A while back, I asked my readers to recommend films that they considered “essential” viewing for silent movie fans. I tallied up the data and… kind of forgot about it. Whoopsy. Well, here I am to fix that with the top 15 titles.
Obviously, this list makes no pretenses of being objective or definitive so please take it for what it is: a selection of movies that enthusiastic fans think you should see. More people recommending the picture = a higher place on the list. If something isn’t on this list, it means that not enough people voted for it. Sorry to be harsh but them’s the breaks.
Where applicable, I will link to my review of the picture and home video releases.
If you’re looking for something a little more obscure, my own top ten list has some quirky choices and I also posted a list of underrated silents that I think are worth seeing, as well as a follow up list.
15. Battleship Potemkin
Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece of editing.
14. The Thief of Bagdad
Douglas Fairbanks went big with this fantasy epic and scored an equally big hit.
Fritz Lang’s sci-fi picture is considered an iconic groundbreaker.
12. The Man with the Movie Camera
Dziga Vertov’s famous showcase of cutting edge cinematic technique.
11. The Crowd
King Vidor’s look at the everyman. Not legally available on home media past VHS and Laserdisc.
10. The Wind
A dark, mad, brilliant western from Victor Seastrom. Not legally available on home video in any format past VHS and Laserdisc.
9. The Gold Rush
Charlie Chaplin finds humor in freezing and starvation, creating one of his most beloved films.
8. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
German Expressionism in spades and basically the reason Tim Burton exists.
Abel Gance’s famously long, famously innovation biopic.
6. The Passion of Joan of Arc
Carl Theodore Dreyer’s moody examination of the trial of Saint Joan.
5. Pandora’s Box
G.W. Pabst’s showcase for a little actress named Louise Brooks.
The DVD edition has since gone out of print.
4. City Lights
Charlie Chaplin proved that silent film was not dead in this beautiful picture.
3. Safety Last!
The one with the clock. Harold Lloyd’s most famous comedy feature.
2. The General
The one with the train. Buster Keaton’s famous Civil War comedy.
German innovation and American star power join forces in this award-winning picture.
I hope you enjoyed this list and that it has inspired you to do a bit of silent film watching!
Impeccable list. Your readers are very astute.
Hard to argue with any of these but would like to see at least one Lon Chaney feature on the list
This is 100% crowdsourced and not enough people voted for Chaney.
Not enough romance in this list, while I agree that those films chosen are all worthwhile. But I would include ‘Seventh Heaven’ and/or ‘Flesh and the Devil.’
This is 100% crowdsourced and more votes = higher placement on the list.
It is a fine list that you could take anywhere. I appreciate that the people have spoken, and I forgot to be among them, and I hate to be the person with a “but”. Nonetheless, my fellow film fans, no westerns?!
This is the list to give to people who are serious about learning about silents. And if they want to see possibly the greatest performance I’ve ever seen, they should watch Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Extraordinary.
That is an extraordinarily impressive list of films – no need to add the qualifier “silent”.
must put Caligari on my list, somehow i’ve never seen it.
Ugh, you guys…I remember first learning about “The General” when I was a kid, and as soon as I learned that it was another Hollywood film that was pro-Confederacy, I said, “I’m out.” And I was a KID, so y’all have no excuse. 😛
I eventually did watch it of course, and while it demonstrates a high level of technical expertise, it certainly did not come any closer to earning my respect. Hard pass on any Civil War-era film that’s soft on the South.
This list is crowdsourced and presented without any judgement on the content of the picture. The people of Latin America have very strong feelings about Napoleon and Battleship Potemkin is, I am sure, quite controversial in some corners. I personally do not like The General but the list is based on reader recommendations.
P.S. My rule with these matters is always as follows:
2. Discuss or consider
3. Make a personal decision as to whether or not the material is worth viewing
I know, that’s why I was directing my ire at the crowd. 🙂 (Not “The Crowd”, which I love despite its narrative faults.)
I wasn’t offering my readers up for ridicule, simply stating the source of the list. Please be respectful of others.
Good list. If one wished to add a romance & at the same time a Griffith (absent here), “Broken Blossoms” might serve both purposes. But what to expel to make room for it? Maybe “Potemkin” or “Man with a Movie Camera,” but I know many would vehemently disagree!
I’ll just note in passing: having watched “Napoleon” and “La Roue” often & with great pleasure, I now think “La Roue” has more lasting power. In fact, I would place it with “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” “Sunrise,” and “The Crowd” at the very top. Like those others, it still moves me in a way “Napoleon” never could.
Keaton’s argument re ‘The General” was that the public would reject any Civil War movie where the Confederates weren’t the heroes. The film was still a box office disappointment in ’27.
I like “The General” just fine, but there are several other Keatons I prefer: “Our Hospitality,” “Sherlock Jr.,” “Steamboat Bill Jr.,” “Seven Chances,” “The Cameraman.” And his silent shorts, which are mostly brilliant.
At least “Birth of a Nation” didn’t make the list!
I would also point out that this belief was enormously due to political action from Confederacy apologists, who loudly objected to any nickelodeon era picture that portrayed the South as anything other than noble Lost Causers and slavery? What’s slavery?
Keaton was not a true believer but he was a useful dupe.
Thank you both, I agree with all of these points, and I never said otherwise. Keaton made other outstanding movies, and he was not a KKK proponent. So, merely saying that people can make a better choice than “The General” is about as far from a hot take as one can get. Trust me, I’m not out here trying to be an edgelord or something…
I think everyone needs a cool down and so I think it would be better if everyone dispersed to different comment threads.
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