Results: Which Silent Film Got the Old Heave-ho?

Last week, I asked readers to vote on which “essential” silent film title would get voted off the island. Well, here are the results.

Of course, this was never about saying which silent films should survive or a call for destroying any movie. The very fact that we can discuss the pros and cons of the films on this list shows the value of a film’s survival. Instead, this is a little intellectual game designed to think about which of the essentials are most essential to us.

Man with a Movie Camera got the most votes, followed by a tie of The Passion of Joan of Arc and Battleship Potemkin. These are also the most overtly arty pictures on the list (Sunrise was designed as awards bait but is quite accessible). Metropolis tied with Sunrise for the fewest votes, which is not surprising as genre films are incredibly popular right now.

I should take this opportunity to beg you to please, please, please watch the restored version of Battleship Potemkin as the public domain film you probably saw in class was slowed down to accommodate a cobbled-together Shostakovitch score (he was dead at the time) and really is painful to see. In the United States, Kino Lorber released the restoration that is a) the correct speed and b) derived from a COMPLETE AND UNCENSORED ORIGINAL NEGATIVE. I am not usually one of the “See the restoration!” types but this is an exception. It’s an entirely different movie.

Of course, this entire exercise was inspired by an article that claimed nearly all silent films of note have been found and there’s no need to be too sad about the lost ones. I dare say the Potemkin story rather blows that theory out of the water because the film’s glory was concealed under generations of cuts, censorship and, frankly, vandalism.

Even if some of these films are not my (or your) piece of cherry pie, I am incredibly grateful to have them because I can say with confidence and knowledge that I like some of these titles better than others. Others have the same privilege. That’s pretty amazing.

Given modern worries that the decline of physical media will mean that some modern movies are one harddrive crash away from extinction, I dare say that keeping lost and rediscovered films in the public eye is well worth our time and effort. While I certainly would also like more attention paid to worthy films that survive in the vaults, I will never stop daydreaming about miles of lost nitrate.


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24 Replies to “Results: Which Silent Film Got the Old Heave-ho?”

  1. Mutter, mutter; ‘Metropolis’, all art direction, silly story. If I want the former I go to an art gallery. This is pretty close to an inverted list of my prioritisation.
    I’m pleased that it’s a game, and not one of those ‘culls’ that librarians are so fond of.

  2. Recently I saw the restored Potemkin and join you in urging everyone to see it, on the biggest screen available.

  3. I own the KINO of Potemkin and it is enthralling. At least it is to me. Oh yeah, that staircase scene!

  4. Fritzi, I’m interested that you characterized Metropolis and Sunrise as genre films here. I think I get Metropolis… but wonder what you have in mind for the genre of Sunrise?

  5. well! i would never have voted against “man with a movie camera.” whatever else it is, it’s an invaluable record of life in that place, at that time. almost a documentary!

  6. I was disappointed to see The Passion of Joan of Arc as so “dispensable.” For decades, starting with VHS tapes & pre-Voices of Light prints, I’ve used it successfully to introduce people to the beauties of silent film. I have seen some, for whom the silents meant only Keystone comedies & Charlie Chaplin, literally moved to tears by this wonderful picture.

  7. I think you maybe have to be a little careful about making such definitive statements as “the correct speed” when it comes to any silent film.

    I reckon that there are at least two potentially correct speeds, which can be characterised as ‘original shooting speed’ and ‘original exhibition speed’. Original exhibition speeds could vary depending on the demands of the exhibitor, usually being 2 to 4 fps faster than shooting speed although, in some cases, even more.

    I couldn’t find a copy of the extract from Barry Salts book anyplace online to link to, but this one by Kevin Brownlow covers the issue pretty well:

    Whenever possible, I personally prefer to convert my DVD’s to original shooting speed and see the action as it originally took place in front of the camera.

    1. I am fully aware that speaking of “correct speed” can open up the floodgates to tantrums unseen since the last time I called D.W. Griffith a racist pervert but there are cases where the correct speed is known and is used. For example, when I was working on Kidnapped, I found the exact length in time to length in reels ratio that George Kleine releases were using at the time. Thus, correct speed. I go with the speed that was intended by the original filmmaker whenever it is known. Simple as that.

  8. Please accept my most abject and sincere apology. That was very clumsy of me. I realise that it came across like I was questioning or challenging your judgement when my only intention was to raise a question for discussion.

    Having suitably embarrassed myself, I think it best that I bow out with whatever grace I can muster, pausing only to offer my congratulations on the remarkable achievement of your impending anniversary and to wish you every success with your future DVD releases, of which I hope there will be many.

    Best wishes and, once again, my apologies.

  9. My mistake, I thought I’d over-stepped the mark and was being told off. 🙂
    I fully appreciate your thorough dedication in researching intended speeds, and the authentic experience of silent film appreciation that this brings. Especially in comparison to some DVD releases (Russian silent DVD releases almost always tending to 25fps regardless of whether 1920’s or even 1910’s)

    I still reckon that none of the technical or commercial reasons for running films faster than their shooting speeds (reducing shutter flicker, or fitting into a timed program of several films) are relevant to the digital medium, so that enjoying silent films at their original shooting speeds, and getting to see the performances as they were originally given in front of the camera, is also a valid way to appreciate them … although I know that this is only my personal opinion/preference which may well be considered by some to be a heretical one.

  10. Fritzi, as you said, this was indeed a “cruel” poll! Even the hypothetical question caused me pain…. I’ll try to get it out of my head.
    Speaking of pain, it drives me nuts that many essential silents that do exist are not available for home video in the US…
    For example, Greed, The Crowd, The Wind, Napoleon, Pandora’s Box…
    I’m so glad that such key films have been saved so that future generations might enjoy them. But I’d like see them too!
    I wonder what you think are the most glaring omissions of “essentials” from home video availability?

    1. Even though there are vaulties I really want to see, I am pretty much a movie populist: I think everything should be made available regardless of its importance or lack thereof. Of course, I understand that money is an object and obstacle in most cases but the success of crowdfunded DVDs proves that I am not alone.

      1. I hear you.
        About crowdfunding, I was surprised to see that in some cases the cost of making a silent available for home video can be only a few thousand $.
        For example, the Kickstarter for The Cossack Whip is only seeking $2,500 — and that’s been met already, well before the deadline.

      2. Yes, the cost of home video release varies depending on so many factors. For example, the type of musical accompaniment, the amount charged by the archive (the LoC is incredibly reasonable, especially considering the quality of their transfers) and how much work in color correction, tinting, etc. the producer opts to put in. Still, it’s hardly a new Avengers movie, which is why so many of these crowdfunded projects are a success. 🙂

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