Silent Movie Favorites: Top 10 Silent Films (with numerous caveats)

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.

cheat-sessue-hayakawa-silent-movie-animated-gif-courtroom-scowl

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.

Scaramouche 1923, starring Ramon Novarro, Alice Terry, Lewis Stone, directed by Rex Ingram, a silent movie review
I sniff at your generic lists!

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)

(via cinemaevida.blogspot.com)

Cecil B. DeMille’s rambunctious take on the classic opera. Lean, fast-paced and enthusiastically acted.

9. Tess of the Storm Country (1922)

(via Silent Hollywood)

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)

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Review, Conrad Veidt, Wener Krauss, Lil Dagover, silent german film

This film was made for discussing and everyone has their own interpretation. Its style is still influencing motion pictures.

7. The Strong Man (1926)

(via kanganof.com)

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)

Hell's Hinges (1916) William S Hart silent movie review

William S. Hart wows in this apocalyptic western. Stark, merciless and fierce.

5. The Sea Hawk (1924)

The Sea Hawk 1924, Frank Lloyd, Milton Sills, Enid Bennett, Wallace Beery, A Silent Movie Review | Oliver makes good his escape

Buckles swash most splendidly in this nautical adventure. Milton Sills provides his manly mettle while Frnk Lloyd directs.

4. City Lights (1931)

city lights poster

Chaplin proves the power of the silent cinema in this intelligent dramedy.

3. Sunrise (1927)

(via terminalsigma.blogspot.com)
(via terminalsigma.blogspot.com)

German technical prowess and Hollywood star power combined to create something beautiful.

2. Judex (1916-1917)

judex still

Everything I like about silent movies in one wonderful package. Quirky, funny, sad, exciting… Irresistible!

1. The Wind (1928)

wind-panic

Raw emotional power and some rather fine acting. This could have only been made as a silent film.

This cracks me up because it is totally how I used to sew when I was a kid. Animated GIF

alias-jimmy-valentine-robert-warwick-1915-silent-movie-kid-sewing

I loved to sew when I was a kid. No sheet or tablecloth was safe! I was sure to snip it up and turn it into a costume for myself or my dolls. My mother was shockingly tolerant of this behavior. It could not have been easy to have a constant costume surplus and sheet shortage. (I still do a bit of costume sewing on the side, though I have not made anything in a while.) We were also indulged in our love of grasshoppers, lizards, fossils, trains, dinosaurs, books and DuckTales.

When you’re a kid, threading a needle can be a challenge. To avoid the dreaded chore, I would load the needle with as much thread as possible. Longer than my arm sometimes. Ah, those were the days!

(The GIF is from Alias Jimmy Valentine)

Fun Size Review: Barbed Wire (1927)

Pola Negri Barbed Wire Publicity

Restrained and mature vehicle for Pola Negri, a criminally underrated actress. She is a Frenchwoman whose farm is used to house German POW’s and she finds herself falling for one of them. Negri and Clive Brook both give sensitive performances as the rarest of movie creatures: star-crossed lovers who are also capable of acting like adults. A forgotten treat. Highly recommended, especially if you have never seen one of Pola’s films.

If it were a dessert it would be:

(via allrecipe.com)

Blackberry with Red Wine Sorbet. Mature, perhaps a little dark but still a pleasure.

Click here to read my full-length review.

Well, have you ASKED the sun to shine? Animated GIF

doll-ernst-lubitsch-ossi-oswalda-silent-movie-animated-kind-sun

I am not a fan of summer but now that winter is here, I am immediately complaining about the cold. I have been saving this GIF for a rainy, miserable day like this. It’s from The Doll. The sniveling hero (I don’t mean that as an insult, he really does snivel) has fallen into a pond so he and his mother are doing their best to be sure he does not die from the cold.

Movies Silently Quarterly Report

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Here’s what’s been going on in the third quarter of 2013.

I’m just the joining type

I added a new blog membership. I joined the Large Association of Movie Blogs, aka The LAMB. Baaaa.

I also held my first blogathon with a co-host. Lindsey of The Motion Pictures agreed to be my partner in crime for the Gish Sisters Blogathon.

I began to engage in vulgar commerce

I joined the WordPress WordAds program. It’s all very well to be noble and refuse to take advertising but I am not going to lie, it is nice to make money off the site.

I launched several new features

Silent Dark Knight Rises Silent Movie

I started creating posters for my silent reimaginings of sound films. I also began to cover how silents are portrayed in modern films.

I feel so international– Again!

I got to welcome Ireland and Brazil to the top ten! These are the nations that visited the site the most.

countries-2013-third-qtr

Here are my top 5 reviews for the quarter

Valentino is back on top!

1. The Sheik

2. Scaramouche

3. The Wind

4. The Cheat

5. The Doll

And the sad, sad bottom 5 reviews. Poor things!

1. Carmen

2. Miss Lulu Bett

3. The Thief of Bagdad

4. The Sea Lion

5. The Volga Boatman

My top 5 articles

1. Stolen Bravery

2. Is Fandor worth it?

3. How to start watching silent movies

4. A few mistakes bloggers make (and how you can avoid them)

5. Silent Movie Myth #4: Tied to the Railroad Tracks

That seems to be it. Thanks so much for reading!

Theme Month! October 2013: Reader Requests

2013-10Theme-Month-display-banner-GreenBack in June, I asked my blog readers to choose my reviews for the month of October. I was overwhelmed by the great suggestions and had trouble narrowing down my choices.

I really enjoyed the experience because it forced me out of my comfort zone and made me review films that were not necessarily on my to-watch list.

As promised, I will be linking to the websites of the folks who suggested these films.

Review #1

The Wizard of Oz (1925)

This film was requested by Tumblr user Nitrateglow, a silent film buff who was one of my first fans and the very first to respond to my reader request poll. The Wizard of Oz is widely considered one of the worst silent films ever made. Let’s see if it lives up to its reputation.

Review #2

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

This film was requested by the folks at the Toronto Silent Film Festival. If you happen to be in the Toronto area on April 3-8, 2014… well, why not enjoy some excellent silent entertainment? By the way, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the earliest surviving full-length animated feature.

Review #3

The Red Lily (1924)

This film was requested by Comet Over Hollywood and Noir Dame. This is a dark tale of Parisian love gone sour. One star’s reputation has grown over the years (Ramon Novarro) while the other star is all but forgotten (Enid Bennett).

Review #4

Lizzies of the Field (1924)

This comedy short was requested by A Modern Musketeer. Two rival garages decide to settle their differences in a wacky endurance race. Real cars, real stunts.

Review #5

Silent Movie (1976)

This comedy was requested by True Classics and Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence. Popular director Mel Brooks decided to ressurrect the silent film in the 1970’s and hilarity ensues. Packed with cameos and sight gags.

Silent Movie Bookshelf: The Bad Guys, A Pictorial History of the Movie Villain by William K. Everson

Cover of my copy
Cover of my copy

A book after my own heart!

This book covers movie villains from the silent era through the 1960’s. Best of all, it is written by William K. Everson, a respected film historian and one of the most assertive defenders of silent movies.

This 1964 book is an oversized hardcover (though paperback versions are available). It is completely out of print and the prices are all over the place. I paid $14 for my copy, purchased from a Cinecon vendor. The dust jacket is battered but the contents are in perfect shape. I have seen other copies priced as low as $2 and as high as $120.

I think you can probably get a pretty good copy if you aim for the $8-15 price range. I highly recommend seeking out hardcover as oversized paperbacks tend to pull themselves apart.

What is it?: A book dedicated to movie villains. Rather than organizing it by era or by star, Everson chose to sort it by villain type. So we have a chapter on Master Criminals, one for Psychos, another for Western Outlaws, etc. It is a clever way of sorting the information and makes it easy to read about the type of villain you are interested in.

Sample page
Sample chapter header

Unlike many books of this type, the silent era villains are given equal attention. Everson even goes one better by explaining why some villains were more popular in sound and others reigned in silence.

My to-watch list is bursting at the seams thanks to this book!

Sample page
Sample page

Pictures: Tons of movie stills included, from both silent films and talkies. Each picture is carefully captioned with both the film title and the actors pictured.

Sample page
Sample page

Writing Style: Everson’s opinionated, persnickety prose is another selling point for this book. He takes occasional swipes at 1960’s whippersnappers and their aggressive, unladylike heroines. It’s grand fun to read, especially since his opinions are backed up by an enormous amount of film knowledge.

This book is perfect for reading or browsing. I consider it an essential title on any movie fan’s bookshelf.

Chaney Blogathon Update: Unclaimed Films!

chaney-blogathon-banner-header-unknown-spiderbabySMALL

First, I have to say that the response to the Chaney Blogathon has been overwhelming and I am delighted by both the quality and the quantity of participants. (You can read the complete roster here.)

To be honest, before the blogathon was announced, I was a little concerned that Junior would not get as much coverage as his father. What can I say? I have been happily playing in my silent film bubble. Well, I am thrilled to be proven wrong! Both Chaneys are getting a wonderful variety of submissions.

That being said, some excellent movies are still unclaimed. If you are still on the fence about joining in, maybe these titles will change your mind. Let’s start with Lon Chaney, Sr.

By the Sun’s Rays (1914)

This film is thought to be the earliest surviving film appearance of Lon Chaney. He’s the villain. Shocking, no? It’s only 11 minutes long, ideal if you are very busy.

Ace of Hearts (1921)

(via Silent Era)

Anarchists, mad love and Leatrice Joy. What more could you want?

The Monster (1925) Claimed for the Blogathon!

(via Wikipedia)

Chaney is a mad scientist in this horror comedy. Quite a bit of fun, I must say.

The Wicked Darling (1919)

The very first collaboration between Chaney and Tod Browning!

* * *

And now for a few films from Lon Chaney, Jr. I would love to see some of his serial work and more of his westerns get covered.

Pillow of Death (1945)

(via Wikipedia)

Best title ever? I think so.

The Defiant Ones (1958) Claimed for the Blogathon!

(via Wikipedia)

Chaney has a small but important supporting role.

The Black Castle (1952)

(via moviepostershop.com)

How are things at the Old Dark Castle? Plus, we get Boris Karloff!

The Old Corral (1936)

(via moviepostershop.com)

Gene Autry sings but we are here for Lon!

I hope this has given you some ideas! Leave a comment or email me if you want to sign on.

The Great IMAGINARY Film Blogathon: The Golden Challenge (1926)

This is my contribution to the Great Imaginary Film Blogathon. Be sure to read the other posts for this event!

You know that I love silent films. What you may not know, though, is that I have an enormous weakness for the BIG films of the sixties. Lawrence of Arabia, Zulu, you know the kind. I also love those big, big comedies that seemed to star everyone in the entire world. The Great Race, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, etc.

Well, the concept behind this imaginary film is that one of those “starring everyone” adventure comedies was made in the silent era. An eccentric millionaire decided to finance a film and money was no object. The finest of everything, from stars to sets to Technicolor sequences. This millionaire wanted stars and the stars came, the biggest in the business. The whole thing was fourteen reels long and cost $3 to get in. It was the biggest film of the decade.

Here it is.

The Golden Challenge (1926)

United Artists

Director: Raoul Walsh

(click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)

The Plot: The richest man in the world, Jabez Watertoast, passes away without heirs. Instead, he has left an eccentric will: He has buried the majority of his fortune (in emeralds and gold) in a secret place and has left clues as to its location. Four copies of the clues have been sent to four different married couples, all in desperate need of money. These couples must use their resourcefulness to find the treasure. Watertoast wanted his money to go to a bootstrapping pair of go-getters and this race is his way of finding the most worthy recipient.

So, four letters are sent out with strict instructions that the participants tell no one (especially the press!) about their mission.

The letter:

Dear sir and madam:

You have been selected as a possible recipient of the Watertoast emeralds. Your first instructions are included in this envelope. You will be given an allowance of $50.00 a week to cover your expenses but no more. If you tell anyone about this contest (especially the newspapers) you will be disqualified.

Yours,

Jabez Watertoast

Now it’s time to meet our four couples.

Note: I created a GIF for every main character but if you have a slow internet connection, they may not animated properly. If a GIF seems to be frozen, simply click it and you should be able to see it move.

The Cast

Ned and Amy Sheffield

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford

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mary-pickford-title-card

The Sheffields were raised in an orphanage together. They grew up, got married and were able to buy the place with the proceeds from Ned’s wingwalking prize money and Amy’s secret gooseberry pie recipe. However, money is tight and an evil banker (who knows there is oil under the place) may take over if they don’t get enough cash to pay off their debts.

Prince Henri and Sylvia de Guise

Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson

rudolph-valentino-title-card

gloria-swanon-title-card

Henri is the heir to the throne of Carolingia, which was impoverished by the Great War. Accompanied by his American wife, Sylvia, Henri hopes to raise enough money to strengthen his army so that his country will not fall to anarchists. A former manicurist to the rich and powerful, Sylvia plans to use her business contacts to try to help her husband.

Robert and Phoebe Merriweather

John Barrymore and Marion Davies

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marion-davies-title-card

A pair of itinerant entertainers and semi-con artists, Robert and Phoebe are a comedy/illusion duo who pass themselves off as Russian refugees. However, when performing for a gangland audience, they made the dog of the boss’s moll disappear. The problem? It never reappeared. Running for their lives, they want enough money to start a new life far, far away from Chicago.

Erik and Velma Hardt

Conrad Veidt and Pola Negri

conrad-veidt-title-card

pola-negri-title-card

Erik and Velma were born into money but have long since spent it. However, they do have one advantage: Velma’s uncle was Jabez Watertoast’s lawyer and he means for his niece to win the money. Erik, meanwhile, is using his shadowy connections to try to trip up the competition. He was a spy during the war, you see, and has connections with the anarchist movement.

The four couples only have the first clue to work with. One clue leads to another and so forth as they race across the world at breakneck speed. On the way, they are met with numerous stars in cameos and character actors. But who will win the big prize?

(click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)

My cameo ideas:

Clara Bow as one of the older, spunky orphans

Harry Langdon as the Merriweather’s hapless booking agent

Charlie Chaplin as himself, a helpful passerby in Paris

Dorothy Gish as a cab driver in Budapest

Nita Naldi as a tribal chieftainess

William S. Hart as a displaced cowboy in Morocco

Norma Talmadge as the scorekeeper for the treasure hunt

Richard Barthelmess as a country boy who gives the couples a lift in his old cart

Ben Turpin as a foreign legionnaire

Anna May Wong as the Hong Kong-based reporter who wants a scoop

Locations:

The race will start in New York and then head to Arizona (a little tip of the hat to The Great Race there). From there, the race heads to London, Paris, Budapest, Moscow, Hong Kong and then all the way back to Morocco. The treasure is hidden in the desert and guarded by a fierce tribe of warriors.

And who wins the prize? I’m leaving that up to your imagination.

Ever wondered just what a “hench” is and why villains should have men do it? Your answer! Animated GIF

wizard-of-oz-1925-larry-semon-henchmenI have never been sure just what “henching” is but I am fairly sure that it involves something like this. Skulking and lurking and other such sinister behavior.

Capes need to come back! At least when one is henching.

PS, this henchman gag is pretty much the only funny joke in the 1925 version of The Wizard of Oz.

PPS, here is what Merriam-Webster says about henchmen. It apparently has something to do with gelded horses. Don’t you love English?

Bah! His nails were too clean. He could not live. Animated GIF

parisian-love-clara-blow-1925-silent-movie-clean-nailsMore grooming tips from the silent era. We were previously encouraged to keep our skin creamy and soft, as it would then win over Bolsheviks and render us bullet-proof. However, we now learn that while our skin must be nice, it would be foolish to keep our nails too clean.

No word as to whether Clara Bow agreed with the observation.

(This is from Parisian Love. I am just wondering if a criminal-class harridan would really know about a stylish dandy from the court of a past English prince regent.)

Fun Size Review: The Idol Dancer (1920)

(via Flickr)
(via Flickr)

A South Seas vehicle for flapper-in-the-making Clarine Seymour, who died soon after filming was completed. D.W. Griffith makes the most of his scenery and poses some interesting religious and ethical questions but nothing really pays off. Too many reused elements from his earlier films and about 30 minutes too long. See it for the lively Seymour and an uncharacteristically dark turn from Richard Barthelmess.

If it were a dessert it would be:

(via Betty Crocker)

Pineapple Upside-Down Mini Cakes. Cute but a whole lot of canned goods involved.

Click here to read my full-length review.

And the winner is…. (Results of my reader poll)

Here they are! The results of my reader poll to determine which silent film would get turned into a silent movie picture book. You know, like this:

sheik-cheat-sheet-05

So, without further ado, here are the poll results:

1. The Wind

2. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

3. The Mark of Zorro

4. Way Down East

5. The Penalty

6. Judex

7. Little Annie Rooney

Thanks to everyone who voted! You should see the first installment of The Wind picture book in the next month or so.

PS, I got a lot of write-in votes for Metropolis. Fritz Lang films in general do not lend themselves to this format so I am going to pass on the title.

Help Wanted: What film would you like to see made into a Silent Movie Picture Book?

poll-header-movies-silently

I had a great response for my silent movie picture book so I want to make another. What is a silent movie picture book, pray tell?

I take screen grabs from the film, add some snarky dialogue underneath and tell the story of the film.

Here’s a sample from my story book for The Sheik.

sheik-cheat-sheet-03

(You can read the whole picture book here.)

So, I am ready to make another one of these things and I want your help. Just vote in the poll below and let me know which film YOU would like to see get the picture book treatment.

Thanks for voting!

The Power of the Press (1928) A Silent Film Review

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in one of his breakout hits– directed by none other than Frank Capra! Doug plays a cub reporter who is desperate for a scoop. He gets it when he manages to implicate a young lady (Jobyna Ralston) in a scandalous murder. Seeing the damage he has done to innocent Jobyna, Doug sets out to catch the real killer.

Continue reading “The Power of the Press (1928) A Silent Film Review”

In the Vaults #13: Castles for Two (1917)

Castles for Two 1917 Elliott Dexter Marie Doro silent movie
Castles for Two 1917 Elliott Dexter Marie Doro silent movie
Publicity still for Marie Doro (via Wiki Commons)

Castles for Two (1917)

Status: This is a first for me! An In the Vaults article about a film I have seen with my own eyes. Castles for Two was featured on the final day of Cinecon 49. This rare film has suffered some damage over the years but the audience was still able to follow the plot, for the most part. The only known print is held the Library of Congress.

Moving Picture World was pleased as punch with the film, praising Marie Doro in particular:

Castles for Two 1917 Elliott Dexter Marie Doro silent movie

There are Irish fairies and fays in “Castles for Two,” a five-reel photoplay produced by Jessy L. Lasky, with Marie Doro the featured player. Not that the entire story is a fairy tale, but much of it must be taken in the same credulous spirit necessary to the full enjoyment of “The Sleeping Beauty” and works of that nature. The plot is simple, and contains no surprises. There is an American heiress of great wealth, who becomes tired of spending money and decides to take a trip to Ireland, in search of the simple life. Her old nurse is a native of the land of Saint Patrick, and the girl has been brought up on tales of the “little people” that also inhabit the soil.

Once on the other side Patricia, the heiress, passes her secretary off as the lady of the dollars, puts on a peasant’s frock and goes looking in the woods for the fays. She finds them all right, also a cow, and takes refuge in a tree, from which she is rescued by a poverty-stricken young Irish lord, who is being urged on by his mother and three sisters to marry the American. Patricia pretends to be her own maid, and, as Lord O’Neil refuses to make love to the supposed heiress, the fairies reward him by letting the young man win the real dollar princess.

Castles for Two 1917 Elliott Dexter Marie Doro silent movie

The need of the proper cast to interpret such a story is fully met by Marie Doro and her fellow-players. Miss Doro has the looks and manner of an American princess, and also the touch of elfishness which goes a great way in helping one to believe that she really saw the Irish Robbin Goodfellow and his small brothers. Elliott Dexter is. rather stolid for an Irishman, but brightens up in his lovemaking scenes. O’Neill’s mother and sisters are well acted by Julia Jackson, Jane Wolff, Harriett Sorenson, and Lillian Leighton. Mayme Kelso is the secretary. Horace B. Carpenter and Billy Elmer are a pair of the regulation stage Irishmen that love a fight and hate a landlord with equal ardor. The production is of the Lasky standard brand.

Having seen the film, my reaction to the performances is quite the opposite. Marie Doro’s elfishness is… odd, to say the least. Seeing a grown woman skip about and twitch her upper lip has lost its appeal, it seems. Miss Doro was a gorgeous woman but I think that she was perhaps better in still photographs.

Elliott Dexter’s more restrained performance has aged much better. The Moving Picture World reviewer complains that he is too stolid for an Irishman. Way to stereotype! What exactly was Dexter supposed to do to be more Irish? Actually, don’t tell me. I don’t think I want to know. I liked him just the way he was. (The film does resort to some fairly ham-fisted cliches in its portrayal of most of the Irish characters, with the peasantry being depicted without exception as dishonest drunks.)

I do agree, though, that the film gets considerably more fun once Doro and Dexter go a-wooing, particularly in the scenes where Doro is playing the chambermaid and messing with Dexter’s head. Both performers are clearly having a lot of fun with their roles and I wish the film had spent more time with them together.

In fact, Marie Doro and Elliott Dexter were even married for a time. Here is a little Photoplay feature on the home they shared. Nice digs, if I do say so myself.

Castles for Two 1917 Elliott Dexter Marie Doro silent movie

Here’s a bit of bonus trivia: The managers of the Peoples theater in Portland, Oregon censored the film after loud protests from the Hibernians over its unflattering depiction of Irish peasant life.

Watching old movies can be a balancing act and it is sometimes easy to dismiss all stereotypes as “the way things were.” While it is certainly true that these depictions were more accepted by the general public, it is important to remember that the victims of these unfavorable characterizations did not always suffer in silence.

Castles for Two 1917 Elliott Dexter Marie Doro silent movie