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Top Ten Silent Films Anyone Who Liked 'The Artist' Should See

How does this year's Oscar contender stack up to the best silent films of all time?

3.
He Who Gets Slapped
1924

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.

2.
Pandora's Box
1929

Louise Brooks in Pandora's Box

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.

1.
The General
1926

Buster Keaton in The General
Photo: Kino

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.

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  • Jack

    City Lights should be number one. Also, where is the kid?

  • Evengan

    METROPOLIS is a masterpiece.

  • joe

    so glad The Gold Rush made it in there. i agree with Jack — The Kid is one of the best.

  • Criterion10

    Still have to see Birth of a Nation...and I agree that Metropolis is awesome, it's one of my all time favorites

  • Nick

    The Artist is getting released here February 14 and I've been meaning to bone up on my silent films in preparation; at first I was only going to watch Chaplin/Keaton/Lloyd comedies, but then just decided, what the hell - and so Cabiria, The Birth of a Nation, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Pandora's Box, The Passion of Joan of Arc and Nosferatu quickly ended up on my list too. And this is the moment when I thank you for mentioning He Who Gets Slapped and Guy Maddin's work - never heard of them and know I'm definitely intrigued.

    I finally watched Battleship Potemkin a month ago and it was pretty amazing. Thinking about it, I have probably never seen a better edited film, or a film made so powerful by the way it's edited - which says quite a lot.

    I also got to the very beginning of it all a few days ago, having watched 1888's 2 seconds long Roundhay Garden Scene. It truly is something special, watching something from THAT era - books and photos are one thing, but actually seeing those people in motion is just on a different level, even if it's for 2 seconds. It reminded me why I've always preferred movies to all other kinds of art - they simply are the closest thing to reality.

  • MWHollywood85

    "City Lights" is one my favorite movies. That last scene always makes me tear up when I see it.

    I'm a bit surprised to not see any Lon Chaney films on here; "Phantom" "Hunchback" etc. Same goes for "Nosferatu".

    Also, worth seeing from Keaton is "One Week". Very funny!

  • Billy W

    There is a movie called Show People from 1928 directed by King Vidor starring Marion Davies about a young woman who goes to Hollywood to become an actress. It is the first film that came to my mind when I saw The Artist and should DEFINITELY be on this list, even though it is not well known.

  • Samu

    Thanks for the list. I haven't seen many silent movies and this gives some direction what to watch. I recently watched The Artist and bought a triple pack DVD with Battleship, Metropolis and Nosferatu.

  • Travis

    The lack of Safety Last is surprising

    • http://www.myfilmreview.nl Reindeer

      Yes! Forgot that one in my own reply. Safety Last! is a great film with many memorable moments. Lloyd deserves a place.

  • Badge

    I must have seen damn near 1000 silent films by now, and at least 100 of them in a cinema (film society, festivals, revival houses, etc), many times with live score. And yet - apart from a few of the titles mentioned on this list - two that really linger in my memory are THE WIND and THE MAN WHO LAUGHS. I remember liking the cinematography in SUNRISE too - but it's a different thing to see these films in theatres.

  • http://www.myfilmreview.nl Reindeer

    Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, The Last Laugh (aka Der letzte Mann) or Nosferatu (a Murnau films) should have been on this list, especially after you name Murnau in your "second Chaplin pick"-piece for City Lights. Besides that: great list!

    I would also like to recommend Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, and Intolerance from D.W. Griffith (it lacks the racism in The Birth of a Nation). Swedish film The Phantom Carriage is quite interesting as well. Hmm, guess I could go on and on...

  • Chris138

    I'd have Sherlock Jr mentioned here. Arguably my favorite silent movie.

  • Garrett

    How can you not include The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? It's the greatest example of German expressionistic filmmaking and a true masterpiece.

    And it's only 71 minutes long so it's not a big time commitment.

    • Bren

      This movie was featured in a really funny bit on the show Portlandia.

  • jbob

    I don't like Metropolis. The original critics were right. It's a ridiculous film that's all special effects and nothing else. Bad acting, bad story. But it looks cool. But so what? Fritz Lang was the Peter Jackson of his time. Making 3 - 4 hour films of excuses for special effects.

    Here's part of HG Wells harsh review of the movie:

    "I have recently seen the silliest film.

    I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier.

    It is called Metropolis, it comes from the great Ufa studios in Germany, and the public is given to understand that it has been produced at enormous cost.

    It gives in one eddying concentration almost every possible foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general served up with a sauce of sentimentality that is all its own."

    There's more

    http://erkelzaar.tsudao.com/reviews/H.G.Wells_on_Metropolis%201927.htm

  • maja

    Always love your write-ups Cody, nice to get a different perspective. I'd have definately included Safety Last, Modern Times and Sunrise in my top 5 and City Lights is my number one.

  • Nitin Bohara

    All my favorite Silent movies in the list :)

  • Rob Bowman

    I am thrilled to see Keaton at number one. I was sad that Chaplin had two to Keaton's one but I guess the ranking makes up for it. Was surprised Hunchback of Notre Dame was not on here. It might be interesting to have something with nearly silent films, as The Artist is, and the work of Jacques Tati comes to mind. Anyway. Good list. Great choice for number one.

  • Poke

    Great list and a few I havnt seen so thanks for the recommendations. Pandora's Box is one of my favourites. Would have also liked to see Sunrise and Faust in the list.

  • The Moth

    Interesting list but I think that if you put a Fritz Lang-movie among the Top 10 it has to be "Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler" (1922). It is way better than "Metropolis", where I have to agree with jbob.

    There are also "Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari" and Murnau's wonderful "Faust" (1926) which I would include.

    Glad to see "The General" at Number 1, even though "Sherlock Jr." remains my favourite film by Buster Keaton.

    Other titles coming to my mind would be "Le voyage dans la lune", "Häxan" and the more or less lost "Greed". I saw a version where they tried to restore von Stroheims vision with production stills and notes from his script. An impressive experience.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bill-Cody/686740046 Bill Cody

      I remember hearing about those screenings of Greed. That must have a beena terrific experiance.

      • The Moth

        I have to admit that I was not able to catch it in a cinema but they showed it on the german-french TV channel ARTE.

        Once a month they show a silent movie. Sometimes there are really good or simply astonishing ones like "Greed".

  • John

    Ummm, how about Sunrise?

  • http://www.movie-place.blogspot.com Satish Naidu
  • Bren

    I don't feel the general public could really get into or watch Birth of a Nation. It's 3 hours feels like 9 and after you've seen some of the amazing imagery that's all you need before the racism kicks in.

  • Oppi-Wan Kenoppi

    SILENT IS NOT A GENRE!!

    There is absolutely no reason why someone who liked The Artist would like Birth of a Nation or Battleship Potemkin. One is a lighthearted comedy, another is a racist propaganda film praising the virtues of the KKK, and the third is a Communist propaganda film about how terrible life was under the czar. That's like saying, "If you liked Uncharted 3 you should really play Tetris because they're both video games." Or how about "Oh you like steak and lobster? Here, have some of this Purina. It's food too, you'll love it!"

    The Artist is just a stupid romantic comedy. If you liked it I feel sorry for you, but you should go check out any piece of shit with Jennifer Aniston or Katherine Heigle (sp?) in it.

    If you feel the need to write an article like this just say you wanna make people aware of some silent movies. Don't try to shoehorn it into what's "popular" right now.

  • http://criticaretro.blogspot.com Leticia

    Wow! Making this top 10 should had been complicated, even if most of silent movies are now lost. I'd include the one that made me enter the world of silents: Man with a movie camera, from 1929. Just watching people from Sovietic Union in their daily lives was great!
    Glad that Pandora's Box made it! It's my favorite silent.

  • alkida woods

    my favourite silent film is hitchcocks"the Lodger" (1926) i have a 16mm print of it

  • Kayla Sonergoran

    You shouldn't have put Birth of a Nation on there. Many Americans are unable to tell fact from fiction, they most certainly couldn't then (it rebooted the KKK). The last thing is to put bad ideas in peoples heads again.

  • Amber Drane

    Although I might agree with many arguing against the addition of Birth of a Nation, as it is propaganda, I must also make an argument that just because it is propaganda, doesn't mean it's not art. As well, though many might worry that it reiterates old fascist ideas, seeing it now allows us the ability to critique what we have experienced as a nation. If we worry about seeing it now, we allow ourselves to be ignorant about the world and what we have come from.
    In saying this, I just wanted to add that I thought it was a unique, and valid, addition to the list, and definitely one I wouldn't have considered on my own.

    I have been wanting to see more silent films lately, and I appreciate the well informed list with so many links! (I tend to have trouble finding these sort of things online). Very excited to check out "He who gets Slapped" and "Un Chien Andalou."

  • dslacker

    Glad to see The General as #1. What Keaton did to that locomotive (REALLY did !) is one of the more amazing things I've ever seen on film. One other point on Birth of a Nation: one of the main reasons that film is still in print; still available, is film history. D.W. did things in the editing - having simultaneous shots mixed together at the same time, among others - hadn't been done in American cinema before. Yeah - we hate the sin (KKK) but we must admire the sinner.