Top 5 Silent Films for Newbies

Posted by Brandy Dean January 30, 2013 26 Comments 20735 views

As the social reach of Pretty Clever Films keeps expanding (first Twitter, then the world ya’ll!) I’ve been getting some version of this question quite a lot lately: I’ve never seen a silent movie. What do you recommend?

Of course, we silent film enthusiasts both welcome this question and sort of dread this question. It comes freighted with a lot of responsibility. Here you have this person, innocent and enthusiastic to embark on an exploration of the wonderful world of silent cinema, just waiting for you to dispense your sage advice. But it’s like walking across a frayed and decaying rope bridge – one wrong step, one heavy tread and the silent film newbie goes crashing into the gorge below, never to be seen again.

Maybe I’m being dramatic, but silent film recs for the uninitiated sometimes seem that way. So we rely on the comedies – Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd – as the most accessible. Those are amazing, and a good place to start for sure, but there’s so much more to silent cinema than a buncha yucks. So I’m throwing down the gauntlet with my Top 5 Silent Films for Newbies, a kind of Silent Film 101 list, that isn’t ChaplinKeatonLloyd. Okay there’s one Buster Keaton, but come on!

Top 5 Silent Films for Newbies

Still image from "A Trip to the Moon"

A Trip to the Moon – Georges Melies 1902

I’m a big fan of beginning at the beginning, and A Trip to the Moon is pretty damn early. I’m specifically recommending the Flicker Alley 2011 release of the restored and colorized movie. (Seriously, if I win lotto 649, I’ll drop copies of this from a helicopter all over Toronto, but I digress.) With the soundtrack by Air and the drop dead gorgeous, colorful picture, this version of A Trip to the Moon with disspell any notion that silent films are old crusty, jerky relics from some dead time. It’s short, it’s sweet, and it’s a mind-blower. It will leave the silent film newbie begging for more.

Still image from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – Robert Weine 1920

Part of the thrill of watching silent films is to observe the often neat sidestepping of what would now be called technical limitations. Sometimes you can actually see the human imagination straining at the pictorial limitations in early filmmaking and that’s probably no where more true than in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Caligari is striking, pretty scary, and so downright weird it immediately places itself outside of any time. It’s just as weird today as it was in 1920, and thus just as fresh. I challenge any person who likes any kind of movies not to be utterly intrigued by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Stick with Kino on this one.

Still image from "Broken Blossoms"

Broken Blossoms – D.W. Griffith 1919

I don’t think you can really put together a Silent Film 101 list and ignore good old D.W. Griffith. I also think you can’t go all out and recommend The Birth of a Nation or Intolerance to a newbie – patience grasshopper. You could recommend Way Down East or Orphans of the Storm, but even those are a little treacly. Broken Blossoms is perfect – perfect as an entry into silent movies, perfect as a Griffith starting point, and, well, just perfect. The story about the abused and misused young woman who meets a kind-hearted Chinese man is moving and goes a long way to restoring Griffith’s battered rep in the popular imagination. But the real reason to recommend this movie is the incomparable Lillian Gish. Surely any fan of movies appreciates a great performance and Gish was the greatest.

Still image from "The General"

The General – Buster Keaton 1928

Keaton lives in the cultural consciousness as a comedian, as one of the great silent clowns. That’s true. Keaton was fuuunnneee. There’s this move he has, where he files out of window backwards, butt first – it slays me every time I see it. Hell, it slays me every time I think about it. But Keaton was more than a clown. Keaton was a cinematic genius of the sort that’s impossible to describe in just a few words and the The General is his masterpiece. It’s funny, it’s exciting, and it is something so special it’s not to be missed. In fact, if you put a gun to my head and said “I’m only gonna see one movie ever! What should it be?” I would say, loudly and clearly, The General. Until Criterion gets off their duffs and gives The General the treatment it deserves, go with the Kino Blu-ray. Or, if you’re in the TO, wait til the 2013 Toronto Silent Film Festival and see it the way God intended.

Still image from "The Last Laugh"

The Last Laugh – F.W. Murnau 1924

Much like the D.W. Griffith conundrum, you don’t talk silent movie basics without talking F.W. Murnau. In the constellation of Murnau films, each one more perfect than the last, The Last Laugh is my personal favorite. The Last Laugh covers a lot of silent film basics – Murnau, Jannings, purely visual storytelling, German expressionism. That’s a four-fer, by my count. It’s also, I think, very modern in feel. The doorman is such a complete character that the viewer is right there with him and you can’t ask for a better performance than the one Emil Jannings dishes out here. Silent movie newcomers will marvel at the lack of title cards and be dazzled by a master visual storyteller the likes of which we may never see again. Kino has a “Restored Deluxe Edition” of this beauty that’s probably worth checking out.

What 5 silent movies would you recommend to a newbie?

Tell us in the comments!


About Brandy Dean

Social media consultant, blogger for hire, and lover of classic movies and silent films.

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There are 26 Comments

  1. Pam
    - January 30, 2013
      -   Reply

    I like your list! I’d be interested to see the Griffith one you cite (I’ve only seen Birth of a Nation and Intolerance).

    However, I think it needs to be a Top 10 list. I would totally include a Chaplin film. And Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. And something from the Soviet silent era – like Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, or even Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. Perhaps Joan of Arc. And I’d probably throw in a silent era documentary like Flaherty’s Nanook of the North.

    So many choices…..!

  2. Pretty Clever Film Gal
    - January 30, 2013
      -   Reply

    I knew I would take some heat for not including Chaplin. I was trying to keep it manageable for someone who’s never seen a single silent film. What would intrigue that person to see more? I feel like Chaplin, who’s kind of so separate and distinct, is a bit of a bait and switch in that respect.

    I think Potemkin and Man with a Movie Camera and the like are on the next list – Silent Film 102 maybe?

    Fortunately, I like nothing more than making lists!

  3. ellisDtripp
    - January 30, 2013
      -   Reply

    Metropolis would be a pick of mine.

    • James Patrick
      - May 21, 2013
        -   Reply

      I first got into Silent Films after watching Robert Downey Jr. in Chaplin. I was in awe of a man that could direct, do choreography, edit, do the screenplay, act, and even do the score while owning the film. Chaplin was unreal.

      I then watched Metropolis and that was amazing.

      I followed with the Gold Rush, Modern Times, and especially The Kid which had me spell bound. And who couldnt’ relate to the Tramp in City Lights.

      Fatty Arbuckles shorts were very funny and I love them. People forget that he mentored Chaplin @ keystone and the Tramp was take partly from the balloon pants character of Arbuckle.

      I’m in my late 30’s but I love silent films.

  4. Richard
    - February 11, 2013
      -   Reply

    Some silents not mentioned above:
    Sunrise – Murnau
    Foolish Wives – von Stroheim
    The Penalty – Worsley w/ Lon Chaney
    Show People – Vidor w/ Marion Davies
    The River – Borzage

  5. - March 25, 2013
      -   Reply

    Utterly SUNRISE, Murnau’s masterpiece and a great piece of lyrical cinema. I’d throw in Chaney in THE UNKNOWN, because he’s great in it and it’s a weird film that grabs the attention. CITY LIGHTS – pure poetry, and heartbreaking ending. I *would* include INTOLERANCE, simply because it’s the movie that really stretches out cinematic technique and shows you just about everything film can do. Lastly, THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, as a proto-Western and the beginnings of one of the essential film genres. If I could sneak in a 6th, I’d add THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, because it’s so much fun, so beautifully done, and has something for everyone, and Doug Fairbanks is irresistible. And sexy. Very.

  6. Arnold
    - April 14, 2013
      -   Reply

    Perhaps on the next list, especially if seen on a big screen: Jacques Feyder’s “L’Atlantide”? The “Oriental” scenery, cinematography, and art direction are smashing. Really has its moments and seems the inspiration for everything from serials to the Indian Jones franchise.

  7. jack42
    - May 18, 2013
      -   Reply

    I agree, probably Top 10, even though I don’t think I could add another five. But Metropolis and Battleship Potemkin would be included.

    I guess part of recommending a movie is in part dependent upon what the person asking is interested in. If they prefer comedies, I wouldn’t recommend Battleship Potemkin, but that might be a good choice for drama lovers.

  8. Dave
    - May 18, 2013
      -   Reply

    The Gold Rush
    The General
    Show People

  9. - May 21, 2013
      -   Reply

    Great list, but I’d add Sherlock, Jr. to it. The special effects are amazing and it was major influence on other film directors. Plus, it’s great fun to watch!

  10. - June 20, 2013
      -   Reply

    I agree with Barbara…Sherlock Jr.! Well…all Buster Keaton films 😉

    The Kid, Modern Times and Gold Rush by Chaplin are pretty amazing too…and 1 am was also pretty mindblowing.

    One ‘modern’ silent would be ‘Heart Of The World’ by Guy Maddin…pretty mindblowing for a modern film…actually looks like it’s from the early days of ‘Kino’ 🙂

  11. - August 15, 2013
      -   Reply

    Your primer is perfection. I almost wish I were a silent film newbie under your direction. Last week TCM ran 1925s “Ben Hur-A Tale of the Christ” and (amazingly!) my silent movie scoffer (husband) was drawn into the story. You just never know what will reach a person.

    Here’s my list of 5, for your consideration:

    “The Cameraman”
    As funny and touching a comedy as you’ll ever find and, of course, it’s Buster.

    “3 Bad Men”
    A John Ford western with all of the heart and action he’s for which he is famous.

    “The Docks of New York”
    Josef von Sternberg’s engrossing and gritty drama is timeless.

    “Two Arabian Knights”
    Lewis Milestone won an Oscar for “Best Director of a Comedy” for this buddy picture back when the Academy appreciated the finer art.

    “The Racket”
    This tough as nails crime picture is another winner from director Milestone

  12. SM
    - September 11, 2013
      -   Reply

    Top 5 silent films for Newbies:
    The General
    The Navigator
    Steamboat Bill Jr
    Go West
    Sherlock Jr
    To be fair, I am partial to Buster Keaton. 🙂

  13. Stacey
    - September 11, 2013
      -   Reply

    I just watch Clara Bow in “It”, it was a my first silent film and now I am hooked. It’s a delightful film.

  14. Sean Cobb
    - September 13, 2013
      -   Reply

    The Passion of Joan of Arc!

  15. Sean Cobb
    - September 13, 2013
      -   Reply

    Forgot to mention The Crowd.

  16. martin fennell
    - November 18, 2013
      -   Reply

    I’ve gotten this urge to watch silent movies again.
    some of my favourites
    silent movie
    city lights
    modern times
    the kid
    sherlock jr
    the three ages
    the cameraman
    the general
    steamboat round the bend
    some others i would recommend
    the crowd
    the iron horse
    the big parade
    the cabinet of dr caligari
    battleship potomenkin

  17. - December 11, 2013
      -   Reply

    I know Griffith is important, but I’d avoid him for newbies. Broken Blossoms does not do justice to the format and moves really slowly. I’d suggest Metropolis, Sunrise, The Gold Rush, or Nosferatu instead. No arguments with the other picks!

  18. hachmom
    - December 13, 2013
      -   Reply

    I think I would go with
    A Trip to the Moon
    Cabinet of Dr Caligari or Nosferatu
    Battleship Potemkin or Napoleon
    The General or Sherlock Jr

    I favor silent horror films, but I tried to restrain myself.

  19. - December 21, 2013
      -   Reply

    It’s got to be entertainment first, and the wonders of silent cinema can be all theirs once you’ve lured them in. Anyone who thinks someone can be turned on to silent cinema (as many do) by the likes of Potemkin or Passion of Joan of Arc really aren’t living in the real world, I would suggest. Get them hooked first. I would go with:

    The Unknown (1927. Lon Chaney/Tod Browning film that moves at such a fast pace and is so bonkers, it’s entertaining whether you like silent film or not).

    The General (1927, Yep, I’d go with that too!)

    Wings (1927, again it’s a safe choice. The format is not dissimilar from war films we have today. Has a good mix of action and romance. Yes, it’s long, but moves at a good pace)

    Waxworks (1924. What better way to help newbies keep their concentration than with a series of short stories? More accessible than Caligari for that reason)

    The Kid (1921. Like or hate Chaplin, this still has much to offer. very funny in places, but also remarkably moving too)

  20. Toyiah Murry
    - February 20, 2014
      -   Reply

    I’m actually ashamed that I’ve never seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari before nor a D.W. Griffith film outside of Birth of a Nation. I love this thread of comments though, it’s making me realize I definitely have a lot more exploring to do in the silent realm! For me some great additions are Passion of Joan of Arc, The Crowd, City Lights, and Sunrise, which utterly blew my mind when I first saw it.

  21. martin fennell
    - February 24, 2014
      -   Reply

    Another I really like is “the wind”

    • martin fennell
      - February 24, 2014
        -   Reply

      more favs
      A nous la liberte
      mr hulot’s holiday
      mon oncle

  22. Bodie
    - March 19, 2014
      -   Reply

    Love all the choices but I’d add City Lights because a noob can’t graduate w/out Chaplin. The General greatest silent film ever made, and Keaton utter genius never matched.

  23. - March 28, 2014
      -   Reply

    The General
    City Lights

  24. Alana D
    - March 28, 2014
      -   Reply

    “Lonesome” is a sweet romantic comedy with a surprisingly modern feel. It has a very short scene with sound. I saw it at a film festival with live accompaniment, and it was truly lovely.

    Nosferatu, Phantom of the Opera (odd, a silent film about opera – but it made one imagine the sublimity of the music beyond mortal range), Sunrise, the Cameraman, the General, Napoleon

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