his famous works. It’s a simple nostalgic and poetic film of ordinary people. For once, Griffith managed to remove everything unessential from his film.

  8. “Wings” and “Stage Struck” were two experiences that turned me into a fan of Bow and Swanson. I had never seen either movie until I blind bought the blu-rays and was pleasantly surprised with them. My wife even enjoyed both films and she typically only casually watches silent films when I watch them (I can tell most of the time she’s not interested but she was with these two).

  9. Tell It to the Marines. I’d only seen The Man of a Thousand Faces in his “faces” on screen. Surprise birthday party many years back brought a group of us to the old Kiggins Theatre downtown. When we came out after the movie most of us had fallen in love with Sergeant O’Hara, Chaney’s character…me included!

  10. Mine is The Wind with Lillian Gish. Didn’t know anything about Seastrom but everything I had seen Gish in was plodding melodrama. I think I had only seen her Griffith stuff. I put on The Wind to watch while I was working one day and found myself glued to the screen instead of working. Excellent atmosphere and Gish seemed to play a much different character than I had seen before. The house was a character in and of itself! I wasn’t expecting much but now it’s one of my ten favorite films ever.

    1. Actually, more than any single film, I was surprised that love triangles and some melodramatic content can work much better, when there is no spoken dialogue. They also work in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which is neither silent nor talkie. Singie?

  11. I too found Tell it to the Marines a pleasure having previously seen London Chanel in his horror-roles.
    I was bowled over, however, by The Docks of New York. I knew it would be good from the cast and the director, but it was beyond good!
    Also, is anyone else drawn to films which feature Gustav von Seyffertitz?

  12. I have been pleasantly surprised by many silent films: La Roue for sure & several already mentioned here: The Wind, The Docks of New York. But then I expected them to be pretty good.

    So the most UNEXPECTED surprise was just last night, when I watched for the first time Walking Back (1928). For years I knew of it by reputation as one of the several roaring 20s/collegiate films of the period (think Joan Crawford). But I just picked up an inexpensive DVD & was blown away by its fast-paced editing & imaginative camera work: great opening montage, superbly staged car fights (yes!) & car chases as good as anything in Harold Lloyd, a wildly & enjoyably incredible conclusion. Less than an hour of pure delight.

  13. Seeing The Crowd on the closing night of the 2003 San Francisco Silent Film Festival. It was my first year at the Festival (I’ve gone every year but one since) and it was amazing (and remains amazing) to see silent films projected on a giant screen in a lovely old theater with appreciative audiences and live musical accompaniment. On top of that, I knew next to nothing about this film and it absolutely blew me away and remains one of my favorites (silent or otherwise) to this day.

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