Which Silent Films Do You Recommend to Newcomers?

I periodically like to ask readers to contribute their favorite recommendations for newbies to the world of silent cinema. It’s a great way to get a variety of options and make sure that there is something for everyone.

My pick:

The Cat and the Canary: The two most popular silent genres with modern viewers seem to be horror and comedy so… why not both? This film combines the best of Germany and Hollywood and the result is a stylish, funny little Old Dark House picture. One of the best!

I have also had great success with Kid Auto Races at Venice, A Trip to the Moon and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Your turn! Please share the films you feel newcomers will love! Feel free to choose more than one and do share any anecdotes of successful introductions!

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21 Replies to “Which Silent Films Do You Recommend to Newcomers?”

  1. Sadly, I’ve not had too many opportunities to introduce someone to a silent film. I’d need to be thirty years younger to follow my fantasies about integrating a silent film experience on a potentially romantic date. In that case, my recommendation would probably be GIRL SHY or MY BEST GIRL. In reality, I’ve given silent films as gifts to two male friends on the East coast who both love movies but not especially old films and not silent films. To one, I gifted the new Blu ray of Harold’s SAFETY LAST. He liked it so much that he took it to work at the library where I was employed for 26 years and had a special lunch-time showing. He has since gone to a live performance or two of other Lloyd’s and Chaplin’s to hear the rag-timey live musical accompaniment. To my other male friend–who is ex-Navy and collects all sorts of naval paraphernalia and likes sea-faring films and books–I gave the new Kino DVD–I kept the Blu ray!–of OLD IRONSIDES. He enjoyed it quite a bit but said the only thing missing was sound.

  2. I would recommend 1927’s The Kid Brother starring Harold Lloyd. It’s a genuinely funny movie full of clever bits. It makes you laugh. My wife and I saw it on a TCM cruise in a theater full of people. Lots of laughter all the way through.

  3. “Nosferatu” is always the one I recommend. It’s a film that is still being referenced to this day in horror movie culture that people who haven’t seen silent films are at least aware of the character.

  4. One of my friends had a prejudice that the technical quality of silent films is too bad. I wanted to show your restored/unrestored animated gif of that same Conrad Veidt image to convince him that the quality has improved. Unfortunately it created a new prejudice: such a stare and makeup – how ridiculous silent films are!

    In my experience, both horror and slapstick can cause prejudices of an outdated and ridiculous artform.

    My best successes for newcomers are:
    The Man with the Movie Camera
    The Wind

    Live symphony orchestra may also help. I was in a concert of Järnefelt’s original score for The Song of the Scarlet Flower (1919) where they also showed the film, but most people were there for the music. I heard discussions like: “I had no idea that films were made so well so early!”

  5. Just yesterday had the opportunity with our tax prep fella. Maybe my wearing a San Fran SSF ball cap had something to do with that 😉 I recommended The Kid, One Week, Barbed Wire, and Hell’s Hinges. He in turn, being a law nerd as well as a math nerd, enlightened me as to the details of the Coogan Law. That was one long tax prep appt!

  6. I’d stick with ‘Modern Times’ – everyone must have at least some familiarity with Chaplin as the Little Tramp, and this one has lots of masterful sight gags plus a story with heart but not too much sentimentality, and the music!

  7. Of course, I push my favorites on people, often overlooking that they are not familiar with silent movies. I’ve found you can’t go wrong with Two Tars or Big Business. Features are more difficult as they require a longer attention span. So I usually start with City Lights or Modern Times.

  8. I’ll start with a simple answer: I’ve often used these four to show off silent film techniques: Sunrise, The Wind, The Crowd, City Lights.

    But when I know the tastes of people I’m dealing with I try to adjust my choices accordingly. So here’s a break down by genre preferences. If they like–

    romantic comedy: Girl Shy, My Best Girl, The Garden of Eden
    romantic tragedy: Evangeline
    horror: Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera, The Man Who Laughs, Vampyr
    (yes, technically it’s a talkie, but….)
    religious: The King of Kings, The Passion of Joan of Arc
    swashbuckler: The Sea Hawk, The Mark of Zorro, Old Ironsides
    slapstick: Mystery of the Leaping Fish, Two Tars
    Western: Hell’s Hinges, The Covered Wagon, The Iron Horse

  9. I think the important advice would be “Don’t watch it alone.” Television execs figured that out early and introduced the “laugh track.” Ugh! But being in a room with strangers while watching a movie is part of the experience. Like several others, I find Harold Lloyd the most “relatable” of the silent comedy stars. Ten or so people watching Safety Last on a big TV screen will enjoy it more than two or three people. The first time I saw it on a big screen with strangers, my face hurt from laughing. I couldn’t stop smiling at dinner afterwards. That’s what I want for others to experience.

  10. Cabinet of Dr. Caligari would be a good choice (I showed it to one of my friends and they loved it), but I feel it might put off some people because of its appearance. I think maybe some of the Lubitsch comedies would be good too, like The Doll. Comedy in general is pretty good. More specifically, I would recommend One Week by Buster Keaton.

    From a young silent film fan ❤️

  11. Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro is very entertaining for people new to Silents. Then I suggest Phantom of the Opera or one of the great comedians (Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd).

  12. I would suggest The Big Parade. It has drama, action, a touching love story, and comedy. A perfect mix. The current video available is also a pristine print with a great score. It sums up everything good about the latter silents.

  13. Starting with two-reel comedies is always a safe bet. As someone here said, you can’t go wrong with Laurel and Hardy’s “Two Tars” and “Big Business.” Chaplin’s Mutuals and Keaton’s shorts also work.

    Then move them up to feature-length comedies, and then maybe horror and fantasy films (for the striking visuals. especially if the film is German).

    A light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek action film like “Son of the Sheik” or various Fairbanks films might also work.

    Just don’t start them out with a long, solemn, academia-certified classic like “Intolerance” or “Greed.” That might be a disaster.

  14. It used to be NOSFERATU was the film I’d recommend the most, since the majority of the time I’m talking about films, it tends to be more cult and horror. However, since viewing HAXAN, this has become the film I recommend to fellow horror film fans. There are so many techniques on display, ranging from documentary to torture/gore to claymation to incredible costume design. It’s a bizarre and beautiful film, and I was completely blown away when I first saw it because it was doing things that I didn’t think horror films did until much later. That massive budget was used spectacularly well.

    1. Great suggestion! I should have included Haxan in my list sent in earlier. Shortly after I bought the Criterion Collection disc I did in fact show it to a small group mostly inexperienced in silent film & they loved it. I also wish I had included Broken Blossoms in the “romantic tragedy” category along with Evangeline. All of these films show the beauty & sophistication of this art form.

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