Beginner’s Guide to Silent Films

Coming up with a list of ten silent films as an introduction to the beginnings of this celluloid art was a difficult task. Although it is presumed that nearly 75% of all silent films are now lost, there are still thousands that remain. That being said, I think I’ve come up with a list that not only contains some wonderful examples of silent film at its best, but also are approachable for someone who’s coming to them for the very first time, and maybe even will get them to come back for more.

Broken Blossoms

Also known as: The Yellow Man and the Girl
Year: 1919
Directed by: D.W. Griffith

Slightly less controversial than Griffith’s more famous 1915 film The Birth of a Nation or 1916’s Intolerance, this film is still not an easy one to watch. The film focuses on the relationship between a girl named Lucy (Lillian Gish), who is abused by her alcoholic prize-fighting father (Donald Crisp), and a Chinese immigrant (Richard Barthelmess), who has come to London to spread the word of Buddha. It’s a quiet, tender little film despite containing some graphic imagery.

Stream it for FREE on YouTube | Check it out on MUBI | Like it? Buy it on Amazon.com

Safety Last!

Year: 1923
Directed by: Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor

Although extremely popular in his time, silent comic Harold Lloyd is largely unknown today, especially when compared with the iconic status of his contemporaries, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

In Safety Last! salesmen Lloyd has gone to the big city to earn enough money to marry his sweetheart (Mildred Davis) and in doing so, hijinks ensue, including the scaling of a 12-story building.

Check it out on MUBI | Like it? Buy it on Amazon.com

Battleship Potemkin

Year: 1925
Directed by: Sergei Eisenstein

One of the earliest propaganda films ever made, Battleship Potemkin is a searing look at a 1905 mutiny in czarist Russia. Arguably the most famous scene in the film is the civilian massacre on the Odessa Steps. It’s filmed with such brutal realism, you almost believe it’s a documentary and not a dramatized version of history.

Again, this film contains some violent images. In fact, acclaimed painter Francis Bacon has cited this film as a major influence on his terror-filled paintings.

Stream it for FREE on YouTube | Check it out on MUBI | Like it? Buy it on Amazon.com

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Year: 1925
Directed by: Rupert Julian

This version of The Phantom of the Opera is said to have originally caused such screams of terror they could be heard around the world. It is one of the best preserved films from the era, having been re-released in 1930 with added sound. It is also one of the first films to shoot in Technicolor,which at the time was a two-color system, though the only color scene that has survived is the masked ball.

Regardless, this is a must see film featuring an outstanding performance from horror film great Lon Chaney, sr.

Stream it for FREE on YouTube | Check it out on MUBI | Like it? Buy it on Amazon.com

The General

Year: 1926
Directed by: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman

Arguably silent comic legend Buster Keaton’s most acclaimed film, at the very least contains some of his greatest stunt work — including riding the front of a train. This film takes place during the American Civil War and centers around an engineer (Keaton), who is rejected from the army and must find a way to prove his worth to his sweetheart (Marion Mack).

Stream it for FREE on YouTube | Check it out on MUBI | Like it? Buy it on Amazon.com

16 Responses

  1. amy says:

    I had only seen Broken Blossoms for the Asian Americans on American Media article, and I just finished watching Battleship Potemkin – woah, such naturalistic performances in the Odessa scene, combined with the dramatic score… pure dramatic thrills!

    By the way, I didn’t know about Openflix. It’s awesome! Saw Birth of a Nation a while back, but it was split into 14 parts… was a bit turned off by that to think about watching Intolerance… BUT! Openflix has Intolerance (and BoaN) on one go!

  2. Jenna says:

    I’ve never actually sat down to watch a silent film, but this post sure makes me want to. I’ll have to pick one out to watch. This is a great list!

  3. amy says:

    Question! You’ve seen them… how can I watch Wings and Sunrise? x) And/or how did you get to watch them…

  4. amy says:

    I just wanted to say… I did it! I finish your list, Marya! LOL It took me a long time, but I finally did. xD We need to make a badge hahaha

  5. Stacy says:

    I found a book, it has a comprehensive list of Silent Films released in the US, basically it’s a directory with illustrations. http://newuniversitypress.com/navarros-silent-film-guide/

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