Five Great Movies: Silent Films

The Artist isn't the only silent movie modern audiences can love. Check out five great silents that play just as well today.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


Both The Artist and Hugo won big at the Academy Awards this year, making 2011 the year of the silent film. Which is pretty weird, since most people don’t actually watch the danged things. But they’re missing out on decades of classic movies in the process, so this week on Five Great Movies we’re taking a look at, well, fivegreat movies from the silent era. If you shirk at black and white, and couldn’t possibly imagine watching a film with no dialogue, then believe it or not… these are the movies for you. Five films so excellent and entertaining that even the most cynical of modern audiences should be able to fall in love with them, like so many generations before.

As always, we remind you that these aren’t the five best movies, necessarily, just five great ones. Did we leave your favorites off the list? Let us know in the comments!


The Mark of Zorro (dir. Fred Niblo, 1920)

It’s the kind of movie that The Artist’s George Valentin would have starred in: a swashbuckling caper filled with classic swordfights and sweeping romance. It’s the first-ever cinematic adaptation of the pulp hero Zorro, who had only premiered in print one year before. The great Douglas Fairbanks Sr. stars in, produced and co-wrote this classic tale of a foppish Spaniard who moonlights as a caped crusader in 19th century California, using his wealth, position and swashbuckling prowess to defend the rights of the working class. The Mark of Zorro introduced the mask and cape to the character, and in the process inspired many of the fictional vigilantes we’ve come to know and love (you see the Batman parallels, obviously). Although nary a word is spoken, Fairbanks captivates in a role that gives him ample opportunities for humor and daring-do, and parries his way through some of the best swordfights ever filmed. The Mark of Zorro was remade very well in 1940, with sound, starring the also-great Tyrone Power. Rent them both and make a night of it.


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (dir. Robert Wiene, 1920)

The silent era was also the heyday of German Expressionism, an artistic style (from Germany, natch) that emphasized dreamlike, oppressive imagery that gave films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari an instantly iconic quality. Caligari, one of the first and greatest horror films ever produced, tells the story of a sideshow act performed by the mysterious Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt), who predict that one of the audience members will die before dawn. The horrific deed comes to pass, and Caligari and Cesare are soon revealed to be on a terrifying murder spree. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the most influential silent films ever made: in addition to inspiring Tim Burton, whose films often reference this silent wonder, the movie is often credited as having the first “twist” ending in cinema. Modern audiences will probably guess it beforehand, but imagine what a shock it must have been to audiences unprepared to have the rug swept out from under them. Caligari remains a creepy wonder to this day.


The Last Laugh (dir. F.W. Murnau, 1924)

F.W. Murnau may be best known for his early, unofficial Dracula adaptation Nosferatu, which also has every right to be on this list, but his heartbreaking drama The Last Laugh deserves equal time in the limelight. The film stars Emil Jannings as a hotel doorman whose community takes pride in his fancy suit and impressive position. But when his age prevents him from performing his duties, he’s demoted to bathroom attendant and struggles to keep his shame from his family and friends. The film, which uses almost no intertitles (none of them with dialogue) is a masterpiece of cinema, proving that the moving image is sufficient to tell a powerful story all on their own.

The title refers to a last minute change to the film’s original, depressing finale, in which the doorman is given such a ludicrously happy conclusion that it can’t be taken seriously, preserving The Last Laugh’s dramatic impact while simultaneously mocking the studio executives who forced the false ending upon Murnau and his screenwriter, Carl Mayer.


The General (dirs. Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton, 1926)

On the much, much lighter side we find The General, one of the greatest films of one of the greatest silent comedians, Buster Keaton. Consider it a stand-in for all the great comedies we couldn’t include for space, like The Kid, Safety Last or any of Keaton’s other classics, from Our Hospitality to Sherlock Jr. See them all, but see The General first, since it’s still one of the most impressive ripsnorters ever produced. (Orson Welles even claimed it might be the best film ever made.)

In the film, Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, a train engineer with two loves in his life: his fiancée Annabelle (Marion Mack) and his locomotive. When Civil War breaks out, he rushes to enlist to prove his worth to Annabelle, but is turned away by recruiters who realize he’s more valuable to the war effort in his current job. Not that they tell him that. He’s humiliated, Annabelle labels him a coward, and he retreats back into his work until the war intervenes, the opposing army kidnaps both Annabelle and his beloved train, and a madcap, hilarious and utterly suspenseful chase is on throughout the country. To describe the gags wouldn’t do them justice; see the film for yourselves right now and watch a timeless comedy, with or without sound. Orson Welles may be right: The General is simply one of the very best.


Metropolis (dir. Fritz Lang, 1927)

Fritz Lang is one of the few prominent silent directors to continue making important films into the sound era, making classics like M and The Big Heat until his final film (as a director) in 1960. But he may have peaked early: the sprawling sci-fi epic Metropolis remains his most honored work, casting inspiration on nearly every science fiction film that followed. The film takes place in a future dystopia in which the working class toils in the hellish caverns beneath a fabulous metropolis inhabited by the rich. The disconnect between the classes is stirred into rebellion when a tycoon and a mad inventor replace a beautiful revolutionary leader with a robot replica, who turns the city against itself. Filled with visionary images and stirring (if perhaps simplistic) drama, the film exists today in two wildly different, equally thrilling versions: a “complete” cut, which restores most of the previously lost footage into a nearly perfect sci-fi epic, and Giorgio Moroder’s psychedelic reinterpretation with a soundtrack by Queen, Pat Benatar and other 1980s musical icons, perfect for a night of tripping balls.


That’s it for Five Great Movies this week. We’ll be back until next Wednesday, but until then we ask… What’s your favorite silent film?