TCM unveils list of 10 most influential silent films
With the nearly wordless black-and-white melodrama "The Artist" collecting trophies like it's 1927, a new generation of moviegoer is being exposed to the format of silent films. (Some audiences--according to London's Daily Telegraph -- have even complained to movie houses that they didn't know "The Artist" lacked spoken dialogue.)
For newbies seeking a little knowledge--or die-hards up for a debate--Turner Classic Movies has unveiled a list of the 10 most influential silent films.
Compiled by a committee of TCM's in-house film historians, TCM host Robert Osborne and "The Artist's" French director, Michel Hazanavicius, the list covers the years 1915 to 1928. Highlights include D.W. Griffith's controversial Civil War epic "The Birth of a Nation," Charlie Chaplin's sight-gag-rich comedy "The Gold Rush" and Fritz Lang's science-fiction and visual effects groundbreaker "Metropolis."
"People don’t really know how a silent movie works," Hazanavicius said in an interview about the list. "Usually they are amazed by the experience of watching a silent movie, which is another form of expression. It works with another part of the brain. They come expecting to be bored, and they’re amazed by the fact that it’s easy to watch and it’s a story."
TCM's full list is below, in chronological order. For TCM's detailed explanations of its choices, see TCM.com:
TCM List of 10 Most Influential Silent Films
"The Birth of a Nation" (1915) Griffith's Civil War spectacle is technically innovative and notoriously racist. "You really have to put this movie in the context," Hazanavicius said. "The movie is important because Griffith is inventing a lot of things. It’s more interesting for the history. But it is not so easy to watch."
"The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (1921) Rudolph Valentino tangoed his way to stardom as an Argentine soldier fighting for France in director Rex Ingram's World War I drama.
"Nanook of the North" (1922) For this forerunner to the modern documentary, director Robert Flaherty spent a year following Inuit Eskimos in the North Pole.
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) Lon Chaney's reign as the "Man of 1,000 Faces" began with director Wallace Worsley's adaptation of Victor Hugo's tale of the deformed bell ringer. "Lon Chaney was known for disguising himself, for making very big, very expressive characters," Hazanavicius said. "It’s impressive."
"The Ten Commandments" (1923) Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 Biblical epic starring Charlton Heston as Moses is the one most familiar to modern audiences, but the director's silent version is equally grand, with 36-foot tall statues of the pharaohs, 110-foot-tall Egyptian gates and a Red Sea made of Jell-O.
"The Gold Rush" (1925) Often hailed as Charlie Chaplin's greatest comedy, "The Gold Rush" contains one of cinema's most iconic sight gags--Chaplin's dancing bread rolls. "Charlie Chaplin was a great clown, a great stuntman, a great acrobat, a great dancer," Hazanavicius said. "The sequence with the bread-- it’s like the Mona Lisa. Everybody knows it."
"Battleship Potemkin" (1925) Sergei Eisenstein's account of a Russian naval mutiny was among the first and most effective films to use the technique of montage to move the story forward, and included one of cinema's classic images, that of a baby carriage rolling down a flight of stairs.
"Metropolis" (1927) Long before "Terminator" or "Blade Runner," director Fritz Lang originated the stylized industrial dystopia. "This movie is a metaphor about society," Hazanavicius said. "It's not really about people."
"Sunrise -- A Song of Two Humans" (1927) Hazanavcius said he had his leading man, Jean Dujardin, watch German director F.W. Murnau's drama about a married farmer who falls in love with a dangerous woman from the city as an example of naturalistic acting in the silent era. "When people think of silent movies, they think of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton," Hazanavicius said. "These actors were beautiful clowns, but they were clowns and their movies were slapstick. But there's another kind of silent movie, a simple, moving story."
"The Passion of Joan of Arc" (1928) Danish director Carl Theodore Dreyer forced Renee Maria Falconetti to work under extreme duress while filming her role as the French saint, yielding work that critic Pauline Kael once called "the finest performance ever recorded on film."
Photo: Gustav Froelich in Fritz Lang's science-fiction movie "Metropolis." Credit: Kino International