I have an abiding love for silent movies. It undoubtedly has to do with being raised in Southern California and having a lifelong passion for Hollywood history. At an early age I began reading everything available about the stars of the silent screen and the fledgling motion picture industry.
After I moved to Hollywood in my early 20's, I began publishing articles about the silent era. My knowledge was vast, but there was one problem: at the time I hadn't seen many silent movies. I could only rely on what I'd read or heard. This was before the advent of VHS or DVD. Silent films were considered passe, dead and buried.
My main goal was to revive interest in stars of the silent screen. I published articles about Ramon Novarro, Mary Miles Minter, Theda Bara, Rudolph Valentino, Barbara LaMarr, Pola Negri - - to name only a few. Surprisingly, I received favorable responses, even some fan mail. It was rewarding.
Some of the first silent films I ever saw were aired on PBS. I also found a few obscure L.A. theaters that screened them - most notably the aptly named Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax (the theater closed in 1996 after the owner was murdered, but it reopened in 2007 as the Cinefamily Cinematheque).
The Silent Movie Theater
on Fairfax in L.A.
(which I haunted regularly)
(which I haunted regularly)
If you tend to shy away from the concept of silent films, I'd encourage you to watch one. You might be pleasantly surprised. It is an art form unto itself. The sheer magnitude of creativity - without the aid of computerization and modern technology - will astound you.
Many silent films have now been restored to their former cinematic glory, with appropriate musical soundtracks. Some films that were presumably lost have been found (like The Unknown).
I've compiled a list of fifteen of my favorite silent films.
I initially made some notes to make sure my information is accurate, but I lost them just before writing this. Hence, I'm relying solely on my memory, which - - despite all the alcohol and hard living - - is remarkably good.
I've listed these in the order of the year they were made, rather than by personal preference. Also, this list is drastically condensed. I could easily provide a list of 50.
Gish and Barthelmess in "Broken Blossoms"
Spoiler Alert: everyone dies at the end.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) An innovative German classic starring Conrad Veidt (who later portrayed Major Strasser in Casablanca). Although not exactly a horror film, it is indeed horrifying. Haunting, surrealistic and atmospheric.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) Rudolph Valentino and Alice Terry. This features Valentino in his first starring role and arguably his best film. A sprawling, breathtaking epic of World War I. If at all possible, watch the restored version with the Carl Davis music score.
Valentino in the famous tango scene
"The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse"
It is now available in a superbly restored version with yet another great Carl Davis score.
in "Ben Hur"
Phantom of the Opera (1925) Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin. A chilling tale which is still breathtaking after all these years. Beware of the many drastically cut and shoddy copies that still exist. Original running time is 107 minutes.
Chaney as the Phantom
The Torrent (1926) Greta Garbo and Ricardo Cortez.
This romantic drama is gorgeous Garbo's first American film and she doesn't disappoint. The most recent release of this film is enhanced with an exquisite music score composed by Arthur Barrow (former bass guitar player for Frank Zappa). One of the finest scores for a silent film that I've ever heard.
Flesh and the Devil (1926) Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Lars Hansen. Two former friends fall in love with the same woman, with disastrous results. A superb film, greatly enhanced by Garbo's mesmerizing presence.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor. A strange combination of love, deception, and intended murder that is eventually lightened by curious comedic undertones. This entire film has a spellbinding dream-like quality. The direction (by German director F.W. Murnau) and cinematography are nothing short of stunning, and the acting is superb.
George O'Brien "Sunrise"
Barbed Wire (1927) Pola Negri and Clive Brook. A sorely-neglected film that is one of my personal all-time favorites. Set in France during WWI, Negri is a simple farm girl living with her father. After their farm becomes a makeshift site for German prisoners of war, Negri falls in love with one of the prisoners. Consequently, trouble ensues and she is vilified by the people in her village.
Barbed Wire isn't available on YouTube, but I did find this great clip from the film:
Pola Negri, "Barbed Wire"
Wings (1927) Clara Bow and Charles ("Buddy") Rogers. This was the very first film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture and it's a must-see for silent film enthusiasts. An exciting romantic drama which takes place during WWI. The film packs a potent punch and hasn't lost any of its original impact.
Buddy Rogers, Clara Bow, Richard Arlen
The Unknown (1927) Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford. Daringly different and bizarre beyond belief. This film was recently revived after being lost for many years. Circus conman Chaney goes through horrifyingly desperate measures to prove his love for young (and almost unrecognizable) Joan Crawford. Directed by Tod Browning - who later directed the original Dracula (1931).
Joan Crawford in "The Unknown"
West of Zanzibar (1928) Lon Chaney and Lionel Barrymore. Another wickedly weird film directed by Tod Browning. A story of insanity and revenge, all culminating on an exotic tropical island. Unfortunately, a few bizarre scenes have been cut, but this doesn't detract from the fiendish allure.
The Crowd (1928) James Murray and Eleanor Boardman. This simple story of an ordinary family is so beautifully filmed and becomes so absorbing that it blossoms into an unforgettable masterpiece.
actress Eleanor Boardman was married to director King Vidor
The Wind (1928) Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson. A moody and extremely effective psychological drama about a woman from the east who goes to Texas and is driven to the brink of insanity by the relentless wind (having lived there, I can strongly relate). This is the last silent film Gish ever made and unquestionably one of her finest.
This list contains only a small fraction of my favorites. I failed to mention such classics as Intolerance (1916), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), The Big Parade (1925), It (1927),The Pagan (1929), Pandora's Box (1929).
Want comedy? For a refreshing change from Charlie Chaplin, watch any film starring Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton.
Colleen MooreElla Cinders (1926) featuring Colleen Moore is a gem and a real hoot. A spoof on the Cinderella theme. I watched it the other night and couldn't stop laughing.
A surprising number of silent films can now be found on YouTube, but proceed with caution. Some of them are great, but others are extremely poor quality copies.
I think I've said too much.
Silence...... is indeed golden.