Cinema as we know it today began with the silent movies. Whether you're into horror movies or action-packed thrillers, romance or comedy, these genres all have roots in the silent movie era. Some of the greatest and most beloved actors and actresses who ever lived were silent movie stars. Before the onset of “the talkies”, a wealth of silent movies were produced all over the world, particularly in Europe and the United States.
Silent movies are cultural treasures that many believe should preserved and respected. Sadly, a study released by the Library of Congress in September 2013 confirmed that of the 11,000 silent movies that were made in America between 1912 and 1930, only 14 percent of them still exist in their original, high-quality form. Early movies were filmed on nitrocellulose film, which posed many problems. This film was highly flammable and had to be preserved very carefully to stop the film from decaying and disintegrating over time. In the early 20th century, many films were not preserved as carefully as they ought to have been, so many films produced during this era are now known as “lost films” as archival copies are no longer in existence. David Pierce of the Library of Congress summarised this loss with a recent statement: “The loss of American silent-era feature films constitutes an alarming and irretrievable loss to our nation’s cultural record.”
So, as for the silent films that still exist - it's important that film studios take care of and movie lovers appreciate them, otherwise we stand to lose an entire epoch of art history. Along with being highly entertaining, these films serve as inspiration for modern cinema. Many of them were revolutionary for their time, and ideas from these films often still inspire filmmakers to this day. Take a look at our list of the 10 Most Popular Silent Movies for a snapshot of the most cherished silent movies in history.
10 Greed (1924)
This film failed to impress at the box office but has become increasingly popular with age. Many critics point out that it utilises cinema techniques such as deep focus, which were revolutionary for its time. Director Erich von Stroheim insisted that the film had to be as realistic as possible, and so this film became the first film in history that was shot entirely on location. Parts of the film were shot in Death Valley. Shooting here was extremely difficult- the cameras had to be wrapped in iced towels to stop them being damaged from the intense heat.
9 Battleship Potemkin (1925)
This Russian propaganda film is based on an actual mutiny which took place in 1905 on the battleship Potemkin, a ship in the Imperial Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet. Director Sergei Eisenstein conducted what many today have called innovative filmmaking. Eisenstein brought images together in montages in a way that had never been done before, creating scenes that were extremely moving and powerful. His skilled editing of the footage, particularly of the Odessa Steps sequence, is considered to be revolutionary work. Silent movie legend Charlie Chaplin once stated that this was his favourite movie.
8 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
This film is widely praised as being one of the very first horror movies. It tells the story of a doctor and his servant who seem to be connected to a number of murders. With its strange, asymmetrical sets, the film is an artistic masterpiece of German Expressionism. The film also includes early examples of Surrealist art which rose to popularity in the 1920s. Many film critics also point out that this film employs one of the first examples of a twist at the ending, something which is extremely popular in modern cinema. The film currently holds an extremely rare 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
7 The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
This French film has been cited by critics as the movie that confirms that film is not only for entertainment, but that it also serves an artistic purpose. The film recounts the trial of the French saint, with moving close-up shots and an astounding performance by Renée Jean Falconetti. This is one of the most important films in history, but we are lucky to have it. A fire destroyed the original copy, so the unedited version of the film was thought to be lost forever. However, an authentic original copy of the film was mysteriously discovered in the closet of a mental institution in Oslo in 1981!
6 The Gold Rush (1925)
This film is one of Chaplin’s best-known works. Chaplin himself stated that The Gold Rush was the film he most wanted to be remembered for. In the film, Chaplain once again plays his character The Tramp, who goes to Yukon in search of gold. The film was a hit upon its release and remains the 5th highest grossing silent film in history. Visuals like those in the table ballet scene were so popular with audiences that during some of the original screenings of the film, the projectionist actually stopped the film in order to replay the scene.
5 Nosferatu (1922)
This German Expressionist film is one of the oldest horror films to date. It was based (without authorisation) on Bram Stoker’s legendary tale of Dracula, but has become a classic in its own right due to its intense cinematography. The famous image of the vampire’s haunting silhouette on the wall has been copied in numerous horror films since. Even today, this is a terrifying picture. It was even banned in Sweden because it was deemed so frightening. This ban wasn’t lifted until the 1970s! Despite its age, this film remains a point of reference for many horror film directors.
4 City Lights (1931)
This beloved film pioneered the romantic-comedy genre. Chaplin reprises his role as The Tramp, who falls in love with a beautiful blind woman, convincing her that he is a wealthy man. The success of this film was phenomenal, as sound films were in high demand by 1931. Chaplin wrote, directed and starred in this film. Chaplin was determined for the film to be aesthetically perfect- the film took over three years to be made, and the scene where the Tramp buys a flower from the blind flower-girl was re-shot by Chaplin almost 350 times!
3 Sunrise (1927)
Sunrise is one of the most impressive silent movies in history. The cinematography in this film is so revolutionary that it is still praised by critics to this day. It tells the tale of a man who has an affair with a woman who tries to persuade him to drown his wife and run away to the city with her. Expensive indoor sets were built for the film, and director F. W. Murnau hung his camera from a platform on the ceiling, giving the scenes a sense of vastness never before seen in cinema.
2 Metropolis (1927)
This German film is widely considered to be the first science-fiction epic. Set in 2026, the film details a dystopian future. Wealthy people rule the city of Metropolis while the poor live underground and are forced into slavery, operating machinery to power the city above them. This film has had a heavy influence on modern sci-fi, as well as other genres. For example, the robot Maria (pictured above) was a huge influence on the design of Star Wars’ C-3P0. Its influence has even stretched to animated films- in Pixar’s Monsters, Inc., Mike and Sully live in ‘Monstropolis’ and work in a factory that generates power for the city. Upon its release in 1927, it was the most expensive film ever made.
1 The General (1926)
The General is easily the most popular silent film of all time. It has all the elements of a great film- an interesting plot, a likeable protagonist, brilliantly timed stunts and timeless comedy. Keaton’s story of a railroad engineer who single handedly attempts to get his train back after it is stolen by Union soldiers wasn’t an immediate success, but with time critics have begun to appreciate its genius. The General is now widely regarded as the first action movie ever made. The scene in which The Texas train falls from the bridge into the river is the most expensive scene in the history of silent film. Keaton himself claimed that it was his favourite of his own works. The General is a cinematic masterpiece that has made history, certainly deserving of the top spot on our list!
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