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.

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ANNOUNCEMENT: The Return Of The Silent Movie Day Blogathon!

Hear ye, hear ye! Me and Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood are happy to announce that we’re bringing back the popular Silent Movie Day Blogathon for another year! And why not? After all, it is an annual holiday, much like Christmas and Easter, and should be celebrated with just as much enthusiasm am I right?

The precise manner of celebrating is up to you.

As you might recall if you were around for the blogathon last year, in 2021 Chad Hunter, executive director of Video Trust and director of the Pittsburgh Silent Film Society, archivist Brandee B. Cox of the Academy Film Archive, and archivist Steven K. Hill of the UCLA Film & Television Archive all put their heads together and decided to create a National Silent Movie Day. Described simply as “a day to celebrate and enjoy silent movies,” they chose September 29 as the official celebration date and made it an annual event. As they wrote:

Anyone can participate! Ask your local cinema to show a silent picture with live music; watch a silent movie on a streaming platform or on disc; write a blog or an article for your local newspaper; read a book about your favorite silent movie star; or create a podcast. Use your imagination and post on your social media on September 29 to show how you celebrate the day. This is our moment as silent movie fans, academics, programmers, and newcomers to share our mutual love and appreciation for this unique period in motion picture history. It is also an opportunity to rally around surviving silent pictures that are still in need of preservation.

Don’t forget the swell logo!

So once again Crystal and I are hosting a one-day Silent Movie Day Blogathon–and all bloggers are invited!

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Rudolph Valentino, Elvis Presley, And The Gilded Box Of Fame

Fame–just the word itself has a strange fascination. When you spend a lot of time learning about the rise and fall of old Hollywood stars, it’s a word you can’t help pondering. It was, after all, the magnet that kept pulling performers to Hollywood, the summit every performer kept struggling towards. It’s quite literally something one in a million people will ever experience, and yet how many of us have fantasized about it, if only to amuse ourselves?

“Where would my star be on Hollywood Boulevard?”

And then there’s that great mystery of extreme fame, or the tragedy of it, if you will. The grim and ever-lengthening list of those wildly beloved performers who reached that glorious summit and found themselves slipping. Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Prince–to name a few major names–all pulled into that same terrible story. Extreme glory, extreme stress, unimaginable ups and downs–and pills. That’s not counting the legendary names who died in sudden accidents, or for other unexpected reasons…but there’s something uniquely heartbreaking about those pills.

How is it that someone can achieve unfathomable success doing what they genuinely love to do–what they were born to do–and still have their story end so miserably? How can your passion affect millions of people’s lives for the better, only to lose yourself so young? Various answers seem obvious, of course: worldwide fame is extremely stressful; drug addiction destroys many people’s lives no matter who they are; maybe human beings simply aren’t built to handle extreme fame, especially in the modern era. No doubt lots of people would say it’s not such a big mystery, and maybe it isn’t. But perhaps, in some cases, there’s a little more to it–something deeper and more fundamental to all of us. What if you reached that glorious summit and found that at the top, waiting for you to climb in, was a box?

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“Singin’ In The Rain” And The Silent Era–What It Got Right (And Wrong)

What’s my favorite movie, you ask? Not just my favorite silent movie, but my very favorite movie in the whole wide world? You could ask me that question today or go back in time to when I was 8 years old, and the answer would still be: Singin’ In The Rain! (Since you have a time machine, go ahead and zoom forward a few decades–my answer’s still the same, isn’t it?)

Irresistible!

Of all the classic old movies my family enjoyed while I was growing up (my mom loved them so our home movie library was practically all pre-1960s), we might’ve watched Singin’ In The Rain the most. Its pitch-perfect blend of music, dance, art, humor, vibrant color and sheer unadulterated joy never, ever got old. Film history would be much poorer without it, in my confident opinion.

And speaking of film history, I have a confession to make. It didn’t dawn on me until recently that, hey, Singin’ In The Rain is all about the transition from silents to talkies, and I know quite a bit more about silents than I used to–maybe write a post on my favorite film in the world? Why didn’t I think of that before?! (Okay, I think I know why–this film is just that familiar. It’s like Desi Arnaz’s singing voice. My dad once mentioned to me that he never cared for Desi’s singing, and–having grown up with I Love Lucy episodes too–I realized I literally could not judge Desi’s voice objectively. To this day I have no idea if it’s good or bad, it’s just Desi’s singing voice and that is that. Anyways.) Since this is the 70th anniversary of Singin’ In The Rain and The Classic Movie Muse is a hosting a blogathon in its honor, the time has finally come for Silent-ology analyze what this classic film got right about the silent era and where it was off the mark. A blow-by-blow post would be pretty long, so let’s do some general analysis and then focus on a couple of key scenes. Let’s get to it!

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Celebrating The Fourth With “The Spirit of ’76” (1905)

Happy Independence Day, U.S. readers! Before heading to the BBQ, park, parade or lake (here in Minnesota no Fourth is complete without heading to one of our 10,000 lakes), how about taking in a teeny patriotic short courtesy of the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company? Accompanied by Ben Model, no less! Back in 1905 it would’ve been played in a Mutoscope machine–silently– and here it is today, playing on our phones and laptops at a moment’s notice:

So teeny–so patriotic! And familiar, no? Ben wrote about this short (which was made available courtesy of the Library of Congress’s Paper Print Collection) on his blog a few years ago. He wrote that while he usually doesn’t use familiar songs while accompanying silent films, in this case, “the songs ‘Yankee Doodle’ and ‘The Girl I Left Behind’–heard here–are practically synonymous with the image of these three musicians.” (Here’s the link to his post: https://www.silentfilmmusic.com/spirit-of-76/.)

The iconic image of these musicians came from the 1876 painting The Spirit of ’76 by Archibald Willard. It was exhibited at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and chromolithographs of it became very popular. Eventually it was even taken on tour.

The elderly patriot in the middle was apparently modeled after Willard’s father, and was also inspired by his grandfather, who had been a part of the Revolution. So there’s some layers to it, you might say.

And of course it’s been parodied ever since. There’s literally so many examples that your head could explode, but here’s a Mickey Mouse comic book cover:

The Simpsons, because of course they did this at some point:

And here’s a particularly random one: photographer John Swope, Henry Fonda and James Stewart dressed as the Marx Brothers dressed as the Willard musicians. This was dreamed up for a “Spirit of ’76” themed birthday party Marion Davies threw for William Randolph Hearst in 1937. Alrighty then!

So Happy Fourth readers, have a fine day and make some of your own patriotic memories!

Watching Silent Films With Our Grandparents

Hello everyone! Much like back when I first published this piece, it’s been a bit quiet here on Silent-ology. That’s because my wonderful, cheerful, incomparable grandmother (who I had mentioned in this post) passed away recently. So I took a bit of a break, and decided this piece was certainly worth a reblog. I often attribute my love of old movies to my mom, who watched almost nothing else when I was growing up. But who introduced my mom to those old movies to begin with? My grandma! So you might say that, ultimately, Silent-ology might not exist without her long ago influence. Thank you, thank you Grandma, and I’ll always miss you.

Silent-ology

If it seemed a bit quiet on Silent-ology lately, it’s because my beloved Grandpa passed away last week on Independence Day. He was 91 and had, without a doubt, enjoyed a “life well-lived.” He leaves behind his wonderful wife of nearly 70 years, a dozen children, dozens of grandchildren and great-grand children, and even one great-great-grandchild.

And of course, he leaves behind countless memories for all of us to share with each other during each holiday gathering, BBQ or impromptu get-together. And for me, a few of those memories involve bringing over Buster Keaton shorts to watch with him and Grandma.

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Obscure Films: “By The Sad Sea Waves” (1917)

There’s a number of silent comedy shorts that are lauded as mini-masterpieces today, shorts like The Immigrant (1917), One Week) (1920), and Cops (1922). The rhythm of the editing, the succinct storylines, the interplay between talented comedians–they’re not only a joy to watch but a joy to study as well. Uniquely creative in an already unique era of a film, the great silent comedies can “unfold like music,” as Roger Ebert once said of Buster Keaton’s work.

Aaaaand then there’s all the other silent comedies. The decidedly run-of-the-mill comedies. The rushed, low budget, frenetic comedies, churned out like sausages, as the old studio saying went. And the…err…kind of dumb silent comedies. All were legion, my friends. Legion.

You might say Ham and Bud were their gods.

Y’know, there’s nothing like spending an evening watching the gems of silent comedy and taking in each sparkling minute until you’re refreshing in mind and spirit. But sometimes…just sometimes…you’ve just spent a loooong winter taking advantage of the loooong evenings with lots of cinematic gem-viewing, and now it’s getting warm, and you’ve been working hard all day, and your mind and spirit is tired, and you just wanna watch something silly. Sometimes, you just need dumb, and that’s okay. Dumb can be good. Enter something like By The Sad Sea Waves (1917), which is named after a song, because it’s set at a beach and WHY NOT.

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Repost: “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928)

A favorite film of mine to revisit every Lent, especially on this particular holy day, Good Friday, is this late 1920s masterpiece. So I thought I’d share my thoughts on it again this year. It’s a film so powerful that it can be difficult to describe, but back in 2017 I gave it my best shot. If you haven’t seen it yet, I truly hope this piques your interest!

Making most lists of the top ten greatest films ever made is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). And indeed, you suspect a spot had always been reserved for it. A critic from as far back as 1929 was moved to declare, “It makes worthy pictures of the past look like tinsel shams.”

Passion of Joan of Arc
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THANK YOU Fellow Bloggers!

The last two days have flown by (I’m still working my way through all your pieces) and the Eighth Annual Buster Keaton blogathon is officially a wrap! So to all the participants, I wanted to say a heartfelt…

…from Buster and from Silent-ology, too! (And from Alice Mann–hey, she’s been enjoying the posts too. 😉 ) And many thanks to all you fine readers who took the time to stop by, I hope you’ve had fun reading through all the posts and maybe you discovered some thoughtful new blogs to follow, too!

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One Week Until Buster Blogathon 8!

Only seven days to go, everyone, until the great annual Busterthon returns for the 8th year in a row!!

I’m excited to see all your posts, everyone! (And I’m, ahem, still working on my own…!) The official roster is below–and if you’re a Keaton-loving blogger who’s just hearing about all this, you’re still welcome to join! The more the merrier, I say.

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