He Who Gets Slapped
This was the first MGM film to feature the "Leo the Lion" logo no to mention the first production to start filming in the newly formed MGM. It's also a remake of the first feature film ever produced in Russia. (For everyone who complains about foreign remakes and sequels killing Hollywood, just know they've been doing remakes and sequels since the industry began so that isn't really the problem.)
The first time I saw this film was in the mid-'80s when my local PBS station ran a Lon Chaney marathon. It is the story of an inventor who has his girlfriend and career stolen from him by an associate. He then changes careers and becomes a popular clown whose whole act consists of being abused by other clowns night after night. It may sound like an odd plot-line but it I never forgot the shocking ending to this marvelous film. The way Chaney gets his revenge on the man who ruined his life is one of the most disturbing acts I have ever seen in a film. TCM runs He who Gets Slapped about once a year and I try and watch it every time it comes on.
Unfortunately all the videos for this one I could find weren't able to be embedded so you can watch a clip from He Who Gets Slapped right here if you like.
Louise Brooks was on the downside of her career when she agreed to go to Germany and work with Georg Pabst. She had already been one of the first members of Martha Graham's groundbreaking modern dance troop and been thrown out of the group. She had been one of the first mass media "It" girls, gracing the cover of numerous magazines with her widely imitated Page Boy hairdo. She'd been a star in the Ziegfeld Follies and had appeared in a handful of Hollywood films. But her wild ways, drunken behavior and generally poor attitude had already made her a pariah in the mainstream entertainment industry.
So she agreed to go to Germany to make some money performing in a couple of B films. Those are the films that made her a screen icon. Watch Brooks in Pandora's Box and you will understand what Gloria Swanson meant in Sunset Blvd. when she exclaimed "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces."
Brooks had the kind of face that registers today as much as it did in 1929. She plays Lulu, a hedonistic young woman who dances her way into the hearts of numerous men and then destroys them and she is more erotic than any actress you'll see in movies today and twice as dangerous. She made one more great film with Pabst, Diary of a Lost Girl, before dropping out of sight and devoting herself to writing and painting.
You can watch the full film directly below.
Buster Keaton at his finest. The General tells the story of Johnny, a young man from Georgia who has two loves: 1) his beloved train, The General, and 2) a girl named Annabelle Lee. When the Union Army take both his train and his beloved Annabelle, Johnny fights back. The plot may sound simple but Johnny's journey is anything but. Which is why this film and Keaton are so damn funny without the stupid pet tricks, too.
Oh, and this one you can watch in full directly below as well and I highly recommend you do.
So that's my list. I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject as well as any great silent films you think I may have left off the list. Oh, and if you can watch these films on the big screen or on DVD all the better, though hopefully my inclusion of them here will offer at least some kind of alternative.