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.]
Director: Robert Wiene
Stars: Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt
Also Rankedsee more on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Director: Fred Niblo
Star: Douglas Fairbanks
Also Rankedsee more on The Mark of Zorro
Director: F. W. Murnau
Star: Max Schreck
Also Rankedsee more on Nosferatu
Directors: Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor
Star: Harold Lloyd