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A Beginner's Guide to Silent Film

By James Hoyle
On January 26, 2016

With the recent snow that has hit campus in the past week, there is no doubt that many students (after finishing their homework, of course) took to Netflix to pass the time. Netflix is an amazing tool to keep in touch with TV shows and to discover something new. One can easily browse their offerings for hours and could potentially be exposed to all sorts of things that they would not have been able to otherwise. To that end, this sense of discovery should also be transferred into general viewing of films. 

    It is one thing to sit by and watch the same films all the time, but to be exposed to something unknown and learn from it is one of the very fundamentals of education. One way that one might do this is to try and watch some silent films. However, diving into silent films is often difficult as there are several hurdles to jump. For example, these films (typically made anywhere from 1890 to 1929) are products of their time, and might come off as hokey, saccharine, or offensive to modern sensibilities. The picture will be in black and white or will be color tinted. No dialogue is naturally going to be hindrance. But for those that persevere, they will be richly rewarded with great acting, good storylines, and some of the best practical effects ever seen. They are also windows into the thoughts and anxieties of men and women long past, and, when looked at through the lens of the present, help us understand how we have (or in some cases have not) changed as a global culture. As stated previously however, diving into this treasure trove can be a little overwhelming. Therefore, here are three silent movies for beginners that will make a viewer a lover of silent cinema for life.

1.    Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ (1925)

This film was later remade into the 1959 version that broke records at the Academy Awards, earning eleven, a feat that has only been topped by Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. This has caused the 1925 original to have lost to time in favor of its more critically acclaimed younger brother, which is rather unfair, as when the original came out, the Academy Awards did not exist. Besides, if it were not for this version, the 1959 movie would not exist. This is not to say that the 1925 version has no merit. If it did not, it would not be on this list. For one, it is considerably shorter than the remake, making the pacing brisker. It had a large budget, meaning the costumes are a sight to behold. Finally, the chariot races are perhaps even more exciting in this version. All of this makes the 1925 film easier to view than the 1959 version, and a great way to start silent film. 

2.    City Lights (1931)

Though not released during the golden era of silent film, this Charlie Chaplin film is often considered one of the director’s very best. This film tells the sweet story of a Little Tramp and a penniless, blind, flower girl who fall in love. Through a series of gags, lucky chances, The Tramp attempts to earn the money to give an operation to restore her sight. While there are plenty of jokes and laughs to be had, it is the overwhelming sense of love, humanity, and compassion that is seen in this work that earns it the praise that it does. One can never go wrong with any Charlie Chaplin movie, and City Lights is an ideal place to begin, though Modern Times also gets an honorable mention for some of its creative camera work. 

3.    Metropolis (1927)

This movie was one of the works that inspired the poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsburg. That alone should get the attention of some. For everyone else, Metropolis is considered by most film historians as the first feature length science fiction film. It tells the tale of a vast city of the future where untold pleasures can be had, but at the cost of slave labor that exists just underneath the city. Not only this analogous to society both then and now, but there is also much the film has to say about love, compassion, religion, and the human condition. It also was a pioneer of visual design. Fritz Lang was one of the most well-known of the early movie directors and for good reason. Anyone with a passing interest in film, science fiction, or just good design should see this movie. As a side note, the golden robot in this film would become the basis for C-3PO in the Star Wars film series. All the more incentive to see where it all began. 

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