What is the Most Awful Silent Movie? (Can of worms opened!)

One of the frustrating things about discussing silent films is how few people take them seriously. In the collective mind of pop culture, silent films are creaky relics full of damsels and silly melodrama. This has led to the unfortunate backlash of seeing silent films are delicate creations that must be kept under cake domes lest the harsh wind of criticism cause them to disintegrate on the spot.

While I appreciate the sentiment, silent films are lot more robust than many people think. The best ones still enchant us and even so-so offerings can be pretty darn good. That being said, some films are really, really, really bad so let’s get down to business.

For me, the bad film to beat is still Brute Island, a vanity picture put out by Harry Carey (whom I normally adore) about a college kid who is dumped by a chick so he becomes the alcoholic dictator of an island and terrorizes its inhabitants. This is all presented as the young woman’s fault. It’s a picture that will give you the urge to bathe in Listerine after watching.

What about you? Which silent films made your jaw drop with their awfulness? Please share! And, obviously, this is all personal opinion and there are no wrong answers. If I can say Metropolis is meh, anything is possible.

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74 Replies to “What is the Most Awful Silent Movie? (Can of worms opened!)”

  1. The Cossacks is a silent I avoid like the plague despite loving the main actors (Renée Adorée, John Gilbert, Ernest Torrence, Nils Asther) in ‘most everything else they’ve done. And wonderful Clarence Brown (batting clean up for George Hill)…what the deuce, Mr. Brown?

    Never have seen Brute Island, and on reading your full-length review I am thankful of it.

      1. #1 Hero abusing heroine presented as cute
        #2 Those visually impressive scenes were stolen from Michael Strogoff
        #3 Tolstoy is rolling in his grave

        But a gentle reminder that this is all taste and one reader’s trash is another’s treasure.

    1. Really, Janet? Oh, I so love THE BLOT. My favorite Lois Weber–at least of those that are extant. Both Milestone and Flicker Alley thought enough of it to have made it available. I also am much smitten with Claire Windsor. How could ones heart not melt a bit at the thought of a poverty-stricken librarian with shoes that are falling apart (see also Lois’s SHOES)? An interesting quote from David Shepard: “The Blot is the ideal film to show to those who did not live through them what the twenties were like in America,” says film historian Kevin Brownlow, “One can see what living spaces were really like, not what art directors imposed on them — and what people really wore, not what fashion designers invented for them.”

      As to awful silent movies… I, too, love Harry Carey…almost everything he did…except perhaps BRUTE ISLAND (which I haven’t seen) and his sound film from 1931, TRADER HORN, which I find excruciating.

      1. This post is all about sharing our least favorites and so while our favorites may be among the films listed by other readers, it’s important to remember it’s all about personal taste. Some of my favorites have been listed so far but everyone has their own taste. For example, Kevin Brownlow praised Surrender lavishly but the only reason it’s not my #1 worst silent film is because Brute Island exists. We’re just having a little fun comparing kvetches, it’s okay to not go along with, well, the crowd. 😉

    2. It IS depressingly horrible ~ lol Like Upton Sinclair’s, “The Jungle”. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, it DOES!

      Personally, I love, “The Blot”. These scene where the guy is schmoozing the library chick, about reading and liking the book he’s returning, and she then slices the book’s uncut pages ~ PRICELESS! I worked in a public library for eighteen years ~ that scene is spot on! hahahahha

      “The Blot” is depressing, and not something I trot out all the time ~ but for me it’s horrible in a wonderful way. Like, “The Jungle” or “The Elephant Man” or, as I recall, “Raging Bull”. Projects which are edgy, depressing and uncomfortable, but so very well done.

      1. I can’t agree with you, Fritzi. METROPOLIS is a wonder and magnificent. Not the least of its pleasures is the stunning performance of Brigitte Helm. See also Pabst’s THE LOVE OF JEANNE NEY from the same year. I even went out of my way to obtain the UK Region B Blu ray from Masters of Cinema. See DVDBeaver’s review of the Masters of Cinema edition.

      2. Such is your right, I know I am in the minority. But I just saw it AGAIN in a vintage silent era theater with a real pipe organ score based on the original music that accompanied it (which was magnificent) so if I didn’t fall for the film under those circumstances, there’s not much hope I ever will.

    1. I love THE CROWD more with each viewing. I totally agree with what many have said–one of the last great films of the silent era. The back story about the actor James Murray makes the film even more poignant.

      “while this film describes a life in which the brass ring will never be reached, it also makes clear that each life, no matter how ordinary, holds a story worth hearing, and Vidor’s gift for telling that tale in all its humble detail is what makes The Crowd so special.” Mark Deming (ALLMOVIE)

  2. I know this is high on your list, but perhaps a warning is appropriate:

    ‘Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp’ 1917 Directed by Chester M Conklin and Sidney Franklin. The price paid when purchasing the Grapevine Video DVD of the rather more worthwhile ‘Alice in Wonderland’ 1915 Directed by W.W. Young.
    A tawdry amateurish shocker.

  3. I immediately thought of The Wizard of Oz. But someone claimed this earlier. (An excuse for me to provide an alternative choice.) My alternative is more of a shocker. I didn’t like Tol’able David (neither 1921 nor 1930) at all. Maybe not the worst ever, but it is way up on my “waste of time” scale.

  4. This film was so bad I’m afraid i blocked the title from my memory. It starred future director William Dieterle, playing the lead in a German melodrama where he and his true love were endlessly parted and reunited by an unending series of unfortunate events. Worse soap-opera antics it was ever my misfortune to see. In fact I DIDN’T see the end because I had to leave about (?) 3/4 through to catch a plane (the film’s running time had been so under-calculated). It was from the late 1920’s, that’s about all I remember.

  5. Murnau’s Tartuffe. It looks like a theater play made to boost Emil Jannings’ ego.

    Anyway Murnau is one of my ultimate favourites. Not all of his films are great, but they are watchable except this one.

    1. Tartuffe is another one I have not seen in ages! Jannings could be a bit much, though, especially when he really started capital “A” Acting. I mean, I like the big fella’s silent stuff but there were times when he really could have dialed it back.

  6. I’m startled to see some fine silents nominated for this dishonorable award: The Blot, Tol’able David, The Crowd. If these are the worst, it would be difficult to make any defense of the genre! But it’s hard to argue with the 1925 Wizard of Oz being the worst NOTABLE silent film.

    Truth is, there are many poor silents, many poor talkies, many poor whatevers. But in terms of would-be blockbusters that are snoozers, I propose two: Cabiria, Woman in the Moon, with Aelita Queen of Mars a close third.

    1. I am sure quite a few people disagree with my Worst Of list, though. I mean, I don’t like it when someone says they don’t like a film I love or consider to be a masterpiece but on the other hand, I think it shows that there’s a healthy dialogue. I don’t think any film should be above criticism and I love the idea of keeping the debate about the silent film canon lively but respectful.

      For example, I adored Aelita, you didn’t but here we are having a reasonable discussion.

  7. I’m pretty forgiving where most movies are concerned. There are movies that I don’t care for, but very few that would make me put my hand over my mouth and run for the bathroom. There are a lot of movies that I consider overrated, but I actually like them. Metropolis is not Lang’s best. He made other, better movies, but I think it’s still a good show. The Cossacks is not a great movie; but the action sequences, and the exaggerated warrior ethos makes it kind of fun. My Dad and I used to get into arguments about the John Ford’s talkie My Darling Clementine. He couldn’t stand that it was so inaccurate about the Earps and the gunfight at the OK corral, but I thought it was a good Western regardless. So I am disinclined to include any movie that is “overrated,” whatever that means.

    Having said that, I don’t believe a film can actually be bad and be fun too. Song of Love is not a movie I will I never see again, and I can never get the time back that I wasted watching it. I also never liked The Last Laugh. Freund’s camera technique is admirable but can’t save it from being a crashing bore and a failed experiment. Give me subtitles! Another German film, Scherben, was praised by Lotte Eisner, but is unremittingly grim and a hard slog.

    1. And our taste in films depends so much on our genre taste. For example, I like trash and hokum so Song of Love was right up my alley but I can see it not working for everyone. Ditto with historical accuracy: important to some viewers, not at all to others.

  8. It’s not a “bad” movie, I just dislike “West of Zanzibar” because everybody in it looks so ugly. I’m afraid I like my heroines to look nice even when they’re being starved and beaten!

      1. It does seem this great idea for a blog topic almost instantly morphed from “Most Awful Silent Movie” to “big silent movie let-downs.” I expect films that I’d deem most awful I have blotted out of my consciousness and don’t remember having seen. I just saw SONG OF LOVE recently on TCM. A real silly piece of cinema even with the wonderful Joseph Schildkraut in a lead role. But, I’d never list it as one of the most awful. Pretty close, though–particularly when trying to take Norma seriously as a dancer who makes men swoon. I much prefer the funnier sister, Constance. As to WEST OF ZANZIBAR, I have seen it and liked it and bought the DVD very recently as part of a mini bit of Lon Chaney purchasing mania. Just can’t get enough of his work.

      2. I try not to overmoderate the comments when I open up a discussion thread and just let people go their own way. The only rule I absolutely insist on enforcing is letting people have their own taste. It’s more fun that way! 😀

  9. The Wizard of Oz (1925) and Brute Island (1914) would have been my top choices, but not wishing to pile on them any more than necessary, I will offer The Copper Beeches (1912) and The Love Flower (1919). There is much about the latter film that is simply inept, but what raises it to the “awful” level (for me) is how it highlights Griffith’s weird obsession with Carol Dempster. This has always baffled me. Not that she is any worse than many silent actresses, but Griffith’s insistence on regularly casting Dempster in leading parts for which she was painfully unsuited constituted directorial malpractice.

    1. Yes, poor Carol! She was clearly cut out for action roles that took advantage of her penchant for stunts but nooooooo, Griffith tried to make her into a soggy Marsh/Gish clone. The Love Flower is frustrating because he *almost* unlocks her potential and then falls flat on his face.

      1. I get quite sad, at times, about the awkwardness of some of Carol’s performances and the poor fit between actress and role. As Fritzi has recounted elsewhere, her performance and direction in Barrymore’s otherwise estimable SHERLOCK HOLMES from 1922 are particularly unfortunate. When I want a more successful turn by Carol, I go to ISN’T LIFE WONDERFUL and SALLY OF THE SAWDUST. I wonder if it was difficult acting in the shadows of the great Lillian, Mae and Mary.

      2. From what I can tell (alas, never having read any of Carol’s unfiltered words, only from accounts of others and fan magazines) she was a somewhat socially awkward, introverted soul. It does rather seem that the other Griffith actresses were Mean Girls to her, which pushed her deeper under Griffith’s sway and he had some weeeeeeeeird notions about women. But I am pleased that she married money, retired to tony La Jolla and became a patroness of the arts, particularly drawing. I sincerely hope she found happiness and contentment.

  10. A film’s ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ is influenced by one’s own genre preferences too. I know I can’t sell Fritzi Kramer on a musical film because she doesn’t like musicals, just as I can acknowledge that a particular war film is great but not want to watch it more than once because I don’t particularly care for war films.

  11. 3 films came to mind. Wizard of Oz, and Edison’s Elephant electrocution have been mentioned. So as I duck under a table I’ll say my third is The Birth of a Nation. It has a part of my soul that I will never get back, and there is no justification for the second half. I don’t even think from a technical stand point it’s that good.

    1. Yeah, I agree. Some of the creative decisions, particularly regarding closeups, are just plain BAD in Birth. And I think it’s high time that we acknowledge that the racism was part of the film’s “power” the power of the forbidden. (It was condemned up hill and down dale when released, so there’s no pretending audiences weren’t aware of the controversy.)

  12. I think the worst of the worst have already been mentioned (‘Birth of a Nation’ ‘Wizard of Oz’, ‘Brute Island’ to name a few). But my #1 Love-to-Hate silent is probably von Stroheim’s ‘The Merry Widow’. It’s probably the most competently made bad movie I’ve ever seen, but I can’t take it seriously as a comedy or a melodrama. To be fair, I’m not a fan of the Lubitsch version either, so maybe I just can’t get behind the plot, but at least the ’34 version tried to be coy and present the characters as charming. The ’25 version was just icky to me, all the characters were awful people. Totally entertainingly icky, but still. Eurgh.

      1. HE’S SO AWFUL! But so entertaining! Like I said, love to hate, it’s one of those ‘Hey, want to watch a terrible movie with me? No, YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS.’

  13. Birth of a Nation. I can understand that it was an impressive achievement technically, but it is such a vile, repellent spray of venom that other bad films pale in comparison, in my opinion. I forced myself to watch it once, and have tried to watch it again (to check that I wasn’t exaggerating), but haven’t been able to.

  14. Ouch. I won’t say I love both TOL’ABLE DAVID and BROKEN BLOSSOMS. But, I do. ;-). Perhaps I’ll watch both of them tonight.

    David (being “Tol’able”)

  15. I have liked most silents I have seen. The one that stands out for me (and not just because of its message) as being awful is Birth of a Nation. Even if it wasn’t reprehensible, I don’t see it as great filmmaking, not even for when it was made!

  16. As I was reading this, the necessity of watching more “foreign” silent films becomes quite patent, as I don’t have many of those “under my belt,” other than a few French films.

    While, I won’t characterize them as “awful,” how about “dull as ditch-water” for The Love Flower (seemed as though it was three hours long and the border-line Tijuana Brass accompaniment sans Brass didn’t help–lots of synthesized marimba sounds, though!); Dream Street (uh-oh, another D.W. Griffith film!); and The Whispering Chorus (absolutely no connexion with Raymond Hatton’s character, although, to be fair, my sole viewing if it occurred in early 2001, and my tastes *might* have change since then).

  17. I have to say…and agree with some, Birth of a Nation which is often heralded as the first “long” film even though other countries already were making long films. Because of this film, the evil KKK gained renewed strength and there was a huge outcry about it’s horrible depiction of the African Americans who were white people in blackface. I admit the battle scenes and adventure style are quite good but I just dislike that the evil KKK are the heroes!-Bleccchhhh

  18. Apparently, the worst silent films come as extras on DVDs. Thanks to you I’ve now bought ‘Hell’s Hinges’. Unfortunately, on the Reelclassics DVD the film is accompanied by two ‘Broncho Billy’ films by Essanay-owner Gilbert M. Anderson. A third one can be found on the DVD Box ‘Chaplin’s Essanay and Mutual Films’ because Chaplin makes a short cameo in that one. All three films belong to the worst films I’ve ever seen: high on ridiculous melodrama, low on good storytelling or convincing acting. If a newcomer to silent movies would watch Anderson’s ‘Naked Hands’ (a.k.a. ‘Humanity’) from 1916 he’d probably conclude that the silent era had nothing to offer but dated entertainment unfit for modern times. Luckily, we know better!

    1. Hi, GIJs Grob: You probably already know this but there’s a much nicer copy of HELL’S HINGES on the first TREASURES OF AMERICAN FILM ARCHIVES set. A fine music score by Martin Marks and a nice essay which is online–google “National Film Preservation Foundation: Hell’s Hinges.”

  19. I would go for The Nut with Douglas Fairbanks. It was his last contempory film before his popular costumed dramas and it’s just plain awful. I’m glad someone has already mentioned The Merry Widow. I hated that one so much. Finally Harry Landon’s The Chaser is supposed to be a comedy but I didn’t find anything funny about it at all. Maybe it’s just me.

    1. I kind of liked THE NUT. Not the best of the early Fairbanks movies in the lovely Flicker Alley set but its strangeness is appealing…at least to me. Surreal. The lawn party scene with Charlie Chaplin is memorable.

  20. Although not the worst silent I’ve ever seen (The Wizard of Oz takes that prize), a film called The Shield of Honor. It’s a police procedural with all the keys to a bad film – overwrought acting, wild coincidences, poor plotting, and obvious crooks (note to employers – if your secretary slinks into your office instead of walking, she’s probably up to no good).

    It did have Thelma Todd, though, which mitigated the badness somewhat.

  21. I’m getting back into my blog after birthing a small child about six months ago and the next film that William Powell made was ‘Faint Perfume’ – the reviews are terrible! It sounds a right turkey and for once I’m glad Paramount incinerated it!

    1. Hi. I just wondered…have you seen FAINT PERFUME? Or, is it a lost film (i.e., “incinerated”)? A critic at ALLMOVIE basically panned it but did say “Faint Perfume was rescued by good performances from the three leads: Seena Owen as the wife, William Powell as the husband, and Alyce Mills as the innocent cousin.” So, I wonder how this reviewer saw this film.

  22. I’m not sure why The Wizard of Oz gets such a bad rap. I’m not suggesting it is a great film, it’s not, but I wonder if its reputation has become its reality. It’s simply known as one of the worst silent films that was made, even though it really isn’t. Just my two cents.

    1. As I say in my review, I personally don’t think it’s the worst silent movie ever made but I do think it’s the worst silent film to receive Bluray release with an orchestra score.

      What I personally did not like about it:

      Racism
      Lolita Dorothy
      Why bother with Oz rights if the books are jettisoned utterly?
      “Do your stuff, Wizzy.”

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