Silent Films for Kids: Which Titles Do You Recommend?

A recent discussion about adding color and voices to silent footage went off in an interesting direction and the most common defense of the practice was: it’s the only way we’ll get kids and young people to watch silent films!

Okay, that’s baloney because I know plenty of young silent film fans and they are smart and perceptive viewers who don’t need any patronizing modernization. So my question is this: if you saw silent films as a kid, which titles did you like? Or if you have kids, have you been able to share silent films with them? Which stars and pictures did they enjoy?

Alas, silent films were not too common at the corner video store but I did try! I longed to see The Lost World, for example, after seeing clips in a dinosaur documentary. (I was very into dinos as a kid. And trains. And space.) But I did manage to see Mutt and Jeff and Felix cartoons from the silent era, though despite the speech bubbles and title cards, they never struck me as silent at the time. (Which, I suppose, is a testament to their timelessness. Felix and Mutt and Jeff rock.) I ended up watching my first live action silents in my late teens.

By the way, if you want to see quality versions of silent animated shorts, the Cartoon Roots series is what you want.

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20 Replies to “Silent Films for Kids: Which Titles Do You Recommend?”

  1. I was able to show my niece Peter Pan when she was just 7. In the middle of the film she took a deep breath and sighed, “I like this movie.” It’s a moment I will treasure forever.

  2. I never saw a silent film until I was a teenager. I wish I had, though-I had this idea that they were all primitive and stupid.

    I would recommend The Gold Rush as a good one for kids. I always recommend starting with a comedy anyway, but The Gold Rush seems more “cartoony” compared to Chaplin’s other works. In fact, I think he was the creator of the “food hallucination” gag you see so often in cartoons. I think kids would get a real kick out of it.

  3. My first silent, at age 11, was The Poor Little Rich Girl — I think it was the perfect film to get me hooked on silents! The fairytale atmosphere of the dream sequences, the slapstick sprinkled in, and Mary Pickford’s charm was all enough to totally bewitch me as a kid.

  4. My goodness, I never saw any silents until the art house revivals started in the 1970s, when I was in my 20s. I would say any Keatons or Chaplins, plus Laurel and Hardy and Fatty Arbuckle shorts.

  5. Have had many couples with kids who’ve come over for Silent Movie Night, so this is an easy one: comedies and cartoons. Gertie the Dinosaur, lovable scamp Felix, anything from Out of the Inkwell have been big hits. During last summer we had guests who have young twins that had a ball with an all Buster Keaton bill consisting of The Scarecrow, One Week, and Sherlock Jr. I was in the kitchen making up a plate of snacks when one of the twins yelled excitedly, “Four Wheel Brakes!” and then, “Oh no, he dreamed it!” I just love kids’ reactions to silent comedies 😀

  6. Zdenek Miler’s Mole animations are so well created that children from 3-4 years follow them easily – without intertitles. I loved them, and now I’ve had success with my own kids.

    I have great memories of watching a series of Keaton shorts from TV with my father at about 10. Also Laurel and Hardy were funny. I’m no longer capable of laughing aloud due to slapstick, but I hope my children will teach me when they are a bit older.

    Children don’t have prejudices before someone teaches them. Silents are more natural to them than to most adults. My 7-year-old just easily followed the plot of Tsaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty ballet.

  7. My first silent would have been when my mother took me to see a re-release of “The King of Kings” around 1948. In the early 50’s I bought 8mm cut- down versions of Chaplin, Tom Mix, & such from a novelties catalogue called Johnson Smith.

    Later as a ‘teenager I bought from Blackhawk Films, based in Iowa–I remember their newspaper-like catalogues filled with wonderful stuff mostly beyond my financial means, though I did somehow scrape up $60 for “The Phantom of the Opera.” An early treasure of mine was a 400’ (25min.) 8mm version of “The Lost World,” adapted as an educational film & supplied with new titles by the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It focused of course on the dinosaurs & their struggles.

    In grade school classes, my wife several times saw “Nanook of the North.” It really took her back when we first watched it on video.

  8. Another vote for Chaplin. I gave my grandkids a fairly complete set of his films for Christmas and the last time I visited we watched The Gold Rush together. My one granddaughter (at the time 3.75 years old) yelled with delight when it began, “Charlie Chaplin!” And I’m told that there was weeping (though no wailing or gnashing of teeth) during the chase scene when they watched The Kid. I think that The Little Tramp character essentially channels the personae of a young (say around 8 or 9 years) boy which makes it easy for children to relate to him.

  9. I just asked my 9-going-on-10 silent fan what his favorite movies are, and he answered Laurel & Hardy without hesitation. But we’ve also enjoyed plenty of Buster over the years.

    Kids can get into non-comedy and feature-length silents too, but I think this works best if you can actually see them in a theater, where the magic attention-focussing and excitement-enhancing effect can get a kid (or adult!) to really enjoy something that, if you tried to watch sitting on your couch at home, would lead them to moan “I’m bored” and wander off…

    Conversely, if you want to hook them in a hurry (say, watching something on your laptop), try something really off-the-wall like Windsor McKay’s “The Pet”, or Felix the Cat.

  10. Laurel and Hardy. They were sure-fire, and I adored them. I would fall off my chair laughing at the mayhem in “Big Business” or “Two Tars”. My sister and I dressed up as Stan and Ollie one Halloween. And we had Stan and Ollie sheets and pillowcases. Since we first met this duo on Blackhawk silent super-8 film reels displayed on our home movie projector, we didn’t even know they also made talkies until a number of years later.

  11. There were always laurel and hardy and keystone kop shorts that I saw in the mid to late 50s on TV or at supermarkets. They had these booths carved into the shelves that pre schoolers could crawl into and watch no-sound comedies or cartoons on. ( I remember watching chilli willy). It is not only lack of voices but also black and white to over come.

    When my six year old son had a friend over, I put on a 3 Stooges VHS and his first reaction was “Not black and white!”. But the novelty of a live action cartoon soon captured him.

    I think a Harold Lloyd building climbing film worked be great for kids. There is a short which gets to the stunts much quicker than Safety Last. That would be my choice.

  12. I got started with the Robert Youngson compilations: Golden Age of Comedy, When Comedy Was King, 30 Years of Fun, Days of Thrills and Laughter. I wonder if Kevin Brownlow’s HOLLYWOOD series might not be a gateway drug to silent film…

    1. I’ve definitely heard many, many people say that Hollywood was the magic ingredient for them. Given the time, it was probably the first time many had seen a silent film clip with a quality orchestra score.

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