It’s no secret that the talkies owe a lot to silent film. Anyone complaining about all the remakes nowadays had better avert their eyes from the so-called Golden Age of cinema because retreads ruled and a good number of them, musicals included, had silent originals.
People who have nothing better to do with their time than snicker at the silent era often use silent musicals as a punchline. Actually, many of these films were based on the novels and non-musical plays that inspired the more famous song-and-dance shows.
As usual, this list will be limited to films I have already reviewed on my site. Enjoy your silent musical experience!
5. Kismet (1920)
Not only did the 1953 Broadway musical gunk up my beloved Borodin with rhymey-dimey moon-June-spoon lyrics, it also made everyone forget the non-musical play.
The 1920 film is not the first or only adaptation of Kismet but it definitely is one of the darker and more interesting versions. Otis Skinner is charismatic as a wily beggar with an unexpected penchant for murder. Shocking!
You can read my review of Kismet here.
4. Captain January (1924)
Shirley Temple’s version may be more famous but nothing can beat Baby Peggy and Hobart Bosworth’s adorable chemistry as an unorthodox family living in a lighthouse.
Read my review of Captain January here.
3. Daddy Long Legs (1919)
Okay, so the Fred Astaire version is more of a dance picture. Don’t be pedantic. Either way, Mary Pickford’s charm and wit blows all competitors out of the water. She plays a scrappy orphan who is able to attend college thanks to a mysterious benefactor.
Read my review of Daddy Long Legs here.
2. Chicago (1927)
The musical version of this play has long been used to embrace the spirit of the twenties but this is the real deal, the only version that was actually made in the twenties. Boy, does it ever roar! Brassy, sassy, wild and weird, this film is a must-see.
Read my review of Chicago here.
1. Carmen (1915)
Technically an opera but who’s counting? Famed soprano Geraldine Farrar proves that she doesn’t need her pipes to win the hearts of audiences. This version of the famous story is fast, sexy and absolutely irresistible.
Read my review of Carmen here.
Honorable mention: The Phantom of the Opera
People who snicker at the thought of a “silent musical” don’t realize that live music was such an important aspect of film before dialogue and sound effects polluted the original experience created by art of film. Silent film devotees thought the idea of filming stage plays to be absurd. So there’s that!
Indeed! And that in some cases (DeMille’s Carmen) the silent film actually used the original novella that inspired the opera as its source. A good story is a good story, with or without music.
(Now I want to picket a theater for showing talkies with all their noise pollution!)
They also don’t understand theater or theater history, in which the borrowing of stories, ideas and music back and forth between the musical theater and literary theater was (and remains) commonplace.
Yes, the game of artistic ping-pong continues unabated
Pickford is just wonderful in Daddy Long Legs! Was it as popular and widely read a genre novel in its day as The Secret Garden, I wonder? Completely with you on Kismet regarding its show tunes, but then my idea of a great musical is Little Shop of Horrors, so perhaps I’m an unfair judge of such matters 😉
Color GIF of Chaney’s Red Death staircase scene! Thank you so much! I really have a soft spot for that whole chilling sequence. And, finally ordered Carmen/The Cheat from Flicker Alley. Who can resist that Farrar/Reid combo with the sparks a-flying!
Yeah, my idea of a great musical is Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog so I think we are in the same boat but I adore my Russian Five and greatly resent this vandalism of poor Alexander Borodin, who was a feminist, cat rescuer and generally awesome in every way.
I know that Daddy Long Legs was popular enough to warrant a sequel but am not sure if there are any numbers on relative sales to The Secret Garden. I think it is an easier read, mostly due to the fact that it does not include a lot of Yorkshire dialect spelled out phonetically, but I do like the story of The Secret Garden quite a lot.
Carmen is the bomb! I love Farrar in that one and the overall film is stylish and lean in pacing,
Yeah, Farrar is AMAZING, especially considering that she could not fall back on her golden pipes.
Marie, I can’t say how popular Daddy Long-Legs was relative to other novels of the period, but it was published in serial form for months in The Ladies Home Journal in 1912, then in book form. Jean Webster adapted her novel for the stage version, a huge hit that ran on Broadway and nationally in the US and Canada for three seasons from 1914-1916, and made a major stage star of Ruth Chatterton. Mary Pickford bought the rights to the Webster story, and produced it in 1919 with her company, with screen adaptation by Agnes Johnson.
Thanks so much, Gene- your info much appreciated!
What a great post (and a catchy title for it, too!) 😉 I knew about some of these, having already read your reviews of them, but I did not know about the origins of “Chicago.” I love musicals (I usually prefer stage musicals to their movie versions), but I will happily share this info about the silent origins of musicals next time I’m engaged in such a discussion. Also, so many people don’t know that many musicals were originally based on books. Power to the books!
Indeed! Book power! 🙂
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