Like The Artist? Check Out These 7 Great Classic Silent Films

The quietly building popularity of Michel HazanaviciusThe Artist is good cause for becoming immersed in the great films from the silent era — marathon style, for the brave among us. Silent films are more accessible than ever thanks to the Internet and the fact that some are now in the public domain, but home video remains a better viewing experience for many of them.

The stark beauty of Metropolis’ sets and scenes of epic destruction during both Battleship Potemkin and The General are best seen on a TV screen, barring their availability in a theater with live music, which larger cities like Los Angeles offer from time to time. (WME is toying with the idea of bringing The Artist to New York, Paris, London and other venues with live performances of Ludovic Bource’s score, Billboard has reported.) Then again, it’s awfully convenient to hop on YouTube and go from film to film; Netflix Watch Instantly and Amazon Instant Video have some titles worth checking out, too. Whatever the format, this tested multi-genre silent movie marathon would be a good starting place for anyone wanting to poke around the silent archives.

Nosferatu
Billed as a “symphony of horror,” F.W. Murnau’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula benefits from such silent era hallmarks as vignetting and high-contrast shadows. The German Expressionist film, released in 1922, failed to get the rights to Stoker’s novel, thus Count Dracula becomes Count Orlok, and the word “vampire” is replaced with “nosferatu,” purportedly a Romanian word for the bloodsuckers. The movie follows Thomas Hutter as he travels from fictional Wisborg, Germany, to Transylvania to meet Orlok, who intends to buy property near Thomas’ home. After a murderous run through Transylvania and while hiding among coffins aboard a boat bound for Wisborg, Orlok targets Thomas’ wife, but is in for a surprise. The Eastern European locations, as well as simple makeup effects like gnarled fingers and caterpillar eyebrows, lend creepiness to the horror film, which can merely hint at evil and make your blood run cold.



Metropolis
It’s impossible to watch German filmmaker Fritz Lang’s 1927 futuristic tale of oppression today without seeing shades of the Occupy movement. Strife, betrayal and rage bubble beneath the surface of this gorgeously made sci-fi film. Known mainly for its expertly crafted (and very expensive) art deco sets, the film follows Freder — the son of industrialist Joh Fredersen, the founder of Metropolis — into the world of the city’s second-class workers. Freder’s curiosity leads him to Maria, who rallies the workers and tells them that a mediator will eventually come forward to forge an understanding between them and the upper class. Things get complicated when a mad scientist/inventor, Rotwang, is urged to release a robot he’s been building to stir more discontent among the workers, giving it the visage of Maria, who has the laborers’ trust. The story is a bit muddled in early home video releases, but the most recent restored version, incorporating huge sections of lost film that was found in 2008 in Argentina, was released on DVD and Blu-ray a year ago. An HD version on YouTube is crystal clear compared to earlier releases.



Modern Times
The 1936 film Modern Times more directly addresses the economic struggles of the working class. Charlie Chaplin’s Depression Era comedy was a comment on industrialization, and the indelible image of his Little Tramp persona as a cog in an enormous machine makes the desperation and indignity palpable. Chaplin begins the film suffering through an assembly line job, driven to the point of insanity. He’s sent to recuperate at a hospital but later finds jail preferable to unemployment. After he takes up with a gamine determined to have a home of her own, he ends up employed as a singing waiter, and the gags fly. The triumphant final scene is reminiscent of The Artist as it shows a man who masks his dejection and does what it takes to survive in a changed world.



Un Chien Andalou
Although they departed the Earth many decades before the four-letter warning emerged, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí would be proud to see their short film stamped NSFW. The nonlinear short film covers much surreal ground, including murder, nightmarish insects, the inexplicable morphing of objects into other objects, sexual battery and, of course, its famous stomach-churning eyeball torture. The film’s shocking opening scene, in which a man slices a woman’s eye open while a thin cloud passes in front of a full moon in echo, has popped up in pop culture from the likes of the Pixies and The Simpsons. (A calf’s eye was substituted for the human one for the shoot, but it’s a pretty convincing stand-in.) Once past that — if you’re watching on YouTube, it’s at 1:05 — the film is fairly easy to digest, if not understand. But that was by design. Dalí and Buñuel set out to make a film that was open to interpretation, and had said that nothing in it was symbolic or meaningful. Oh, artists.



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Comments

  • Jake says:

    A couple of good choices in here, but overall, this is a terrible list for people who like The Artist. If you like The Artist, don't watch Battleship Potemkin. Or Nosferatu, for that matter. Potemkin is boring propaganda only to be admired for the editing that was co-opted from it. Nosferatu is also relatively boring and not scary because if what has come since. For a good early horror film, choose the psychological journey of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.

    Keep the Chaplin film and both Keaton films, but make sure to add Safety Last, The Freshman, and Grandma's Boy from Harold Lloyd. On the top of the list should be Sunrise. Throw in The Crowd and then you are getting somewhere. Seriously, the Lloyd films are a must. The guy was way more popular and successful at the time than Chaplin or Keaton and for good reason. His films were prototypes for tons of films. Like Hoosiers or Rudy? The Freshman is for you. Like Rom Coms? Try Safety Last.

    And Chien Andalou? Again, this is an experimental art film. It's miles away from The Artist. Sadly, this list you created reads more like a google search for "important silent films" not a search for "films similar to The Artist." The Artist is a fun and enjoyable film. Half of your list is full of important but not enjoyable films to watch.

    Seriously, if you want to see great silent films, take my advice and watch Safety Last first. Then watch Sunrise. Then watch Sherlock Jr. or The General. You will love them.

    • Alicia Combs says:

      I agree. I kept waiting to see the mention of 'Sunrise' and was very disappointed that it wasn't on the list -- I'm not even sure why, especially since it IS a classic. And while I love 'Metropolis' and consider it one of my all-time favorite silent movies, I'm not sure I would recommend it to someone who may be introducing themselves to silent films for the first time. I didn't see '...Potemkin' for years and appreciate it for the camera-work. The first time I saw 'Nosferatu', I was bored to tears until the very end; I enjoy it more now, but as Jake said, we've seen so much since it was made, it's no longer all that frightening (and the sight of the vampire physically carrying about his own coffin still has me holding back the chuckles). I agree with the Keaton films, and yes, the Chaplin, and completely agree that Harold Lloyd shouldn't be missed (this is another absence from the list which puzzles me). If I'm going to include Fritz Lang on the list, can I suggest 'The Woman in the Moon' (Die Frau im Mond) which is also science-fiction but one of his lesser known works? Not a classic but it's a good Lang film. I might even suggest one of the "drawing room" comedies of Cecil B. DeMille, the ones he made with
      Gloria Swanson and before he became better known for his epics. They're surprisingly funny and touch on such then taboo subjects as *gasp* divorce. But when you're starting to find a love for silents, I don't suggest going for the experimental as an introduction (just saw Pabst's 'Secrets of a Soul' and I would only recommend it for silent buffs) -- there are a few even I stay clear of. I'd even rent Douglas Fairbanks' 'The Mark of Zorro' if you like the later swashbucklers of Errol Flynn; and if you can locate the hard to find 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse', Valentino is actually very good, as he is in the heart-breaking 'Cobra'. You watch that and wonder what might have been had he lived.

      Jake said it best: this sounded more like a list of 'important silent films' (and sorry but I'm not even familiar with 'Chien Andalou' and need to do a quick Google search LOL). Go to sites like Silentera.com, goldensilents.com, or silentsaregolden.com and start to work your way through. You'll find something you'll enjoy, and if you're lucky, like I was, one day you'll find yourself hoping that one day, the missing hours of Von Stroheim's 'Greed' will eventually be discovered. Just have fun and don't worry about "important."

  • Agree with Jake - this is a list for a film school student, not someone who has learned from 'The Artist' just how entertaining a silent drama can be and wants to see more.

    Instead, watch the work of any of the directors that actually influenced Michel Hazanavicius - King Vidor's silent films ('Show People', 'The Crowd', or 'The Big Parade' to name a few), F.W. Murnau's 'Sunrise', Frank Borzage's 'Seventh Heaven', or even something a little more obscure - Frank Urson's 'Chicago' or Pal Fejo's 'Lonesome'.

    The silent film fan has never had it better as far as accessibility and availability goes, and I hope 'The Artist' does inspire a lot of people to search them out.

    Just not the likes of 'Potemkin'.

  • Julia Chasman says:

    I just watched a screener of THE ARTIST, and enjoyed it immensely. I paid special attention to the score -- for obvious reasons, given the lack of dialogue, but also because I had heard it was very good. It was -- especially when the dramatic sequence began of George Valentin's discovery of Peppy's deception, followed by his near-suicide attempt, intercut with Peppy's following him in her car. At this point, the score was suddenly familiar to me; it was, and is, the love theme from Hitchcock's VERTIGO, written, of course, by Bernard Hermann. It wasn't just a little like it -- it was note for note, and used for the entire sequence. I was a little surprised, but figured they just couldn't find anything as good as their temp track, and kept it in. But -- I watched the end credits, and found no mention of the music by Hermann, nor have I seen any mention of it on imdb or anywhere else. Then I read in articles like the one above that they're planning live concerts of the score. Am I missing something? Was the use of this music credited elsewhere, and I just missed it? Has anyone else mentioned this or noticed it? It's one of the most famous film scores of all time, so I'm wondering....

    • halucy says:

      They seem to have chosen music that people will be familiar with for the trailers, none of which are in the movie. The movie has an original score.

  • Shani says:

    Agree with the above: your list skews toward the self-consciously "important." In contrast, the Artist tells the viewer that the best silent films are inviting, all-enveloping, and beautiful. So, in that spirit:

    For rom coms, I suggest Marion Davies in "The Patsy" and Mary Pickford in "My Best Girl."

    For romance of a different kind: D.W. Griffith's "True Heart Susie" and "A Romance of Happy Valley."

    For the Dickensian: Almost any Chaplin, and Pickford in "Sparrows."

    For silent movies about the silent movies, try King Vidor's comedy "Show People."

    For non-clown comedy, try Lubitsch's "Lady Windemere's Fan" (sad and witty) and his early screwball "So This is Paris."

    How about the poetic films of director Von Sjostrom: Lillian Gish in "The Wind" and Lon Chaney in "He Who Gets Slapped"?

    For sheer genius, the last reel of Keaton's "Steamboat Bill, Jr."

    And how in the world can this list omit the films of Douglas Fairbanks, on whom so much of Dujardin's character is based? For his swashbuckler mode, "The Black Pirate" and "Mark of Zorro," and the visually thrilling "Thief of Bagdad."

    And (again, considering the specifics of "The Artist") why not suggest a silent musical? Try "Our Dancing Daughters."

    Most of these are on video, dvd, or TCM. And for when those fail, great silents are often shown at art galleries, cinematheques, and small local theaters devoted to the classics.

  • dukeroberts says:

    Nosferatu is a great movie and not boring. Orlock is creepy as sin. I would agree though, that some of the movies listed are nothing at all like The Artist and are more of a list of must see silent movies. A list of seven is much too short however, and would benefit from the titles added by Jake.

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