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…

15 responses

  1. Four years ago, I wrote an article about lists of silent films. Silent Era had a nonsense approach (I don’t know if today is different), so their list is full of American Films, even popular films with doubtful quality. After that article I decided to begin a project, at Cine-Clasico.com (users have access to a lot of silent films), goal went (go) beyond the top list, trying discovery and discussion, we use a weighted vote for that. Results will be better in several years, but today already we can see a more heterogeneous list:

    1. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau, 1927)
    2. Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1926)
    3. Nosferatu (F. W. Murnau, 1921)
    4. Bronenosets Potyomkin (Sergei M. Eisenstein, 1925)
    5. Greed (Erich von Stroheim, 1924)
    6. The General (Clyde Bruckman y Buster Keaton, 1927)
    7. City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931)
    8. La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1928)
    9. The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925)
    10. Modern Times (Charles Chaplin, 1936)
    11 Körkarlen (Victor Sjöström, 1921)
    12 Zemlya (Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1930)
    13 Der letzte Mann (F.W. Murnau, 1924)
    14 Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919)
    15 The Crowd (King Vidor, 1936)
    16 Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (D.W. Griffith, 1916)
    17 Faust (F. W. Murnau, 1926)
    18 Der Müde Tod (Fritz Lang, 1921)
    19 Chelovek s kino-apparatom (Dziga Vertov, 1926)
    20 Ménilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1926)
    21 The Unknown (Tod Browning, 1927)
    22 Entr’acte (René Clair, 1924)
    23 He Who Gets Slapped (Victor Sjöström, 1924)
    24 Napoleon (Abel Gance, 1927)
    25 Oktyabr (Sergei Eisenstein, 1928)
    26 La chute de la maison Usher (Jean Epstein, 1928)
    27 Die Büchse der Pandora (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1929)
    28 Un chien andalou (Luis Buñuel, 1929)
    29 Die Nibelungen (Fritz Lang, 1924)
    30 Mat (Svolod Pudovkin, 1926)
    31 Le voyage dans la lune (Georges Méliès, 1902)
    32 Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1924)
    33 Häxan (Benajmin Christensen, 1922)
    34 Safety Last! (Newmeyer-Taylor, 1923)
    35 Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt (Walter Ruttmann, 1927)


  2. It is true that the top 10 you publish here is not very surprising (old familiar names & titles… and beautiful works…), but still… No Flaherty — though that has become the general rule for quite a number of years… And no Griffith, which probably is a sign of something. Some time ago (how much?), such a list without Intolerance of Birth of a Nation would have been quite unthinkable…

  3. The object of the post was not to indicate the top 100 silent films (a daft exercise really) but to draw attention to a book that says here are 100 silent films of particular interest and importance – not quite the same thing.

    That said, top 10s are always fun, so here’s my top 10 silents – and neer a Griffith or a Flaherty to be seen (though A Corner in Wheat comes close):

    1. The village de Namo – Indochine (France 1899 d. Gabriel Veyre)
    2. The Big Swallow (UK 1901 d. James Williamson)
    3. Burnham Beeches (UK 1909 d. Gaston Quiribet)
    4. Les quatre cents farces du diable / Satan’s Merry Tricks (France 1906 d. Georges Méliès)
    5. L’aveugle de Jerusalem / The Blind Man of Jerusalem (France 1908 d. Louis Feuillade)
    6. The Battle of the Somme (UK 1916 d. J.B. MacDowell, Geoffrey Malins)
    7. Our Hospitality (USA 1923 d. John G. Blystone, Buster Keaton)
    8. Pass the Gravy (USA 1928 d. Fred Guiol, Leo McCarey)
    9. Otona no miru ehon – Umarete wa mita keredo / I Was Born But… (Japan 1933 d. Yasujirô Ozu)
    10. Tianming / Daybreak (China 1933 d. Sun Yu)

    Four of those make the Dixon 100 (which I haven’t published in full because people should go out and buy the book).

  4. I may have been misunderstood here: I was not saying that such a top 10 should include a Flaherty or a Griffith (as for me, perhaps it would, I never really asked myself the question — though I probably will now!). I just thought that not so long ago, such a list would have. But maybe I am wrong…

  5. You are right. Tastes and canons change. But, looking at the Silent Era top 100, Griffith is at no. 15 (Birth of a Nation ), 16 (Intolerance), 21 (Broken Blossoms), 33 (Way Down East) and 57 (Orphans of the Storm), while Flaherty makes to to no. 31 (Nanook of the North) and 61 (Tabu). There’s life in the old warhorses yet.

  6. … while Dixon’s book lists Way Down East, The Birth of a Nation, The Adventures of Dollie (Griffith’s directorial debut) and Nanook of the North.

  7. Actually, Tabu is not a Flaherty’s film. Even today, several sites say Flaherty was the director of film, with Murnau, but that isn’t true. Flaherty only wrote the story with Murnau, that’s all.

  8. Hi, I’m currently putting as many of Bryony Dixon’s 100 silent films (even if its just a clip) in to a youtube playlist called very originally: 100 silent films by bryony dixon bfi film guides pocket book. It’s surprising how much stuff is up there.

  9. Maybe it’s not that surprising. Dixon has tried to emphasise films that are available in one form or another, and if something hasn’t been legitimately uploaded to YouTube then it’s on DVD somewhere and usually that means someone’s ripped at least some of it onto YouTube.

    A nice idea, though, so I shall overcome my usual aversion to the cavalier approach to copyright (while such a concept still exists) on YouTube and provide the link:

  10. Thanks for putting up a link:) Although I’ll probably be the only one that uses it! And then I’ll only watch the the shorts and intros to longer films as I don’t like watching stuff on the internet for long (half an hour max.).

    I’ve managed to represent about 80% of the 100 somehow. It’s not a perfect list: Blackmail isn’t silent, Gance’s Napoleon is boiled down to a couple of short clips and there’s a bird film by Oliver Pike but not the one in the book etc. I didn’t put up any kino-pravda film that wasn’t #21 though.

    The good thing about doing the playlist apart from watching (& planning to watch) films I never would have otherwise & wanting to see ‘Casanova’ or ‘Kean’ and finding they’re not on (legitimate) DVD, grr, is that I’ve realised that I don’t have to stick w/ boring film history docs in the hope of seeing an interesting clip I’ve read about, now I can find a clip on the web or similar. I think this was in Dixon’s mind when writing the book.

  11. I think Dixon wants people to see silent film afresh, and to point to films which can be found on the web, by whatever means they got there. If viewing them leads people to seek out the DVDs (for the better viewing experience) or demand that such films end up on DVD (for the benefit of all) so very much the better.

  12. OK Bryony, can we have The Lure of Crooning Water on DVD, please. I mean, if the BFI can publish Fun at St Fanny’s on DVD, surely anything’s possible…

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