This list is only the beginning into the world of silent films, these were so easy to produce back in the day that some stars made a film a day. Although most of these films are lost to time, many are public domain, and many of the following are available for free on YouTube. The following are a couple disclaimers about the list below. I did not include any films with Charlie Chaplin. Most people have either seen his work or know at least know how monumental his influence is on the film industry. If you want to watch a couple of his films, I recommend Shoulder Arms (1919), The Gold Rush (1925), and City Lights (1931.) A couple other people who deserve honourable mentions include Buster Keaton, the original stuntman. Alfred Hitchcock who harnessed his film techniques during the silent era in England. Frances Marion, one of the few women with any power during this time, was known as a producer and writer on movies like The Wind (1928) and later transitioned to talkies with stars like Jean Harlow. This list’s goal was to show that film from the very start was a diverse medium and one that was so full of creativity that deserves proper recognition.
Passion of Joan of Arc: Directed by Carl Theodor, 1928
This is as raw and natural as acting gets. Renée Jeanne Falconetti,with only her facial expressions, tells us the entire story of Joan of Arc. She was unglamorous, no makeup, and drabby clothing she gave us something so real that it still gives you goosebumps all these years later. The set was minimal and was mostly made of white concrete, which really makes the expressiveness of the actor’s faces stand out even more. The film’s plot is a basic retelling of the story of Joan of Arc. I am not understating things when I say that Falconetti herself carries the film. Premiere magazine listed her performance among the top 100 performances of all time. She is listed at number 26, the highest of any silent actor.
Metropolis: Directed by Fritz Lang, 1927
I will be honest, out of all the films on this list, this one is my favourite. The first science fiction film ever made was extraordinarily extravagant and took a year and a half to film. The film itself is a message about the problems of capitalism. The people are overworked and do not have any rights, sound familiar? The movie setting and stages were based on reality, taking influence from New York and tower of Babel. The film heavily relies on sound effects to prove its points and make us believe that evil will win over the workers’ goodness. Like most silent films, this one had various versions in circulation due to its two and a half-hour run time being deemed too long for audiences. Thankfully this film has actually been restored almost to its original format, with its original score. The film’s imagery is so influential even today as many female artists have tried to emulate Maria’s character, the robotic woman, including Janelle Monae, St. Vincent, and Lady Gaga. Many people today know the movie thanks to the band Queen. Freddie Mercury was responsible for reissuing the original score in the 1980s. He was given access to the footage of this film, which used the setting of Metropolis in the music video for the song Radio Gaga.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: Directed by Robert Wiene, 1920
As one of the first film noirs, this is a very dark film, visually and story-wise. This film was made in Germany just after World War One, the themes are highly based on what was going on in the country. Many of the people involved in the production were broke and had mental health issues from the war. This film became a metaphor for a country in shambles. We get a prologue and epilogue to the film, in which we see one of the first examples of a significant plot twist. Entirely shot in studio, the film retains is dark, mysterious and creepy tones throughout. With no natural light or access to the outside world, we can further see the madness portrayed in the film. One can easily see how this film may have influenced artists like MC Esher with its use of darkness and shadows. This film would also inspire other silent films like Metropolis, M, and even be used as inspiration in later films like Dracula and Frankenstein.
A Trip to the Moon: Directed by George Méliès, 1902
At only 13 minutes, this public domain film, available on Youtube, needs to be taken into its time. The film, utterly unrevolutionary for us in 2020, was extraordinarily lavish and over the top for its time. Movies in 1902 were generally less than 10 minutes and rarely had much a story to them. Méliès was a legendin his time. This was the era of films taking only one day to make, and Méliès spent three months creating sets and developing costumes to go with this story. The film was also one of the first to feature colour, which was hand done by Elisabeth Thuillier in Paris. The film also had its own original score, which was not commonplace in that era. When watching this film now, When we place the film in its original time of 1902, the film industry was not even a teenager. To have a film with extravagant sets, costumes, an original score, and scenes in colour, we understand why it is so important. It is worth mentioning that even Martin Scorsese believes this film deserves proper recognition. He includes scenes from it in his 2011 film Hugo. Le Voyage dans la Lune indeed was, in this author’s opinion, the first film as we currently understand film to be.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans: Directed by F.W. Murnau, 1927
Coming from the German Expressionism director of Nosferatu, a vampire horror film based on Dracula, comes an Oscar-winning romantic drama. The film deals with a subject matter that would not be seen for decades during the censorship era. This film deals with modernity, cheating, and murder. To keep things simple and focused on Murnau’s analogies, none of the characters have names. The characters are simply referred to as “the man,” “the woman,” and “the wife.” Thus giving the characters universality that we rarely see in a film. Many people can relate to the characteristics of each person as they each represent a different emotion. This heightens audiences’ reactions to specific scenes because we feel like these things can really happen to us. This film shows us that humanity can be both the darkness of the night and the beauty of the oncoming sunrise.
Haxan (Witchcraft Through the Ages: Directed by Benjamin Christensen, 1922
One of the most controversial films of the silent film era, Haxan was Sweden’s most expensive silent film by far and received terrific acclaim to local audiences. Upon release, the film was banned in North America due to violence, sex, and nudity. The film is composed of sections, the number of which varies based on which cut of the movie you see. This is due to the fact that there have been numerous versions released to the public. Although this film does have some scenes, not for the faint of heart, one has to admire the director’s vision of including horrible images alongside Beethoven’s beautiful Moonlight Sonata.
Safety Last: Directed by Harold Lloyd, 1923
Although the film’s plot is a simple “nerdy guy gets the girl story,” what makes the film so special is its star, Harold Lloyd. The most famous scene is the most impressive, Lloyd, who was missing two fingers, climbs up a tall building in a stunt to win a girl. Lloyd himself climbed the building and did all his own stunts. Along with another silent film legend, Buster Keaton, who famously performed his own stunts, Lloyd is the comedic actor seemingly most lost to history. This is his magnum opus. Although he really did do dangerous stunts for this film and many other films, this film is a prime example of trickery used in film. He did not actually climb a 12 storey building, but the film’s secret has been a mystery ever since. The scene and the stunt were so successful and influential. The film made 10 times its budget and served as an inspiration for the scene in Back to the Future in 1985 when Doc climbs the Clock Tower to ensure Marty can go back to the future.
Nanook of the North: Directed by Robert J. Flaherty, 1922
Blurring the line between film and documentary, Nanook of the North tells the story of an Inuit man and his family in the Canada. This film was 10 years in the making and went from the story of a group of people to only showing the struggles of one indigenous man trying to provide for his family in Northern Quebec. Director Flaherty chose to highlight the life of a hunter of the Itivimuit tribe, Allakariallak, who would be renamed for American audiences as Nanook. Although the film has many flaws like staging some shots, the wife in the movie not being Allakariallak’s real wife, as well as outdated language. The film was one of the first films to show a different way of life. A way of life that Americans were not exposed to, and it was mostly filmed in remote locations. Film critic Roger Ebert had this to say about the film, “Even if you stage a walrus hunt, it still involves hunting a walrus, and the walrus hasn’t seen the script. What shines through is the humanity and optimism of the Inuit.”
Man with a Movie Camera: Directed by Dziga Vertov, 1929
This film from the Soviet Union features no actual actors. It showcases what Soviet life was like for the average person, starting from morning and ending in the evening. This film plays out more like a documentary. Yet the film techniques used at the time were incredibly cinematic. It uses a nonlinear storyline that was new for the time. As one of the first films to use multiple exposures, jump cuts, and split screens, the basic storyline was elevated to now being a highly regarded works of cinema.
Hunchback of Notre Dame: Directed by Wallace Worsley, 1923
This adaptation of the famous Victor Hugo book stars the “Man of a Thousand Faces,” Lon Chaney. It was Universal studio’s most successful silent film grossing over 3 million dollars at the time. Although this film is a faithful adaptation of the novel, this film truly highlights the Chaney’s incredible ability to use makeup to convey a story. Filmed against a backdrop recreating the Cathedral and Paris’s streets, this film is as lavish as it is heartbreaking. Many versions of this story have been done, yet all of them have been influenced by Lon Chaney and his groundbreaking use of makeup.
All sources from this article come from Turner Classic Movies website, International Movie Data Base, the Criterion Collection, and good old Wikipedia. Photo: Metropolis, 1927.