Silent movies are so far removed from popular consciousness that it is sometimes difficult to know where to begin. Do you start with D.W. Griffith? Something European? Or one of those famous comedies? The obvious answer to to seek out the best by looking for a top 10 list.
The problem? I’m not a huge fan of these lists.
Not at all.
That’s probably odd because I am writing one but let me explain my reasons.
Top 10 lists are insanely popular online and there are quite a few top 10 silent movie lists. This is where I come in. Many of these lists are thoughtful and excellent. However, there are quite a few that are basically just the viewing assignment for Film History 101 and I have an issue with that.
First, a lot of the silent films ranked as “best” in generic film studies are practically guaranteed to put off newbies.
Second, it’s lazy. Dipping into the same pool of, say, 20 films for a top 10 list may be easy but it doesn’t really increase awareness of silent films.
Third, it’s just silly. Let me explain. If someone claimed to be a passionate reader who reads all the time, would you believe them if their list of favorite books perfectly matched their high school reading list? I think not. A true bookworm would certainly still love books from that list but they would have added other titles over the years that round out their taste. (Obviously, please disregard if you are still in high school.)
In short: Generic lists? Feh! I need to counteract this!
Here is my list. It may be a lot of things but it is not generic. These are films that I truly love and my taste tends to lean toward American-made crowd-pleasers. In general, I am trying to include films that are not only wonderful but also are wonderful in a way that could only be accomplished by a silent film. I also tried to choose only films that are either available on home video or are shown on TCM with some regularity.
Will you agree with this list? I hope not! Everyone has their own taste. I hope, though, that it will be an enjoyable read for silent film fans and an interesting to-watch list for newcomers.
(For a more fluid listing, check out my constantly-updated Top Ten Review page!)
10. Carmen (1915)
Cecil B. DeMille’s rambunctious take on the classic opera. Lean, fast-paced and enthusiastically acted.
9. Tess of the Storm Country (1922)
Mary Pickford’s signature blend of spunk and pathos is on display. One of her favorite roles. One of mine too.
8. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
This film was made for discussing and everyone has their own interpretation. Its style is still influencing motion pictures.
7. The Strong Man (1926)
The combination of Frank Capra and Harry Langdon yielded this sweet tale of a man-child soldier and the girl he loves.
6. Hell’s Hinges (1916)
William S. Hart wows in this apocalyptic western. Stark, merciless and fierce.
5. The Sea Hawk (1924)
Buckles swash most splendidly in this nautical adventure. Milton Sills provides his manly mettle while Frnk Lloyd directs.
4. City Lights (1931)
Chaplin proves the power of the silent cinema in this intelligent dramedy.
3. Sunrise (1927)
German technical prowess and Hollywood star power combined to create something beautiful.
2. Judex (1916-1917)
Everything I like about silent movies in one wonderful package. Quirky, funny, sad, exciting… Irresistible!
1. The Wind (1928)
Raw emotional power and some rather fine acting. This could have only been made as a silent film.