Shelfie: The First Ten Silent Films I Ever Purchased

A little while ago, a patron asked if I would be willing to share the titles in my silent film collection. I did a quick poll on Twitter and it seemed that there was interest so I am giving this “shelfie” thing a whirl. Here goes nothing!

Now I should include a caveat: these are not the first silent films I ever viewed. A good number of my early viewings were rentals from the local video store (a random and motley selection but still), loans from friends and films recorded from TCM by cable-having acquaintances. The movies on the list are films that made me open my little pocketbook and purchase for myself.

These purchases took place around 2001/2002, during the transition from VHS to DVD. As a result, many films were only available on tape and I had to repurchase them on disc later. (How do I remember when exactly I bought all these? I don’t! Amazon has a record of all my purchases dating back to 1999. Yeehaw!)

As you can see, I showed a marked preference for silent drama from the very start.

The Sheik

I was dying of curiosity about Valentino. I had seen stills (the one at the top of the page is the one I saw over and over) but never the man in action and my local sources came up short, so I placed an order. Readers know that The Sheik is one of my favorite kitsch classics/guilty pleasures. The Paramount VHS features footage not found in other editions and it has a trippy synth score that I adore.

Upgrade: Image soon released a version of The Sheik on DVD packaged with The Son of the Sheik. I have that disc, which has since been reissued by Flicker Alley.

The Black Pirate

I love pirates, I love swashbucklers and I was about to fall head over heels for early Technicolor. This is another one that I purchased on VHS and then subsequently upgraded to disc.

The Eagle

Since I enjoyed The Sheik so much, I snatched up The Eagle, Valentino’s Russian Robin Hood yarn. The version I initially purchased was a VHS of unsavory pedigree (I was still learning) but Image soon released it on DVD and I got to enjoy a much better copy.

Burning Daylight

I enjoyed The Sea Hawk immensely thanks to a taped TCM broadcast and I wanted more Milton Sills. Then as now, there aren’t that many Sills performances on home video but I did purchase a Grapevine VHS of Burning Daylight and upgraded to disc once it was re-released in the format. (As you can see, my taste was already turning quirky.)

Carmen/The Cheat

While looking through film history books, I saw a still of Sessue Hayakawa in The Cheat and knew I had to see it. The disc also included the 1915 version of Carmen, both pictures directed by Cecil B. DeMille. I was familiar with his cheesy sound work but his silent films were a revelation. Simply put, I was very impressed.

This disc was originally released by Image but has since been reissued by Flicker Alley.

The Beloved Rogue

More swashbuckling! This film also introduced me to the glorious talents of Conrad Veidt (I had only seen him in talkie supporting roles), who plays French King Louis XI as a sort of nose-picking goblin. Okay, so I’m weird but I immediately obtained a copy of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from the library.

The disc I purchased was the Image release but it’s out of print. The Kino Lorber version is virtually identical.

The Slapstick Encyclopedia

Box sets? Now we’re cooking with gas! This collection introduced me to the charms of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew, Max Linder, Ford Sterling, Lupino Lane and it included a silent short from my beloved Charley Chase. Great stuff!

This box is out of print but it’s still possible to obtain an affordable copy.

The Man Who Laughs

Connie! I was deeply in my Veidt fangirl period and so I had to see more of his silent work. This was a natural choice.

I purchased this on VHS from a very shady dealer (I was still learning) and then upgraded to DVD when Kino released it in the format. Alas, that version is now out of print and scalpers are asking for assorted limbs and firstborn children.

The Origins of Film

Of all the titles on this list, this is the one that has influenced me the most. This brilliant box includes animation, fantasy, gangster pictures, films directed by women and African-Americans.

What a perfect collection for a new silent movie fan! Any tendency toward D.W. Griffith worship was drowned by the righteous fury of Within Our Gates. I saw women-directed films, gender-bending comedies, the beautiful bloodshed of Maurice Tourneur and more. It opened my eyes to the broad possibilities of silent film and how much of it is still unseen and undiscussed. Such a powerful gateway drug could only lead to more obscure titles. I am still looking for my next fix.

Alas, the box is out of print and scalpers want the lifeblood of a unicorn for it. Fortunately, much of the African-American film section is now available in the Pioneers of African-American cinema box set from Kino.

The Cat and the Canary

I love this movie so much and it only gets better with each viewing. It’s a stylish horror comedy and the perfect blend of American and German styles. It introduced me to the wondrous Paul Leni, still one of my favorites.

The version I purchased was the Image release but do also get the Photoplay Productions restoration released by Kino. It uses different source material and Neil Brand’s score is one for the ages!

Phew! So there they are, my first ten silent movie purchases. It’s fun to look back and see how those early buys influenced my taste and continue to do so.


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  1. George Matusek

    Since I never shared your aversion to the films of D.W. Griffith, I started around 1984 collecting D.W.G. on VHS — then Eisenstein (who was obviously influenced by D.W.G. — when that Potemkin sailor smashes a plate, it ia an homage to the son smashing a plate in “Way Down East”). Then Louise Brooks in Pabst’s “Pandora’s Box.” Of the talkies, my most complete collection consists of the screwball comedies written and directed by Preston Sturges. Also Howard Hawks.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      I’m cool with other people liking Griffith, as long as they don’t claim he invented the moon or that he was totes not a racist. 😉 He didn’t and he was. Not open to debate. Obviously, saying that “he had issues but his films are worthy of study and have elements that I enjoy” is a perfectly legitimate perspective.

  2. Ross

    First silent film I bought was Dziga Vertov’s “Man With a Movie Camera” about 2 years ago; first silent film I saw was “Battleship Potemkin” at Communist front Realist Film Society in Sydney over 50 years ago (I ran the projector.)

    As availability has grown so strongly, and under the influence of net denizens like our gracious host, the squirrel part of my brain has led to a respectable collection approaching 100.

    So there you have it: budding young Communist to avid consumer in less than a lifetime.

    1. George Matusek

      Ross, I guess we are both old-timers. I started going to movies on my own in 1945 when I was 8 years old. One neighborhood movie house mostly showed movies they could rent cheaply, movies from the 1930s My other neighhood movie house showed the newest films, but the manager must have been a film ehthusiast because he would occasionally show some silent films — I recall seeing a silent version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

      1. Matthew

        I was fond of silent films for a while before I really knew much about Pola. She seems to be somewhat on the fringes of the mainstream stars. My first exposure to her was at Cinevent some years ago watching “A Woman of the World.” That was all I needed….been hooked ever since. I am reading the new book on Pola, and am surprised to read the author state the very first film she made is on DVD. I had that listed as lost on my cheat sheet.

      2. Fritzi Kramer

        Pola has been enjoying a revival of late. It seems that a significant number of film festivals are finally looking past the screeching about “Valentiiiiiiino’s funeral!!!!” and are actually screening her movies. (A shocking notion.)

  3. Steven Rowe

    I was buying silent a few years earlier than you, well OK, a couple of decades earlier – usually on that nice new disc system – laser discs, well at least that way I got the box set of Hollywood the Pioneers. Tapes never excited me, as at first the prices were as high as laserdiscs, and video tape players were like 8 track tape players as fair as mangling the tape went (tape for me was for recording over the air broadcasts). I did have friends who bought silent films on 16mm – hmm, wonder if they still have them ….

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      I am very much from the VCR generation. Yeah, terrible technology but good times. 🙂

      There are so many dedicated collectors of all the home film gauges (16mm, 8mm, 9.5mm, even 28mm) that I would not be at all surprised if they kept the old stuff around!

      1. Ross

        Paolo Cherchi Usai, in “Silent Cinema, an Introduction” devotes a few lines to collectors: “Collectors are secretive breed. they mistrust publicity and prefer sometimes to die with their possessions rather than abandon them to what they consider to be an impersonal institution, lacking the enthusiasm and protective instinct which made it possible to save the films.”

  4. peytonsclassics

    That was very cool to see 🙂 The first silent film I saw was The Phantom of the Opera on VHS from the library.

      1. peytonsclassics

        And I think Phantom was the first one I bought as well (on DVD)… the VCR that we had almost ate the library VHS tape from Kino. Agh!

  5. Alan

    my 1st couple besides VCR taping off of TCM were all Robert Youngson silent comedy collections and a Keaton two movie set with General and Steamboat Bill Jr.

  6. Jack Dougherty

    My first silent films were bought from Blackhawk in 8mm. They were “Big Business” with L&H and “Battleship Potemkin”. This was back in the sixties when I was a teenager.

  7. thoughtsallsorts

    These look very interesting…which takes me onto the question I’ve been meaning to ask you for ages…so, other than the odd Buster Keaton short, I’ve never watched a silent movie (cringe, hang my head in shame)….where would you suggest I start?

  8. Hedvig

    That’s not a bad way to begin from what I can tell. The Cat and the Canary sounds fun, and something one might be able to persuade others to watch. Actually, I started watching silents as a teen about 13 or so years ago, but I still haven’t seen a lot of the films on this list – like the Sheik-movies! I was only interested in female silent stars in the beginning and Valentino had no appeal for me, even when I found out he was a sweet guy in real life. Maybe the hype turned me off. It’s a bit shameful to not have seen the Sheik though.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Yes, I know The Cat and the Canary has been a gateway film for many people. Regarding Valentino: not every silent star is for everybody so don’t feel bad if you just aren’t feeling it. 🙂

  9. Marie Roget

    Wow, first ten silent films purchased…so long ago it’s all a blur now except for the very first silent I bought as a high schooler: Two Tars at a town library sale of films loaned/viewed so often they were in tatters. Learned to splice (from a projectionist at the theatre when I manned the concessions) just to get it to run past the damaged parts and boy, did it have sprocket jump galore. But I loved it’s tattered little self nonetheless.

    From there it was reel-to-reel library sales for me (one was Potemkin, another J’Accuse; others were Keaton’s Cops and The Goat) until that marvelous day when VHS came out (drooled over laser discs for the longest time but alas, never had the dough).

    First VHS was Phantom of the Opera. Was in absolute little piggy heaven the evening THAT came home 🙂

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