At the Oscars(R) last weekend, The Artist took home five awards, including the top honors of Best Actor Jean Dujardin, Best Director Michel Hazanavicius, and Best Picture. Still, there are some people who write it off because it’s a black and white silent film. The film hearkens back to the golden age of Hollywood, when movie stars weren’t required to speak, something I wish we’d go back to in certain cases. It’s true, The Artist is the first silent film to win Best Picture since the very first Best Picture winner, Wings made in 1927, and while cineastes adore it, many people are afraid of it simply because it’s not the norm these days. But silent films are fantastic, fun, exciting, and hilarious. Here is a list of some of the best silent films ever. If you’re on the fence about the style, give them a chance and you might just be surprised.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPKXGEFiADA&w=615&h=447]Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)
We’re starting with a particularly fun one. Buster Keaton made a number of hilarious, slapstick-filled silent films in the 1920s, and while The General is probably his best film overall, Steamboat Bill Jr. is among the funniest. If you want something akin to a living cartoon, Keaton’s amazing physical comedy and stunt work should fit the bill. Particularly impressive is the last act, wherein a cyclone hits town and Keaton is literally swept up in it. Fantastic!
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1NnrJPNQz4&w=615&h=447]Safety Last (1923)
Harold Lloyd was another comedic star of the period, and with his trademark round glasses and “aww, shucks” attitude, he became the embodiment of the roaring ’20s. While not as known for physical comedy as Keaton, Lloyd’s films contained some of the biggest and most elaborate stunt sequences of the time. In Safety Last, Lloyd gets a job at a big city department store and hilarity ensues. The climax, which I will not spoil for you, has Lloyd having to climb the outside of the store building in order to save it from bankruptcy. Here you can see how Harold tries to avoid being late for work.
One of the earliest and most influential science fiction movies ever made, Fritz Lang’s masterpiece of a dystopian society and a mad scientist who invents a lady robot remains a classic today. For years, much of the film was thought lost and only incomplete versions were available; however, in recent years, some of these lost scenes were found in South America, of all places. Both versions are still out there, but you should watch the restored version. It’s much longer, but it makes so much more sense. This is also said to have been one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite films, something which disgusted the Jewish Lang when he found out. Here is a collection of some of the film’s most indelible sequences, including the robot lady which was an inspiration for George Lucas’ C-3PO.
The Thief of Baghdad (1924)
One silent star who was used as one of the models for the character of George Valentin in The Artist was Douglas Fairbanks, the big, handsome action man who made some of the best swashbucklers of all time. Arguably Fairbanks’ best film is The Thief of Baghdad, adapted from the book One Thousand and One Nights complete with flying carpets and genies. This clip shows the film’s amazing special effects, elaborate sets, and cast of thousands.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)
Robert Wiene directed this film; he was the godfather of German expressionist horror. The entire film looks like a fever dream, and the jagged sets and makeup add to the unease you feel throughout. The titular cabinet contains the sinister Dr. Caligari’s horrific creation: the Somnambulist — a sleep walker who does only the doctor’s bidding. The somnambulist, Cesare, is played by Conrad Veidt, who would later play Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942), Jafar in the remake of The Thief of Baghdad (1940), and the terrifying grinner Gwynplaine in another silent horror film, The Man Who Laughs (1927), which would become one of the inspirations for the Joker. In this clip, Caligari awakens Cesare for the first time onscreen. Apologies for the music, but when it’s a public domain silent film, anybody can put whatever shit they want over it.
City Lights (1931)
No silent movie list would be complete without at least one film by Charlie Chaplin, the era’s biggest star. Chaplin made several films in his “Little Tramp” persona, one of the characters most associated with silent film; However, City Lights might be the best, and is assuredly the most romantic. The film follows the Tramp, a down-on-his-luck ragamuffin who gets in the good graces of a suicidal millionaire, and uses the many gifts he gets to woo a blind flower girl. While not as funny as some of Chaplin’s other films, this one has more heart than any of them and has an ending sure to tug at the ol’ heartstrings. Because every other clip I found seems to want to give away the ending, here’s the scene where Chaplin has to box. It’s pretty hilarious.
All right, so there you have six films you can attempt to watch. All or most of them are available in their entirety on YouTube or Netflix Instant. I expect this will lead some of you out there to seek out more silent films, which is not a bad thing at all.