Obscure Even For Us: Give Me Your Most Off-the-Wall Silent Film Recommendations

Last year, I asked readers to share their favorite hidden treasures, obscure silent films that are nonetheless delightful.

There has been a discussion in the silent film community recently about whether programmers and short films that are “just” comedies are worth seeking out and preserving. The overwhelming answer was “Yes!” (as expected) but I think this calls for another show and tell of our favorite obscure treats.

Here are my recommendations from what I have reviewed in 2018 to date: I would like to recommend Parabola, a sleek and stylish animated film by the gloriously nerdy Mary Ellen Bute. I also discovered the wonderful Nick Winter detective comedy series and thoroughly enjoyed Nick Winter and the Theft of the Mona Lisa. Finally, the Stan Laurel solo comedy Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde made me laugh myself silly.

Obscure is relative, of course, and there are no wrong answers. I hope you will share as I know many silent film newcomers love getting outside-the-box recommendations.

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18 Replies to “Obscure Even For Us: Give Me Your Most Off-the-Wall Silent Film Recommendations”

    1. I recently did another public screening with live piano, and for the short I showed a Charley Bowers film. The audience was very receptive to it.

  1. Samuel Beckett’s ‘Film’ starring a patiently co-operative, but somewhat bemused, Buster Keaton late in his career. It has been recently spruced up and released, with an accompanying film essay by BFI as a Blu-Ray.

  2. I highly recommend that newcomers check out this cute little series of short films called Out of the Inkwell. It’s an excellent example of early pre-sound, pre-Snow White animation. It was made by the same excellent guys who made Betty Boop, and shows the invention of rotoscoping, the stuff that makes all of Disney’s early movies look so dang fluid and pretty.

    It has one simple premise: Max Fleischer has a magical inkwell from which he regularly summons a living clown drawing named Koko, despite the fact that Koko has a taste for hijinks and can cross between the third and second dimensions at will.

    Even for people who aren’t into animation, this series manages to be trippy, cute, wild, hilarious, fascinating and beautiful all at the same time. My personal favorite short I’ve seen so far is The Mechanical Doll from 1922. Other insanely good examples of this series include The Ouija Board 1920, Bubbles 1922, Invisible Ink 1921 and Bedtime 1923. (I haven’t seen all of them yet, sorry if I missed some).

  3. Check out the work of Lloyd Hamilton if you want to snigger yourself silly. I did throughout His Musical Sneeze and The Simp. Also, the wonderful Alice Howell will be giving us laugh out loud moments soon via Ben Model’s efforts! There’s a bit of her output on youtube right now for the fanciers 🙂

  4. The Moth of Moonbi and Greenhide are the first two films, and the only silents, made by Charles Chauvel, who went on to become Australia’s leading filmmaker. Greenhide is also his first collaboration with his wife Elsa Chauvel, later a major scriptwriter – major in Australian terms anyway. Neither of these films has survived in complete form, but they are great fun. They are essentially westerns (though they’re set in the north of the country, rather than the west) and are romances of the old lure-of-the-city-versus-the-pure-country-life variety. They are not great milestones in world cinema history, but are well made, interesting snapshots of the period, and quite important examples of early film in this country.

  5. “The Extraordinary Adventures Of Saturnino Farandola” from 1913 is so much fun. What other film features a monkey attack on the Melbourne Aquarium to free a woman who is mistakenly being displayed as a mermaid?

  6. Here are two:
    Laila (1928) is one of my favorite guilty pleasures. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0020075/ It is so special to watch reindeer pulling skiers and for all of the wonderful cultural discoveries. A sweet movie with no pretense and a nice lazy weak melodrama.

    For a totally different crazy (bad but in a good way) movie, check out The Whole Dam Family (1905 Edison Porter film) https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0235045/ . I love the animation and the animated crazy characters taken from a comic of the same name. Very silly.

  7. These are only relative obscure because I saw them in TV.

    Finlandia (1922, 2 hours)
    Commissioned by the foreign ministry to advertise the newborn country. Not any objective documentary, but shows which elements (olympic heroes etc.) were used to create narrative of a nation. Beautifully restored in 2017, including the reproduction of the original score that includes greatest hits from Sibelius etc. by a symphonic orchestra.

    Juho Kuosmanen is a promising director who has already twice won in Cannes with his talkies: first the student category and in 2016 the “Un Certain Regard” category with his first feature film. He also likes making silent shorts with a vintage silent camera:

    Romu-Mattila ja kaunis nainen (“Junk-Mattila and a beautiful woman”, 2012) is a Kaurismäki like film of working class people.

    Salaviinanpolttajat (“Moonshiners”, 2017) is a remake of Salaviinanpolttajat (1907). The original was the first Finnish film ever, but has been lost. The remake doesn’t attempt to exactly mimic the style of very early movies, but it was made to match the few details that are known about the original film. Most importantly, the booze boiler is the same.

    Kuosmanen has announced that his next film will also be silent, some sort of science fiction.

      1. I just read a bit more on Finlandia.

        Unfortunately there is no home video. It’s a pity because the restoration required a huge effort: reconstruction from fragments, score played by our most established symphonic orchestra etc.

        Finlandia was actually far more popular than I could have imagined. Quite credible source says it was seen abroad by 6 million people, twice the population of Finland that time, and that it inspired to make a dozen similar films in other European countries.

  8. Perhaps not super-obscure, but I’d recommend “A Man There Was” (1917 – original Swedish title: Terje Vigen) – a good drama based on a heartbreaking poem by Henrik Ibsen.

    Also, there’s “Thaïs” (1917), which is hard to watch (due to lousy picture quality) but very interesting. Only half the film remains, but it is the only surviving cinematic work from Italian Futurism, which has been said to be a precursor to German Expressionism.

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