It’s time for the boys! Today, I am going to be sharing my five favorite silent movie actors. These are the actors who consistently entertain and impress me.
Note: I will be limiting the films I list to ones I have already reviewed for this site. There will be some inevitable overlap between this and my Top 10 Silent Films list. As I did with the ladies, I’ll list the actors and suggest two key films that really show off their qualities. Here we go!
5. Ramon Novarro
Eternally misunderstood and badly described by people who have not seen his films, Novarro was not a Latin lover and I don’t appreciate him being used as a hammer to bash Rudolph Valentino. Novarro was his own man, a skillful actor whose signature ability was his talent for keeping things light and fun while never getting lost in the shuffle of epic surroundings.
What he played: The heroes of historical epics, sweet romancers, boyish heroes of every stripe.
See him in:
Scaramouche (1923) in which he plays a relentless man determined to avenge his friend’s murder on the eve of the French Revolution. Novarro’s best silent performance by far, this was the movie that made him a superstar.
Ben-Hur (1925) was Novarro’s signature role and certainly one of the biggest movies ever made, this film showcases its hero’s ability to both fit in with epic surroundings and rise above them to give a moving performance. (He does carry on a bit in spots but all in all, a net positive.)
4. Milton Sills
Almost completely forgotten these days, Milton Sills had the punchy combo of brains, brawn and screen presence. He was studying philosophy and psychology at the University of Chicago when the stage beckoned and then he made the jump to the screen. Sills’ masculine and intelligent performances (those that are available) showcase a significant talent.
What he played: Brawny heroes, cops and the occasional psychopath, with a side helping of comedy and a dash of history. He was versatile.
See him in:
The Sea Hawk (1924) was universally considered Sills’ best film. He plays an English privateer who is betrayed by his brother and ends up as a Barbary pirate. Great stuff with wooden ships, iron men, etc. and Sills as its brooding center.
Miss Lulu Bett (1921) is a quieter film about a woman attempting to escape the chains of Victorianism for the safety of the modern world. Sills is not the main character but he is an ideal love interest and ally.
3. Lon Chaney
Lon Chaney is famous for his makeup but let’s not forget that there was a skilled performer under all that paint and putty. In fact, some of his scariest parts were done with minimal makeup. The ultimate professional, Chaney threw himself deep into his roles and the darker the better.
What he played: Mad scientists, violent carnival performers, opera ghosts, vengeful magicians and even an occasional romantic lead.
See him in:
The Phantom of the Opera (1925) is Chaney’s most famous film, though not technically his best. However, his acclaimed makeup and his flair for the dramatic are on display,
The Penalty (1920) showcases Chaney’s skills as an actor. He plays a legless criminal mastermind out to take over San Francisco. The plot is just nuts but Chaney holds it together with one of best performances of his career.
2. Conrad Veidt
Conrad Veidt was an actor of great versatility but his greatest talent was creepiness. Unlike Chaney, though, he had a decent chance of surviving and/or winning his lady love. Veidt, you see, was scary but he was also sexy. He didn’t exclusively work in horror but he was certainly one of the best.
What he played: Mad maharajahs, sideshow performers, Lord Nelson, handless pianists, Ivan the Terrible and the original Joker.
See him in:
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is Veidt’s signature silent role. He plays Cesare, a somnambulist who creeps in the dead of night and wields a fearsome dagger. And also totally rocks the black lipstick, under-eye liner look.
The Beloved Rogue (1927) was Veidt’s American debut. He played King Louis XI, a nose-picking goblin of a monarch who may or may not decide to decapitate John Barrymore on a whim.
1. Ivan Mosjoukine
We all knew this was coming, right? Mosjoukine was born in Russia, fled the revolution and became an international sensation in France. An absolute chameleon, Mosjoukine could play light, heavy and anything in between. His ability to layer complicated emotions and convey them with just his eyes made him one of the finest actors of his generation. Also, good lord, look at him! (Swoon!)
What he played: Oh good heavens, anything! Shy country boys, Monte Cristo-esque vengeance seekers, Chechen warlords, men with an existential crisis or two…
See him in:
(This was very difficult to narrow down, by the way.)
The Burning Crucible (1923) is the movie that made me fall head over heels. It’s a zany spoof of mystery novels with surreal set design, flashing direction (Mosjoukine again) and held together by a humorous and appealing leading man.
The White Devil (1930) in which he plays a warlord who switches sides in order to save his family. It’s not his best costume part (Michael Strogoff is not on DVD) but even minor Mosjoukine is a good deal better than most anything else.
I hope you enjoyed my top five silent actors. Who are your favorites?