Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin
Having been fortunate enough to live in Los Angeles and experience the rich film culture that the city provides, I have had the opportunity to see a fair number of silent movies projected. I was a frequent visitor to Silent Movie, a theater on Fairfax avenue just south of Melrose that has since been re-branded as Cinefamily. The American Cinematheque also frequently screens silents with live musical accompaniment at the Egyptian in Hollywood and Aero in Santa Monica, as does the Academy at their Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Wilshire Boulevard.
Last year interest in silents was refueled thanks to The Artist which took home the Academy Award for Best Picture, however I have always been a fan of these early films and am saddened by the fact that many of them have been lost due to neglect or just the passage of time. Some home entertainment distributors have been releasing silent titles on Blu-ray Disc, in particular Kino / Lorber and the Criterion Collection has been releasing some Chaplin Titles (The Gold Rush, Modern Times) and is releasing the Harold Lloyd comedy Safety Last on June 18 which features the iconic image of Lloyd hanging from a clock precariously over downtown Los Angeles. Streaming services such as Amazon Instant Streaming and Netflix also offer up silent titles, the latter which hosts several Buster Keaton comedies as well as Clara Bow in It.
Harold Lloyd in Safety Last (1923)
Anyone interested in the silent movie era should seek out Kevin Brownlow's books, especially The Parade's Gone By... which is the definitive volume on the period and the medium.
Below is a list of some of my favorite titles, and here is hoping that more of them make their way to Blu-ray Disc and DVD. Noticeably missing is Birth of a Nation as well as I don't have any films directed by Cecil B. DeMille. I'm also sure that I will get told off for leaving off certain Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd titles, but I wanted to keep the list down to my absolute favorites - otherwise it'd would go on forever.
(1927; Fox Film Corporation; Directed by: F.W. Murnau)
This is a beautifully shot movie (directors of photography were Charles Rosher and Karl Struss) about a farmer who is tempted by a "city woman" to murder his wife. Could this be one of the first screen Femme Fatales?
This is also my favorite silent in terms of performances, in particular Janet Gaynor who really captures the emotional state of the character.
(1925; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Directed by: King Vidor)
This was one of the first silent movies I ever saw and I would love to see this on some sort of disc release soon.
The idle son of a rich businessman (John Gilbert) enlists in the army and is sent to France during World War I. There he befriends a pair of soldiers (Karl Dane and Tom O'Brien) and falls for a Frenchwoman (Renee Adoree) but is separated from her when is called to the front lines.
This has it all - drama, comedy and big sprawling war scenes. The score that accompanies the TCM and video prints by Carl Davis (added in 1988) is outstanding and really adds to the movie.
(1920; Goldwyn Distributing Company; Directed by: Robert Wiene)
This atmospheric and expressionistic horror is perhaps one of the most memorable and creepiest movies you will ever see. I'm not even sure I can describe it well enough to do it justice.
At a fair, Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) exhibits Cesare (Conrad Veidt) a somnambulist who can predict the future, and his predictions are almost always deadly. He becomes the lead suspect in a murder and abducts a woman (Lil Dagover) but ends up dying from exhaustion. The finale leads to an insane asylum where Caligari is the director - although there is a chance he may be one of the patients.
Just take a look at the accompanying stills and you'll see what a visual treat this movie is.
(1927; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Directed by: Abel Gance)
This epic bio-pic clocks in at 240 minutes starts with the General's schoolboy years and ends with his invasion of Italy in 1797.
The final 20 minutes are notable for the fact that they spread out into a widescreen panorama (the first example of Cinema-Scope) that is exciting and visually stunning. This is a true masterpiece.
This movie was restored and screened in 1981 with dueling scores. One was by Carmine Coppola (for a 4 hour version), and the other was by Carl Davis (for a 5+ hour version) which became a copyright feud between Francis Ford Coppola and Kevin Brownlow both who claimed ownership. Either way, the movie was restored and is available for viewing so in the end film goers came out the winners.
(1922; Pathe Exchange; Directed by: Robert J. Flaherty)
Director Flaherty spent a year filming an Inuit family and creates one of the most fascinating anthropological studies given that it's just a raw documentation of life in a culture - on both sides of the lens - who didn't yet realize how powerful the camera would become in modern day life.
Every time I have seen this movie, I am riveted by it and it feels like a fully fleshed out narrative movie even though at heart it's a documentary. Highly recommended viewing.
The silent period has it's share of stars that are still well known today such as Mary Pickford (America's Sweetheart - from Canada) and Douglas Fairbanks, but it was the silent clowns that truly mastered the art of movies and have stood the test of time. Nobody more than Charlie Chaplin and his character of the Tramp.
This is a list that could have been long, but instead I decided to focus on 2 key films that really stand out to me. Consider City Lights, Modern Times and The Circus solid honorable mentions.
(1921; First National Pictures; Directed by: Charles Chaplin)
Just try not to cry, I dare you. The advertising slogan on the one sheet above has it right stating "6 reels of joy" as this is just a timeless, heartwarming tale as Chaplin's tramp cares for an abandoned child (Jackie Coogan).
This is a story that could easily be told without the title cards as it's just so simple and sweet, the direction, visuals and performances say all that needs to be said.
(1925; United Artists; Directed by: Charles Chaplin)
The Tramp goes in search of gold, finds it and eats his shoe - literally.
This is an actor who created many classic cinematic moments but to me the most magical are the above mentioned scene where Chaplin eats his shoe (and reportedly had to be rushed to the hospital after suffering indigestion thanks to multiple takes) and the fantastic "dance of the rolls".
Criterion released this recently on Blu-ray Disc and DVD.
(1927; Famous Players-Lasky; Directed by; Clarence G. Badger)
The movie that made Clara Bow a movie star, so much so that she forever was stuck with the title "The It Girl".
"It" refers to sex appeal and Clara Bow showed audiences that she had plenty of it as a salesgirl pursuing a handsome playboy (Antonio Moreno). She was the Marilyn Monroe of the 20s, way too hot to handle.
The movie was a smash hit and Bow went on to have a long career playing variations of this part in several movies at Paramount.
(1928; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Directed by: King Vidor)
Even in the 20s, life in the big city was tough and John (James Murray) finds out the hard way when he sets out to make a name for himself in New York City but instead becomes just a faceless worker among the throngs. John falls in love with Mary (Eleanor Boardman) and they marry and have children. Overcome by disillusionment and eventually grief when tragedy strikes, John takes his depression and anger out on his family which drives him to the edge.
A poignant and realistic story of a man facing unrealized dreams and considering that this was released before the stock market crash in 1929 when life got even harder.
Next to Chaplin there was Keaton, the great stone-face. Again this could have been a long list so consider titles such as Our Hospitality, Sherlock, Jr., Steamboat Bill, Jr. and Three Ages honorable mentions.
(1925; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Directed by: Buster Keaton)
Keaton discovers that he will inherit a fortune, but there is a catch in that he must get married before 7pm on the day of his 27th birthday. At first he has no luck at all, striking out with everyone - that is until word gets out about why he's looking for a bride and suddenly Keaton is being chased by a mob of marriage-hungry women.
For a running time of only 56 minutes, a lot happens in this movie that ends with a crazy madcap chase that heads down main street, through a rail yard and even has a sequence where Buster has to avoid being crushed by giant boulders rolling down a hill.
It's a frenetic and extremely funny movie. It has been remade a couple of times I believe, the most notable being 1999's The Bachelor with Chris O'Donnell and Renee Zellweger.
(1926; United Artists; Directed by: Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton)
Keaton is Johnnie Gray, southerner turned down for military service during the Civil War because he's more important to the confederacy as a train engineer. When Union soldiers steal his beloved locomotive, he risks life and limb to chase after it even through enemy lines.
Probably Keaton's most famous movie with brilliant visual gags and comedic moments in what is also a landmark in movie-making history.
The 3rd jewel in the silent comedian crown is Harold Lloyd who was best known for his pair of round glasses and appeared in over 200 films.
Consider Grandma's Boy, Dr. Jack and Girl Shy honorable mentions.
(1923; Hal Roach Studios; Directed by: Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor)
As I mentioned in the preamble, Safety Last has one of the most iconic movie images from the 1920s with Harold Lloyd hanging precariously over downtown Los Angeles from the hand of a clock.
The movie features Lloyd as a sales clerk who dreams of making it big. After pushing the wrong policeman over, he escapes arrest by climbing a building. The manager offers a cash reward to anyone who attracts people the the department store and Lloyd arranges for a human fly to climb up the side of a tall building as a publicity stunt. Of course, Lloyd ends up doing it instead and comic mayhem ensues.
(1925; Pathe Exchange; Directed by: Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor)
Not to be confused with the 1990 The Freshman starring Marlon Brando and Matthew Broderick, this silent comedy has Lloyd playing an awkward college student who wants to fit in, and ends up joining the football team.
There is an amazing football game sequence at the end of the movie as well as a great party scene. Lloyd does a little dance throughout the movie, and if you watch the version that is on the DVD box set that was released several years ago, the music composer adds a little ditty that really brings this moment alive.
(1928; Columbia; Directed by: Frank Capra)
Director Frank Capra best known for It Happened One Night, It's a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington directed this comedy about a vaudeville star (Johnnie Walker) known for his black-face routines who escapes and accidentally joins an acting troupe who has no idea how famous he is. He ends up falling for the leading lady (Bessie Love). The conflict here is that the troupe is preparing a Civil War melodrama, but Johnnie's producer sees it as a comedy and wants it for his show to make fun of it.
(1920; United Artists; Directed by: Fred Niblo)
Douglas Fairbanks doing what he was best known for, starring in an swashbuckling action film and one of his best at that. Fairbanks is Zorro, saving Old California as the champion of the people leaving his mark and striking fear in evildoers.
I love this film, and will never part with my Laserdisc copy of it.
(1925; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Directed by: Fred Niblo)
Before Charlton Heston rode the chariots, Ramon Novarro was Judah Ben-Hur caught in a revenge struggle with his childhood friend Massala (Francis X. Bushman). The movie, like the Oscar winning 1959 version ends with a rousing chariot race.
This movie is more than notorious as it went wildly over budget and was the most expensive silent movie ever made, and there were several deaths of stunt people and extras during the making of it. I believe it almost bankrupted MGM.
(1921; Metro Pictures Corporation; Directed by: Victor Sjostrom)
This film from Sweden is an dramatic horror about 3 drunkards who discuss a legend that tells if the last person to die before the New Year is a great sinner, they are forced drive the Phantom Chariot for the whole year and pick up the souls of the dead.
I just discovered this movie recently thanks (yet again) to the Criterion collection, and although has several supernatural elements, there is more horror to be found in the plights of the humans suffering.
(1924; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Directed by: Erich von Stroheim)
This wouldn't be a silents list without Greed, which at one point was around 8 or 9 hours long. That version no longer exists (IMDB has it at 140 minutes) but this movie about 3 people whose lives are consumed by greed and destroyed when they win the lottery is still impactful even though it's only at a fraction of its intended length.
There is a "restored" 4 hour version that has run on TCM utilizing stills, but it is doubtful that the full 8-9 hour version that Stroheim intended will ever be seen again.
(1925; Amkino Corporation; Directed by: Sergei M. Eisenstein)
If I'm not going to add Birth of a Nation I have to add Battleship Potempkin which is also known for its pioneering filmmaking techniques. It is a dramatized version of a riot on a Russian Battleship that starts as a protest strike when the sailors are fed rotten food.
Known for the famous "steps" sequence that Brian De Palma homaged to great effect in The Untouchables (1987).
Lon Chaney was known as "the man with 1000 faces" thanks to his pioneering makeup effects and roles as tortured and freakish characters.
(1928; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Directed by: Herbert Brenon)
Chaney plays a clown who looks after abandoned child Simonetta who grows up into the beautiful Loretta Young. Another member of the circus Count Luigi Ravioli (seriously, that's his name and he's played by Nils Asther) becomes infatuated with Simonetta. Chaney's Tito and the Count become friends as they both suffer from maladies that cause them to be overcome with uncontrollable fits - the count in laughter and Tito in tears. The friendship doesn't last long when they realize that they are both in love with Simonetta.
Need any proof that clowns are creepy? Check out that poster art and the still. This is not a happy clown, and Chaney displays a level of torment in a performance that is beyond good.
There's a scene in Watchmen where Rorschach relays a story about a tormented clown, and I thought of this movie instantly.
(1925; Universal ; Directed by: Rupert Julian)
Lon Chaney is THE definitive screen version of The Phantom of the Opera with that hideous makeup and haunted performance that made this an instant horror classic from the studio that did them best, Universal.