What’s your favorite underrated silent film?

I guess we could argue that almost all silent films are underrated but for today, I just want to know which silent film you think deserves more love than it gets right now.

Like most fans I have my definite underdog favorites but lately, I find myself most often recommending the beautifully emotional POW picture Barbed Wire, the understated rural drama The Canadian and the stunningly innovative animation Mary Ellen Bute displayed in films like Parabola.

What about you? Do you have silent films on your list that you think deserve some more attention? This is where to share them! I am looking forward to your choices.

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39 Replies to “What’s your favorite underrated silent film?”

  1. Buster Keaton’s BATTLING BUTLER (1926). With a jewel case filled with rubies, this diamond in Keaton’s collection is often treated as a “poor relation,” as Keaton directed it in the style of his greatest rival, Harold Lloyd. (Keaton and Chaplin weren’t really rivals, but Chaplin and Lloyd certainly were!)

  2. What comes immediately to mind is Borzage’s THE RIVER, with Charkes Farrell and Mary Duncan. What’s left is missing the opening and closing reels, but missing the setup and resolution may – not that I know – improve the film in that the torso seems complete without distracting explanations. This steamy melodrama is both mystical and explosive at the same time, and Mary Duncan is as sexy as any actress I’ve seen.

    I saw it on a big screen at the Library of Congress, and managed to find a DVD on Danish (!) Amazon.

  3. My choice would be Gribiche (a/k/a Mother of Mine) from 1926. I think it’s a wonderful and touching story about mothers and sons, with just a dash of social commentary.

  4. My choice is THE SOUL OF YOUTH (1920), which I was able to see on the essential Treasures from American Film Archives Vol. 1 (actually, all the volumes are essential, IMHO).

    It’s a quintessential orphan drama.

  5. I’d like to see are restored copy of Fig leaves: it’s a piece of froth, but funny and a bit of social commentary in its way. All the stars seem to be enjoying themselves and there’s a bit of pre-flintstones technology .

  6. Go West (1925) ,Hotel Imperial (1927),, Lady Windemere’s Fan (1916), and “Alias Jimmy Valentine (1915) are four that I can think of off the top of my head.

  7. GIRL SHY starring Harold Lloyd. Could be remade today with very few changes — a model screwball romcom before its time.

  8. Eisenstein’s STRIKE. It doesn’t fit the film-history template that POTEMKIN does, but it’s way more entertaining, with a lot of astonishing shots.

  9. I would say DIARY OF A LOST GIRL often gets overlooked in favor of PANDORA’S BOX, but I always thought Louise Books’ performance in DIARY was wonderfully subtle and the supporting cast better in its characterizations.

    Also think Valentino’s wonderful performance in THE EAGLE is underrated because everyone is looking for historical swagger instead of his humorous underplaying.

    And just an aside: BARBED WIRE is underrated ? From the time many years ago when William K. Everson introduced me to the film in one of his New School screenings, I was an avid fan, and I don’t ever recall him saying the film had been overlooked. Every time I’ve seen it since, the audience has loved it. I actually had the impression it was one of Pola Negri’s most admired performances.

    1. Barbed Wire not really in the mainstream silent conversation, it doesn’t make anyone’s top 10 (except mine) and people usually bash the ending if they bother to watch it at all (and don’t just make cracks about a similarly-titled Pam Anderson vehicle). I mean, the same arguments could be made with Diary of a Lost Girl.

  10. Without a doubt, the first movie that comes to mind is “Barbed Wire” – it showed that Pola Negri was more than the superficial over-the-top Hollywood Diva, which came later. She was a damned good actress, especially when a director such as Lubitsch was at the helm. And that is what she should be remembered for.

  11. Are Parents People? 1925. Director: Malcolm St. Clair. Cast: Betty Bronson Adolphe Menjou, Florence Vidor.

  12. The Rag Man, Jackie Coogan and Max Davidson, a heartwarming comedy that pulls at your heartstrings

  13. True Heart Susie (1919).

    My early exploration of silent drama included a lot of Griffith because so many sources explained how he had invented practically everything. I was partially impressed, but all his “major works” also had some clear flaws. I wasn’t expecting much from this one, but its minimalism and old-fashioned style just worked perfect for me.

    Obviously, “underrated” is depends on which sources one reads. For example, I had heard so many recommendations for The Goddess (1934) that it’s impossible to call it underrated even though I liked it a lot.

  14. “Asphalt.” I don’t understand why it doesn’t have more fans. What’s not to like? (Maybe the title?)

    1. I think some of the problem might have been the extremely negative coverage of the picture by Lotte Eisner. I remarked in my review that I wondered if Joe May had personally stolen her lollipop when she was a kid. But Betty Amann? THAT scene? Betty Amann’s WARDROBE? The ending? This is some quality content.

    2. Having just seen it (on a 35mm showing) I can say it should have more fans. A great movie, with some excellent acting.

    3. I haven’t seen it yet, but I want to, however I don’t see ASPHALT as being underrated.

      It has a 7.6/10 rating on IMDb, from over 1,100 people and there is a great (so I’ve heard) DVD release of it from Kino, restored from 35mm elements by the F.W. Murnau Foundation.

  15. EXIT SMILING, with the absolutely fantastic Beatrice Lillie, whom I selfishly wish would have made many silent films instead of treading the boards. This film is a crackerjack comedy with just the right dose of sentiment, and an emotionally powerful ending.

  16. Absolutely love Barbed Wire! Somebody else mentioned True Heart Susie. Well, I liked the other film on the Image disc, Hoodoo Ann with Mae Marsh and Bobby Harron. Love the scene when they’re in the audience at the movies. Lloyd Ingraham was a Griffith disciple, but I liked his direction better than Griffith’s and Marsh’s performance better than Gish’s in the other film.

  17. I would agree about “Barbed Wire” being an underrated gem. I also tend to like Pola Negri films. Another movie that seems to be under the radar but quite good is Bare Knees. I do not think that it has ever had an official commercial release, but Grapevine has a nice print available.

  18. Oh, ‘Barbed Wire’, definitely – can’t believe I was a silents fan for so many years without discovering it. And the sweet Fatty Arbuckle short, ‘Love.’

  19. I’d pick L’argent (1928). It’s a bit on the long side but worth every minute. Also The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrowna (1929) (really love Brigitte Helm on this one), Sex in Chains (1928) and, it’s not really THAT underrated, but The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) is one of the most interesting animated movies I’ve ever seen.

  20. As a lover of late ’20’s silent film (“Sunrise,” “The Crowd,” &c.) my pick for most underrated–or maybe just ignored–is “Evangeline” (1929). The Milestone DVD is scarce, but I managed to snatch one from eBay to replace my worn out tape last year: beautifully restored with as much of the gorgeous Vitaphone score as survives.

    I realize that the romantic/sentimental theme is not for everyone, that history buffs will gripe about inaccuracies, & that some will crave more depth of characterization. But I recommend it to anyone who loves the smoothly flowing cinematography of the late silents, who is captivated by the ardor & pathos of Dolores Del Rio, & who understands that love, sadness, & self-sacrifice are at the heart of human experience.

  21. There are an awful lot of interesting titles mentioned by Fritzi and the folks who responded. I’m clearly going to have to spend some more money on purchases. Of all the many titles I could suggest, there are no more underrated movies than Japanese silents–especially those from Yasujiro Ozu (see http://www.a2pcinema.com/ozu-san/home.htm), Mikio Naruse (e.g., NO BLOOD RELATION 1932 and APART FROM YOU 1933), and Hiroshi Shimizu (UNDYING PEARL 1929, JAPANESE GIRLS AT THE HARBOR 1933, etc.). Serial films often are unappreciated, too. I love Alexandre Volkoff’s 1921-23 THE HOUSE OF MYSTERY with the great Ivan Mosjoukine and the eternal Charles Vanel.

  22. I agree with most of the films nominated above, other than a couple I haven’t seen (and which have now been added to my To Do list). I’d like to suggest Korkalen/The Phantom Carriage. In my view, it’s one of the best films ever made.

  23. La Roue – Able Gance This movie is amazing and one of his best, I think. I watch it over and over because you can see a shift/growth in movie directing technique right as you watch the film. It is very long, though.
    The Last Laugh – Murnau – I love every Murnau I have seen and tell friends that this is a good intro to silent. It is very approachable. This movie does it all laugh, cry, symbolism, and fantastic acting directing.
    My other choices were Asphalt, The Gambler, I agree with the comment about those Ozu movies. I do love The Crowd is amazing. And too many more to choose from that I am forgetting.

  24. I would nominate Traffic In Souls (1913). It’s been written about, studied and analyzed, but no one I know has ever seen it.

  25. I taped “Traffic in Souls” many years ago, it must have been from TCM. I watched it right away but frankly had to force myself to view it a second time before discarding it in my tape purge a while back.

    It is better than the theatrical films of the time & there is an admirable realism or naturalism in acting & direction. It has something of the police procedural about it. But aside from its historical interest, it is unbearably boring, plodding in action, unimaginative in camerawork.

  26. It’s been reviewed favorably, but Hands Up! (1926) still doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It’s a minor comedy classic. I hope it will one day be available from a better quality source.

  27. “Three’s a Crowd,” the movie that allegedly ended Harry Langdon’s career (if you believe Frank Capra’s unreliable memoir), is endlessly fascinating. It’s pretty damn riveting.

    As others have mentioned, the “second-rank” Keaton and Lloyd features are all great entertainment.

    And I’ll add a thumbs-up for “True Heart Susie,” probably my favorite Griffith feature.

  28. I wish more people were aware of “Blue Jeans” (1917) and Viola Dana’s career.

    Nobody believes me when I say that people weren’t constantly being sent toward buzz saws in silent movies, and that the only time it apparently happened in a drama, it was a WOMAN who rescued a MAN tied to the log.

  29. I think I would pick Frank Borzage’s LUCKY STAR with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. Maybe it’s not so much under-rated as lesser known compared to their other silents, since it was only rediscovered in the Netherlands (I believe) sometime in the 1990s. I remember seeing it in a theater, and have since seen it again, it’s such a beautiful late silent. Apparently the talkie version was reviewed and was not well received, but only the silent remains and with its somewhat surreal ending, I suspect it might work where the talking version might not have. It can be found on DVD though maybe only in a European version, I am not sure at the moment.

    1. I couldn’t agree more, Rosemary. Gorgeous movie. I’m so glad I have an all-region Blu Ray/DVD player. BFI’s Region 2 DVD of LUCKY STAR includes LILIOM and the reconstruction of THE RIVER. It’s companion volume has 7TH HEAVEN and STREET ANGEL. Glorious stuff. Both are still available from the BFI shop for almost bargain prices…if one has an all-region player.

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