Top 5 Silent Films for Newbies
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!