It has been said that silent movies are the only type of movie that can really be considered true cinema since they rely almost solely on visual storytelling, which is at the very core of the cinematic experience. Whether one chooses to agree with that assessment or not, the bottom line is that movies of the silent era do offer a treasure trove of images that have lingered in the memory many years after they were made and can move and thrill audiences even today: The last scene between the once-blind flower girl who now has her sight and her benefactor, the little tramp, in “City Lights”; The Odessa steps sequence in “The Battleship Potemkin”; the chariot race scene in the original “Ben-Hur”; the coming to life of the robot in “Metropolis.” Add to this the other great films of the period and you have enough to satisfy any true classic movie lover: “Sunrise”, “The Crowd”, “The Wind”, “Underworld”, “Docks of New York”, “The Big Parade”, Hitchcock’s “The Lodger”, “The Last Laugh” and “The Last Command”, both starring one of the greatest actors of silent cinema, Emil Jannings (pictured above, next to Chaplin), becoming the first Best Actor Academy Award winner for his efforts in the latter film.
In addition to all that you have the Big Three: Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd (all pictured above). Truly their work has stood the test of time and continues to entertain and even, in the cases of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd with their death-defying feats, to amaze, with debate still raging in some circles as to whether Chaplin or Keaton was the greatest movie comic of all time. Their films, along with the works of D.W. Griffith such as “Intolerance” (with Lillian Gish pictured above), the wildly imaginative films of Erich Von Stroheim such as “Greed”, “The Wedding March”, and “Queen Kelly”, and the stunning work of Lon Chaney (pictured above) with movies such as “The Phantom of the Opera”, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, and “The Unknown” (a personal favorite and an unforgettable movie!), and you have what would constitute some of the best work the cinema has ever produced.
Well there are some lesser-known gems during the silent period that are certainly worthy of attention based on their artistry, originality, and most of all, visual brilliance. The three listed below certainly fall in to that category and should be considered must-sees for anyone who wants to enhance their appreciation of silent cinema, or just cinema itself and all that it provides. They are as follows:
(1) Asphalt (1929)- Joe May was a German director with the distinction of giving Fritz Lang his start who fled the Nazis and made it to Hollywood where he directed some notable films, such as the very good “The House of the Seven Gables” and the excellent “Confession”, starring Kay Francis. But “Asphalt” is where you see his work at its creative peak. It tells the story of a shady lady jewel thief caught stealing by a young police officer who then does everything she can not to be taken to jail and shows where this leads to both for him and for her. What really makes this work are the visuals-one of the best examples of German Expressionism with an outstanding opening sequence, this film is drenched in atmosphere along with intense performances by the leads: Betty Amann as the thief, Gustav Frolich, who was also in the classic “Metropolis” (pictured above, bottom left) as the police officer, and Hans Schlettow (pictured above next to Frolich) as Amann’s partner in crime. Dazzling to look at, “Asphalt” is a title well worth remembering and will be hard to forget.
(2) A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)- The movie starts out with a riveting image-on a dark and lonely night an escaped convict is fleeing from prison guards. He breaks into an isolated cottage where a woman is taking care of her baby. They lock eyes, she calls out his name-and then the story really begins. Told primarily in flashback, it is a tale of obsessiveness and jealousy with strong Hitchcockian overtones, compelling from start to finish, once again with outstanding visuals that add to its emotional power. Also starring Hans Schlettow, it is listed by Time Out magazine as one of the 100 best British films ever made. See it and you’ll understand why.
(3) The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927)- G.W. Pabst was one of the great German directors working in Germany during the silent era along with Fritz Lang and F.W Murnau, and two of his films, “Pandora’s Box” and “Diary of a Lost Girl”, are well-known by many film fans since they both starred Louise Brooks, the legendary actress of the silent film era. “The Love of Jeanne Ney”, though perhaps not as well-known, is another prime example of his visual storytelling skill. It tells the story of Jeanne Ney, whose father is killed by the man she loves during the Russian Revolution, who, still in love, then settles in Paris where she must deal with deceit and treachery on almost every level. Melodramatic to the hilt, it is tremendously entertaining and filled with over-the-top performances that take it to another level, such as the actor with the fitting name of Fritz Rasp who plays the equivalent of a human rat, along with Brigitte Helm, the robot from “Metropolis”, playing a blind girl whose life is filled with tragedy. A real knock-out and worthy of discovery.
So keep these three in mind along with the other noteworthy movies of the era, and it will become unmistakably clear when it comes to that period in movie history that silence is indeed golden.
Great article, and thanks for the film tips. I read where only about 10 percent of silent films made still exist, intact, today.
That seems to be right, according to Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, 90% of the movies made before 1929 are lost, intentionally destroyed due to the feeling they would have no value once sound came in. Sad reality, but at least we do have the few that we can enjoy which are still quite entertaining today. Thanks and appreciate your comments!