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5 Silent Films You Must See

3 04 2011

I love silent films, I really do.  Honestly, I feel like we lost an artform in and of itself when sound came in and totally redirected the entire process of filmmaking.  Unfortunately, many didn’t realize that silent filmmaking and sound filmmaking, though both forms of cinema, were very different in their execution and style.  It’s a shame that both couldn’t co-exist; but as with anything, when something new comes along, the predecessor usually disappears over time.

Many of my friends and colleagues hate silent films (which amazes me how we are still friends/colleagues).  They can’t stand the black and white or the fact you have to read title cards or the jerky motion (which is not due to the films themselves but the haphazard projection and transfer rates we have shown them at in recent years), melodramatics of some of the dramas or slapstick silliness of some of the comedies.

Yet, there are many, many wonderful silent films.  Films that many people won’t even give a chance because of some strange discrimination against them.  So, I’m here to give a starter kit, so to speak; films I can see as being fairly available and enjoyable to the mass audience.  If you watch these five recommendations and still can’t stand silent films, then I can at least give you the “e” for effort.  I still might not understand it, but it will appease my unrest.  Anyway, gear up your netflix queue or drop by the local video store and start here:

5.  Battleship Potemkin dir. Sergei Eisenstein (1925) – If you have ever read a book on film or taken a film class in college, then I’m sure the name Eisenstein is somewhat familiar to you regarding his landmark theories on movie montage.  Eisenstein, outside of his work as a theorist, was even more so a renowned Russian filmmaker.  Wait, what?  You are not only recommending silent films, but foreign ones at that!  Yes, but remember, we are in the silent realm, so the foreign part doesn’t really matter much.

So, what’s this film about?  Well, it’s a propaganda film that dramatizes the mutiny that took place aboard the battleship Potemkin in 1905, during the Russian revolution.  Sounds a little heavy handed from the description, I know.  However, if you can give this film a chance, I don’t think you would regret it.  The style, form and use of his much theorized montage theory creates an exciting and entrancing film.  It will shock you that this film is nearly 90 years old because it will be completed and satisfying before you even realize you just watched a silent film.  Furthermore, once you watch this film, let me know all the movies you can think of who have directly ripped off the Odessa Steps sequence.

4. The General dir. Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton (1926) – I’m sure most of you have heard of Charlie Chaplin, he’s been pretty ingrained in pop culture even to this day.  Well, Chaplin was one of three comedians who dominated silent comedies.  The other two were Harold Lloyd (none of his films on this list, but try Speedy or Safety Last for a good taste of his style) and our star of this film, Buster Keaton.  Keaton was referred to as “Old Stone Face,” and if you give this film a chance, you will see why.

This film is set during the American Civil War and has a fairly simple premise.  Keaton, who plays railroad engineer Johnny Gray, has two loves in life – one is his train, The General (title cue), and the other is Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack).  When the Civil War breaks out, he goes to sign up for the Confederate Army, but is rejected because of his critical role in working for the railroad.  Annabelle and her father are let down immensely and feel he is a coward, not understanding the true reason he was rejected.  A year into the war, Annabelle’s father is wounded.  On a trip to see him aboard the General, Union spies sabotage the passengers and steal the General and take Annabelle Lee hostage.  The rest of the film is Gray proving himself as an unsuspecting hero, a feat that no one does as expertly as Keaton.

The acrobatics and physical comedy that Keaton performs in this film are absolutely breathtaking.  The entire film is a joy to watch and has as much action, intrigue and suspense as anything created today (much of the time, more so).  The only difference is that all those stunts are actually Keaton himself doing them, not a stuntman or CGI handy work.  This is real filmmaking, real locations, real stunts, and all that, makes one hell of a great film.

3. Intolerance dir. D. W. Griffith (1916) – I’m sure the name David Wark Griffith probably rings a few bells.  Most of you probably know him for creating what is by-and-large considered the first full-length, modern feature (it wasn’t, but hey, the guy did a lot of amazing things for filmmaking, so I don’t mind credit here) with his controversial film The Birth of a Nation.

Well, after The Birth of a Nation received so much negative feedback, D.W. decided to make a film in retaliation that would even outdo himself.  The result was this film, Intolerance. If you adjust inflation into the mix, it is the most expensive and grandest motion picture ever made.  Yes, that’s right, the most extravagant motion picture ever made is a film that was produced just 20 years into cinema’s existence.

The film deals with varying degrees of intolerance by analyzing four main stories in four different eras: The Babylonian Period and the fall of Babel, the events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, The French Renaissance and the failure of the Edict of Toleration and a modern day (1914) story concerning workers rights and the oppression of the everyday American.  A common motif, the “Eternal Mother” (Lilian Gish), artistically serves as a seque between the four different stories.  To go much further into the synopsis of this film would get pretty convoluted and probably just be confusing to you.  In other words, watch the film!

When I saw this film for the first time, it shocked and awed me more than any present day movie I’ve ever seen.  The masterful precision that Griffith used to make this film in scope of story, cinematography, direction, set design and editing between the four time periods is mind blowing.  There are few films like this from any era.  Make sure you have a long afternoon for this one though, as it’s the longest of the five recommendations at 197 minutes for the full version.

2. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans dir. F. W. Murnau (1927) – Murnau, a native of Germany, was already extremely well-regarded in his homeland before coming to the United States.  He came to Fox Studios in 1926 to make his first American picture, and this was the film he made.

The film follows the story of a man (George O’Brien) and his wife (Janet Gaynor), whom have a young child.  The man (yes, there are no actual names), is having an affair with a Woman of the City.  One night, while frolicking near the river, the Woman of the City insists the man should murder his wife and make it look like an accident, so that they can live together.  The man is reluctant, but ultimately agrees.  The next day, he and his wife prepare for an outing to the city.  He attempts the murder, but can’t actually pull it off.  He and his wife then continue on to the city and renew the pervious glory of their relationship.  On the way home, however, a strong storm hits and fate seems to bring their worlds into disarray on its own terms.

Sunrise is as human as a motion picture can get.  The lead characters have no names other than “the man” and “his wife.”  Yet, the story itself is so deep, moving and real that you really don’t need a specific identity for these characters.  In regards to direction and cinematography, this film was way ahead of its time.  Murnau took liberties in not only shot selection, but even in title transitions, that were experimental and progressive.  Charles Rusher and Karl Struss co-shot the film, ultimately winning the first Academy Award for Best Cinematography for their combined efforts.   The in camera tricks, lighting and complexities of shots still don’t fail to amaze the eye.  Sunrise is, quite simply, a brilliant, moving film that I feel anyone can enjoy on the most basic level.  Every part of this film just works, and for the joint efforts of cast and crew, it was awarded an Oscar for “Unique and Artistic Production” as a special category.

1. City Lights dir. Charles Chaplin (1931) – With the advent of sound in 1928 with The Jazz Singer, silent films started to dwindle.  By the time this film was released in 1931, silent films were generally a thing of the past.  However, Chaplin, one of the greatest stars of the silent era, insisted on keeping this film silent, because he didn’t feel that the world was ready to hear his eternal waif, the Little Tramp, speak.

A master at blended comedy and drama, Chaplin produced a film that continues to bring a world of emotions some 80 years after its release.  The story revolves around Chaplin’s character of the Little Tramp, who falls in love with a poor, blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill).  Through a hap circumstance, she believes that he is a millionaire and can help her and her mother in their desperate time of need.  Determined to help, he befriends a raucous, party-driven millionaire and does everything he can to help the flower girl and her mother.  In the end, he helps them and she is able to get an eye operation that restores her sight.  But, will she be able to accept the Tramp for his true self?

City Lights is, in my opinion, the best Chaplin film.  It combines all the elements that made him so legendary in perfect array, and being someone who has seen all of his features and most of his shorts, I feel like I have a pretty good judgement in Chaplin’s filmography.  This is a beautiful, moving film that I couldn’t see anyone watching and not thoroughly enjoying.  If there is one silent film that you are willing to give even the slightest chance, then this is the film that I think you should see.  It’s comedy, it’s drama, it’s Chaplin.

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