Silents, Please

Don’t stop with The Artist or the homage to pre-talkies in Hugo. A guide to the films that started it all

Illustration by Andre Carrilho

Lost to the ages, with no extant copy known, the first feature-length movie was made a century ago this year. A story of the Roman Empire, Quo Vadis was an Italian production replete with Coliseum scenes of lions eating Christians, who, as legend has it, included at least one extra in the wrong place at the wrong time. The few spectacular stills that survive show Quo Vadis dwarfed anything the new art form had yet produced, just as D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation would dwarf it two years later. Quo Vadis also inaugurated a period of movie history that would last 17 years while laying the foundation for cinema’s hundred years to come—the era of the silent film. ¶ As it happens, the centennial coincides with the success of The Artist, which casts its quiet shadow over this year’s Academy Awards as no silent picture has since the first Best

Picture prize went to Wings in 1927. At the center of another current Oscar contender, Hugo, is cinema’s first auteur, Georges Méliès, whose extravaganza A Trip to the Moon I saw years ago at UCLA in the first film class I ever took. A groan of dismay welled up from my pagan ’60s soul when the professor announced that the course would be devoted to silent pictures; then the lights went out, the screen flickered, and I shut up. The most immediate revelations were that the antique images I had come to associate with silents, shuddering along in jerks and jumps, vanished once the film was projected at a normal speed, and that subtlety wasn’t a concept invented in whatever year I first came to understand it. Though the contention wasn’t one I entirely subscribed to, I understood the insistence of silent film’s champions that it was an aesthetic unto itself, and a purer one at that, distinct from the sound film—which is what a lot of audiences are discovering with The Artist. “Silent film opened a portal in culture that released the primitive power of image,” argues Michael Ventura, L.A.’s most influential film critic of the late ’70s and early ’80s, who’s writing a novel about the era. “It was the raw language of dreams. No one spoke of ‘living my dream’ before the silent film.”

Which is to suggest that when The Artist comes out on DVD, it shouldn’t be the only silent movie in your library. If the following start-up kit of ten DVDs doesn’t exactly constitute a mini history, it’s because I’ve bypassed “significant” films that are dated or a bit of a slog or just generally hard to get (The Birth of a Nation, Greed, Battleship Potemkin, The Crowd) in favor of the immediate and timeless.

Georges Méliès: First
Wizard of cinema
(Flicker Alley)
Shooting movies that were longer than anyone else’s at the time (A Trip to the Moon was an epic 13 minutes), the French Méliès yoked the new technology to a boundless imagination, transforming a medium into art. The key works were Trip in 1902, Kingdom of Fairies in ’03, and An Impossible Voyage in ’04, which Martin Scorsese displays and reproduces in part in Hugo—hand-colored fantasias verging on the psychedelic, imbued with whimsy and wonder. Collecting 170-plus short films, these five discs are more exhaustive than most people will need or even want, but they represent the best restoration of Méliès’s work available. 

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
German director Robert Wiene’s story of obsession, insanity, and murder isn’t just the first horror film but early cinema’s most radical revolt against the literal: celluloid Munch, dadaist and nightmarish. Its jagged imagery and fragmented narrative, involving characters with multiple identities, were never forgotten by filmmakers from Alfred Hitchcock (Spellbound) to Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands). 

The General
Actor-director Buster Keaton was the most profoundly cinematic of the early American film giants, his genius stretching from Sherlock, Jr. to The Navigator to Steamboat Bill, Jr. Like the broken clock that’s on time twice a day, the consensus that has deemed this his masterpiece sometimes gets it right: A Civil War saga in which a war-torn Mathew Brady landscape is just a lethal obstacle course to Buster winning his girl’s heart, this also remains the unsurpassed runaway train (bus/car/plane/submarine) picture, yielding one jaw-dropping stunt and demented sight gag after another. 

Director Fritz Lang’s Olympian vision of proles in rebellion against the bosses in a dehumanized future looked more like a thing of marvel to Hitler and Goebbels, and you almost can’t blame them, what with the towering architecture and cast of (tens of) thousands. They might have had a thing for the female robot, too. Over the years Metropolis would prove a blueprint for reichs and blade runners alike, even when the only existing prints were copies of copies, until the earliest generation yet was discovered in Argentina three and a half years ago. Be sure to get 2010’s “Complete” version and not the one with the Giorgio Moroder soundtrack.

The Passion of Joan of Arc
The greatest silent picture, and one of the ten greatest films of all time. 

Flesh and the Devil
A triangle plot (or maybe quadrangle, depending on how you count the men) that’s the stuff of soap opera, with period-piece clichés and distinguished by competent if not remarkable direction by Clarence Brown—so what else has this got? The most incandescent female star to come out of silent pictures, in her breakout role. When she appears in a railway station, you nearly gasp, the impact is that electrifying, and it didn’t hurt that she was getting it on in reportedly torrid fashion with her costar. John Gilbert may have received top billing and the credits may read in smaller letters “with Greta Garbo,” but that changed fast: When Gilbert first sees Garbo onscreen, there’s never a doubt who’s in the thrall of whom. Screen presence is born here. 

(20th Century Fox)
When this was released in the silent era’s sunset, it was considered by many to be cinema’s highwater mark, and its reputation has barely budged. If it’s not the love story you turn to for penetrating insights into human behavior (the setup anticipates A Place in the Sun a quarter century later), F.W. Murnau’s shimmery, elegant delirium renders the allegorical quaintness beside the point. It’s the first silent film to be released on Blu-ray, and relatively pricey at that, but without looking too hard, a limited-edition DVD issued a decade ago can be found at half the price.

Pandora’s Box
This movie didn’t discover sex. The Sheik induced female swooning of a suspiciously libidinous nature, and Cecil B. De Mille already was making movies with titles like Forbidden Fruit; for that matter Méliès himself filmed turn-of-the-century soft-core erotica. But in no major picture had the essence of the sexual nature been so much its central subject, and if she didn’t finally acquire the stature of Garbo, American star Louise Brooks—as the footloose mistress whose hedonism is as natural to her as breathing even as she heedlessly flirts with doom—was the stuff that cults are made of. 

The Man With a Movie Camera
Ostensibly this is a “documentary,” but one that deserves as many quotation marks as can be placed around the word, and ostensibly it’s about the Soviet Union, while really being a tone poem and an homage to the title character—not the man but the camera. Trippier than you ever thought Bolsheviks could get, maybe because he evinces no interest in ideology, director Dziga Vertov means to reinvent cinematic language no less than did Méliès. Here is a dazzling new dictionary of jump cuts and frozen moments, divided screens and double exposures, and a movie that runs forward, backward, and practically sideways, defying standard notions of 24 frames a second as though adding or subtracting hours of the day or the earth’s revolutions. 

City Lights
(Warner Bros.)
Though he didn’t have Griffith’s ambition or scope or Keaton’s inherent grasp of cinema’s possibilities, Charlie Chaplin is the colossus of the silent era anyway, the first superstar and keeper of the era’s silence even after he already was surrounded by noise with this movie’s release in 1931. Preceded by 1925’s brilliant The Gold Rush, with another masterpiece to come in 1936’s Modern Times, this is his supreme achievement, when Chaplin’s Little Tramp, laid even lower by the Depression, conspires to give a blind flower girl back her sight and also to give the movies back their hush. Critics have blown hot and cold about Chaplin over the decades, but disparate directors from Welles to Fellini to Kubrick to Tarkovsky to Woody Allen have held this film in awe, unable to break themselves free of the spell cast by what is—with all due reverence to the closing moments of Vertigo, Bicycle Thieves, and The Third Man—the most shattering final shot in movie history.