Poll: Which Silent Films Deserve to Remain?

Silent Film Twitter was recently in a tizzy (I was as tizzed as anyone) about an article that suggested most of the best silent films survive so why shed tears for lost films? This is, of course, all kinds of weird (I would have thought the recovery of lost films would be the least controversial topic for this prickly fandom) but it did give me an idea for an absolutely evil and ruthless poll.

Sight & Sound polled critics to create a definitive list of the 50 greatest films of all time. Y’all know how I feel about this (it’s impossible) but let’s use it as a jumping off point. The list has a mere seven silent films, zero pre-1920s (boo!) so we’re going to play a little game.

You have to get rid of one. You can only keep six. Which one gets the old heave-ho?

Obviously, I am not advocating for any film to be lost. This is just a sadistic bit of what-if to see which films are most beloved by readers of this site. It also illustrates a point about the tragedy of lost films. Please take it with a grain of salt (preferably some nice French grey salt).

Also, please, please, please let’s all resolve to watch more pre-1920 films. I am so tired of seeing brilliant material being ignored because of its age.

(Oh, and here’s an archived link to the original article.)

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49 Replies to “Poll: Which Silent Films Deserve to Remain?”

    1. Same. I have so many issues with the picture, especially since it was consciously crafted as Southern apologism. Wouldn’t want it lost, of course, but I honestly have never gotten what the big deal is.

    2. I couldn’t name any to disappear. I own a copy or more of all these films. I lament that so much of the films made in my own country from 1900-1950, which one or two to 1960 lost. It is believed my country made the first true feature films and the second one I have found on a rubbish dump snippets. Sure I have details of the output but with one time producers and screen owners making the odd film they get lost or burnt in fires. The fire brigade demanded one collection by a noted director burnt when found in a barn and the archives barely missed getting this silent trove. And so it goes on. Fred Niblo was here in the teens and directed some and made an appearance before going to USA but at least some examples did survive. Late 20s silents did suffer by Talkies coming in as fewer silent film prints went out which means fewer copies for the keen collector to run off with and so it goes on. As a leading LA home film distributor in the 1970s said to me: It is not the lost films we should cry about, it is the saved films from the era we should marvel at.

  1. If you love silents and ignore anything pre-1920 you’re doing yourself a real disservice as a film fan. You deprive yourself of (to name just a few) Inceville, Edendale, Edison Bronx, Santa Barbara, Fort Lee NJ…the list of great studios goes on and on!

    1. Loving the 1920s films doesn’t mean that one knows nothing of the earlier stuff. At least to me the 1920s just overshadow any other decade.

      I’m interested in earlier films, too, but that is mainly interest in the historical development of an artform. I don’t watch early films to see great films, but to see where the glorious 1920s came from.

      I also think that the truly best films were never made. The artform died just when it was becoming something incredible. So many of my favourites were made in 1927-28.

      1. That actually is the argument that has been used to dismiss silent films or black and white films. “Talkies are just better.”

        I have been making it a point to feature and celebrate more early films on this site because I have found so many gems among them. They’re so exciting and dynamic. Lists that start with 1925 are cheating themselves and their readers.

        P.S. I have been just as guilty as everyone else but I am trying to change.

  2. As an archivist, my own perspective is that it’s sort of fortunate (as weird as that sounds), that the sampling we have is random rather than curated. If it was chosen (by anyone!) it would tend to reflect biases rather than being a reflection of what really existed. All those odd little industrial movies, all those boring actualities (endless parades!), yes, even all the “bad” films are part of what we need to understand history.

    1. Oh, absolutely. There’s great, there’s terrible and then there’s the massive center of so-so to good that makes up the majority of any film era. THAT’S the real story, in my opinion.

  3. If I can keep The Passion of Joan of Arc then every other film ever made, silent or sound, can rot away and I’ll be content.

  4. MAN WITH THE MOVIE CAMERA is self-indulgent theoretician-type rubbish. Random home movies edited together would be as engaging. It was spinach then and it’s spinach now.

    And anyone who would destroy a Buster Keaton film due to political correctness (a term I have never used before in my life) needs to seriously study some history.

    1. Oh calm down. Discussing problematic issues with a film is not calling for its destruction, especially when I specifically stated in conversation that I was opposed to any destruction. Bringing up content that WAS TROUBLING IN 1926 is not politically correct either and the term PC is usually used as a silencing tactic to end conversations by people who are already unrepresented in classic film circles.

      As a wise person brought out, before declaring something was “okay back in the day” it would do you well to study the people who were most harmed by that thing. In short, read more Chicago Defender and fewer dusty tomes by apologists.

      We’ve had this conversation before. You know where I stand. It is over. Finished. Kaput. Change the needle. Leave room for conversations that have been overdue since 1926 and deserve center stage.

      (For the record, Commenters are always welcome to discuss racist content of old films without being labeled as PC. Those are the house rules.)

      Edit: Add clarification that the conversations that need center stage are not “WHAAA, you can’t say anything is racist ever!”

  5. I’ve been pruning my movie collection, and I had to make a similar decision in the silent film section recently. I figured I would miss BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN the least, since I haven’t watched it as frequently as the others. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I watched it — and the movies on my shelves are generally the ones I can watch and enjoy over and over.

  6. “The Passion of Joan of Arc” Absolute torture trying to get through this! I would gladly trade it for some High-Vamp Theda Bara films.

  7. I voted for “Metropolis”. Yeah, get out the pitchforks. Have seen it many times (favorite of my husband’s); it’s technically well made, but I can’t get into it.

  8. Easiest poll ever. City Lights. I will toy with changing my decision for several months and then end up keeping my original choice.

  9. I decry the loss of any film, whether it be “classic” or a programmer designed to fill the release schedule and keep the seats full. In fact, one could argue that you can learn a lot more about our society from a Tom Mix western or a Wallace Reid adventure film than from anything by Eisenstein or Lubitch. And one person’s classic is another person’s junk, whether it be silents, classic Hollywood cinema, or modern television. There are just as many people that see Star Trek TOS as a groundbreaking series that pushed the envelope in regards to tolerance of other cultures as see it as a cheesy TV show with slipshod writing, Tinkertoy sets and hammy acting.

    That said, I love the classic silents just as much as the run of the mill films, and hate to see any of them gone (except maybe Larry Semon’s work). However, in the poll I voted for City Lights. Mainly because, even though I find Chaplin incredibly inventive and enjoyable when he’s being funny, I felt that the pathos he injected into his films went to extremes and was quite off putting.

    (patiently waits for the stones to hit because of my Star Trek and Chaplin comments)

    1. This goes along with the belief that curation can be highly damaging as one person’s trash is another’s treasure. It’s a darn good thing that the survival of silent films isn’t up to any one person and thank goodness the few that do survive are a mixed bag. The original article that caused the kerfuffle made the assertion that we have art so who cares about a few programmers? This is, of course, absolutely the opposite of my beliefs regarding preservation and I think I am pretty safely in the mainstream.

  10. I voted for The General as well. Not because it features a racist hero who supports slavery – though that certainly reduces my appreciation of the film – but because I think each of the others is more innovative and interesting. The General was magnificently well made and acted, but it strikes me as a superlative example of mainstream filmmaking. It could have got an Oscar nomination for “best popular film”. Each of the others is distinctive and groundbreaking in some way(s). If one film had to go, I’d try to maintain the great diversity of silent film technique and style. Cinema history would be poorer without The General, but I think it would be poorer still if any of the others didn’t exist.

  11. I didn’t see the twitter dust-up, so please allow me to deviate a bit from the rather daring purpose of your post . . .

    I have a HUGE problem with the premise that survival is somehow skewed toward the “best” films. Darwinian theory applied to an art form?

    Nearly all the films in these lists of the “greatest” silents were nominated by the first film theoreticians in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, then canonized by film school academics in the 60s, 70s and beyond. So much of what contemporary audiences loved, and critics in both the general and trade press thought of as outstanding films, are long lost.

    As you have noted, the accepted canon of silent greats is highly biased toward films of the late silent period. With few exceptions the foundational period of film — the 1900s and 1910s is ignored. Even the LOC silent film survival survey was of the survival rate of the FEATURE film. The films that were the building blocks of cinema — the single reel drama in particular — are are “lost” even if they physically survive. You are one of the few writers who keep these films alive and relevant to the discussion.

    1. Oh absolutely! We’re dealing with pure mid-century thinking here and most silent film fans have broken out of that particular box, at the very least embracing non-American, non-English language, non-white, non-male filmmakers. And thanks to the efforts of Steve Massa and others, we are seeing more respect for comediennes than ever before. (The article restricts its praise to the Big Three, which is ironic because Buster Keaton was not always rewarded with the critical laurels and box office returns that the author uses as criteria for “deserving of preservation.”)

      I thought of you when I read the article as Griffith’s short films were singled out as unimportant while you and I agree that they are often his best work. It would be a pity to lose something as delightful as, say, The Taming of the Shrew because it so beautifully showcases the charm of Florence Lawrence.

      1. Yes. And while we still have Lawrence’s Biograph work, most of her post-Biograph output is lost. Of course those 130 or so films were only single and two-reelers, primitive little dramas and comedies of interest only to early-cinema obsessives, most likely not worthy of preservation and of little significance in the grand arc of history. We should just be thankful that we have the third or fourth restoration of “Birth of a Nation” or “The General” on Blu-ray, plus all the truly important films now available at the push of a button, click of a mouse or a tap of the screen, and stop our crying.

      2. Right? Silly us for wanting to see a prominent early film star in her post-Biograph career. After all, we have almost all of the Big Three’s output plus a decent amount of Erich von Stroheim. What babies we are.

  12. Also time changes the value of films. It’s hard to predict, which films of 2018 will be classics in 2108.

    Popular art usually gains value it didn’t originally have. The fact that something was popular, makes it a valuable document of its time. “The firsts”, Lumiere, BOAN etc., are important from the film historical perspective. (However, to me films in these categories are mainly of intellectual rather than emotional interest.)

    Then, for example, Broken Blossoms feels outdated today, even though it apparently was very influential originally. On the other hand, Jeanne D’Arc is no less avantgarde today than 90 years ago.

    Finally, some simple films can become like time machines, if they make a strong emotional contact between modern audience and believable authentic characters.

    I don’t want to lose even those films I don’t want to watch (but voted for The General).

  13. Just hanging in here for the result. I’ve voted, but not about to disclose that. I’m sure our host will announce the winner, or is that loser, in good time?

  14. City Lights. Easy. Although I love most of Chaplin’s shorts I have never managed to get through one of his features without squirming ( Monsieur Verdoux – despite him playing the villain, a role he excelled in – is the only DVD I have loathed so much that I literally trashed it. That hypocritical, self-justifying speech at the end was just excruciating).
    As for twenties vs teens, although the former produced so many great films, I have a slight leaning toward the latter. I’m not exactly sure why but they seem somehow more exotic. Something indefinable anyway

  15. Battleship Potemkin is my choice. Very well made film, obviously, but I can’t say I love film like I do all the others. Love the comments on the 1910’s and 20’s. To me, the 1920’s films set a template for the way films were structured over the next three decades.This makes them more easier to digest and like. But it’s the film development made in the 1910’s that makes those films from that period more fascinating to watch. It’s like each year, from 1909 onwards, had it’s own feel and style and you can see it clearly on the screen. The 1910’s had the best Chaplins, the Biographs, Fantomas, The Doll, DeMille, Mary Pickford and Keystone… what more could you want!
    Antony

  16. Seems like The General is the least popular film on the list. But for me, it is my favorite film on this list (along with Sunrise). To be honest, I never found the hero to be on the Confederate side all that upsetting because, ultimately, it is a story of a man and his love for a woman. Meanwhile, I find the husband in Sunrise much more deplorable. As a Buster Keaton fan, I kind of got “butthurt” over all these negative comments but it is what it is.

    My least favorite on this list is Man with a Movie Camera, partly because I never could watch it in one go. It doesn’t help that I’m not a fan of documentaries. So I’d vote for it but obviously, I don’t want it to be lost.

    1. The issue isn’t necessarily whether or not people dislike The General so much as their right to state that they have a problem with the Confederate content and the acknowledgement that people who were directly harmed by racism will have a much different view of the topic. They have a right to say their say.

    2. The General is based on a real Civil War incident known as the Great Locomotive Chase. As in the film, Union soldiers stole a Confederate train and caused as much damage as they could before they were caught.

      The Union soldiers are the heroes of that incident. I don’t like to see them portrayed as villains when they weren’t.

    3. I would just like to point out that I don’t wish the destruction of any film. I recently completed a class assignment that could be on any topic I wanted-I chose to talk about the importance of film preservation and restoration. What made me come back here today was the fire that gutted Brazil’s National Museum, an absolutely heartbreaking loss for the world. Things like this make me physically ill.

      1. Indeed. This is a harmless exercise akin to the “movies I would take to a desert island” question. We don’t actually advocate being marooned! :mrgreen:

        Great topic for your assignment and so important. Most people have no idea what has been lost and what will be lost if we don’t step up our efforts.

  17. Katie M,

    Fair enough. So you must hate Birth of a Nation or Broken Blossoms or Gone with the Wind, eh?

    1. I would like to just pop in to mention that pointing out racist elements in a film does not mean anybody “hates” that film. It’s simply pointing out facts. Readers may very well dislike these films or they may find aspects of the picture objectionable but still enjoy the artistry. For example, The Sheik is highly problematic regarding both race and gender but I still enjoy the kitsch elements even though I am aware of and acknowledge the problematic content.

      1. Sorry to butt in again, but while it’s true that Johnnie Gray (Keaton’s character) is on the Confederate side, there is nothing in the film that shows that the character is racist (probably is, but not explicitly shown) or owns slaves and, in fact, the film doesn’t mention slavery, blacks or even what the war is about. The Civil War just some war, that becomes the background to the story. So I don’t think it’s right to say that The General has racist elements.

        On the other hand, I can understand it if you say that you don’t like The General because it makes the good guys bad and bad guys good. I’d hate to watch a film (if it exists) that depicts Goebbels as a family man who dotes on his children.

        ( I promise I’ll let it go now 🙂 )

      2. There are many kinds of racism and they don’t all involve shrieking slurs and burning crosses on lawns. By refusing the mention slavery, enslaved people or what the war is about, the film plays into the Noble Lost Cause myth that has been so damaging. If I can get one point across it is this: ERASING BLACK PEOPLE IS A RACIST ACT. The end. Full stop.

        For a discussion of this erasure in a recent film, I highly recommend this piece on The Beguiled, which eliminated the Civil War story’s sole black character:

        http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2017/06/sofia_coppola_s_whitewashed_new_movie_the_beguiled.html

  18. I chose The General. Although it’s the first Keaton film that I encountered (thanks to A & E at age 11), I have found much more to enjoy amongst his two-reelers and other silent features. Same with Harold Lloyd and “Safety Last!”

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