Beyond words: A beginner's guide to silent films

By Francesca Steele

If The Artist has whet your appetite for genuine silent classics, here's Francesca Steele's beginner's guide to the best of the pre-talkie era.

Buster Keaton deapans his way through The General - 'the greatest comedy ever made'. Photo / Supplied
Buster Keaton deapans his way through The General - 'the greatest comedy ever made'. Photo / Supplied

The Kid (1921)
You can either be a Charlie Chaplin fan or a Buster Keaton fan, but not both, the saying goes. Both were comic geniuses of the silent era, but Chaplin's humour is rooted in a vaudeville sentimentality (Keaton employs a more modern cynicism) which makes him the perfect introduction to silent movies. Though The Gold Rush was his greatest success, The Kid, where we see him in his iconic "little tramp" get-up, complete with tattered jacket, moustache and cane, has an affectionate silliness that makes it the most lovable.

The General (1926)
Loathed by critics on its release, this Buster Keaton comedy about an engineer who chases a stolen locomotive across enemy lines is now considered a classic. Directed by and starring a typically deadpan Keaton, it was described as "the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made" by Orson Welles. In any case, it's physical comedy without the slapstick - a trait many modern audiences prefer.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)
A Gone with the Wind for the silent era, D W Griffith's controversial film about the American Civil War caught the public's attention as much for its subject matter as its revolutionary techniques. Starring the nation's sweetheart, Lillian Gish, it dazzled with its impressive sets but is also abhorrently racist, casting white actors in "blackface" as ignorant buffoons. It sparked race riots across the country and was blamed for the 20th-century revival of the Ku Klux Klan. It is also notable for its heavy-handed use of "forward-facing" inter-titles, which, like chapter titles in a book, preface what is to come rather than forming part of the drama. But although Griffith's later works, such as Way Down East, are more accessible, this is still by far his best-known.

Metropolis (1927)
Just as "the talkies" were preparing to make silent films look technically insignificant, along came Fritz Lang's mind-blowing dystopian allegory about the injustices of capitalism and the problems of an industrialised working class (helped at some screenings by a Wagner-esque score). Famous for its use of the Schufftan process, in which mirrors made actors appear to be in the miniature sets, it is one of the finest examples of German expressionist film.

It (1927)
Giving rise to the expression "It girl", It was one of the first Cinderella stories brought to the big screen. It stars Clara Bow, an icon of her time, as the feisty shop-girl who wins her wealthy employer's heart through that indefinable quality known as "it".

Flesh and the Devil (1926)
Flesh and the Devil brought together co-stars Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in a real-life romance. Like Peppy Miller, Garbo's success continued into the age of sound (she received all of her four Oscar nominations in speaking films). But, like George Valentin, Gilbert's did not. Peppy even repeats Garbo's immortal line from Grand Hotel: "I want to be alone."

7th Heaven (1927)
Another film to which The Artist pays homage, there are several scenes from 7th Heaven that reappear in Hazanavicius' film. Both the highly symbolic staircase scene, where Valentin and Miller meet again (she is on her way up, he on his way down), and the unforgettable moment where she drapes herself in Valentin's coat sleeve, are borrowed from this Oscar-winning crowd-pleaser about two lovers divided by war.

Nosferatu (1922)
Horror really lends itself to the histrionics commonly associated with silent film, which is perhaps why this spine-chiller has become such a cult classic. Nosferatu is so-called because the film-makers couldn't get the rights to Bram Stoker's novel and so were forced to change all the names, including Dracula itself. As the bald and pointy-eared Count Orlok, Max Schreck is far more frightening than Robert Pattinson could ever be.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)
One of the first films to take $1m at the box office, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, an anti-war parable, catapulted the swarthy Italian Rudolph Valentino to fame. The film sparked a nationwide tango craze and firmly established Valentino as the "Latin lover" of his day. His premature death five years later caused mass hysteria among his massive female fan base. Silent Life, a half-colour, half-black-and-white biopic about Valentino by Vlad Kozlov, is currently seeking US distribution.

The Mark of Zorro (1920)
Forget Catherine Zeta-Jones. This is the definitive swashbuckler. Starring Douglas Fairbanks, it's the first film adaptation of Zorro, who at this time was just a character in a little-known magazine story called The Curse of Capistrano. It introduced the black mask and hat so synonymous with the caped hero today, and appears in The Artist with Dujardin digitally spliced in.

- TimeOut / The Independent

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