- Many brilliant silent movies have been largely forgotten and deserve more recognition as works of art in their own right.
- Silent cinema, despite being dismissed as a relic of the past, should be celebrated for its groundbreaking visuals and storytelling techniques.
- Movies like He Who Gets Slapped, The Unknown, and Destiny are hailed as masterpieces of the silent era and deserve to be as prominent as the era’s most famous movies.
Many great silent movies have not retained the legacy that they deserve. Despite being highly important for the art form and widely popular at the time of release, silent cinema is often dismissed as a relic of the past. Certain standout examples, however, should be as prominent as the era’s most famous movies.
Most audiences are aware of the best silent-era movies, though they may not have seen them. That awareness is thanks to them having retained a reputation that borders on the mythological. There are, however, many brilliant silent movies that have been largely forgotten, and they deserve more recognition for being works of art in their own rights.
10 He Who Gets Slapped
He Who Gets Slapped is a psychological thriller released in 1924. It was one of the first movies released by MGM and starred Lon Chaney. Chaney plays a betrayed former scientist, who subsequently performs in a circus as a clown that’s slapped in the face. He Who Gets Slapped features many startling visuals, created with double exposures and layering multiple strips of film. There are several incredibly surreal sequences depicting parades of white-faced clowns, which punctuate the heartbreaking central narrative. He Who Gets Slapped is hailed one of the finest movies from the silent era, with Chaney’s performance receiving particular praise.
9 The Unknown
Another movie from the legendary silent actor Lon Chaney, The Unknown is a 1927 collaboration with director Tod Browning – best known for 1932’s Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi. Chaney plays “Alonzo the Armless,” a criminal on the run who disguises himself as a circus knife thrower who has lost his arms. Alonzo falls madly in love with the ringleader’s daughter, played by a young Joan Crawford, and goes to horrifying lengths to win her affection. The heart-wrenching final sequence displays Chaney’s impressive silent acting abilities, conveying a highly emotional revelation without the use of intertitles. The Unknown features three greats of early cinema and has rightly been deemed a masterpiece of the silent era.
Destiny (Der müde Tod) is a German Expressionist fantasy movie released in 1921. It was directed by Fritz Lang, known for directing the science fiction masterpiece Metropolis. Destiny depicts a young woman’s desperate attempts to rescue her fiancé, during which she is told three stories by Death. The three stories are each tragic romances, brimming with expressionist imagery and early special effects. Destiny was cited by Alfred Hitchcock as one of his primary influences (via BFI), and deserves a much wider regard for its use of expressionism outside the horror genre.
1925’s Variety (Variete, or, Vaudeville) is a marvel of early cinematography. It portrays a former trapeze artist who operates an unsavory carnival with his wife, soon falling in love with the carnival’s young new trapeze star. Director Ewald Andre Dupont was praised for several cinematic innovations, including highly dynamic camera movements to replicate the depicted acrobats, and even mounting a camera to a moving trapeze to fully immerse the audience in the movie’s action. Considering the technological restrictions in 1925, Variety is a very striking and innovative movie, with a highly emotional narrative core.
Another movie from legendary silent director, Fritz Lang, Spies (Spione) is an espionage thriller from 1928. It depicts a leader of a spy operation learning of a dangerous romance between an employee and an agent from the government’s Secret Service. Spies is a precursor to the entire spy thriller genre, influencing several celebrated directors and movies. It serves as a prototype for espionage film, establishing many of its conventions and even many clichés. Lang’s visuals are staggeringly impressive, with a timeless quality that seems to transcend the period, making Spies an essential, yet seemingly forgotten, silent movie.
5 The Penalty
The Penalty is a 1920 psychological gangster thriller, which also stars Lon Chaney. In The Penalty, Chaney plays a criminal amputee who plans to raid San Francisco, while also seeking revenge against the doctor who removed his legs. Chaney was famed for devising and applying his own special effects make-up (most famously in The Phantom of the Opera). For The Penalty, Chaney folded and bound his legs in a manner so convincing, that Chaney reportedly had to film a short epilogue to reassure audiences that he remained intact. The effect remains effective even through a contemporary lens, and The Penalty is celebrated as one of the greatest gangster movies ever.
4 The Lodger
1927’s The Lodger (originally titled, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog) is an early movie by the revered director, Alfred Hitchcock. Early in his career, Alfred Hitchcock made several silent movies, and The Lodger is perhaps his most important. It depicts a homeowner who begins to suspect her lodger is the infamous serial killer, Jack the Ripper. Despite laying the foundation for much of Hitchcock’s later work, The Lodger is often omitted from discussions of his movies and legacy. Nevertheless, it features some incredibly unsettling imagery and is an early demonstration of Hitchcock’s reputation as cinema’s “Master of Suspense.”
3 The Lost World
Before his famed work on 1933’s King Kong, special effects pioneer, Willis O’Brien, helped produce 1925’s The Lost World. The Lost World is the first cinematic adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel of the same name. It depicts an expedition to a land where dinosaurs are still in existence. Willis’s stop-motion animation is highly impressive and serves as a vital precursor to his later work. The Lost World is also notable as the inspiration for Michael Crichton’s dinosaur epic, Jurassic Park.
2 The Last Laugh
The Last Laugh (Der Letze Mann) is a 1924 drama film by acclaimed director F. W. Murnau. Murnau is probably best known for his almost-lost vampire classic Nosferatu. The Last Laugh focuses on a nameless doorman who loses his job at a luxurious hotel. It is a notable example of “Kammerspielfilm,” or “Chamber-drama,” a type of German movie that offers an intimate portrait of lower-middle-class characters. The Last Laugh features highly important early experiments with camera movement, many of which have become cinematic standards. As such, The Last Laugh is an essential silent movie but is often forgotten in favor of Murnau’s other work.
1 From Morning To Midnight
Possibly the most radical movie from the German Expressionist movement, From Morning to Midnight (Von Morgens bis Mitternachts) is a 1920 silent movie directed by Karlheinz Martin. The plot follows a cashier in a small German bank, who embezzles a substantial amount of money and absconds to the capital. It is the visuals, however, that make From Morning to Midnight so impressive. The movie is shot on distorted, avant-garde sets that rival those of the famed German Expressionist movie, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. From Morning to Midnight is a visual feast, and a prime example of a silent movie that deserves to be more prominent in cinematic discourse.