How Do You Make Silent Movie Newcomers Feel at Home?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and I thought I would bat it over to my readership: What do you do to make silent film newcomers feel welcome? This can be online or in person. And if you are a newcomer, I would love to hear from you as well. What makes you feel welcome in a silent movie space?

For me, the most obvious thing is to not guilt a newcomer for not having seen silent classics. I don’t think it’s constructive with any fandom but this is especially the case with silent films when documentaries and classes often skip over the era with a quick montage. How can they have seen these films if nobody was willing to show them?

The most important thing is that the newcomers are here and willing to watch silent movies. Considering how many people refuse to watch black and white movies, let alone silent ones, that shows the right spirit.

So, what do you do to put on a friendly face for newcomers? Is there a particular film you show or recommend? Do you share a list of your favorites? Do you invite them to attend a screening with you? I am very interested to know.

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25 Replies to “How Do You Make Silent Movie Newcomers Feel at Home?”

  1. My first feature recommendation would be “Wings” with the Gaylord Carter organ score – and you can point out to the viewer Clara Bow and Gary Cooper in his little cameo as pretty much everybody has heard of them

  2. I always look at what kind of interests or general movie taste the person has and then try to pick a movie that matches them, so they have something familiar.

    A friend of mine for example studies psychology and was interested how silent movies build up suspense and I‘m planning to watch „A Cottage on Dartmoor“ or „Downhill“ with her.

    But I also think comedy is a good start as well, like „Girl Shy“ or „Our Hospitality“

  3. I would tell them how much I love Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks. Fairbanks pioneered the swashbuckling genre and if they like those kind of films then they would probably enjoy seeing the guy who started it all in action And I would encourage them to just browse YouTube to see what is available. I would never make fun of someone who is just becoming acquainted with this wonderful art form. Of course, if you like to read as much as I do, then that is an additional way to learn about the era . It might increase curiosity about all things silent. I would also tell people to check out the serials, those daring feats still thrill.

  4. i would should start with some Slapstick. My 4 yrs old loves it. Someone falling or getting hit is easy to understand at any age.

  5. I offer ‘seasonally appropriate’ silent film invites (usually at my home for lack of public screenings) as just one fun option out of many for celebrating:

    Halloween – almost everyone has seen a snippet from Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Phantom of the Opera, or Nosferatu, and many are curious about the films.

    May the 4th – Wings. George Lucas famously referenced its dog fights for his Death Star run scenes.

    Pride Month – Different from the Others. That it’s from 1919 amazes everyone. And, well, Conrad Veidt.

    Every single day of the year: Buster Keaton – perfect gateway silent films.

  6. I would choose something very visual, slapstick comedy or action-filled swashbuckler, so they can absorb the viewing experience and the music score, without getting hung up on title cards, lip-reading, etc.

  7. Typically I always make sure to commend newcomers for checking out the silent films they’ve already given a try (typically the early examples of Melies, Porter etc. or P.D staples like Nosferatu and Phantom of The Opera), even if they may not like the specific silent film in question. Because acknowledging the plethora of films that are available is hugely crucial considering how much has been lost from the era. Anything extant representing a part of both the culture and history of the world and the development of the cinema as both an industry and as a craftsmanship is always important.

    I’ve had a surprising amount of success introducing newcomers to silent films that aren’t readily well known and could be considered deep cuts such as Abram Room’s Bed and Sofa from 1927 or Fedor Ozep’s The Living Corpse from 1929. Unknown films might seem a hard sell but the strength of the images and the stories contained within these films can be a real treasure trove for cineastes who may not have incorporated many silent films into their viewing diets.

    Casual recommendations I give are for stuff like Herbert Brennon’s Peter Pan or some of the early Charley Bowers shorts like Egged On and Now You Tell One. The outlier titles stimulate the imagination in a matter atypical from most films out there.

  8. I’ve got this sorted for my three great passions. For opera I recommend Cav and Pag, for organ music J.S.Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C major, and for film The Docks of New York.
    Each is easy to follow and reveals the genius of its art as it progresses.
    Please don’t think I’m some pretentious artsy-fartsy show off, I also enjoy other types of music and movies and spent my whole working life in a factory.

  9. When I’m talking to people who have shown interest in silents – The Artist, for example – I try to suggest films that aren’t too deep, something light (Fairbanks is ideal). I also won’t impose my taste on anyone. If someone likes a movie I don’t care for, I won’t push back. Tastes are personal and diverse, and the silents have few enough friends without me trying to put down something to someone who is exploring. I remember feeling sad about a Facebook post I once read that trashed Lang’s Die Nibelungen, and how someone responded, saying they wouldn’t bother to watch that one.

    1. I just finished watching Die Nibelungen for the first time on the superb Kino set with brilliant original score: absolutely stunning! But it’s a good example of something I WOULDN’T use as an introduction: too slow & stylized to spring on unprepared people. Like others here I try to suit the choice to the taste of the person: horror, western, religious, comedy, &c. Over the years, for people without a strong niche interest, I’ve had success with Sunrise or The Crowd.

  10. Re: Mitch’s comment: That actually happened here. I recall some MS readers thanking Fritzi’s negative review of Peck’s Bad Boy for ‘saving’ them from an unpleasant viewing experience. (PS. I went ahead and watched it. Won’t rank as one of my favorites, but it settled my curiosity, and I was interested in seeing Jackie Coogan’s post-Kid performance in this.)

    1. I don’t regulate how people respond to my opinions. If someone has found that their taste aligns with mine, they may prefer to skip something. That doesn’t make them a bad fan any more than seeing something I don’t like makes them a bad fan. People use reviews in different ways.

  11. I base a recommendation, first on what the person’s taste’s are, then I usually pick a film that is relatively short in length, even if it’s something/someone that I don’t care for, but I know other people like. I stay away from the longer films even if I’m a fan.

  12. I love recommending the 1980 HOLLYWOOD documentary series that focuses exclusively on the silent era and interviewed tons of still living silent stars. It summarizes the rise of American silent cinema in an appealing way and shows clips from a wide variety of films so people can pick any film or filmmaker that particularly interests them. It introduced me to William S. Hart so it obviously holds a special place in my heart!

    1. That documentary series is truly amazing. It made me appreciate silent films even more. Such a great wealth of information in that series and by the people who helped make the films. Probably the greatest movie related documentary series I’ve ever seen.

  13. I would encourage anyone to just sit back and enjoy exploring silent cinema in any format and of any genre – whether you start with UFA or the Keystone Cops the main thing is to enjoy it! It’s hugely enhanced my cultural life. Oh and William Powell helps 😜 #biasalert

  14. I have a challenge. I recorded almost all of the silent films of Buster Keaton when TCM did its tribute day. My spouse said he would agree to watch one film because he’s “not a fan”!! How did I come to marry this guy? I watched “The General” myself the other night. Which of his silents would you recommend for a reluctant viewer? He’s an old movie fan but is also addicted to his phone like a teenager and rarely hangs in for a movie that demands attention the way a silent film does.

  15. ”So we are going to see a SOVIET SILENT DOCUMENTARY movie?” asked one person suspiciously when I showed The Man with the Movie Camera.

    Clearly introducing silents to beginners is very difficult. Prejudices are one common problem, difficulty of following pantomime is another. I think that ideally the first films should not be the best ones, but who has enough motivation to practice with lesser movies?

    I needed 3 attempts at intervals of about 10 years to become a fan:
    1. Slapstick at about 10.
    2. As young adult, I had interest in classic films (mainly starting from film noir) and read some books of film history which told that everything started from a racist masterpiece. So I saw it, and Broken Blossoms, Nosferatu, and Metropolis – and some more slapstick.
    3. Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film documentary series praised the silent era and encouraged me to try artistic silents, which was my decisive inspiration. Even though the first two attempts didn’t fully convince me, I believe they had prepared me to understand the basics of the silent language.

    I don’t think there can be any rule, what to show first. It depends heavily on the person and the culture. Here are some possible approaches:

    -See the silents of Sight & Sound top 10: Sunrise, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and The Man with the Movie Camera. When one knows nothing of silents, one has to trust some authority. To my experience, snobs (like me) are the most probable silent fans, so this may be effective.
    -Film history perspective.
    -Specific interest of the audience: I’ve had some success showing Wings and The Big Parade to war history freaks and Laila to Lapland enthusiasts.
    -Horror.
    -In my culture, I can hardly think of a person to whom showing some very commercial Hollywood hits (except slapstick) would be a good choice. Friends of mainstream don’t want to see anything black and white let alone silents. Reading this site has shown that this definitely is no universal truth…

  16. My advise is to show a silent movie in the best way possible. Most people think that all silent movies look bad and primitive compared to modern movies: VHS-quality, riddled with image defects and missing frames.

    Show them a restored silent on Blu-Ray that has pristine image quality. Even if they may not like the movie, they may stay for the glimpse into the past these movies offer. My go to movie is Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last. Many people will know the iconic image of Lloyd hanging from a clock, the movie looks gorgeous in HD and it’s still funny.

  17. I have some original photos of some lost films. My grandfather was the greatest stuntman of the silent films era. I just found your site.

  18. I’m pretty new to silent movies. I’ve always been open to them and had a few favorites (Nosferatu, The Man who Laughs, Kriemhild’s Revenge), but it wasn’t until this past month that I’ve really developed an interest (obsession maybe) and really started exploring what’s out there. So far my taste in silent movies has mirrored my general taste in movies. I tend to like movies that are stylized, over the top, a bit weird and melodramatic, horrors, and romances. I don’t have much interest in slapstick comedy. I think if someone had tried to get me interested with a Keaton or Chaplin movie I might have enjoyed it, but I don’t think it would spark a desire to seek out other silents. I would say if you’re trying to lure someone in, the best way is find out what they enjoy and show them something similar.

    I appreciate your welcoming attitude towards newcomers. It can be a bit intimidating. Names and faces are starting to get more familiar to me, and I’m starting to develop favorite actors and crushes, but I’ve only scratched the surface. A month ago I thought Mary Pickford and Mary Philbin were the same person! This site has been a great resource for me, not just for helping me discover films to watch, but also all the great background information that I find so interesting.

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