What’s Your Silent “Gateway Film”?

We silent fans all know a certain type of person. This is that person who, when you share your deep and abiding love of movies made before the Great Depression, chortles incredulously. When he realizes you’re being serious, he tries to feign interest in your quaint obsession with cobbled-together Victorian melodramas (as he assumes) and nods obligingly as you try to find words to describe the wonder and excitement of that pioneering era. (This is always when regular ol’ words fail you, too.)

You probably know more than one of these people. Okay, quite a few of these people. Alright, just about everyone you come into contact with during your daily life. 

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I feel ya, classical statue.

What to do, then, when you’re aching to share your passion for movies that most uninitiated friends and family dismiss with an eyeroll?

Initiate them, of course!  (After all, it’s for their own good–no one should be condemned to go through life with DOOM Syndrome.)

Depending on the tastes of those closest to you, it can be hard to pinpoint which film will hook them into the wonders of pre-talkie films. One person might find a dramatic story the most interesting (see: Biograph shorts), the other only perks up if you plunk them in front of an action movie (see: Wings), another might favor a good flapper flick (see: Why Be Good?). But if there’s any hard and fast rule that I live by, it’s 100% this: Always, Always Start With Comedy.

The best of silent comedy remains amazingly timeless, able to appeal to anyone of any age who’s willing to give them a try. Someone who realizes that a 90-year-old film can make them laugh will be much more open to exploring what else the olden days have to offer. And in my opinion, a perfect silent comedy Gateway Film is Buster Keaton’s short beauty The Scarecrow (1920).

c. 1920s: Actor Buster Keaton Dressed as a Scarecrow

This was the third film that Keaton released after taking over Roscoe Arbuckle’s Comique film company (although it was the fourth one he made if you count The High Sign, which was shelved and not released until later). It’s a take-off of rural “mellerdramas” that were big in Victorian days and often spoofed during the Edwardian era (numerous Keystone comedies come to mind).

The premise is simple: Keaton and his co-star “Big Joe” Roberts are two farm hands vying for the affections of the farmer’s beautiful daughter (Sybil Seely). Rural hijinks ensue, involving hay, cream pies, “rabid” dogs and cornfields. Everything culminates in a delightfully edited chase scene that ends with a splash. It’s a full twenty minutes of pure, unpretentious, fast-moving charm.

Buster Sybil scarecrow pose

When I’ve showed this short to people, they are usually a little distracted by its age at first. This film is crammed with old-timey details, such as the furnishings of the humble “one room house” and the sight of Buster with a cloth wrapped around his head to help a toothache. (Which all totally adds to the fun if you ask me.)

It all seems cute enough at first, but then comes the scene that reels them in. Let’s call it the Buster Keaton Conversion Scene, if you will. The farmhands, in their tiny house that’s starting to reveal a clever amount of space-savings gadgets, sit down and have a Rube Goldbergian breakfast. And it’s a classic bit of silent comedy.

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Salt, pepper, and condiments dangle on strings just above the table,  and a system of pulleys transports butter across the table and a bottle of cream in and out of the cooler. Buster and Big Joe’s “passing” of sugar and salt is delicately choreographed down to the second, the shots being long enough to make you marvel at the rehearsals they must’ve entailed. (I wonder if music was being played on the set to help with the timing.)

A 1920 audience would’ve recognized this scene as a satire of “modern conveniences” in the still-fresh industrial era. Today it remains an unforgettable set piece that’s even more impressive in this age of “oh, just CGI it.” Everyone I show this scene to–even if they’d been squirming a little bit earlier–becomes mesmerized for those glorious minutes.

And beyond this pivotal scene, there’s plenty in The Scarecrow to keep your audience hooked. The rest of the house reveals a plethora of labor-savings gadgets, usually in the last places you’d except. Gags centering around a little pit bull terrier (named Luke) turn into a slapstick chase complete with acrobatics. The supporting actors (including Seely and Buster’s dad Joe) are clearly having fun with their roles. The energy doesn’t lag. It’s the opposite experience that most of the Great Uninitiated would associate with a film that’s almost 100 years old.

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So I heartily recommend showing The Scarecrow to those who would dare wrinkle their noses in disgust at the thought of watching a black and white movie. I can almost guarantee that they’ll experience a change of heart.

If you, too, have been trying to get people interested in silents, which films do you like to start with? Do you have any tried-and-trues? Any success stories? Even any non-success stories? Comment away!

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This post is especially for the “Try It, You’ll Like It!” ‘thon hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies Silently. If you, too, desire to combat the dreadful illness of DOOM Syndrome, head over to their sites and check out all the great tips in the other entries. Godspeed, fellow old movie lovers!

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52 thoughts on “What’s Your Silent “Gateway Film”?

  1. Lea, thanks for this! I actually chose The Scarecrow to show at my local library this month paired with The Goat. This makes me feel even better about that choice. Wish me initiating luck!

  2. Hi Lea- Great Post BTW. I once taught a Film Class to a group of 5th Graders. After giving them a quick history, I showed them “It’s A Gift” with Snub Pollard. They absolutely loved it. It was an English Class, so the Teacher had them all write me letters on what they saw. It was amazing to see the responses. Most were along the lines of “I didn’t think a film without sound or color could be that funny?” I also showed them an excerpt of a 1914 Film shot Undersea in a Modified Diving Bell, it contained a scene of Alexander Graham Bell on camera inspecting the Apparatus. The students were shocked to see one of the people they had been studying in History actually in a way come to life. A great experience for them, and a Great Experience for me.

    • Hi Buckey, thanks for sharing! Kids seem to “get” silent films more easily than we jaded adults, it seems. And I’ve always felt that one of the wonders of silent film is getting to “see” history in a way that’s unlike any other. Film is a powerful teaching tool and really should be utilized much more often!

  3. I’d choose “Birth Of A Nation” as my gateway film. Just kidding!! 😛

    Comedy is definitely the way to go. About a year or so ago my young nephew was upset so I put on a Laurel & Hardy short “Two Tars” and that cheered him up! In fact this year for his French homework project “A day in The Life…” he asked me to help him make a silent comedy film for him! 🙂

  4. I know so many of those people! The default reaction I get when talking/being boring (delete as applicable) about silent movies is a sort of benign bemusement. “How many people were there [at a screening]?” seems a popular question, followed by a level of scepticism that it was more than 2-3.

    The Scarecrow, though, is a great choice! I’d not previously had it on my list of top ranking Keaton shorts (One Week, The Goat, Cops since you didn’t ask) but I went to a silent comedy evening at Wilton’s Music Hall (if you’re ever in London, make it a must visit) and it just jumped off the screen. I agree about the breakfast scene (so precise, could performers today without the grounding in vaudeville pull it off?) but also Buster pretending to be a scarecrow was a big hit (I think it’s the way he puts his whole body into it).

    One other winner for me was The Lodger – at least for people who are familiar with later period Hitchcock it’s a fascinating look at where he started with some great flags to where he was going. A double bill of that and Psycho might be in order.

    • Not too long ago I took my mom to a silent screening of Marion Davies’s The Patsy. (This was her first “in theater” silent.) The theater was pretty full. She didn’t seem too surprised by the turnout, but WAS surprised that there was more than one person there my age!

      Sometimes when I mention to people my love of VERY old movies I’ll say “movies from the 1920s” instead of “silents.” Everyone loves the Roaring Twenties, but for some reason they still think the phrase “silent films” = “archaic films.” Silliness. Not every Uninitiated person will want to be interested in silent films, but Movies From The Roaring Twenties? Perhaps! (I’ll mention the 1910s and ’00s later–best not to overwhelm them. 😉 )

  5. I’ve never spoken to anyone else who appreciates silent movies, face to face. A great gateway film would be James Cruze’s “Covered Wagon” a classic western that would rate highly in any Decade.

    • That’s a classic if there ever was one. 🙂 If there’s any silent film screenings in or near your area, I’d recommend going. For the longest time I never saw silents in a theater until a kind Facebook friend recommended a place that shows them. I learned about other screenings from there. It’s nice to be in the company of other (openminded) people. (I do have to drive a bit to get to these theaters, but I’m a Midwesterner so that’s fine by me.)

  6. I agree – comedies would be a perfect way to initiate someone to silents, and who better to choose than Buster Keaton? I haven’t seen this film, but I have bookmarked it on YouTube to watch later. Thanks!

  7. Excellent post. If nothing else, it made me really wanna see The Scarecrow. It’s interesting that, for me, I started with silent comedies, but the first film which really demonstrated the power of silent cinema to me was The Passion of Joan of Arc. I can’t imagine it be a gateway for most, given the slower pace and somber tone, but man did it open my eyes.

    • Oh wow, funny, I was just chatting with someone (in an online group) about The Passion of Joan of Arc and how it’s probably not a good “beginner’s” film! Someone who’s already interested in artsy films (like the ones by Ingmar Bergman) might get sucked into it right away, but in general I’d stick with comedies first.

  8. Pingback: The “TRY IT, YOU’LL LIKE IT!” Blogathon Is Here! | Sister Celluloid

  9. Thanks so much for joining in! Comedy definitely has its place but I have had great success with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Judex, and The Sheik. I think the main ingredient is personal enthusiasm and a nice selection of backstage stories is helpful as well. But, yeah, that chortle when you mention that you like silent movies gets a bit old after a while. Oh well, we can rejoice in the knowledge that their movies will be “old” in a few short years. (The window gets smaller every year. I saw someone unironically mention that they like “old movies” from, like, 2005.)

    • I’ve met more than one of those “old” movie fans, myself. Le sigh. You know, I have a silent fan friend who’s mentioned that German Expressionist films aren’t bad gateways, since many people already enjoy “weirdness” like you see in Tim Burton’s work. Thus, German Expressionism isn’t hard for them to get into.

      Believe it or not, one of the very first (perhaps THE first) silent I watched was The Sheik! I already knew how silly it would be getting into it, so it pleased me to no end. (Sadly, a lot of people I know wouldn’t really…get into it, although they would probably laugh at it a lot.)

  10. What’s worse than the chortle is the condescending smirk. 😦 I think comedies are a good intro, especially Buster or one of the best Lloyd features. And Caligari and the Feuillade serials, certainly. Tell you one not to try—Broken Blossoms. Masterpiece though it is, I know from sad experience, that one may scare them off for good!

      • Ironically, Broken Blossoms was my first silent film, one I watched on a whim, and I was blown away. It made me want to watch more pre-talkies. Of course, my second silent film was also The Sheik. Nowadays, I would recommend neither to first-timers. I think it depends on how open-minded the viewer in question is. Some people come in wanting to mock and dislike what you show them.

        • Being openminded is definitely a MUST when you sit down to something like The Sheik! For me, those “archaic” (or, stylized) differences are half the reason to watch silent films…which may explain why I love things like Keystone. 😀

  11. If I remember correctly, my own “gateway” was “Metropolis,” when it played in mainstream theaters with the Eurythmics soundtrack. Although, come to think of it, I’d seen some Chaplin shorts even earlier than that.
    For other people, I tend to recommend “A Trip to the Moon” or “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” Both are so iconic that people can recognize references they’ve seen more recently, and neither overstays its welcome, so people don’t get bored.

    • My first silent that I sat down and enjoyed all the way through was The Sheik! (I wanted to actually see the famed Valentino in action.) Before that I remember watching an American Experience documentary on Mary Pickford, seeing the end of the ’90s film Chaplin with the emotional scene from The Kid (and instantly bursting into tears, no kidding) and seeing part of an Our Gang short….that was a pretty long ago. However, while I enjoyed The Sheik and several other silents, Buster was definitely the Gateway. His work surprised and delighted me in a way that’s hard to describe, and I HAD to seek out more and study it all in depth.

  12. Isn’t Buster a magic creature? Indeed, if he can’t convert someone into old movies, nothing else can. I also love Harold Lloyd but I agree that Buster has a bigger appeal – especially for kids! My mom, who is kind of “DOOMed”, even likes his face and funny film stills! But I haven’t convinced her to sit and watch any of his movies, unfortunately.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Kisses!
    Le
    http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com

    • Don’t give up on your mom, Le, she may come around yet! 😉 Lloyd’s films are marvelous too, I’m sure he’s been a gateway for a number of people too. Buster’s name does come up time and time again when I’ve chatted with people about what got them into silents, it seems. Oh, and I’d put in a good word for Mary Pickford films, too! A spunky, timeless actress.

  13. Aside from a woman I briefly spoke with at the former university film club and a professor I interviewed via telephone, I have never met a fellow silent film geek face to face. Most people laugh or look weirded out when I tell them I like silent movies, though some more open-minded people I know have asked me for recs (I usually recommend Keaton or German Expressionism). My father has sat down and watched The Mating Call, which he enjoyed enough to watch the entire time rather than getting up to go to bed (it was a Silent Sunday Night feature on TCM). My grandparents get all their ideas about silent film from the mean-spirited Singin’ in the Rain, but one of my aunts convinced them to watch The Kid and they liked it surprisingly enough. Not so much that they seek out other silent films, but it’s a start, I guess. My sisters are able to sit through Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, and one of them even watched The Phantom of the Opera with me. Neither are fans but both know better than to assume silent cinema was crude and boring.
    Keaton is a great choice as a gateway drug, as are Chaplin, Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy. Other great intros, I imagine, would be Caligari, The Eagle (a much better intro to Valentino’s appeal than The Sheik for sure), The Wind with Lillian Gish, and Why Be Good with Colleen Moore (it has a pretty progressive view of women’s rights and the sexual double standard).

    • I didn’t meet any other silent fans for the longest time either (face to face, that is–the Internet can be a lifesaver!). Definitely seek out silent film showings if you can, smaller, independent theaters might play them sometimes. I’m lucky that my family already loves old movies (as in, ’30s-’60s) so having them watch silents wasn’t too much trouble. Most of my friends aren’t quite converted yet, though. There is much work to be done. 😉

  14. “The big problem is banishing the notion that old movies (silent or sound) are boring because they’re black and white and slower paced.” Agreed. The Keystones are indeed a good antidote for that! A lot is just assumption and stereotyping. I think much that type of perception keeps people from classical music. They have the idea that is sedate, dignified, boring stuff for the “upper classes.” 😦

    But you know, I’ve wondered a lot about what it is that makes some of us so drawn to silent films.

    Many people will dismiss silent films because they are so old. When I first was exposed to them, they mesmerized me simply because they *were* old—I had just had a window opened in which I could look back into a time long gone that was living and moving before me. That alone was enough to fascinate me. No one had to talk me into a love of them. And then I began to see more and find out more, and my love deepened.

    I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t find silent films fascinating, if for no other reason than just to see life of another time in so immediate a fashion, to be transported back in time.

    So what is it exactly that makes us different? We’ll win some over, sure, but even when presented with the best examples, many people just don’t seem to see what we see. Why?

    • Donnie, get out of my head! 😀 The age of silent films is precisely why I decided to start watching them in the first place. Even the saddest little shorts with bland editing were fascinating, because they came from 1920! 1908! 1913! It never fails to give me a thrill to realize I’m looking at a cloudy winter’s day in 1904 or a nice afternoon at a park back in 1915, never.

      It’s hard to figure out just why some people “don’t see what we see.” I’m not sure. Could be conditioning (assuming that older is always inferior), could be a lack of exposure to culture while growing up (which sounds a tad snobbish but you know what I mean), etc. Thoughts, anyone?

      • It is the idea that “older is inferior”– actually, more like a distaste for difference. They think the acting is bad because it’s not the Method. They think black and white is bad because we live in a world where color is about the only option filmmakers have. It’s also a fetish for absolute realism in movies…. because superheroes are realistic, ya know?

        It will be the same with modern film someday. People will view the hits and best films of 2015 as ancient and boring no matter what once 2040 rolls around. It is the nature of things and that’s fine. I mean, it sucks, but that is the way things have always gone. 1950s audiences laughed at silent films. Silent film audiences in 1925 laughed at Victorian plays and culture. The Victorians laughed at the 18th century. And so it goes.

        Not fair, but not a new phenomenon by any means.

        • Which reminds me: Mary Pickford apparently kept her early silents under wraps for a long time, out of fear that people would watch them just to laugh at them (which sometimes happened to “old” films in the ’20s).

          Your mention of today’s fetish for absolute realism is right on the money. Even fiction writing isn’t unscathed by this. In my old creative writing classes there was always emphasis on making them feel “real.” Even fantasy was usually expected to be given the “magic realism” treatment. Which is great, usually…but it can be unfortunate in some ways. There are so many ways to tell stories, and realism is technically one of them–but not the ONLY way. Melies, for instance, sure as heck wasn’t going for “realism.”

      • I think this appreciation with old things is almost like a gene some people have and some don’t.

        Two people come across a silent film for the first time:

        Person A: What is THAT?? You mean, this was actually made in 1915?? Oh, man, that… is… fascinating!! [Sits down to watch with eyes glued to screen.]

        Person B: When was that thing made? 1915, huh? Didn’t have much to look at, did they? Come on, turn that stuff off and let’s find something to do.

        Go figure.

        If it’s a gene, I’m glad we have it. 😉

  15. Nice review. The Scarecrow is a great film … and not just because it features Luke, my favorite of the Keaton/Arbuckle stable of actors 🙂

    Keaton was my introduction to silent film. On a whim, I rented Our Hospitality and was immediately won over. I quickly immersed myself in as many Keaton films I could find. Once I’d watched all I could find, I moved over to Lloyd, Chaplin, etc., but I was sticking to comedies. I don’t remember when I branched out to non-comedies, but, even though I now enjoy many kinds of silents, comedies are my favorite. I agree that using a comedy (especially one of Buster’s) is a surefire way to win over a newbie.

    • “College” was my first Keaton, of all things, and I think I watched Sherlock Jr. and a bunch of his shorts from there. His work was so delightful that I, too, had to see what the other famous comedians were all about!

  16. When I was a kid in the early 1970’s, (back in the days before videotape players), the public library had silent movie reels we could take home on our library card and watch on our Super-8 home movie projectors. The big downtown library had hundreds of selections, but that was a place we only went to on special trips. The local branch within walking distance of our house had only about a dozen films. So of course we ended up watching those dozen over and over, so often we knew them by heart. Two of them were Laurel & Hardy’s “Two Tars” and “Big Business” — our absolute favorites — we must have had them out of the library so often nobody else got a chance! Comic destructiveness was extremely funny to kids, I guess. We also had repeated marathon viewings of “Orphans of the Storm”, “America”, “The Immigrant”, “Sparrows”, and “Steamboat Bill Jr.” These were our “gateway” silent movies. We all grew up hooked on silents as a result.

    • A childhood growing up with Charlie, Buster, and Laurel and Hardy sounds like an agreeable childhood to me! I owe my parents and grandparents an eternal debt of gratitude for all the old movies I got to grow up with…a debt being partially repaid with all the silent movies they simply HAVE to watch with me. 😀

    • That sounds wonderful, Maria. Access to silent films was so rare before the internet age. It’s great you had that.

      Lea, I was also brought up with a love of old movies and old things in general. My mother especially had a fascination to the point of being rabid in her love for anything old—books, magazines, movies, furniture, you name it, and I got that love from her. She passed away a few years ago before I really got into silent films. I wish I could show her some of the films I enjoy now. She would be beside herself with excitement if she could see them.

      • Can really, REALLY relate to this too–my dad passed away a few years ago, before I had really gotten into silents. He would’ve loved seeing a “world gone by” so, so much.

  17. Sherlock, Jr. You can’t beat it to get people into silent film. It has a simple, solid story and the gags are nonstop. It’s crazy, elegant and ingenious. It also has so many great anecdotes (the broken neck, the changing background-jump cuts) that help to draw people in. And, it’s only like an hour long!

    • Recently I was having a discussion with some fellow Buster fans about which feature would be considered his masterpiece if The General didn’t exist. Sherlock Jr. won, hands down! 🙂

  18. I’ve been intrigued by silent films and the stars since I was a pre-teen (a long time ago). My guide to the era was “Movies in the Age of Innocence” and biographies such as “The Self-Enchanted”, with pictures of the frizzy-haired Girl With The Bee Stung Lips. The books I read were seductive, but alas, almost all the films were then, unlike today, unavailable for viewing. Silent films are an acquired taste, and I agree that the comedies are the gateway. Chaplin’s “The Rink” is hilarious, and it’s also short enough to keep today’s teens – and their parents – laughing. Another gateway as well as a great film is Von Sternberg’s “The Docks of New York”, made at the end of the silent era. It tells a strong character-driven story and has a minimum of intrusive subtitles, always an annoyance. (Wagenknecht said title cards were on the screen so long that the theatre cat was able to read each one 3 times.) And Clara Bow in “Dancing Mothers” is an irresistible girl with an awful lot of “It”.

    • Welcome, Judy! We’re very lucky that so many silents are out there today, it makes our “spreading the good news” that much easier. 😉 The Rink is an excellent starter film, I like your suggestion for The Docks of New York too.

  19. The trajectory of my entry into silent films has been a bit random. A couple of months ago, I retreated to the bedroom to watch YouTube videos because my husband was watching something violent that didn’t interest me. I watched a documentary on child stars which predominantly featured stars from 50s-80s television, but there was an interview with Diana Serra Cary, a.k.a. “Baby Peggy” Montgomery, a child star of the 1920s. Someone in the comments section mentioned that she was still alive which fascinated me that there was a living link to this by-gone era! I started digging for information on her, read her autobiography, and watched many of her shorts and a couple of movies. This fascination led to her contemporary child actor, Jackie Coogan, which led, of course, to Charlie Chaplin. I had watched “Harold Lloyd’s Wonderful World of Comedy” on television as a child in the late 70s, but I was not familiar with Buster Keaton other than recognizing his name. I will probably move on to him next since he seems so beloved!

    I recently watched the 1980 TV miniseries, Hollywood, which was an excellent overview of the history of silent films and how it influenced later movies. It has many interviews with surviving people who had worked in the industry in that era!

    • Thanks for sharing your “gateway” story, Sonya! It’s always interesting to hear what chain of events lead someone to discover silent films–what if your husband had been watching something different that day? 😉

      • I’ve been feeling a bit nostalgic lately and have also been watching the Mary Tyler Moore Show. There was an episode where an adolescent boy gets a crush on Mary. He invites her to a nice restaurant and asks the violinist to play something romantic. The musician started to play a tune that sounded familiar and I realized it was the theme to The Kid and the joke sunk in! 😉 I would have completely missed it if I hadn’t also been watching Chaplin movies! The Kid was re-released on its 50th anniversary so I guess audiences in the early 70s were more likely to recognize it!

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