Expanding Upon TCM’s List: Ten More Influential Silent Films

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) has provided a wealth of classic movies for cinephiles to watch, commercial-free, since April 1994. They’re a tremendous resource, offering films 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Part of what makes them so lovable is their dedication to silent cinema. They have a weekly feature called “Silent Sundays” during which they air several hours of silent films beginning at midnight. It’s no surprise that the recent success of The Artist, a modern-day silent film, would grab TCM’s eye. To celebrate the film a few weeks ago, they released their own list of the 10 Most Influential Silent Films. It was an impressive list, and can be found here. I think it’s a tremendous starting place for movie-watchers interested in silent cinema. Having said that, I think it could easily be expanded to include ten more films. Here are ten that I think could be added:

Nosferatu (1922)
TCM included a different Murnau film–Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)–but just as easily could have used Nosferatu. It was a game-changer in cinema, helping establish the template for German Expressionism and the future of horror films, as well as horror villains. It pushed the boundaries of grotesque while linking sexuality and disease, stirring fear among its viewers.

Pandora’s Box (1929)
Thanks to Louise Brooks’ performance, Pandora’s Box created ripples throughout conservative society. Her character altered fashion trends, presented a free female sexuality, and perfectly embodied the lifestyle of the roaring 20s, both in the U.S. and Germany.

The General (1926)
While I can’t dispute any of TCM’s choices, I was shocked that Buster Keaton’s seminal work, The General, didn’t make the cut. Keaton’s comedy has been cited as an influence on everyone from Jackie Chan to Mel Brooks and the Marx brothers. His bits were borrowed by Red Skelton, the Three Stooges, Bugs Bunny, and even Charlie Chaplin. Without Keaton, the bulk of 20th century comedy would’ve been considerably less funny, and The General is his most celebrated work.

Napoléon (1927)
If Birth of a Nation (1915) can make TCM’s list on the strength of its technical wizardry, so too can Abel Gance’s Napoléon. Gance reached into his bag of tricks with aplomb throughout the 5+ hour film. It features triptych cinematography; handheld/shaky cam; cameras swooping down from the ceiling onto the French Revolution to accentuate the pandemonium; panoramic shots; split screens; color tinting; and overlapping imagery, just to name a few.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Like Nosferatu of the same era, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was a forerunner of the horror genre, and also laid the groundwork for film noir, as an achievement of German Expressionism. In addition to helping establish templates for the grotesque, Dr. Caligari is widely considered the first film to feature a “twist” ending.

Un Chien Andalou (1929)
This Buñuel/Dali collaboration showed future filmmakers just how much capability they had to create a dream world for their viewers. It showed future filmmakers that strict plot structure was not at all imperative. It showed future filmmakers that they could take a weighty philosophical subtext and embed it in their films. It showed future filmmakers the great effect with which they could use their special effects. In short, it’s a landmark of filmmaking.

The Unknown (1927)
TCM even cites this film in their article, as it’s named a favorite by Michel Hazanavicius, director of The Artist. He calls it “a sexy, perverse film that takes place in a gypsy circus”. It’s also, in my opinion, Lon Chaney, Sr.’s best work. He spends the bulk of the film playing an armless man who must do everything with his feet, and has to inject the air of sexual perversion into his performance at the same time. It’s truly an eye-opener.

The Big Parade (1925)
Just as Nosferatu was a game-changer for horror, The Big Parade did the same for war films. Director King Vidor pulled no punches in showing the effects of war, leaving his protagonist missing a leg amid a flood of carnage and violence.

The Phantom Carriage (1921)
The Phantom Carriage is part of Victor Sjöstrom’s catalogue that famously turned young Ingmar Bergman onto film. The grim reaper clearly gave baby Bergman some ideas for later use. The camera tricks are beautiful, breathtaking, and creepy. And the story is a treasure trove for folklorists, drawing inspiration from an old Swedish folk tale about New Year’s Eve.

Safety Last (1923)
Harold Lloyd’s comedy is iconic if for no other reason than the intense scene in which he frantically grips the hands of a clock atop a skyscraper, with his own impending doom beneath him. It’s one of the most memorable scenes in film history placed in one of the best comedies of the silent era.


Filed under Foreign Film, German Films, Movies, Silent Movies, Swedish Film

25 responses to “Expanding Upon TCM’s List: Ten More Influential Silent Films

  1. There are a lot of these I have not seen yet. Still so many great ones to check out. I saw the Jeanne d’Arc one last year and that was stunning.

  2. I haven’t (and I am blushing) seen any of these films. Makes me sad. But thanks for highlighting them for me…. maybe one day…. maybe

  3. Great list. I love all of these movies. As for Keaton, The General is probably his best work, but I think I like Our Hospitality slight more.

    • To be completely honest, there are at least a few Keatons that I like more than The General. Seven Chances is my favorite, and probably Sherlock, Jr. would be #2. Although I really love them all, anything prior to the MGM days.

  4. I would so love to have TCM but it is not available where I live! I soooo jealous! Nice list! Nosferatu is the first Silent Film I ever saw and I watch it every one or two year. The General is a must and it might be the best Silent film ever made.

  5. I would also add The Broken Oath (1910). While it is not a great film by any standards, it was the first film in which Florence Lawrence used her real name, and it showed the potential of star power that would influence so much of film history to come.

  6. Apparently ‘Napoleon’ is gonna screen this year at the SF Silent Film Festival. It sounds like it’s gonna be a real event:

  7. Phil

    I’ve been watching silent movies this month and these lists give me a few more that I still need to catch up with. I watched The Last Laugh by Murnau this weekend, which is pretty great and is a true silent movie – there is no dialogue in the entire film.

  8. I actually think your list is better than TCM’s. While I could never go without The Battleship Potemkin and The Passion of Joan of Arc, I am so glad to see some love for Un Chien Andalou and particularly the underrated masterpiece Napoleon which is my second favourite silent film after Potemkin.

    • You can almost see their thought process in putting that list together. They had to have a Lon Chaney movie, so there was Hunchback of Notre Dame. They had to have at least one classic silent comedian, and they went with Chaplin. I’d venture they didn’t pick more because they didn’t want to have overkill on the silent comedians. And then there’s Nanook, a groundbreaker for documentaries; The Ten Commandments, the sweeping Biblical epic; Potemkin, representing propaganda. They really do have a great list. I smiled really big when I saw that The Passion of Joan of Arc made it.

      I bet Un Chien Andalou didn’t make the cut because of its length.

  9. Un Chien Andalou is nuts. I love it.

  10. The first time I saw Nosferatu was on Halloween in Madison. It was at the old Civic Center and they had a live organist play the music along with the movie, it was pretty cool.

  11. I love your list, and I haven’t seen The Phantom Carriage, though I like Sjostrom’s work a lot. He directed my favorite of Chaney’s films, He Who Gets Slapped, and Lillian Gish and the American cast of The Scarlet Letter all nicknamed him “Jesus” because he was so kind when working with actors.

    My only (very minor) disagreement with some of your choices is that they did not really become influential until many decades later, when restorations made it possible for film scholars and future auteurs to see them. Nosferatu, being an unauthorized version of Dracula, mostly disappeared once the lawsuit by Bram Stoker’s widow was won. Many truncated versions edited from the single distributed copy were all we had for a long, long time. Napoleon was cut to pieces by MGM after an initial showing in only 8 cities, and it remained that way for 53 years until Kevin Brownlow reconstructed it with Gance’s help.

    (I was a sound restoration specialist for 14 years and worked on many early, classic talkies, but I still love silent film.)

    • Wow, that’s really enlightening info. I’d known about the Dracula lawsuit but was unaware that Nosferatu had to go underground because of it. To tell the truth, I wasn’t even aware that the Stoker estate had won the suit.

  12. God, I absolutely love Nosferatu and it is one of the few films that really creeps me out to this day. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is also a masterpiece. I took a look at that silent film list TCM and I heavily recommend (that is, if you haven’t seen it) The Passion of Joan of Ark. That is a movie I will never ever forget. No Vampyr?!

    • The Passion of Joan of Arc is the movie that completely changed the way I feel about silent movies. I’d only seen a few before I saw it, and the silent format hadn’t really “clicked”. And then I saw that one, and I realized just how incredible the format could be.

      Was Vampyr a straight silent film? I thought there was some sound. Nevertheless, I’m a big fan.

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