Today, if you have the time, watch a film with printed titles instead of dialogue. After all, today is Silent Movie Day. With the exceptions of the Sebastopol and the Elmwood, the theaters and festivals don’t seem to care.
The now-defunct Silent Movie Theater in Hollywood
Better yet, watch one or two of these silent films – all masterpieces. And remember that no matter how wonderful these movies are at home, they’re far better with an audience and live music.
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. Neither of his friends know the real Charlie. The result is funny and touching, with one of cinema’s greatest endings. Sound came to the movies while Chaplin was making City Lights, resulting in an essentially silent film with a recorded musical score. Comedy has rarely achieved such perfection. Read my Blu-ray review.
The General (1926)
Buster Keaton’s Civil War opus just might be the most beautiful and spectacular comedy ever filmed – a perfect blending of comedy and epic adventure (even though the good guys are the confederates). Loosely based on an actual Civil War event, Keaton mixed slapstick comedy with battlefield carnage. He hired thousands of extras and filmed what may be the single most expensive shot of the silent era – then used that shot as the setup for a gag in close-up. Read my full article.
The Gold Rush (1925)
In this epic 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, nearly becomes dinner, and falls in love with a dancehall girl who scarcely knows he exists. Within this seemingly serious story, 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 the rifle that always points at Charlie. Read my Blu-ray Review.
The Kid Brother (1927)
No one seems to notice that Harold Hickory is the smartest person in town. He builds contraptions to help him with his chores. He regularly outwits the large bully next door. When his much stronger brothers set out to beat him up, he tricks them into attacking their even stronger father. But when criminals rob the town’s treasury and Harold’s father is about to be lynched, Harold must save the day. This was the film that made me love silents. Read my blu-ray review.
The Last Laugh (1924)
If the clothes make the man, what happens to the man when he loses the clothes? Does it destroy his self-esteem? Or the 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 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)
Haunting, romantic, and impressionistic, F. W. Murnau’s first American feature turns the mundane into the fantastic and the world into a work of art. The plot is simple: A marriage, almost destroyed by another woman, is healed by a day of reconciliation and romance in the big city. Yet it’s the execution – with its stylized sets, beautiful photography, and expressionist performances – that makes it both touchingly personal and abstractly mythological. Read my Blu-ray review.
Films that aren’t easily streamed and not on disc
The Crowd (1927)
A young man comes to New York, dreaming of success and wealth. Reality refuses to live up to his dreams–perhaps because he dreams too much. 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. Warner Brothers doesn’t seem to want to show this masterpiece. This stream from the Internet Archive isn’t very good, but it’s the best I could find. Read my article.
Able Gance created what may be the longest film ever made, intended to be projected on three giant screens. No other film I’ve seen uses the camera and the editor’s scissors quite like this one. Gance put the camera on a pendulum and swung it over heated political arguments, cut so swiftly that many shots are almost subliminal, and used double exposure expressively. And then, for the closing, he opened up the screen to three times its original width.
Don’t expect to see anything close to the original…ever. I’ve seen it twice over 40 years, both at the Paramount, with special projectors and screens. And it’s way too big for your home.