Silent films are criminally underrated. I know several people who won’t even give them the time of day. I confess that I was this way many years ago. In high school, I would see Turner Classic Movies ‘Silent Sunday Night’ promos and shiver in horror. In my mind silent movies were creepy and who wanted to watch all of these overacting long-dead people in a film? Not me.
I’ve told the story before so I won’t tell it again, but one night I found Harold Lloyd’s Speedy on TCM. The print was clear and didn’t for one-second look like was shot in 1928, it looked like it was shot a couple of years ago and made to look like a silent. I was mesmerized and hooked from that moment on. I did everything I could to watch Harold Lloyd films. (I later found out he was born in Burchard, NE and that put me on a whole new level of fandom) I saved up for months to buy the Harold Lloyd film collection and begged anyone I knew to watch one of his films with me. I knew I could turn them into die-hard fans of this lost art.
The list I have is not a list of ‘intro to silent’s’ type of films. This is a list of beautiful, wonderful and my personal favorite silent films that I just can’t stop watching.
Speedy (1928): Harold “Speedy” Swift, a fan of Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees, saves from extinction the city’s last horse-drawn trolley, operated by his girlfriend’s grandfather. There’s a great cameo by Babe Ruth, the old Yankee Stadium and Coney Island. Those glimpses of NYC in the 1920’s warm my heart.
The Temptress (1926): An architect tries suppressing his passion for a beautiful unhappily married woman. The woman is played by Greta Garbo and the man is played by Antonio Moreno. This story of love and hate is my favorite Garbo film. There is powerful acting in this one and an appearance by Lionel Barrymore, aka, Mr. Potter for you It’s A Wonderful Life fan’s.
Exit Smiling (1926): Maid, Beatrice Lillie works for a traveling theatre troupe and wants to be an actress. She gets a few smaller roles but tries to show up the other actors. This is a film that isn’t as well known as many others, but there’s something about it that pulled me in from the start. Beatrice Lillie steals the show. It’s such a bummer that she isn’t as well known today as many others from that time. Time has not been kind to the female silent comedians of the silent era.
Speaking of wonderful female comedians, The Patsy (1928): Marion Davies, Marion Davies, Marion Davies! This woman could do it all, she could be beautiful, kind, funny and serious. She was the entire package. In this film, she plays an awkward girl who falls in love with the man who’s interested in her older sister. She does everything she can to make him notice her. Davies is at her best in this film. Many say that Show People is THE film to watch, and I agree that its incredible, but give this one a shot if you can.
Beyond the Rocks (1922): I would be remiss if I didn’t include Valentino or Gloria Swanson on this list and this film hits on both of them. I love a love story. Swanson marries an older millionaire then meets and falls in love with Valentino on her honeymoon. This film was lost for many decades and was found in 2003 in a private collection. I watched it when it debuted on TCM in 2006 and was immediately drawn to it. I wanted to watch it as much as I could. I have since bought it on DVD, but there’s nothing like the thrill of watching a restored once lost film during its debut back into the world. According to her autobiography, Gloria Swanson said she wished this film would one day resurface.
The Unknown (1927): What is there to say about a film with the best acting I have ever seen and will probably ever see in my life? Lon Chaney delivers the greatest acting performance ever captured (in my opinion). He is everything in this film, villain, marter, and protector. Chaney plays Alonzo, a criminal who is on the run and hiding in a circus act. He falls in love with Nanon, played by Joan Crawford and makes a great sacrifice to win her love. Chaney is my favorite actor of all time and this film proves why he is worthy of that title. (See also, He Who Get’s Slapped, 1924)
Safety Last (1923): This film is the most recognizable of Harold Lloyd’s movies. Everyone knows the scene of him on the clock dangling for his life. The movie is about a boy who heads to the city to make enough money so his girl can join him and they can get married. There is a lot to unpack about this movie like Lloyd did these stunts missing his right thumb and index finger. This movie just speaks to the genius that is Harold Lloyd.
The Gold Rush (1925): My son loves Harold Lloyd. He has been to his birth house and celebration dozens of times, he has seen every Lloyd movie we can get our hands on, but to my dismay, his favorite silent movie is The Gold Rush. Chaplin is a prospector who goes to the Klondike in search of gold. He meets up with a big burly man to help him through the tough times and meets Georgia who he falls in love with. The famous scene of Chaplin with dinner rolls is in this heartbreaking, yet funny film. It’s said that audiences loved the film scene so much that projectionists would stop the film during the showing and replay it. There is so much heart in this film and I rank it as my favorite Chaplin performance.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927): This film is a tearjerker. It gets me every time. It tells the story of a man, George O’Brien who is stepping out on his wife, Janet Gaynor. He finds a way to make his wife disappear but changes his mind at the last moment. They spend the day together, but then tragedy strikes. Sunrise was released a month after The Jazz Singer and didn’t do well in the box office due to audiences wanting to see actors who spoke. It was also the first silent film to be released on Blu-Ray.
The General (1926): I had to include a Buster Keaton film on this list and The General was the best one to recommend. Keaton plays a man who wants to go into the military, but can’t because he is valuable as an engineer. When Union spies capture The General (his train) with his love on board, he rescues his train and his love. Admittedly Keaton is a bit of a blind spot for me. I have been to the Keaton Film Festival in Iola, KS a few times and loved it, but I’m such a Lloyd fan that I haven’t seen a lot of Keaton films. Honorable mention: He Who Gets Slapped, (1924); The Crowd, (1928); Lady of the Night, (1925) and Show People, (1928).