10 of the Greatest Silent Films
The silent film era began in 1895 and originally appealed to a somewhat poor, illiterate, immigrant audience. That changed over the years, and by the early 1900s, silent films were attracting a middle-class audience. Silent films depended on actors with great animation skills, as the story of the film had to be told through their gestures, facial expressions and actions due to the lack of sound. Many theatres had a live pianist or other instruments playing to enhance the mood of the film.
Here is a look at some of the greatest silent films ever made:
The General (released 5 February 1927) was written, directed, and stars Buster Keaton. This action comedy film tells the story of a train engineer, Johnnie Gray (played by Keaton), who is rejected by the Army when he tries to enlist. With no one knowing he was rejected and him not understanding why he was rejected, his fiancé refuses to speak to him until he enlists. After the second love of his life, his train engine, The General, is hijacked with his fiancé on board, Johnnie takes the audience on a wild, comedic ride to rescue both his fiancé and the train engine.
Sunrise: A Story of Two Humans (released 4 November 1927) was directed by F.W. Murnau. This dramatic romance takes place in a small lakeside town. A farmer in the small town is infatuated with a city woman that has been visiting the town. The two, fall in love and the woman tries to convince him to get rid of his slumping farm and his wife. She suggests that he drown his wife. What unfolds after the plan is in place will have viewers taken by surprise.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (released 28 March 1929) was directed and co-written by Carl Theodor Dreyer and stars Maria Falconetti as Jeanne d’Arc. This dramatic biography depicts the life of Jeanne d’Arc and her claims of holy visions. The film takes the audience through the trials and charges of heresy and the bantering of the jury to get Jeanne to recant her declaration of holy visions.
Metropolis (released 13 March 1927) was produced by Erich Pommer and directed by Fritz Lang. Metropolis, a city ruled by wealthy industrialists, was the first feature length science-fiction film. The city is ruled by a mastermind who has the wealthy people around him above ground and leaves the working class below ground. The mastermind’s son falls in love with one of the working class, and after his father learns of this, he puts a deceitful plan in place. The son’s mission is to unite the two sides.
City Lights (released 7 March 1931) is a film that was written and directed by Charlie Chaplin. The infamous role of Chaplin as a tramp is portrayed in this film as well as his others. The tramp falls in love with a flower girl that is blind and whose family has fallen on hard times. The tramp uses his connections with a wealthy man to become the girl’s suitor.
Battleship Potemkin (released 24 December 1925) was directed by Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. This film is a tragic and dramatic picture of the rebellion of the crew of Russian battleship Potemkin in 1905. The crew began rebelling, the officers and a demonstration ensued in the streets. Police responded in full force and a massacre unfolded in the streets, killing men, women, and children.
Intolerance (released 5 September 1916) was written and directed by D.W. Griffith and known to be a redemption film for him after his controversial film The Birth of a Nation. Four different but parallel stories are told throughout the 3 1/2 hour film: A melodramatic tale of crime and redemption; a story of Christ’s mission and of his death; a story of St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and the events leading up to it; and the demise of the Babylonian Empire in 539 B.C.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (released 19 March 1921) was directed by Robert Weine. This early horror film is made up of flashback depicted by Francis, whom is the protagonist of the film. The audience is taken through bizarre twists and turns with Francis’ stories, only to be left with the most bizarre twist of all at the end of the film.
Nosferatu (released 3 June 1929) was directed by F.W. Murnau. This horror film is based on the tale of Dracula. We are introduced to the Hutter’s in the opening of the film; of which Mr. Hutter is sent to Transylvania to call on a client by the name of Count Orlok. Once he arrives and is welcomed by Orlok, the eeriness begins after he wakes up with punctures wounds in his neck.
The Birth of a Nation (released 3 March 1915) was directed by D.W. Griffith. This controversial historic drama takes place during the Civil War. The film shows the story of two families; one from the north and one from the south; that become divided and relationships destructed once the war begins. The black militia, the Ku Klux Klan, Lincoln’s assassination, and volatile events unfold throughout the film; only to end with a group of people gathering under an image of Christ.
Without cine film transfer we would not be able to enjoy these classics today. It’s only through the careful preserving, archiving and transfer of these old films that the originals were saved from being destroyed by damp and natural ageing.
Some films, never made it to digital format before the originals were lost to the elements or destroyed in accidental fires – that’s the subject of our next blog post: The BFI’s most wanted list.