100 silent films

Who can resist a list? Everyone loves to take part in top ten lists of this or top 100s of that, pitting personal preference against the canon. Debates on which are the top silent films, be they box office (a contentious areas given the unreliability of data from the silent era), most popular or most esteemed. The Silent Era website maintains a top 100 silent films based on votes supplied by visitors to the site. It comes across as a mixture of popularity and critical esteem, and the top ten (as of today, but they haven’t changed much in ages) has a stale familiarity about it:

1. The General (USA 1926), d. Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman
2. Metropolis (Germany 1927), d. Fritz Lang
3. Sunrise (USA 1927), d. F.W. Murnau
4. City Lights (USA 1931), d. Charles Chaplin
5. Nosferatu (Germany 1922), d. F.W. Murnau
6. The Gold Rush (USA 1925), d. Charles Chaplin
7. La passion et la mort de Jeanne d’Arc (France 1928), d. Carl Theodor Dreyer
8. Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Germany 1920), d. Robert Wiene
9. Bronenosets ‘Potyomkin’ (USSR 1925), d. Sergei M. Eisenstein
10. Greed (USA 1924), d. Erich von Stroheim

All great films, and all films that you would recommend to anyone first getting interested in silent films and wanting to know what to see. But there is no surprise.

Very different is 100 Silent Films, by Bryony Dixon, just published by Palgrave Macmillan/BFI, and one of a series of books recommending 100 moving image titles in a variety of genres. Dixon points out in her introduction that silent film is not a genre – it is the first thirty or so years of cinema and embraces almost all genres – and also makes it clear that her 100 films and not the 100 best, but rather 100 titles which represent the breadth as well as the greatness of the type.

It’s certainly an idiosyncratic list of films, each of which is described across a couple of pages, and arranged alphabetically by title to avoid any sense of a top 100. These are silent films to see because it will be an adventure to do so. There are the familiar warhorses, of course – all bar one of the top ten above are represented (City Lights is the casualty) – but what one notices far more are the choices that delight or intrigue: Ernst Lubitsch’s The Oyster Princess (Germany 1919), William Wellman’s Beggars of Life (USA 1928), Sun Yu’s Daybreak (China 1933), Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley’s Suspense (USA 1913), Yakov Protazanov’s The Queen of Spades (Russia 1916), Tomu Uchida’s Policeman (Japan 1933), Joris Ivens’ Rain (Netherlands 1929), or Henri Frescourt’s Monte Cristo (France 1929).

Dixon is a strong advocate of British silent film, and fifteen of the titles were produced in Britain, which might raise an eyebrow or two. But it’s hard to disagree much with the choices, from James Williamson’s iconic The Big Swallow (1901), to Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929), Arthur Robison’s The Informer (1929), Anthony Asquith’s A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) or Walter Summer’s overlooked masterpiece of drama-documentary The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927).

Alfred Butterworth & Sons, leaving the works, Glebe Mills, Hollinwood (Mitchell & Kenyon 1901)

Dixon is keen to demonstrate the full breadth of of silent film, so there is a lot more here than the traditional feature film. She includes advertising films (The Spirit of his Forefathers, c. 1900), newsreels (Topical Budget 93-1 The Derby, 1913 – the ‘suffragette’ derby), and actualities, such as Mitchell & Kenyon’s Alfred Butterworth & Sons, leaving the works, Glebe Mills, Hollinwood (1901). There are assorted magical early cinema titles from Gaston Velle, Albert Capellani and Georges Méliès (Voyage à travers l’impossible rather than Voyages dans la lune). And there are examples of the avant garde (Manhatta), documentary (Drifters), propaganda (The Battle of the Somme), animation (Winsor McCay’s How a Mosqutio Operates) and even natural history (Oliver Pike’s Les hôtes de l’air). There’s even one token modern silent, Guy Maddin’s delirious The Heart of the World (Canada 2000).

And so on. What makes the book successful, however, is not really its eclecticism and disdain for established classics (though one senses one or two titles have been included because the publishers insisted upon it). Rather it is the unpretentious, informal style of writing. Dixon knows her subject deeply, but writes as much for the person just starting to explore the field as the afficionado. Jargon is largely banned. It almost reads like a blog. The emphasis is on availability (there are few titles here that aren’t to be found on DVD or online somewhere) and the reader is soon totting up a list of must-see-soon or must-buy-soon titles (I know I have).

In short we have as good an introductory guide to silent film as you might hope to find, one calculated to please the newcomer and the expert. No one will agree with all of Dixon’s choices, but no one will be the poorer for seeking out each one of them. It’s just the pocket-book guide needed to accompany the resurgence of interest in silent film we’ve witnessed in the past few years.

Now if you’d asked me to name 100 silent films, well…