10 Great Silent Film Performances That Have Stayed With Me

This is my own post for the Silent Movie Day Blogathon 2022. Hope you enjoy!

I think we can agree that there are too many great silent film performances to count. Just try making a list sometime–from Emil Jannings in The Last Laugh to Lillian Gish in The Wind to Buster Keaton in The General, picking out the cream of the crop is surprisingly difficult. So for this post I decided: why not write about some performances that were particularly moving to me, personally? Performances that really struck a chord? 

So that’s exactly what I decided to do. In no particular order, here are ten wonderful silent era performances that made a deep impression on me. In no particular order, that is, except for the final three.

10. Buster Keaton in The Cameraman (1928)

Yes, I know it was technically an MGM feature (gasp!) but oh what a sweet and very funny comedy The Cameraman is, and how equally sweet and funny Buster is in it. Buster is wonderful in everything, of course, but he’s extra endearing here, even letting himself be surprisingly vulnerable in the seaside scene near the end. I for one certainly think his time at MGM had a honeymoon period.

9. Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms (1919)

It’s nigh impossible to have a list like this without including Lillian’s iconic performance. As the angelic Lucy, living in slum-like conditions and constantly suffering beatings by her brute of a father, she’s certainly the fragile waif to end all fragile waifs. Gish’s deeply sensitive performance is a fascinating character study, from her timid mannerisms to the way her hunched posture suggests evidence of abuse. When I think of great silent film acting, Miss Gish in Broken Blossoms always springs to mind.

8. Richard Barthelmess in Tol’able David (1921)

The pastoral world of Tol’able David is captured with great sentiment and warmth, and Barthelmess’s presence is a large part of that. As the “tol’able, just tol’able” young David, he’s endearingly sympathetic and we feel for him while feeling a bit parental towards him ourselves. Doubly so when David’s forced to prove himself against a hulking foe, in a violent and tension-filled sequence. I can absolutely understand why D.W. Griffith, after seeing the film, embraced Barthelmess and told him how proud he was of him.

7. Jackie Coogan in The Kid (1921)
Honorable mention to Charlie Chaplin

Few movies can bring a tear to my eye faster than The Kid, and a huge part of that is because of “the Kid” himself, Jackie Coogan. Only six years old at the time of his performance, Coogan is an amazingly natural little actor–Chaplin must’ve been counting his lucky stars. The scene where the Tramp and the Kid are almost separated forever is famously gut-wrenching, but check out the quieter scenes too, like the one where the Kid falls ill. How someone so young could act with such perfection is something I always ask myself.

I’ll also give a shoutout to Chaplin’s own acting in the film, which is also done with perfection. His eyes during the “near-separation” scene, and also during the scene when the Kid is ill and he looks straight into the camera at us, are haunting. He seems to be channeling something universal that all parents share about their children. It’s really something else.

6. Lon Chaney in The Unknown (1927)

This Tod Browning drama has one of the most infamously grotesque plots in silent film history: a carnival performer is secretly in love with his beautiful assistant, who has an intense phobia to being embraced by men. How to overcome this hurdle? Get his arms amputated, of course! The great Lon Chaney plays the lead, giving one of his usual sensitive performances in a role that could’ve easily been overacted. He’s absolutely chilling in the climactic scene–you feel for him, feel horror at his situation, and I’ll be darned if those few minutes will ever leave your memory.

5. Nadia Sibirskaïa in Ménilmontant (1926)

Sibirskaïa is the lead of this poetic French short film, about two sisters who move to the working-class neighborhood Ménilmontant in Paris after their parents’ tragic deaths. It’s simply a work of art, and so is Sibirskaïa’s delicate acting. Thoughtful with a bit of girlishness, she makes us feel sympathy for her immediately and she turns a technically melodramatic story into something very human. If you ask me, one scene in particular when a stranger helps her in a time of need is one of the great heart-tugging moments in all of silent cinema–or cinema, for that matter.

4. Gösta Ekman in Faust (1926)
Honorable mention to Camilla Horn

Few mediums were more perfect for big, operatic stories than silent films, and Murnau’s Faust is one of the finest examples. Of course, you can’t pull off something like Faust without top-notch actors, and the lead Gösta Ekman really delivers. An intense workaholic who gave practically every second of his life to theater and films, Ekman did a superb job as both the elderly Faust and his freshfaced younger self–it’s truly hard to believe the characters were played by the same actor. I especially like how well he carries the heavy robes and beard of the elder Faust–he seems to have stepped out of an old illustration.

And a shoutout to Camilla Horn as the doomed Gretchen, who does a lovely job as Ekman’s costar. Her dramatic scenes towards the end are artfully Expressionistic, making her both a figure of and a symbol of tragedy, if you understand what I mean. 

3. Bobby Harron in Intolerance (1916)

The sensitive Bobby was just a kid when he started playing little roles in the Biograph films, having been an all-purpose errand boy and assistant beforehand. Despite having no acting experience, he had a natural onscreen presence and as he matured he was arguably one of the silent era’s great talents. He and Mae Marsh costarred in the “modern” sections of D.W. Griffith’s epic Intolerance, and his performance as a reformed criminal who gets wrongfully accused of murder is just remarkable. In the scenes where he receives the last rites, you can practically see his soul. When I think of the finest mens’ performances in silent films, this one always springs to mind.

2. Renee Jeanne Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Being one of the most praised performances in all of cinema, what more can I add, other than I, too, have been deeply moved by it? And what’s extra incredible is that it was her only film. I usually watch The Passion around Lent–preferably on Good Friday itself after Mass–so it actively has a role in one of the most important spiritual times of the year for me. I feel like her haunting face was meant to be in the movie, and that it’s far more than just a movie, too.

1. Mae Marsh in The Mother and the Law (1919)

For me, this is the single most moving performance I’ve seen in a silent film–and it’s in a film that’s usually overlooked. The Mother and the Law was the “little” drama starring Marsh and Harron that Griffith eventually absorbed into Intolerance. A few years later, he dusted it off, added a few more scenes and released it as a standalone film. Plus, some of these scenes that were edited out for Intolerance were restored. Marsh’s extended scenes, where we see her fight for her baby in court and especially when she reacts to the baby’s death, were stunning. I’ve seen, well, a lot of silent films, and this specific performance struck me as uncanny. If Harron was showing his soul during his scenes, Marsh seemed to be tapping into something. Perhaps it has to do with experiencing death in my own life–moments of extreme emotion are terribly, frighteningly raw, and that rawness was certainly there in Marsh’s performance. Would you feel the same way if you watched it? I couldn’t say, but it’s #1 on this particular list of mine.

What are some great bits of silent acting that left an impression on you? Anything particularly sweet, funny, tragic, or frightening? Feel free to share, and thank you, my friends, for reading.

21 thoughts on “10 Great Silent Film Performances That Have Stayed With Me

  1. With two performances in “Intolerance” and its companion “The Mother and the Law” recognized, it’s tough to include a third, but Miriam Cooper’s performance really should be recognized. Her small role stole the film, as far as I am concerned.
    Emil Jannings is often justifiably lauded for “The Last Laugh,” but I prefer his more realistic performance in “The Last Command,” along with William Powell’s masterful underplaying.
    Harold Lloyd’s performance in “The Freshman” is excellent. The look on his face when it is revealed to him that people are laughing at him behind his back is flawless.
    Louise Brooks in “Pandora’s Box” cannot be denied; it’s the basis for a dozen or more performances in similar roles.

    • Those performances are certainly worthy of praise. I’m a huge herald-loid fan so I can’t find any of his stuff that I don’t think would be worth noting. I have always hated intolerance because it’s just overly long overly preachy switches back and forth it does not seem very well balanced between the four pieces. I do like the mother and the law portion of it the modern version but the Babylonian section never impressed me the way it impresses others and the other two sections I find the the one with Christ just sort of pops in and out a little too quickly to make any sense and the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre just feels kind of crazy and insulting so yeah I think if he just left it the mother in the law expanded a little and left that I think it would have been a much better picture. I like those portions but the movie itself the whole four-part thing I find annoying but that’s just my opinion

  2. Pingback: The Silent Movie Day Blogathon 2022 | Silent-ology

  3. A great list. You know, it’s hard to read through this without getting a lump in your throat from remembered moments. And Mae Marsh…yes, she belongs at the very top, for sure. Two others I’ll mention off the top of my head: Valentino in The Conquering Power and Jannings in Varieté.

    • Ooo Variete, one of my greatest film festival experiences was seeing that accompanied by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra. It was a very dramatic score, and did they ever knock it out of the park!

  4. I’ve only seen about half the films on your fab list, but I heartily endorse your selections. I especially adored Renee Jeanne Falconetti’s performance in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Her performance is haunting and unforgettable.

    As for the other films, I’ve made note of the ones I’ve yet to see. Looks like good viewing ahead!

  5. These are all great choices. Falconetti gives about the best performance I’ve ever seen in a movie, silent or sound. And you keep making me want to see The Mother and the Law. I recently bought the Intolerance bluray that includes it as a bonus and I NEED to see it!

    Buster Keaton in The Cameraman is also remarkable. It’s sad because his early MGM films gave him a chance to show a more vulnerable side without it becoming ridiculous or overblown– there’s him sinking into the sand in TC, but I also love the scenes in Spite Marriage where he becomes bitter and hard towards Trilby on the yacht. It’s rare to see him that wounded– it was so interesting and a sign that Keaton was more than a fine dramatic performer when called to show that side of himself.

    As for my own list… the ones off the top of my head would be Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, Buster Keaton in The General, Zasu Pitts in Greed, Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera, Lillian Gish in The Wind, Jackie Coogan in The Kid (ALWAYS makes me cry), Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box (I know you’re not a fan of that one, but I’m a sucker for charismatic anti-heroes), Marion Davies in Show People, Ivan Mosjoukine in Le Brasier Ardent (Mosjoukine is incredibly underrated, what a talent), and Ramon Novarro in Scaramouche (the silent version is better than the talkie remake– people can FIGHT ME on that– and Novarro is the number one reason why).

  6. Great list! A performance I’ve seen only a fragment of has stayed with me: in the lone remaining scene of The Miracle Man (1919), Lon Chaney is supposed to be the star, but there is a little boy who simply steals the scene. It’s crazy good.
    Thanks for hosting this fun event again!

  7. Few movies can bring a tear to my eye faster than the ending of Chaplin’s City Lights. So few words are spoken. So few words are needed. More words would have spoiled this perfect ending. In this scene, Chaplin displays the splendor of silent film acting and the glory that is silent film.

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