Last Sunday, two films ran the table at the Oscars: Hugo and The Artist. Both are loving homages to the silent film era, and seem to have awakened the public appetite for the old silents.
The good thing is that both Netflix and Hulu+ have their fair share of silents, so I thought I'd throw out a few recommendations for weekend viewing.
It must be said that it's always easier to settle into a silent comedy than it is to a silent drama. We're too used to drama, especially on television, where everything is dependent on the words instead of the movement or blocking, but even today a lot of movies rely on silent comedy bits, or at least physical bits where the dialogue isn't needed to get it.
But silent drama is incredibly rich and layered, and all pre-Hays code, so it tackles a lot of issues -- sex, violence, etc -- that you may think it would avoid. GW Pabst's Diary of a Lost Girl -- the story of a girl who is raped the night of her confirmation and has the baby, but refuses to marry the man who raped her -- is a perfect example, and still relevant (sadly) today as it was when it was made.
Netflix and Hulu both have pretty crude search methods (Hulu possibly has the worst search function online), and for some reason Netflix just let a ton of silent films that I had in my queue lapse despite being public domain films (though the soundtracks may not have been public domain), but here is a roughly cobbled together list of films that I love. I tried to stay away from the three hour silents, but The Thief of Baghdad is worth it.
In the wake of a violent rape at the hands of her father's assistant (Fritz Rasp), young Thymiane Henning (Louise Brooks) is left pregnant and emotionally drained. But when she refuses to marry her attacker, she's sent away to a woman's reformatory.
This Arabian Nights fantasy-adventure was one of the great productions of the 1920s and remains hugely entertaining today. Douglas Fairbanks stars as carefree Ahmed the Thief. What he wants, he takes -- until he becomes smitten with a beautiful princess.
Millionaire Rollo Treadway (Buster Keaton) sets off on a cruise to mend his broken heart after his beloved, Betsy (Kathryn McGuire), rejects his marriage proposal.
This finely crafted drama of despair from legendary filmmaker Josef von Sternberg follows brusque professor Rath (Emil Jannings), who's determined to stop his pupils' visits to hear speakeasy singer Lola (Marlene Dietrich). An obsession for the siren blossoms, and Rath's life spirals out of control.
An elderly hotel doorman is demoted to washroom attendant and must give up his prized uniform. Crestfallen, he spends the day wandering the city, getting drunk and trying desperately to hang on to a shred of hope.
This 1927 silent film features Clara Bow as Betty Lou, a sweet and sassy clerk at a department store who decides she has found Mr. Right when she meets the store's owner (Antonio Moreno). One thing: She must convince him that she's Ms. Right, too. (Ever wonder where the term "It girl" came from? It came from this film.)
A grotesquely disfigured composer known as the "Phantom" (Lon Chaney) haunts Paris' opera house, where he's secretly grooming Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) to be an opera diva. Luring her to his underground lair, the Phantom declares his love. But Christine loves Raoul de Chagny and plans to elope with him after her next performance. When the Phantom finds out, he abducts Christine, incurring the wrath of Raoul -- and a horde of rabid Parisians. (This is what the Phantom is supposed to look like.)
Sensationally modern, Pandora's Box follows the downward spiral of the fiery, brash, yet innocent showgirl Lulu, whose sexual vivacity has a devastating effect on everyone she comes in contact with. (Hurry! Expires March 11th)
The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) falls in love with a beautiful, blind flower girl who is in financial trouble.
For two brothers, the daily struggles of bullies and mean teachers is nothing next to the mortification they feel when they realize their good-natured father’s low-rung social status.
Because of the time frame when they were made, many silent films are now in the public domain, so you can find plenty of silent film on both YouTube and Archive.org, like my favorite Georges Milies film, Le Melomane, which is briefly referenced in Hugo:
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