(Note: Again, please keep in mind that this was originally written in 2005. Some of the things referred to are now past history or no longer very up-to-date, such as how TCM has now rescored quite a few more silents in their annual Young Film Composers Competition.)
How to find them:
Unfortunately, most mainstream video stores don’t carry many apart from the obvious ones (usually Chaplin and Keaton, maybe a few other high-profile silents). Most major online stores stock them, and some harder-to-find films that Amazon doesn’t carry can easily be found at online stores specialising in hard-to-find films and books, and for very decent prices too.
I got The Conquering Power, the 1921 version of Camille, and Monsieur Beaucaire (well-meaning disastrous trainwreck that it is) at Movies Unlimited, for example; they ship very quickly and are located in PA. DVD Empire is also an online store with a good selection of silents. I was referred to them by a site listing all the silents available on DVD and where to buy them online when I was looking for another place that had Cobra. After authorising a second delay on the one I’d ordered on Amazon, I finally decided I was waiting beyond a ridiculously long amount of time, cancelled the Amazon order, and had the film in my hands like a week from the day I ordered it at the other place.
Picture Palace also has quite a lot of even harder-to-find films; I ordered All Night from them (what could be wrong about a film with a Nice Jewish Girl and a Nice Italian Boy?). There are also Kino, Grapevine Video, the Videobrary, and quite a number of other sources specialising not just in silents but also harder-to-find silents.
Milestone is also a wonderful company, greatly increased in status in my eyes because they’re in charge of distributing Beyond the Rocks when it comes to the States in May of 2005, for the first time since 1922. Netflix has an extensive library of silents, and Scorched Earth Productions out in Colorado also has many wonderful silents (only on video though), with fast delivery. I got The Four Horsemen and Moran from them.
Most decent libraries should have at least a few silents in their collection, as well as many video rental places. It’s always best to try it out before you buy, to see if you like it enough to pay for it and permanently add it to your collection. Some you might decide you don’t personally care for enough; unless you’re really sure you’re going to like the film based on smashingly good reviews you’ve read, or you’re already deeply interested in the performer, it’s best to not take a blind leap of faith first, without even having seen this movie or any of the person’s other work.
Silents aren’t played that often on tv, but Turner Classic Movies does play them regularly; Encore also sometimes shows silent westerns. American Movie Classics used to show them more often, but I think they’ve really jumped the shark in recent years, not just because they stopped showing Laurel and Hardy but also because they’ve been showing too many modern and recent movies instead of, as their name implies, true classics.
TCM shows a silent every Sunday at midnight (i.e., the very beginning of Monday, not the end of Saturday and beginning of Sunday) and occasionally at other times during the week. It exposes you to stuff you might not ordinarily see or be aware of, and can increase the actors and films you’re interested in.
They also have an annual contest for young film composers, to rescore a silent film, and in January they announce the results and air the film, along with the other past winners. So far they’ve rescored The Ace of Hearts (a 1921 Lon Chaney movie), the 1921 version of Camille, The Rag Man (with child star Jackie Coogan), Laugh, Clown, Laugh (another Chaney movie), and The Temptress (a Garbo film from 1926). The upcoming film they’re going to be scoring is Souls for Sale.
You can’t really authoritatively say which films and actors to get acquainted with first; taste is deeply personal. You might find you just don’t personally care for a certain director, actor, or comedian, no matter how well-regarded s/he might be, or that a very famous film did absolutely nothing for you. It seems like comedy is the best door into exploring other silents, since you don’t even need many intertitles to understand what’s going on, and a funny situation will be funny no matter what, even if there might be a few dated elements afoot, or gags that no longer work.
Of course, the biggest comedians of the era were Chaplin, Arbuckle, Keaton, and Lloyd; Laurel and Hardy also got their start during the silent era, though since I was introduced to them via their sound shorts, I find them their absolute funniest there and not in their silent shorts. Sound enhanced their careers; they’re even funnier with their voices, which were just MADE for them, like they couldn’t have been made for anyone else. They really looked like their voices. It’s hard to explain, if you’re not familiar with their voices, just why their voices are part of what made them so damn funny.
There were enough big names who still have films surviving that you’ll probably like at least a few of them, instead of just liking silents in general. Most people do have their lists of faves whom they’re interested in getting everything by, even obscure stuff and very early films or shorts in which they only played bit parts.
There were the different types (Vamps, outlaws, cowboys, comedians, party girl flappers, sophisticated flappers, eternal virgins, swashbucklers, sheiks) too, though versatile actors could play more than just one stock type very well and fluidly. I personally favour the Vamps, comedians, flappers, and sheiks; damn, were men good-looking back then, and no plastic surgery either!
Even though there’s increased interest in the genre and awareness of both silents in particular and film preservation in general, there are still so many still lost, probably many forever and not just sitting gathering dust in archives. People still parrot lies and misconceptions, as though watching an unrepresentative silent film (such as one of the typical early melodramas) at the improper speed, with a horrible backing score, makes you an expert on the subject.
Many people, both actors of the time and outsiders, have said that silent actors in fact were more talented than the modern-day wannabes; they had to have a much wider range of expressions and emotions, having to convey everything through pantomime, a world where, as Chaplin once said, an eyebrow raised just a tiny bit could convey something more powerfully and meaningfully than someone delivering spoken lines. It was personal; you put your own interpretation on it.
It’s very saddening and makes me jealous to read vintage reviews of these films, like in the index of all the film reviews The New York Times wrote from 1913 onwards (yes, I read reference books and indexes of old newspapers and magazines for personal enjoyment). These reviewers, the audience they were writing for, had seen or could go out and see these wonderful films which are now lost.
They were so lucky and took for granted how they could buy a ticket to go see Flaming Youth, A Sainted Devil, London After Midnight, The Young Rajah, Ravished Armenia (sometimes called Auction of Souls), Cleopatra, Uncharted Seas. They were familiar with artists whom we have to rely on memory, pictures, and historical records to remember them as stars, like Theda, Nita, Pola Negri, Colleen Moore, Olive Thomas, Olive Borden, Clara Kimball Young, Wallace Reid, Sarah Bernhardt.
Today most of their films are either lost or being held hostage in archives, yet when my great-grandparents were young people they could freely go out to see them at the theatre whenever they wanted to. They were all there, but because no one cared about preserving history, they were lost or destroyed, so busy to clean house after sound came along, unwilling to admit or realise that there was great value and beauty in the past.
It’s haunting and depressing to realise that there are elderly people around now (dying day by day yet) who saw these great stars and great films when they first came out, when they were in their heyday, that they had the luxury and privilege of seeing what people today can’t. They’re so lucky to have those memories, even though I’m jealous of them too.