From the opening frame of the Lumière brothers’ earliest film to Al Jolson’s first words in The Jazz Singer 32 years later, filmmakers had to tell their stories without recourse to recorded sound. Bummer, no? Thankfully, from Buñuel to Buster Keaton and Arbuckle to Abel Gance, there were enough great talents about to make light work of these limitations. If you think the silent era was all about silly pratfalls, flapper dresses and incessant saloon bar scores – with the odd eyeball slicing thrown in for good measure – think again. With a new silent film, The Artist, paying homage to the era before ‘talkies’, it’s high time to look at a glorious era in movie history. Here, in chronological order, are ten to get you started…
*Director: Georges Méliès
**Cast*: Georges Méliès, Victor André, Bleuette Bernon
When filmmakers like Martin Scorsese are queueing up to pay homage to you, you’ve probably earned your place in cinema lore. So it is with Frenchman Georges Méliès – soon to be played by Ben Kingsley in Scorsese’s Hugo Cabret – toymaker, entrepreneur and grand-père of modern sci-fi cinema. He could probably make a mean croque-monsieur if he set his mind to it too, so multi-talented was he. The dazzling A Trip To The Moon’s plot is wonderfully wacky – like the midway point between Button Moon and Alien, it tells the story of top-hatted pioneers who travel into space, discover some weird creatures (the surprisingly explodable ‘Selenites’) and hastily come back again – but the bigger story was what Méliès had achieved with this strange new medium. He fused the adventuring spirit of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells with moving images and proved that with a few strips of celluloid, a flair for experimentation and a cheese-dream imagination, the sky was no longer the limit.
*Director: D. W. Griffith
**Cast*: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Robert Harron
How do you follow up a motza-making Civil War epic that polarised a nation and left you fielding accusations of racism? If you’re D. W. Griffith, you'd just spin the wheel again and watch it land on ‘Intolerance’, a film that was everything Birth Of A Nation had been and more. Long (163 minutes), expensive ($386,000) and complex, it was hardly the safest option, but then Griffith’s penchant for scale left even big-spending peers like Cecil B. DeMille and King Vidor looking a bit, well, frugal. Sadly, audiences wanted adventure; they didn’t want explorations of intolerance through the ages or complex crosscutting techniques that yanked them from ancient Babylon to modern-day American, via Christ's crucifiction, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and that rainy bit of last Tuesday afternoon. The director lost a packet on it, but Intolerance stands alongside Metropolis as the most ambitious movie of the silent era. Watch it for the 3000 extras he hired to populate his scale recreation of Babylon or just for the sheer chutzpah of Griffith's ideas; either way, it’s a true classic.
*Director: Robert Wiene
**Cast*: Werner Krauss, Friedrich Feher, Conrad Veidt
A darn good reason never to go near a fairground again, Robert Wiene’s horror flick distils all the dread of post-World War I Germany into 70 macabre minutes of hysteria, murder and dubiously qualified MDs. A year after the Great War ended, it crept, like the skulking doctor himself, into a tormented nation’s subconscious, filled with metaphor for those who cared to read into it and pant-wetting scares for those who didn’t. It’s still dazzling nearly a hundred years on. Art lovers will recognise the shard-sharp set design, unsettling atmospherics and shadowy backlighting as hallmarks of an Expressionist movement that boasted Wiene, F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang as its screen pioneers. Few of its masterworks, though, were as enduring – or influential – as the jagged world Caligari (Krauss) stalks with his murderous somnambulist Cesaré (Veidt). Just ask Tim Burton, who used the hunchbacked, mad-eyed Caligari and the pallid, passive Cesaré as inspiration for the Penguin and Edward Scissorhands respectively. M. Night Shyamalan might have picked a thing or two from its ending, too.
*Director: Sergei Eisenstein
**Cast*: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky, Grigori Aleksandrov
Arguably the greatest of all silent films, Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece has been a manual for filmmakers of all stripes for 85 years. Not just Brian De Palma, who famously homaged the Odessa Steps sequence in The Untouchables, but Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather); Terry Gilliam (Brazil) and George Lucas (Revenge Of The Sith): the list is long. Amid its cutting-edge editing, dazzling montages and supremely cinematic moments, Potemkin’s politics have been relegated to a footnote, but like a Birth Of A Nation for Bolshevik Russia, it’s a fascinating origin story for a state in its infancy. When anti-communist feeling was at its strongest in America, studios even had to show it to their editors in secret - because there was enough film craft here to justify the risk. Eisenstein’s revolutionary fervour would probably bring Marko Ramius out in a rash. On screen, the Potemkin didn’t so much “shail into hishtory” (as Sean Connery might have it in The Hunt For Red October) as find history coming to it, with a galley full of rotten meat spurring its sailors to mutiny and sparking all kinds of bloody repression. Cue a very bad day to be pushing a pram around Odessa town centre.
*Director: King Vidor
**Cast*: John Gilbert, Renée Adorée, Hobart Bosworth, Robert Ober
Although we don’t think he was ever officially a monarch, King Vidor was as commanding as any royal at the peak of Hollywood’s silent era. Given eye-popping budgets, backlots teeming with extras, epic location shoots and sweeping source material, he delivered populist entertainment with a poignant burr. Sound familiar? Well, Steven Spielberg has often been compared to the Texan. War Horse, Spielberg’s own Great War flick, should offer an intriguing point of comparison with Vidor’s trenches-era blockbuster. The Big Parade was the biggest grossing movie of the silent era, filling MGM’s coffers with more than $20m ($250m in today’s money) and startling American audiences with its unvarnished depiction of a conflict still fresh in the memory. It’s the story of three US doughboys - wealthy layabout Jim Apperson, steel worker Slim Jensen and barkeep ‘Bull’ O’Hara - who join up to fight the dreaded Hun and suffer through all the horrors of the Western Front in the process. Some aspects of Vidor’s picture have aged better than others - the romantic subplot is as squidgy as a melted marshmallow among all the shellfire and carnage - but with terrific combat scenes (‘Saving Private Jim’?), it’s proof that the silent could definitely be violent.
*Director: Charlie Chaplin
**Cast*: Charlie Chaplin, Georgia Hale, Mack Swain, Tom Murray
With so many Chaplin flicks to pick from, narrowing the list requires head scratching worthy of the Little Tramp himself. The Great Dictator shows Chaplin at his lampooning best and annoyed Hitler (worth a extra star in anyone’s book); The Kid has many devotees and City Lights’ lovely romance still warms even the hardest heart, but The Gold Rush is the film Chaplin wanted to be remembered by. Who are we to argue? Like Keaton’s The General, it was inspired by historical events – the gruelling Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s – from which Chaplin mined unlikely comic nuggets. He also took inspiration from the Donner Party Disaster, in which 19th century pioneers were snowed into the Sierra Nevada mountains and forced to resort to cannibalism to survive. Those privations translate into one of the standout scenes in silent cinema: Chaplin’s hapless prospector appearing to Mack Swain’s ravenous prospector as a mouth-watering roast chicken, before the pair set to work on a dinner of boiled boot. And, of course, there’s ‘the Dance of the Rolls’, mimicked by everyone from Johnny Depp to Grandpa Simpson, but never bettered. A masterclass in comic genius.
*Director: Fritz Lang
**Cast*: Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Brigitte Helm, Gustav Fröhlich
The story of Freder Fredersen (Fröhlich), scion of the Master of Metropolis, and Maria, the idealistic teacher (Helm) he falls for, was, as Empire’s Kim Newman puts it, “the 2001, the Blade Runner, the Avatar of its day”. With its bonkers scientists, evil robots, towering skyscrapers, buzzing airships and teeming armies of worker ants, Fritz Lang’s sci-fi masterpiece was easily the most mind-bendingly ambitious motion picture cinemagoers had ever seen. But while the passing of years has enshrined it a classic, not everyone warmed to Lang’s dystopian vision at the time. At 153 minutes, it was long for attention spans conditioned by the snap and crackle of matinee shows and distributors demanded cuts that robbed it of most of its power and, frankly, sense. Thankfully, the chance discovery of an original 16mm premiere version in Argentina two years ago means we can now watch it in close to the form Lang intended.
*Director: F.W. Murnau
**Cast*: Janet Gaynor, George O’Brien, Margaret Livingston
German-born but drawn to the bright lights of America as a young filmmaker, F. W. (‘Friedrich Wilhelm’) Murnau hauled more than duty free with him on the long transatlantic crossing. Like Fritz Lang after him, he introduced Hollywood to the abstraction of German Expressionism. You’d have to imagine David Lynch turning up to film your wedding day to get close to the Kulturschock this represented. Hollywood, though, embraced these new ideas and techniques. Sunrise, subtitled ‘A Song Of Two Humans’, was a perfect mix of Hollywood romanticism and the storm and fury of German filmmaking. Witness its intimidating metropolis, abuzz with irate pedestrians and beeping cars, or that strangely futuristic expo the married couple stumble upon. Amid the bustle, it’s those two humans that give Sunrise its heartbeat: ‘he’ a bewitched farmer under the murderous spell of an urbane beauty; ‘she’ his long-suffering wife and mother of his child. Will he drown her and run off with the beguiling femme fatale, or resist his darker impulses? If you haven’t already, get hold of the recently remastered edition and find out.
*Director: Charles Riesner
**Cast*: Buster Keaton, Ernest Torrence, Marion Byron
Granted, omitting The General from our ten is a controversial move – Buster Keaton’s Civil War caper is unquestionably his greatest film, but then, this is a list to master a genre, not a 'best of' – but Steamboat Bill, Jr. shows the actor at his daredevil best and sees him sending up his own fame with deadpan glee. Keaton throws himself around with such lunatic abandon that some wondered whether it was all an elaborate suicide attempt. We’re putting it down to fierce dedication to his craft. Keaton plays the dandyish son of gruff riverman Ernest Torrence – hardly a chip off the old block – who incurs even more of his old man’s disapproval by falling in love with the daughter of a rival steamboat owner. Then, with things finally slotting into place for the young fop, the skies fall in, leaving Keaton pratfalling his way through a climax that throws a Mississippi maelstrom, several thousand gallons of water and, famously, an entire house at him.
*Director: Charlie Chaplin
**Cast*: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman
Noses have been bloodied debating the silent era’s greatest comedian. Is it Charlie Chaplin, with his bandy-legged gait and butter-wouldn’t-melt grin? Or the Great Stone Face himself, Buster Keaton, with that befuddled look, deadpan humour and fearless physicality? A few might even press for Harold Lloyd, he of the death-defying clockface hang and saloon-bar signature tune. Of the trio, though, it was Chaplin’s Little Tramp who spoke most directly to the hardships of the average Joe. The indomitable vagabond was a figurehead for Depression-era moviegoers. He, like they, lives uneasily in a vast metropolis, working as a baffled cog in the vast new machine he dubbed ‘Modern Times’. And is there any better metaphor for this scary new world than the moment when the Tramp is sucked into the production line, finally spat out the other end just in time for his next shift? A delightful ditty sung in purest gobbledegook to a bar full of drunken revellers is the one and only time the Tramp’s voice can be heard on screen, and should probably disqualify it from ‘silent’ status (made long after the revolution that was The Jazz Singer, Modern Times was originally designed as Chaplin’s first sound), but heck, we love it too much to leave off. Funny, tender, satirical and very, very clever, it could be Chaplin’s finest film.