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films The Essential Silent Movies  

Lon Harris
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A guide to the essential silent movies – currently available for free on YouTube – that every film fan should see. From the first development of cinema in the 19th Century, until the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927, filmmakers were unable to work with synchronized recorded sound. This demanded a certain kind of extended, narrative storytelling, entirely without the benefit of dialogue or sound effects. Typically, these films were accompanied by live music, and in the early days of silent film, often a live interpreter would be used to explain the action to the audience. (Later, so-called "intertitles" containing dialogue or crucial plot points were inserted directly into the films themselves.)

Though many silent films are of impeccably high quality (and indeed, were considered by some film scholars – such as Rudolf Arnheim – to represent the pinnacle of cinematic art), producers and filmmakers had always intended to pair them with synchronized sound. By the late 1920s, the technical requirements to do so – particularly an ability to amplify a phonograph in a theater in sync with the picture – had been developed. Within about a decade, production of silent films had all but ceased in Hollywood.

Modern audiences accustomed to contemporary modes of storytelling occasionally struggle to invest attention in silent movies. Often, these films are played back at an incorrect frame rate, or have simply deteriorated over the decades, leading to the often inaccurate assessment that all of them were somehow more amateurish or "primitive" than modern cinema. In fact, this is not true, as the following films will demonstrate.

With the 2011 critical darling The Artist renewing interest in the cinema of the '20s and '30s, what better time to become acquainted with these silent classics? These are the most essential silent movies, and indeed, the ones that are likely to hold up best and remain most compelling to contemporary audiences. They are ranked in order of their year of release, not in terms of quality, which seemed too daunting a task.

[NOTE: Whenever possible, I have embedded the full film on the list. In some cases, the YouTube versions of these films are broken up into segments. Films that I value – such as City Lights and Metropolis – but which are not available to stream online for free were intentionally left out. Also, I'm leaving out D. W. Griffith even though I know he's really important because I personally find watching his movies dull and he's a largely unappealing character.]

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Video: YouTube

Year: 1920
Director: Robert Wiene
Stars: Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt

The single best horror film of the silent era (yes, superior to Nosferatu, in my opinion), and arguably among the best-designed movies ever made, Dr. Caligari visually transports you into a German Expressionist nightmare world for 70 minutes. The effect, even nearly 100 years after the film's debut, remains unsettling. If all this weren't groundbreaking enough, it was also one of the first narrative films to use a "framing" device, telling the story of a mad doctor who uses a sleepwalking patient to commit murders – in flashback.

Also Ranked

#52 on The Best Psychological Thrillers of All Time

#12 on The Best Horror Movies About Carnivals and Amusement Parks

#21 on The Greatest Movies in World Cinema History

#22 on The Best Horror Movies About Evil Doctors and Surgeons

see more on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

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Year: 1920
Director: Fred Niblo
Star: Douglas Fairbanks

This film was based on a story called The Curse of Capistrano, but when we think back to what defines the character of Zorro today, we're really thinking of Douglas Fairbanks in this film. It not only defined the Zorro legend itself, but the tone and style of classic "swashbuckling" films for decades after. Fairbanks' goofy, carefree attitude and athleticism led to a huge career in these types of roles over the few years that followed, including adaptations of The Three Musketeers and Robin Hood. see more on The Mark of Zorro

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Year: 1922
Director: F. W. Murnau
Star: Max Schreck

Murnau's unlicensed adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula is essentially the proto-horror film, the original from which the entire genre would descend. Most of the sorts of imagery and ideas we now associate with vampire films – from the Count's chilling faux-gentility to the his creeping shadow growing ever-larger as he approaches – can be traced back to Murnau's film. Schreck, as well, is a fascinating figure, an example of an actor cast because he exactly fit the role, rather than with the expectation he'd ever appear in another film.

Also Ranked

#63 on The Best Black and White Movies Ever Made

#34 on The Greatest Horror Films of All Time

#5 on The Greatest Movies in World Cinema History

#8 on The Best Horror Movies That Take Place in Castles

see more on Nosferatu

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Year: 1923
Directors: Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor
Star: Harold Lloyd

Lloyd isn't really thought of among the A-list of early cinema, alongside Keaton or Chaplin, say, but he did give silent movies perhaps their most indelible image. That's his character (called simply "The Boy") hanging from a clock tower, high above the city street below. Safety Last! is perhaps most impressive for getting 75 consistently entertaining minutes out of such a slyly simple premise – a simple misunderstanding with a policeman propels the majority of the action – and also for being among the cinema's more gleefully amoral comedies. (Lloyd has neither the warmth and humanity of Chaplin, not to mention the cleverness and bravado of Keaton, and his goal in the film is to successfully brag to his friend while also deceiving his girlfriend.)

Also Ranked

#92 on The Best Black and White Movies Ever Made

see more on Safety Last!