This coming Wednesday is National Silent Movie Day, which makes it a perfect day to start exploring silent cinema. Here are eight of my nine favorite silent feature films. (The other, Napoleon is too big for most theaters, let alone your living room.) I’m not listing them best to worst, as I usually do. They’re all A+ in my mind, so I’m listing them alphabetically. All of the films are streaming with appropriate music.
Click a film’s name to see where you can stream it.
City Lights (1931)
In Charlie Chaplin’s most perfect comedy, the little tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl and befriends a suicidal, alcoholic millionaire, but neither of them knows the real Charlie. The result is funny and touching, with one of cinema’s greatest endings. By the time City Lights opened, the silent era was dead in America. So this is technically a sound movie, with a recorded musical score composed by Chaplin himself. Cinema has rarely achieved such perfection. Read my Blu-ray review.
The Crowd (1928)
A young man comes to New York, dreaming of success and wealth. But reality refuses to live up to his dreams – perhaps because he dreams too much – in King Vidor’s 1928 masterpiece. Told with daring photography, real locations, surreal sets, and subtle pantomime, The Crowd brings you through dizzying joy and wrenching tragedy as it follows the story of an ordinary man who refuses to accept that he’s ordinary. James Murray, in what I believe was his only starring role, is exceptional. Eleanor Boardman, Vidor’s wife is even better as the female lead. Read my appreciation.
The General (1926)
Buster Keaton’s masterpiece is probably the greatest train movie ever made. Keaton places his slapstick character at the center of a seemingly serious Civil War epic, playing a train engineer trying to recover his stolen locomotive. In doing so, Keaton created a magnificent comic adventure, with sweep and beautiful scenery. I feel a little uncomfortable praising a Civil War comedy that asks us to root for the Confederates; after all, the South’s rebellion was an act of treason committed in defense of slavery. But if you look closely, you might notice that the Confederate officers all seem to be idiots (but then, so are the Union brass). Read my appreciation.
The Gold Rush (1925)
In this ambitious comic adventure, Chaplin’s tramp travels through the frozen Yukon of the Alaskan gold rush, gets marooned in a cabin with two much stronger men, nearly starves to death, almost becomes dinner, and falls in love with a dancehall girl who scarcely knows he exists. Within this seemingly serious epic, you’ll find some of Chaplin’s funniest set pieces, including the Thanksgiving dinner of boiled shoe, the dance of the rolls, and my favorite: the fight over a rifle that always points at Charlie. Make sure to see the original version, not the shorter cut Chaplin released in 1942. Read my Blu-ray Review.
The Kid Brother (1927)
The picture that made me fall in love with silent movies! This rural comedy has several of the funniest, most brilliantly designed, and extended comedy sequences ever filmed. It also makes you deeply want Harold to succeed (Lloyd’s characters were always named Harold). No one thinks much about him, the youngest, smallest, and weakest member of an all-male, very macho family. No one seems to notice that Harold is the smartest person in town. He has built contraptions to help him with his chores. He regularly outwits the large bully next door. And when dangerous thugs rob the town, you know who’s going to save the day. Read my Blu-ray review.
The Last Laugh (1924)
If the clothes make the man, what happens to the man when he loses his uniform? Does it destroy his self-esteem? Or his esteem in the eyes of his friends and family? That’s exactly what happens in F.W. Murnau’s 1924 masterpiece, The Last Laugh, where an aging hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) must trade in his fancy uniform for a men’s room attendant’s plain coat. Read my Blu-ray review.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
One would assume that the courtroom drama isn’t the best genre for silent films. And yet, by concentrating on faces and the emotions they display, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc surpasses all but a few cinematic dramas, silent or otherwise. Based on transcripts from the Saint’s 15th century trial for heresy, Dreyer’s film is about people – not myths. Renée Jeanne Falconetti plays Joan as an illiterate, terrified, 19-year-old peasant girl in way over her head. Read my larger appreciation.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
A marriage sinks as low as it can get, then rises again to the joys of marital bliss in F. W. Murnau’s first American film (he gained fame directing in his native Germany). The story is as simple as a story can be, yet the beautiful, expressionistic sets, along with the camerawork by cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, make this a magnificent work of expressionist art. Don’t expect realism, but something much more striking. Read my Blu-ray review.
The best way to watch a silent movie is in a theater, with live music. But streaming a silent movie at home is much better than no silent movies at all.