The conclusion of the section on some of the most well-known silents.


The Phantom of the Opera (1925) The original film version of the horror classic; it shows what a great timeless interesting story it is if it can successfully be remade so many times, both onstage and in film, but no version could ever be as great as the original. Lon Chaney could wipe the floor with the wannabe-actors of today. He did his own makeup for his films instead of letting other people do it for him or create the looks in his place, and the unmasking in this version is still one of the scariest movie moments, not least because his makeup was kept secret all during filming.

The Battleship Potemkin (1925) One of the films of the great Soviet director Eisenstein; you’ve probably seen the footage of the baby carriage careening down the stairs backwards, an image that’s been incorporated into some other films and tv shows since, though many people have no idea where this reference came from. A great many silent films were remade during the sound era, or had elements of them alluded to in later films or on tv shows, even though most people have no clue.

Strike (1925) Another Eisenstein film; the title is self-explanatory. We saw this film on laser disc in my Modern Russian Culture class, though unfortunately never got to finish watching it. [I’ve since seen it all the way through several times.] It concerns the bestial events leading up to the workers at a Tsarist-era factory striking, the strike itself, and finally what becomes of the strikers.

The General (1926) One of the handful of silents that ever appears on lists of the greatest films, this is also Buster Keaton’s most famous film. It’s based on a true story that took place during the Civil War, only the fellow in this film is a Southerner and not a Northern like in real life. (Buster was actually a Kansan.) It concerns his struggle to get back his train The General and his girlfriend Annabelle, both of them the loves of his life, from the Yankees who’ve kidnapped them. [I’ve always found this film a bit overrated and not my favorite of his or the one I consider his funniest.]

Metropolis (1927) Probably the most famous silent film, which I would go so far as to call the greatest. When I saw this film again after having become a Marxist, it took on a whole new emotional meaning for me, the exploitation of the proletariat, the indolence and cruelty of the ruling class, what can happen if we let machines take over and don’t treat everybody fairly, even people who are working for us. The epigram of this film is very powerful, “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!”

It (1927) This was far from Clara Bow’s first film; she’d already been an established film presence and great star for some time before this. It isn’t even her best film, though it’s solid and enjoyable for the 4-star movie it is. The popular British writer Elinor Glyn (who also wrote Beyond the Rocks and a number of other books which were made into films) was asked to write a story with the title of It based on the newly-coined term for the girl who had “It,” that indefinable quality of beauty, mystique, charm, and sex appeal. I’ve also found that, even though Clara did have a very thick Brooklyn accent, she did star in quite a few successful talking pictures, some of which performed better at the box office than her silent features had.

The Battle of the Century (1927) Probably the most famous Laurel and Hardy silent short (Big Business and Double Whoopee are well-known too) because it contains the biggest pie fight in film history, ever.

City Lights (1931) One of Chaplin’s most famous films, though this one did utilise very limited sound resources (having a musical soundtrack and select sound effects, and the joke at the beginning, with the speech of the city officials coming out as gobblety-gook). Everything else is in intertitles. It might not be as hilarious as some of his other stuff, but it’s a very sweet and tender lighthearted story, with plenty of funny moments too. I am a person who RARELY cries at movies (usually I just get chills or goosebumps if something is powerful or moving enough), but even I was moved to tears by the tender poignant unforgettable ending.

Modern Times (1936) His last stand against talking pictures, though this film uses a lot more sound effects and even has actual speech in it, though all speech that takes place comes forth from machines, like a radio, a record player playing a record explaining to the boss about the feeding machine they later test on the Tramp, and televised images of the boss snapping at people to speed up production or to get back to work. It’s one of his funniest films, and holds up very well today, not only a telling story about what many people experienced during the Depression but also a statement and damning indictment of what dependence upon machines can lead to.

Even though the barber in The Great Dictator appears to be the Tramp in all but name, like having many of his mannerisms and even wearing the same outfit a number of times and doing his walk, Chaplin was adamant they were entirely different characters. So this film really is the last time we see the Tramp (who does finally “speak” towards the end, in a nonsense song in a nonsense language); the ending depicting the Tramp, telling the Gamine to smile (via pantomime and not an intertitle) as they walk off into the sunset together, is a really beautiful film moment, the last time we’ll ever see this lovable universal figure again. Now he exists in all of us, as a beautiful poignant race memory.

One thought on “How to choose and view silent films, Part III

  1. Yes – the Tramp does now exist in all of us.

    And I loved what you wrote about METROPOLIS and what it meant to you as a Marxist-Socialist. Was trying to look up what you had written about METROPOLIS because it is a stunning film.

    Still reading Cambridge Companion to Russian Culture and of course Soviet silent film comes up there [the sections on music; literature and theatre are first rate].



Share your thoughts respectfully

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s