I’ll admit that the very early films of the silent era are for the most part only interesting if you’re a film buff. They basically filmed stage melodramas or interesting curios like Georges Méliès Trip To The Moon. Silent pictures really didn’t become truly entertaining until the end of that era, in fact, I would say 1927 would be the best year for silent pictures as the filmmakers had finally gotten the format down and were able to move the camera around and really do some innovative stuff. This last period of silent cinema is really worth checking out.
Wings (1927) Paramount Pictures
D. William Wellman
Starring Clara Bow Richard Arlen and Gary Cooper
If you saw the Michael Bay film Pearl Harbor then you know the plot of Wings, lovers triangle, WWI flying scenes that are incredible minus the CGI; director William “Wild Bill” Wellman was a WWI flying ace himself and shot a lot of this footage while flying in bi-planes.
This non-flying clip here at a cafe in Paris would make Martin Scorsese envious, this in 1927! You don’t see this kind of virtuosic filmmaking even today. Wings would go on to win the first best picture Oscar in 1929.
The Cat and The Canary (1927)
D. Paul Leni
Starring Laura La Plante, Creighton Hale, Gertrude Astor
Also from 1927 is Paul Leni’s Cat and The Canary. If you like laughs with your screams this a great one. It’s an old dark house picture which they don’t really make anymore, think of Scooby Doo and you’ll understand the genre. What makes this entertaining is how quickly director Leni moves his picture along and his use of intertitles, the cards that tell the story, they are often boldly animated, like when the word HELP! comes out of actress Gertrude Astor’s mouth. With Halloween coming up this would be a fun one to watch with the kiddies and get ’em started on vintage cinema.
The Man Who Laughs (1928)
D. Paul Leni
Starring Conrad Veidt, Mary Philbin, Olga Baclanova
After Cat and The Canary, director Paul Leni returned the following year with what is perhaps the best silent film produced, The Man Who Laughs. Based on a Victor Hugo book, it tells the story of a young boy, Gwenplaine, whose given to a band thieves by a jealous king, who deform him by giving him a permanent grin.
The child escapes in the snow and finds a blind infant clutched in the arms of her dead mother. The two make off and find a circus man who then raises them. Gwenplaine grows up to be a famous performer and the infant grows to be a beautiful woman, Dea, whom he’s deeply in love with. A nobleman finds out who his parentage is and the plot thickens.
What makes this film so special are the incredibly massive sets, some of which would show up in Universal’s Monster pictures, the lush costumes. It really marks the beginning of the golden era of Hollywood, it’s definitely not an old static film, lots of close-ups wide-shots, dolly moves and crane shots.
Conrad Veidt’s performance is touching and often heart-wrenching and yes future Batman creator Bob Kane based the look of the Joker on him.
The General (1926)
D. Buster Keaton
Starring Buster Keaton, Marion Mack
The General is probably Buster Keaton’s best-known picture. The civil war has broken out and union soldiers steel Johnny Grey’s steam train, but this film isn’t about politics it’s about Keaton trying to get his train back and win over the love of his life. If you’re a fan of Jackie Chan and his insane stunt work you’ll love this.
Keaton does all his own incredible stunts with perfect comic timing and with a stone face, though you somehow always know how he’s feeling. I never get tired of watching this film, again it moves swiftly and Keaton always tells his stories visually, as cinema should, so you can follow without really needing the inter-titles.
Also check out: Nosferatu, The Unholy Three, Metropolis, and The Black Pirate.
Most of these films listed can be found on YouTube, though the quality isn’t very good. You can also find some of these at your local library on DVD and Blu-Ray. Also, quite a few libraries now have Kanopy which is a free streaming service if you’re a student or have a library card, The Criterion Collection just started letting Kanopy stream their films as well.
-Phillip López Jiménez