My Top 10 Favorite Silent Films (So Far)

So I’ve been thinking: good ol’ Internet listicles are fun. And depending on the context, they can tell you a little about the writer, too. Here I’ve been publishing posts on our beloved old films week in and week out, and never thought to write the most basic one of all–a “my favorite silents” list. So allow me to tell you a little about myself.

Needless to say, picking just ten films was a task akin to scaling Mount Everest. I don’t know if my list is the most surprising one in the world (no worries, it’s not smugly crammed with obscure social dramas from Finland or something), but here it is, in no particular order–except for #1! (Links are included for the ones I’ve reviewed so far.)

10. Metropolis (1927)

metropolis-whore-of-babylon

What more can I say? It’s epic, it’s operatic, it’s a triumph of the imagination, and its art direction is second to none. Sci-fi, religion, surrealism, allegory, expressionism, fantasy, drama, dreams–it’s all here, and once you see it you’ll never forget it.

9. Good Night, Nurse! (1918)

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I’m obsessed with the Comique shorts, so choosing my favorite is like a mother having to choose a favorite child. They’re all so fresh, so unpretentious, so hilarious and full of energy, that I nearly rent my garment with despair. But this one gets a little edge for that fantastic scene where Buster and Roscoe “flirt” in the hallway (err, it makes more sense in context).

8. Tol’able David (1921)

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A milestone piece of Americana worthy to be ranked with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and your grandmother’s apple pie recipe. A simple, dramatic David-and-Goliath story with a small cast of vivid characters and an idyllic rural setting–it’s tailor-made for me.

7. The Kid (1921)

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Chaplin’s beautiful, gritty, heartstring-tugging masterpiece. I might call it his greatest film. He took his comedy to a new level, inspired by his actual life experiences. It doesn’t have the self-consciousness of some of his later work. Plus, the reunion scene between the Tramp and the Kid never fails to turn me into a blubbering mess.

6. Ménilmontant (1926)

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Exquisite, impressionistic, poetic, daring, bittersweet, delicate, raw, experimental, timeless, artistic, meditative, lyrical–if I keep going eventually I’ll run out of descriptive words.

5. Broken Blossoms (1919)

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Pure poetry, blended with harsh realism. And by the way, Lillian Gish is the First Lady of the cinema.

4. Faust (1926)

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This film just stuns me–its style, its boldness, the plot of the old tale that taps into nothing less than the eternal struggle of good vs. evil…a masterpiece. I love Murnau’s Nosferatu as much as the next person, but will give Faust a slight edge.

3. The Scarecrow (1920)

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So I nearly put The General here, then thought–but what about Buster’s shorts? So I put down The Scarecrow, then thought–but One Week‘s one of the greatest things in life! And then I put down One Week, then thought–aw heck, they’re all mindblowing but The Scarecrow‘s my favorite.

2. Intolerance (1916)

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One of the grandest spectacles ever put on film, now and forevermore. I love its ambition, its huge cast of characters, its grand themes, its attention to detail–everything about its big beautiful bloated self.

1. True Heart Susie (1919)

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This pastoral tale encapsulates so much of what I love about the silent era. It’s both a nod to an old-fashioned time gone by while being charmingly old-fashioned itself. It’s sweet and sentimental, but never cloying. The cinematography of the rural setting is simply lovely. And Lillian Gish, Bobby Harron and Clarine Seymour are every bit as talented and sympathetic as they were back in 1919.

Just for the pure heck of it, here’s my next ten favorite silent films (a list that’s somewhat eccentric):

The Butcher Boy (1917) – More classic Comique fun!
The General (1926) – Buster’s feature-length masterpiece.
City Girl (1930) – A bittersweet romance set in my home state.
Fatty’s Tintype Tangle (1915) – The short that introduced me to Louise Fazenda.
Ghosts Before Breakfast (1926) – The best bit of German Dadaist avant-garde ever.
The Freshman (1925) – Harold at his best!
Egged On (1926) – Probably my favorite Charley Bowers short.
Way Down East (1920) – A grand melodrama I never get tired of.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1929) – A profound religious experience.
The Female of the Species (1912) – Biograph at its most masterful.

So! What about you? What’s your top 10 favorite silents list?

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40 thoughts on “My Top 10 Favorite Silent Films (So Far)

  1. Great list. I liked the way you included not only features but shorts. True Heart Susie is an Interesting first choice. I saw True Heart Susie only recently and thought it was charming. Griffith does is best work, I think, with nostalgic loves stories of rural America. I never thought I’d like Way Down East, but I did. Speaking of Americana, I love Tola’ble David. Great locations in my home state (and Henry King’s). Monterey is a lovely spot in the Appalachian wilderness – it’s still that way today.

    • That’s good to hear! The location adds a lot to the strength of Tol’able David.

      Way Down East is fantastic, and frequently misunderstood, I dare say. Many folks think it’s supposed to be taken at face value, but it was actually taking a very well known “hoary old melodrama” and making it fresh again, elevating it to art. In a way, it was a kind of homage to the America where rural folk used to watch those kinds of plays. (I address this in my review, too).

  2. Love your list! You’ve inspired me to watch some of those (like Faust). I am really anxious to see True Heart Susie, too! Have been blown away by Lillian Gish in nearly everything I’ve seen her in. She has so much power, and yet often plays more quiet roles…roles that it’s hard to imagine anyone else being able to bring nearly the same power!

    I think The General has to be near the top for me. And Chang, by Merian C. Cooper. The Kid Brother, perhaps. The Big Parade. Daddy Long Legs. The Navigator. The Mark of Zorro, definitely.

    I’ve actually been teaching a class on films and nearly all my high school students loved The Mark of Zorro. They loved Buster Keaton and they loved Douglas Fairbanks, but I think they were a bit scared to try Mary Pickford. 🙂

    • *GASP* Then they must be introduced to Mary forthwith!! 🙂 I sometimes wonder if her old fashion-sounding name makes people assume her films will be too “quaint.” (A film being called “Way too quaint and old-fashioned” would only attract me like a magnet, but ah well.) I almost included The Thief of Bagdad to my list…it was a REALLY tough list.

      Hope you enjoy Faust and True Heart Susie!…Man, those are two very different films. 😀

      • Thief of Bagdad….that’s a great one, too! I watched it with my brother this summer when he visited and we loved it. He says he saw it when we were children and it left me wondering how I missed it.

        I think you might be right about the old fashioned sounding name of Mary Pickford. And the child-roles, too…even though I said she played much more. I agree with you, though…old fashioned is definitely my cup of tea. 🙂

  3. I love this post! — and your choices—though I’ve not seen Faust, yet, nor Ménilmontant. Got to remedy those!!)

    Here is my list for now, in no particular order. This is such a hard thing to do—but such fun. 🙂

    The Blot
    True Heart Susie – no argument from me for the top slot here!
    Miss Lulu Bett
    Judex – technically cheating, since it’s a 13-part serial—but a must-see for sure
    The Cheat – Sessue Hayakawa is unforgettable in this one
    Nosferatu
    Broken Blossoms
    Man with a Movie Camera (Alloy Orchestra score a must)
    Traffic in Souls – it’s primitiveness, sense of time and place fascinates me
    La Souriante Madame Beaudet

    Runner-Ups:

    Butcher Boy – a classic indeed. Buster, Fatty, Al all together!
    The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
    Mickey (tough choice between this and The Extra Girl)
    The Freshman
    Matrimony’s Speed Limit – I’ve got an inexplicable affection for this little Alice Guy-Blaché gem
    A House Divided – ditto
    Female of the Species – a masterpiece, indeed—so many other Biographs I’d like to include
    Hoodoo Ann – I first fell in love with Mae Marsh here
    The Ocean Waif – damaged, but wonderful. The Jon Mirsalis score is a masterpiece.
    Blind Husbands – von Stroheim, so fun to hate 🙂

    Now, I’m going to stop thinking, because I’ll say, “OH NO, I left out…”

    • That was me earlier today. 😀 Love your list, especially runner-up Hoodoo Ann! Have watched it several times. Mae Marsh was such a great actress. She was kind of an “everygirl.” I really wish more of her films with Bobby Harron were available/not lost.

  4. Really enjoy the site and the listing. However, in my view the Numero Uno of all is SUNRISE. Plaque winner of BEST PICTURE for the 1st Academy Awards (Oscar statuette was not even in existence then). Yes, WINGS is the flick credited today but SUNRISE won for being BEST ARTISTIC while WINGS was MOST POPULAR. Following year one, then the plain BEST PICTURE was awarded and SUNRISE has been overpassed by *only* mentioning WINGS as winning. Janet Gaynor (the actress of SUNRISE) won BEST ACTRESS as well. however, at that time it was don for the Year. Hence, 7th Heaven (another excellent ’27 film) is also mentioned for her win as well. If you have never seen it, then be sure to do so. It, more so than any other Silent, still holds up with no need to deal with ‘old’ style. Finally, reading up about its history and production will surely give anyone interested in the pre-29 movies a great sense of studio mismanagement.

    • Sunrise is a classic, no question there. When you compare it to some of the stagnant talkies that came out just a couple years later, you realize just how sophisticated the silent era became. Wings is another good example. Some of those battle scenes just can’t be improved upon. In fact, after he watched Wings my brother remarked (sounding a little amazed) that films seemed like they went down in quality right after the silent era. (All the other silents I’ve shown him only reinforced that! 😀 )

      • Yup! In the mid-70s, I was teaching Science at a very “inner city” Jr. H. I began a course on Media – dealing with the sciences behind photography (light & chemistry), phonographs (sound & electronics) still vinyl as CDs were unknown, and movies (light, photography, chemistry & physics, aka movement). Eventually, I included the history of film, I showed The Great Train Robbery and even, despite its controversy, Birth of a Nation. Well, even the African-Americans kids wound up cheering for the Klan during the rescue scenes. It was, for me a real learning experience of the power still helming;d by old movies. Forty years later, I am still in contact with 3 of those students and they still talk about those ‘old quiet movies’ I showed them ON FILM as video was also still unknown in those ancient days,

        • Wow, the power of film indeed. That’s so great that some of your students still keep and touch and remember those films. It reminds me of someone I know who sends old comedies (Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, etc.) to an elementary school teacher so she can show them to her class now and then. They absolutely love them! And will probably remember them long after the usual math and English facts fade.

  5. I’m horrible when it comes to ranking favorites. I can say that City Lights would top the list. It’s sweet, funny, and the end never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

    Metropolis would definitely be on it somewhere. I first saw it a few months before the missing scenes were discovered, and even its incomplete state was mind-blowing.

    The Gold Rush, certainly. It’s the blackest of Chaplin’s silent comedies, and I admire it both for its beauty and audacity.

    I would also include Battleship Potemkin. It’s obvious propaganda, but I think you can admire a film while recognizing it for what it is.

  6. Interesting list, especially the inclusion of shorts which most people tend to separate from the features.

    I don’t know what my Top 10 would be but I know it would probably include Nosferatu, The Wind, Metropolis, City Girl, Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, Diary Of A Lost Girl, Asphalt, Seven Days, the Laurel & Hardy short Two Tars and Harold Lloyd’s short Hand To Mouth. 🙂

    • At first I planned on making a separate list just for shorts, but then thought–why? The best shorts are just as good as longer films–and the oldest silents are all pretty short, anyways.

        • Won’t hold it against ya! Funny, I saw One Week referred to as Seven Days in one old movie magazine. Not sure if the writer was confused, or what. “Let’s see…what was it called…something about days, weeks…something weeks…Three Weeks!!…wait, no…oh, of course! Seven Days!” 😀

  7. An initial top 10 in No Particular Order:

    a) The Wind (1928)
    b) Cops (1922)
    c) Suspense (1913)- Great Lois Weber FIlm
    d) Broken Blossoms (Can’t agree more with your selection Lea.
    e) The Iron Horse (1925) (A soft spot for this one as it is the first Silent I ever saw on a Big Screen)
    f) The Kid (1921)
    g) Sunrise (1927)- Visually Stunning
    h) Beggars Of Life (1928)
    i) Grandma’s Boy (1922)
    j) The General (1926)- The First Silent Feature I ever saw.

    (Of course the list goes on and on)

    • Glad to see Sunrise on your list as it is Numero Uno on mine. In terms of Broken Blossoms, it always has a sad aspect for me as the night of the premiere is when Bobby Harron shot himself. Not a brag, but I am the guy who proved his death was actually suicide rather than an accident. I believe he was extremely disappointed at being overpassed by his substitute father for Barthlemess in that film. I also set up a film series at MoMA in NYC for his birth centennial (April ’93) and lectured on that matter. Over the years, I also met with and had lunches/dinners with Blanche Sweet and Lillian Gish. Lillian deeply disagreed with me me but I feel she was definitely trying to keep scandal from reaching to any of the Biograph folks. Blanche was a bit less fervent, in her denial. However, in my opinion, she was also doing her best to avoid any negativity coming up on “dear Mr. Griffith” as she always referred to him who speaking to me.

      • Amazing, what I’d give to have lunch with Lillian Gish! 🙂 Very interesting info about Bobby Harron (you must mean the premiere of Way Down East, I’m assuming). It’s a sad, mysterious story. I’ve heard that his autopsy report is surprisingly primitive.

  8. I doubt if I could really make a definite list, although you’ve inspired me to try it some time, but off my head here are some of the standouts from what I’ve watched the last few years:
    Fantomas, Cabiria, The Battle of the Somme, Easy Street, A Trip to the Moon, Homunculus, The Curse of Quon Gwon, The Great Train Robbery, the Drunken Mattress, Sherlock Holmes.
    Outside of “my era,” I would also mention The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the Unknown, Metropolis, Der Golem, the Deadlier Sex, Synthetic Sin, So This Is Paris.

    • I love your list! Points for The Battle of the Somme, getting to “see” important historic events like WWI is a big part of why the silent era intrigues me so much. My skies, where/when did you get to see the full Homunculus?! That’s awesome!

  9. Okay — my top ten (with a bit of cheating…)

    1) A Buster Keaton feature
    2) A Harold Lloyd feature
    3) A Laurel and Hardy short
    4) A Buster Keaton short
    5) A Charlie Chaplin Mutual short
    6) A Roscoe Arbuckle short
    7) A post-1925 Charley Chase short
    8) A Harry Langdon short
    9) A Mary Pickford feature
    10) “Storm Over Asia”

  10. Hi Lea, Great post! Love how everyone is joining in. My top 10 is, currently, as follows.-
    1.Sunrise
    2.The General
    3.Metropolis
    4.One Week
    5.Chicago
    6.The Wind
    7.The Penalty
    8.Sparrows
    9.Girl Shy
    10.The Unknown

    I managed to get one Mary Pickford in there. I do actually have a top 200 and she has 11 films in that at the moment including Stella Maris, Amarilly, Wilful Peggy, The Hoodlum & Daddy-Long Legs. I think, after reading the other comments, mine included, that we are all seem to be on the same wavelength. In particular it was great seeing Good Night, Nurse! in your top ten as it’s my favourite Keaton/Arbuckle too!

    Antony

    • Isn’t it the greatest?? It should be enshrined in the Louvre. Somehow. 😀

      The Hoodlum’s one of my favorite Pickford films, followed by the Poor Little Rich Girl and Rebecca of Sunnybrook farm. And she gave a great performance in The New York Hat.

  11. What a great list! It’s so hard for me, but here we go:
    1) The General
    Easily my favorite movie of all time, silent or talkie. Keaton’s action and suspense are flawless. And boy, does he look handsome in long hair and tight pants ❤
    2) Greed
    Unpleasant and harsh, but excellent, an adaptation I find superior to the novel (which is also a great work of art!)
    3) The Cameraman
    Keaton's final masterpiece. A little more romantic than is usual for him, but I really find a lot of soulfulness in it. BK really shines as an actor here.
    4) The Passion of Joan of Arc
    A profound emotional and spiritual experience. I am always in that court room alongside St. Joan.
    5) Michel Strogoff
    The best silent epic! It is magnificent, a blockbuster married to heart and thematic depth.
    6) Scaramouche
    Another great epic! Ramon Novarro has never been better.
    7) Sherlock Jr
    A great satire and love letter to the art of movies and moviegoing. Made me fall in love with Buster Keaton and silent movies back when I was 17.
    8) The Gold Rush
    Chaplin does great with the dark, harsh atmosphere; I've rarely seen desperation handled in such a comic manner. Georgia Hale gives one of my favorite performances of the 1920s as a morally conflicted dance hall girl. And Mack Swain is just hilarious.
    9) Menilmontant
    Everything you said. It's pure cinema.
    10) Lonesome
    A great fairy tale set in the busy world of 1920s New York. Also a great look at urban alienation.

    • Honorable mentions: The Wind, Diary of a Lost Girl, The Unknown, Ace of Hearts, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, City Lights, The Goat, The Boat, Neighbors, That Night’s Wife, Dragnet Girl, The Sheik (ultimate guilty pleasure), City Girl, Sunrise, gosh I could go on forever!!

    • I love your list!! And it reminds me–despite seeing references to it EVERYWHERE, I have yet to see Scaramouche. It’s one of those films where I tell myself “Must watch Scaramouche, must watch Scaramouche NOW” and then I don’t. 😀 Maybe this time it’ll stick!

      • You have to watch it! Rex Ingram’s best work– at least from what I have seen. It’s much superior to the talkie remake from 1953, though that film is still pretty fun. But in terms of capturing the 18th century feel and having a great hero-villain dynamic, the silent film is better in every way. Warner Archive released it on DVD with a rousing orchestral score, so you should totally check it out if it is still in print

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