Silence is golden.
That’s why we are addicted to silent films.
In celebration of Michel Hazanavicius’ ode to the silent era, The Artist, Turner Classic Movies has unveiled its list of 10 Most Influential Silent Films. The Artist is a heartfelt and entertaining valentine to classic American cinema set during the twilight of Hollywood’s silent era and shot on location in Los Angeles. The film tells the story of a charismatic movie star unhappily confronting the new world of talking pictures. Mixing comedy, romance and melodrama, The Artist is itself an example of the form it celebrates: a black-and-white silent film that relies on images, actors and music to weave its singular spell.
Ah, to return to What Once Was.
TCM’s list spans from 1915 to 1928 and features such remarkable films as D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking (and controversial) The Birth of a Nation (1915), which revolutionized filmmaking techniques; Nanook of the North (1922), a film frequently cited as the first feature-length documentary; Cecil B. DeMille’s epic silent version of The Ten Commandments (1923); Sergei Eisenstein’s oft-imitated Battleship Potemkin (1925), which took montage techniques to an entirely new level; and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), a film that broke new ground in visual effects and production design.
In addition to compiling its own list of Most Influential Silent Films, TCM asked The Artist director Hazanavicius for his thoughts on silent cinema and a few of his personal favorites from the era. While he greatly admires Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925), which appears on TCM’s list, he considers Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) a masterpiece. “No need to explain it,” Hazanavicius says. “Just watch it.”
In response to TCM’s choice of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), with its virtuoso performance by Lon Chaney, Hazanavicius cites The Unknown(1927), which he calls, “a sexy, perverse film that takes place in a gypsy circus. It has one the best performances by Lon Chaney as a knife thrower with no arms who falls in love with a young Joan Crawford.”
Although TCM’s list includes the beautifully filmed drama Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), Hazanavicius considers F.W. Murnau’s City Girl (1930), a late-era silent film (shot simultaneously as a now-lost sound version), to be every bit as good. He also points out that John Ford’s Four Sons (1928), one of the few surviving silent films made by the director, “shows the influence Murnau had on Ford’s work after he observed the maestro shooting Sunrise.”
Hazanavicius also praises silent films by two directors whose work did not make TCM’s list. He points to Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927), a hugely popular gangster film written by Ben Hecht. “You will see a lot of Scarface in it,” he says, referring to the 1932 thriller also written by Hecht. And Hazanavicius considers King Vidor’s powerful domestic drama The Crowd (1928) to be “a great epic American classic story about one man’s life struggle. It has brilliant performances.”
The Birth of a Nation (1915, directed by D.W. Griffith)
One of the most challenging of all film masterpieces, Griffith’s first great feature demonstrates filmmaking innovations and a shocking example of the medium’s potential for cultural impact. Griffith wanted to make a film that would rival the feature-length epics coming out of Europe. With his innovative use of panoramic long shots, iris effects and panning shots, among other techniques, the film was a marvel, and its Civil War battle scenes, staged with the help of West Point, are among the most effective ever put on film. He almost single-handedly established the American film as an art form. The story of two families split by the Civil War and the combination of historical and fictional materials would become Hollywood mainstays. But Griffith’s material–two novels and a play written by Thomas Dixon in a personal campaign to maintain laws against racial intermarriage–triggered massive protests and violence around the nation. The political message so tarnished Griffith’s reputation he made Intolerance (1916) the next year to counter charges of racism. The racist depiction of freed slaves and the glorification of the Ku Klux Klan in The Birth of a Nation inspired both the Klan’s modern resurgence (it would use the film in recruiting drives into the 1970s) and a series of protests that thrust the still young NAACP into national prominence. It also further encouraged black businessmen to finance films of their own, leading to the “race film movement” that flourished into the 1950s.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921, directed by Rex Ingram)
This early anti-war drama, the sixth-highest grossing of all silent films, is a testament to the medium’s cultural impact, particularly when manipulated by master artists like writer June Mathis and Ingram. Mathis was one of the industry’s first female executives, heading Metro Pictures’ scenario department. Her interest in spiritism drew her to the Blasco Ibañez best seller, which used biblical imagery to depict an Argentine family torn apart by World War I, even though most studios had deemed it unfilmable. When she came up with a script that worked, studio head Louis B. Mayer was so impressed he gave her director and star approval. Hiring Ingram to direct was no issue as he had been rising steadily in the industry, but her choice of Rudolph Valentino to play a key role was controversial. Not only was he a bit player at the time, but Hollywood had never promoted such an ethnic leading man (the dark-skinned sex symbol was of Italian and French lineage). One look at the rushes, though, and Mathis and Ingram not only expanded his role but added the tango sequence to show off his dancing abilities. The result was a national craze for the tango and the gaucho pants Valentino wore in that scene. The role of a society playboy shamed into military service made Valentino a star and turned the “Latin lover” into one of the screen’s most bankable commodities.
Nanook of the North (1922, directed by Robert Flaherty)
Although Flaherty is often hailed as the father of the documentary and Nanook of the North often called the first feature in that genre, his work is far from what filmmakers would consider documentary today. The director readily admitted that some of his sequences were staged, which would become a common practice for early documentarians. Among other things, Flaherty changed his subject’s name from Allakariallak to “Nanook” and cast his own common law wives to play Nanook’s two mates. He also had Nanook and his fellow Inuit hunt walrus and seal with spears, even though they had recently begun using guns, because he wanted to capture the way they had lived before European influences took hold. Since the only cameras available to the director were large and bulky, his crew even had to construct a special three-walled igloo so they could shoot interiors. The director also may have invented the story that Nanook was dying of starvation as the film premiered. All akariallak died at home two years later, reportedly of tuberculosis. The filming, however, was the real thing, shot in the remote locale when many so-called documentaries would be made in film studios with actors. With funding from a French fur company, Flaherty brought cameras, a generator and a portable lab halfway to the North Pole with him. When he showed the film’s participants the footage of the walrus hunt, it was the first film any of them had ever seen.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923, directed by Wallace Worsley)
After years of character work, Lon Chaney shot to stardom and started his reign as the “Man of 1,000 Faces” with this lavish adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic tale of the deformed bell ringer in love with a beautiful gypsy. Although most fans know the 1939 Charles Laughton version better, connoisseurs like Orson Welles have hailed this as the story’s and character’s definitive screen version. Chaney fought for three years to get this film made. Nothing came of his efforts until he shared his dream with Irving Thalberg, recently named head of production at Universal Studios. Thalberg helped spearhead a lavish production that established Universal as a major studio, and the film proved to be their most successful silent. The sets covered 19 acres, while the production required a crew of 750, particularly during two months of night shooting–an unprecedented undertaking at the time. Chaney put himself through the wringer for the role, wearing a 15-pound plaster hump and false chest that made it almost impossible for him to stand up straight, while the contact lenses he wore for the role caused permanent vision problems. But the makeup was so convincing at the time that many patrons thought the studio had hired a real hunchback for the role. Beyond his physical transformation, the star delivered a sympathetic, deeply felt performance that set the standard for “human monsters,” to be followed by the likes of Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee and Chaney’s own son, Lon Chaney, Jr.
The Ten Commandments (1923, directed by Cecil B. DeMille)
Today, the biblical epic is viewed as a product of the 1950s, when filmmakers used spectacular tales like The Robe (1953) to lure audiences away from their TV sets and back into theatres. The roots of the genre, however, lie in such silent spectacles as the Italian Quo Vadis? (1913), D.W. Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia (1914) and DeMille’s original tale of Moses and the exodus. Always aware of his audience, DeMille had already popularized the risqué society comedy with films like Old Wives for New (1918) and would anticipate the return of the Western with The Plainsman (1936). He brought back the epic twice, first with the lavish The Ten Commandments, then with Samson and Delilah (1949). He hedged his bets somewhat with The Ten Commandments; the biblical story comprises only a third of the film’s running time, followed by a modern morality tale illustrating the importance of Christian values. But that first section was as eye-popping as DeMille could make it, even including 2-strip Technicolor sequences. Sixteen hundred workers created the Egyptian sets, which featured 36 foot tall statues of the Pharaohs, 21 sphinxes and 110-foot-tall gates. The parting of the Red Sea was created with miniature shots of Jell-O, which jiggled to approximate the surging waters. Even the modern sequence featured the spectacular collapse of a church built with shoddy materials, a visual comment on defying the commandments. The only director who could top such grandeur was DeMille himself, when he remade The Ten Commandments three decades later.
The Gold Rush (1925, directed by Charlie Chaplin)
When Amy Adams is left on her own in The Muppets (2011), she sits in a restaurant, sticks two forks into a pair of dinner rolls and makes them do a little dance. The scene is a loving tribute to one of the great sight gags in film history, Chaplin doing the Ocarina Roll in The Gold Rush. Often hailed as “The Little Tramp’s,” and even the silent screen’s, greatest comedy, the film is a treasure trove of brilliant comic routines and heart-rending pathos. The plot, about Chaplin’s involvement in the Klondike Gold Rush, had an unlikely inspiration – the fate of the Donner Party. That may explain the prevalence of food jokes, as the starving Chaplin cooks and eats his own shoe, is chased around a snow-bound cabin after equally ravenous partner Mack Swain imagines him a chicken, or dreams of entertaining the woman of his dreams (dance hall hostess Georgia Hale) by making the dinner rolls dance. That sequence, possibly inspired by a Fatty Arbuckle routine in 1917’s The Rough House, would be echoed by everyone from Curly Howard in the short Pardon My Scotch to Johnny Depp in Benny and Joon. The Gold Rush was Chaplin’s first successful film at United Artists, the studio he co-founded with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith. At the time, it was the longest comedy every made and would become the highest grossing of all silent screen comedies. It was also the film by which Chaplin said he would most want to be remembered.
Battleship Potemkin (1925, directed by Sergei Eisenstein)
The image of an untended baby carriage relentlessly rolling down a flight of stairs is one of the most iconic in film history. Brian De Palma used it to dramatic effect in The Untouchables (1987), while Woody Allen lampooned it in Bananas (1971). But the legacy of using montage as a tool to move the audience emotionally goes beyond that one masterful image. Drawing on early work by D.W. Griffith, Abel Gance and fellow Soviet Lev Kuleshov, Eisenstein used montage to engage viewers, particularly to generate sympathy for the revolutionary sailors on the Potemkin and their sympathizers. By combining rhythmic cutting and recurring images–the czarist soldiers descending the steps, a nurse wearing pince-nez and the legendary baby carriage–he created a powerful narrative entirely out of images. Battleship Potemkin was not an instant hit, even in the Soviet Union. Initially it was banned in some countries because of its shocking violence. Later, countries would ban it for its revolutionary message. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels declared it off-limits for Germany’s military personnel. But as prints circulated around the world, filmmakers gathered in small groups to view it with admiration. When David O. Selznick saw the film in 1926, he wired his boss (later to be his father-in-law), Louis B. Mayer, advising him to screen it at MGM to teach studio employees how to edit. Filmmakers, and film students, have now been learning from Battleship Potemkin for more than three quarters of a century.
Metropolis (1927, directed by Fritz Lang)
Without Metropolis, there would be no Star Wars, no Alien no Blade Runner. Lang’s science-fiction masterpiece was one of the first films to create an entire world convincingly on screen. Working with cinematographer Karl Freund, special effects supervisor Eugen Schüfftan rose to new heights with this film, supervising dazzling miniature sets, mounting a camera on a swing for one sequence and creating the Schüfftan Process, a system using mirrors to combine actors with the miniatures almost seamlessly. That particular effect would become a mainstay of filmmaking around the world, while the sleek, modernistic design of the mad scientist’s laboratory would set the standard for science fiction for decades to come. Beyond that, Lang’s dystopian vision of a future dominated by unbridled capitalism until a workers’ revolt forces some kind of détente represented one of the screen’s first and still most effective uses of science fiction as social commentary. Even the performances–particularly Rudolf Klein-Rogge as the mad scientist Rotwang and Brigitte Helm as the noble Maria, who inspires the workers, and her evil robot doppelgänger–have been echoed in other films. In later years, Lang dismissed the film, partly because of its popularity with the Nazi Party, but even he could not deny its influence and, in many ways, its prescience, particularly when he saw the first manned space flights of the 1960s.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927, directed by F.W. Murnau
Oscar lore labels Wings (1927) the first film to win Best Picture, but the same year it won, in a category then called “Best Picture, Production,” Sunrise won for “Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production.” Even such an overstated award title ultimately understated the importance of this film, which first brought German Expressionism to Hollywood thanks to the work of director Murnau. The German filmmaker had developed his craft with such international classics asNosferatu (1922) and The Last Laugh (1924), but arguably reached his highest level of achievement with this film. Murnau chose a simple story so like a fable the characters don’t even have names. Farmer George O’Brien is tempted to kill wife Janet Gaynor for love of The Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston). In other hands, it might have been old-fashioned melodrama, but Murnau raised it to a level of dreamlike poetry by inventing new ways of telling the story v isually. Where most films of the time made only limited use of camera movement, he suspended a camera platform from above the sound stage so the camera could glide, even as it followed his characters through rough marshlands. He also created compositions of depth by having cameraman Karl Struss shoot multiple superimpositions before the invention of the optical printer. It all creates a dreamlike effect that would influence filmmakers as different as John Ford and Orson Welles for years after Murnau’s tragic death, just four years later in an auto accident.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer)
It was this film from Danish pioneer Dreyer that played the largest role in convincing critics the cinema was an art form. Dreyer threw out the elaborate script his French producers had prepared, instead basing his film almost entirely on transcripts of Joan of Arc’s trial. Then he made the amazing choice to cast a popular stage comedienne, Falconetti, to star. Though he had only seen her in a light comedy on the Parisian stage, he could tell even then that she had a spiritual side he could exploit, which is exactly what he did. To get just the right facial expressions, Dreyer forbade Falconetti and the other actors to wear makeup and moved his camera in as close as possible, using newly developed panchromatic film to capture even minute variations in skin tones. At times he forced his cast to work under extreme duress. Falconetti had to kneel for hours on bare stones, forbidden to show any expression on her face as Dreyer shot repeated takes to capture every nuance of her inner pain. And just to make things more grueling, he shot the entire film in sequence. Her suffering, captured in a film shot entirely in close ups and medium shots, makes the film a profoundly spiritual experience and has been hailed by many as the greatest piece of acting in film history.
And remember: TCM has celebrated the art of silent films since the network’s very beginnings. Each week, the network’s Silent Sunday Nights showcase presents classic silent films from all over the world. It’s an excellent opportunity for movie lovers to experience the joy of silent cinema, where image is everything. Check tcm.com for what’s upcoming.