FAQ about silent film: Watching silent films

This document is the fourth of four FAQs for the Usenet newsgroup alt.movies.silent, and contains information on seeing silent films. There is some overlap in the content of the FAQs. If you don't find what you're looking for here, try one of the related FAQs (see the last question for a complete list).
  1. Which silent films are considered "required viewing"?
  2. Were any silents made in colour?
  3. Where do I buy silent films?
  4. How do I find out about theatrical screenings and TV showings of silent film?
  5. Where are the other silent film FAQs?

Which silent films are considered "required viewing"?

Oh, boy.

Get two silent film aficionados in a room, ask them that question, and you'll get three answers.

Really, the best bet is to get hold of the Brownlow and Gill documentary series Hollywood: The Pioneers and The Other Hollywood: Cinema Europe. They are the greatest introductions to the history and art of silent film. (See FAQ 3 for information about where to find them.)

Having said that, however, here's a list of possible "greatest evers," "hardy perennials," "must-sees," and "representative samplings," in no particular order:

Charlie Chaplin: The Kid (1920), The Gold Rush (1925), and City Lights (1931)

Chaplin was the greatest actor in silent film. He wrote, directed, produced and starred in some of the greatest comedies ever made. These feature films, which cover the beginning, middle and end of the great cycle of silent film comedies, are some of Chaplin's best works. The Kid (1920) co-stars Jackie Coogan as the orphaned boy adopted by the Tramp. The Kid was revolutionary in its seamless blending of brilliant slapstick comedy and searing drama. The Gold Rush (1925) was Chaplin's own favourite among his feature films. It contains some of his most celebrated routines, such as the dance of the bun rolls and a starved Chaplin and co-star Mack Swain making a dinner out of a boiled shoe. City Lights (1931), defiantly made well into the sound era, concerns the Tramp's love for a blind flower girl who mistakes him for a millionaire; and his bewilderingly on-again off-again friendship with a drunken millionaire. It contains one of the greatest endings of any film, silent or talkie.

Buster Keaton: Sherlock, Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), and The General (1927)

Keaton was the greatest comedy director, gag writer, gag executor and stunt artist in silent film. Though he worked under Chaplin's enormous shadow during the 1920s, film lovers rediscovered his work during the 1950s. Keaton remains one of the most ingenious, witty, and inventive filmmakers of all time. Sherlock, Jr. (1924), in which Keaton plays a film projectionist who wanders into a film he's running, contains outrageously surreal sight gags. In The Navigator (1924), Keaton plays a hapless rich twit who is stranded with his girl aboard an ocean liner. The General (1927) is a brilliant, beautifully realized account of a true Civil War incident involving the theft of a Confederate train.

As with Chaplin, you cannot go wrong with a Keaton film.

Harold Lloyd, Safety Last (1923) and The Kid Brother (1927)

Sadly neglected by many film critics, Harold Lloyd deserves to be ranked alongside Chaplin and Keaton as one of the greatest comedy filmmakers. Watch his films to see for yourself. Safety Last (1923) features his famous climb up the side of a building and his celebrated encounter with a giant clock. He was perfectly safe at all times during the making of the film; keep telling yourself that as you watch him cling to the side of the building and dodge life-threatening perils at every floor. The Kid Brother (1927) represents Lloyd's best blend of gags, romantic comedy and filmmaking elan.

D. W. Griffith, Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916)

D. W. Griffith is renowned as one of the most influential filmmakers of the silent era. Birth of a Nation (1915) is considered one of the greatest "breakthrough" films in the history of the medium. It is an epic account of the Civil War. When it was released in 1915, it caused a storm of controversy for its racist depiction of the emancipation from slavery of African-Americans. Its racism remains a matter of controversy to this day. Intolerance (1916), Griffith's other great epic, is a counterbalance to Birth; it is the telling of multiple stories involving the theme of tolerance.

Mary Pickford: any one of her feature films from the 'teens to early '20s; My Best Girl (1927)

Pickford was a true pioneer: a charismatic screen presence, a force behind the production of her films before women in America were given the right to vote, and a founder of the film industry. Any feature film from the late 'teens to the early 1920s will showcase Pickford at the top of her form. My Best Girl (1927) represents a different image for Mary -- that of a modern working girl with a '20s bob. (Her long trademark curls were just put up for this movie; when she cut them off in 1928, after the death of her mother, the event made the front page of the New York Times.) It is one of the most charming of her comedies.

Douglas Fairbanks: The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and any other of his swashbucklers of the 1920s

Douglas Fairbanks was the other half of Hollywood's most famous couple of the silent era: Fairbanks and Mary Pickford were married and held court at Pickfair, their Beverly Hills mansion. Fairbanks played the athletic, dashing hero in a string of brilliantly made films during the 1920s. The Thief of Bagdad (1924) is a must; but, really, any of his costume extravaganzas of the period make for delightful viewing. (By the way, Baghdad, in Iraq, has the "h"; the film title doesn't.)

Lon Chaney, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Lon Chaney was the first great horror star. Hunchback and Phantom represent his gothic artistry at its peak.

James Cruze's The Covered Wagon (1923); any feature with William S. Hart or Tom Mix

Director James Cruze's The Covered Wagon (1923), an account of the migration of pioneers across the American West, is one of the most notable of all silent Westerns. William S. Hart, in a series of features in the 'teens and 1920s, established the prototype of the poker-faced, modest, rugged, John Wayne-type cowboy. Tom Mix was a flashier entertainer who anticipated the more light-hearted cowboys of the sound era such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.

Clara Bow: Mantrap (1926) and It (1927)

Bow was the "It" Girl: a combustible mixture of raw sex appeal and carefree flapper insouciance. Brooklyn's greatest contribution to silent film can be seen in Mantrap (1926), which features Bow as the flirtatious city-bred wife of a log cabin bumpkin. It (1927), a Jazz-age Cinderella story about a department store clerk and the man of her dreams, was tailor-made for Clara.

Louise Brooks: the Pabst "Lulu" films Pandora's Box (1928) and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)

Brooks was the Sphinx-like brainy American beauty who rebelled against the Hollywood system and went to Germany to make films for the great German director G. W. Pabst. Her cool sophistication and artless elegance are timeless.

King Vidor: The Big Parade (1925), The Crowd, (1928) and Show People (1928)

King Vidor was one of the most versatile of all American directors of the silent era. The Big Parade (1925) is one of the great anti-war films. The Crowd (1928), which employs European-influenced filmmaking to tell the story of an American everyman, may be Vidor's best film. Show People (1928) is a wonderful comedy vehicle for Marion Davies and William Haines. (Sometimes people ask why Doug Fairbanks is wearing a black armband in the scene in the studio's commissary. The black arm band looks ominous to modern viewers because of the Nazi connotations. However, Doug wasn't a Nazi: he wore the armband as a sign of mourning for Mary Pickford's mother Charlotte, who had recently passed away.)

F. W. Murnau: Sunrise (1927), and any other Murnau film

Murnau was one of the greatest of all silent film directors. He made a series of brilliant films in his native Germany. In the States, he made Sunrise (1927), an expressionistic masterpiece which many silent film aficionados consider the greatest silent film ever made.

Erich von Stroheim: Greed (1925) and any other von Stroheim-directed feature

Von Stroheim was a masterful director and actor who revelled in depicting rampant perversity and the most lurid of erotic appetites. Greed (1925), the story of desperate people led astray by dreams of riches, is his most famous film. Any one of von Stroheim's films of the 1920s is worth watching.

Fritz Lang: Metropolis (1925)

Lang was another brilliant German film director. Metropolis (1925) is his sci-fi fantasia about a future dystopia, featuring a Robot Vamp (German actress Brigitte Helm in her most famous film), a Good Girl (Helm again), dissatisfied workers, a mad scientist, ancient catacombs, near-biblical floods, unbelievable sets and more acid flashback moments than a Hunter S. Thompson-Timothy Leary Haight Ashbury San Francisco Love-In ca. 1967.

William Wellman: Wings (1927)

Wings is a story set among WWI American fighter pilots. It features an all-star cast (Buddy Rogers, Richard Arlen, Clara Bow, Jobyna Ralston) and some of the greatest aerial footage ever shot for a feature film.

Abel Gance: Napoléon (1927, France)

A six-hour epic with multiple action on split screens. One of the greatest of all silent historical epics. Painstakingly restored by Kevin Brownlow.

Carl Theodor Dreyer: La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928, France)

Dreyer, born in Denmark, is famed for this intense film about Joan of Arc. Tons of close-ups mark this masterpiece. Maria Falconetti, who plays the lead, gives what Pauline Kael, among others, considers one of the greatest screen performances of all time.

Sergei Eisenstein: Strike and Battleship Potemkin (both 1925, USSR), October (a/k/a Ten Days that Shook the World) (1927, USSR)

One of the most powerful of all filmmakers. The Odessa Steps sequence in POTEMKIN is one of the most celebrated sequences in all of silent film.

Walter Ruttmann: Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927)

A documentary of a day in the city. Dazzling photographic effects.

Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali: Un Chien Andalou (1929)

A short masterpiece of surrealism. L'Age d'Or (1930) is the talkie "follow-up".

Rene Clair: An Italian Straw Hat (1927, France)

One of the most charming farces of the silent era.

Alfred Hitchcock: The Lodger (1926, UK)

One of the Master's earliest directorial efforts, a stylish take on the legend of Jack the Ripper.

 But wait! What about Peter Pan (1924), one of the most charming of all silent fantasy films? Griffith's Broken Blossoms, or Way Down East, with its famous "Lillian Gish on the ice floes" sequence? Or Griffith's Orphans of the Storm? Frank Borzage's Seventh Heaven? Director Fred Niblo's Ben-Hur? John Ford's The Iron Horse? What about the slightly risque early '20s comedies and great biblical epics of Cecil B. DeMille? Thomas Ince's Civilization? The 'teens films of Maurice Tourneur? Raoul Walsh? Carl Dreyer? Georges Melies? Marshall Neilan? Mal St. Clair? Horror auteur Tod Browning? The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? Tol'able David? The Frank Capra silents? Allan Dwan? What about director Joseph von Sternberg? The '20s films of Howard Hawks? (Yes, Hawks made silent films.) The silent films of Ernst Lubitsch? Or the films of Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, John Barrymore, Rudolph Valentino, Roman Navarro, Betty Bronson, Norma Shearer, Bessie Love, Billie Dove, Edmund Lowe, Joan Crawford, Anna May Wong, Gilbert Roland, Richard Barthelmess, Conrad Veidt, Francis X. Bushman, Harrison Ford (yes, there was a silent film star named Harrison Ford), Dustin Farnum, Wallace Beery, Broncho Billy Anderson, Marlene Dietrich (got her start in silents), Gary Cooper (ditto), Bebe Daniels, Gloria Swanson, Janet Gaynor, Wallace Reid, Constance and Norma Talmadge, Raymond Griffith, Marion Davies, Colleen Moore, or any of the other great stars of the silent era? What about the comedies of Harry Langdon? Of Mack Sennett? Of Mabel Normand? Of Roscoe Arbuckle? The Hal Roach silent short films featuring the Little Rascals, Charley Chase, or Laurel and Hardy? What about the silent films of W. C. Fields, Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers? (Yes, they all made silent films. Some of them were quite good.) What about Swedish-born director Victor Seastrom's The Wind? The great European films like Abel Gance's Napoleon or the Russian films like Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin? What about the silent films of Alfred Hitchcock? What about the great Asian silent films? What about silent documentaries? Silent animation? The great serials of the 'teens? The avant-garde films of the 'teens and '20s? And what about...?

Start a list, start an argument.

Were any silents made in colour?

Yes. When you look at listings of VHS and DVD versions of silent films for sale and see that some of them are listed as being in colour, don't panic: Ted Turner isn't doing anything that the original artists didn't want. Many silent filmmakers used tinting, toning, and even early Technicolor to create moods and enhance the narrative. Blue film stock indicated night scenes; orange indicated heat. Some filmmakers even hired artists to paint each frame of each print by hand.

Here is some information from Bob Birchard:

Tinting colors the film stock, giving the overall image a color tint.

Toning replaces the silver image with a color dye.

It is possible to both tint and tone an image--a common combination in the silent era that I've seen in several original prints is a blue or purple tone combined with a pink tint. One can achieve a similar effect on a scanned B&W photo in Photoshop by shifting the color balance in the shadows only to the blue, and then shifting the color balance in the highlights only to the pink. The effect can be quite striking.

The Chaney Phantom scene [...] was accomplished with the Handschiegel (sp?) process, which was a stencil color process. This was used to color the coins in Greed, add color to the fire by the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments and to color the runaway canoe down the rapids in the forest fire scene in The Michigan Kid.

There were a wide range of colors available in the silent era, and mostly the work was done in the laboratory--adding color to B&W prints by dipping them in chemical solutions--rather than in the pre-tinted stock (although there were some pre-tinted stocks available).

Sound brought an end to hand dipping--because the variations in dyes wreaked havoc on sound reproduction. Kodak did develop about a half dozen pre-tinted print stocks in the early 1930's, but they didn't see wide use.

Several studios (notably M-G-M and 20th-Fox) resumed toning in the late 1930's for many of their "A" pictures. These were usually sepia tone effects.

Bruce Calvert notes,

Two good sources of information are The History of Movie Photography (pp. 112-116) by Brian Coe and Burning Passions: An Introduction to the Study of Silent Cinema by Paolo Cherchi Usai. Both books have color examples of hand-colored, tinted and toned film.
Chester M. Franklin's The Toll of the Sea (1922), starring Anna May Wong, is widely regarded as the first American feature to use the two-color Technicolor process, although the Technicolor company made their first film, The Gulf Between, in 1916.

There is some information about colour in silent film on the Web:

"Recreating the Experience of Tinted and Toned Black and White Prints: An Alternative Method", from the FIAF Journal of Film Preservation
Early Color Motion Picture Processes

Where do I buy silent films?

More places than you may have expected.

Silent Film Sources

This should be your first stop. David Pierce's site is THE information source about all legal reissues of silent film, on all formats, from all companies.

Kino International Video

Kino is justly renowned for its series of silent films on video restored by film restoration artist David Shepard. The Art of Buster Keaton is one of the most outstanding features in the Kino catalog, but there's also lots of D. W. Griffith, C. B. DeMille, Russian and European silents, The Slapstick Encyclopedia (the most extensive anthology of silent short comedies ever assembled), and more. As well, look for two series in the Kino catalog devoted exclusively to silent film: They Had Faces Then and The Roaring Twenties. All titles are in VHS format and some are on DVD; you can shop online.


Facets Video

Based in Chicago, Facets has a great selection of silent films on VHS.


Festival Films

This is another online retailer with a silent films section. They sell films in VHS, laserdisc, DVD, and 16mm format.


Ken Crane's DVDs and Laserdiscs

This is the place to shop online for laserdisc and DVD versions of silent film.


For other laserdisc and DVD links, check out:


Black Star

PAL format video? Not to worry: Black Star is the place to go for online retail sales of PAL videos of all kinds of film, including silent film.


Milestone Film and Video

Milestone, in New York City, has just released a set of restored Mary Pickford videos. They also have a number of silent documentaries and some silent animation.


Grapevine Video

Grapevine is an online retailer specializing in silent, classic and hard-to-find videos. VHS format only. If you want to see a rare, unreleased silent film on video, chances are that you'll find it at Grapevine.


Unknown Video

UV specializes in rare, difficult-to-find videos, VHS format only. The print quality of most of the Unknown Video films is better than average and sometimes outstanding. You can email Christopher Snowden at <unkvid@earthlink.net> and ask him to snail mail the catalog.

Please note

Grapevine Video and Unknown Video have been known, from time to time, to sell films that are protected by copyright. This is illegal. On the other hand, most of the films sold by Unknown Video and Grapevine Video are public domain and therefore the sale of these films is perfectly legal; and both companies take pains to ensure that the films they sell are in the public domain. The practice of selling copyright-protected films is not endorsed by members of the silent film newsgroup.

Jeff's Used LD/DVD Finder Results

This site tracks down LDs of all kinds, including any LDs still being distributed to retailers and even LDs being auctioned off on eBay and other online auction sites.

There's no fee involved. Using the service involves signing in with a user name and a password but this takes a few minutes to set up.

And it works! I (Rick) found places selling the boxed set LD Vitaphone Shorts II as well as auctions of the Barrymore Don Juan.

One caveat: a listing from the search engine does not guarantee that the LD will be in stock or can be back-ordered.

So for all you LD people looking for scarce titles, Jeff's Results is a minor miracle.


Other DVD sources

A DVD links site:
Another DVD links site:
Internet Movie Database DVD subsite:
The ever-reliable Amazon.com:

Buying DVDs outside North America

DVDs and DVD players have region codes. Most DVDs bought in one region will play only on players bought in that same region. Here is a list of the region codes:

Region 1: USA and Canada
Region 2: Japan, Europe, South Africa, Middle East including Egypt
Region 3: The Far East (except Japan)
Region 4: Australia and New Zealand
Region 5: Central Asia and Africa
Region 6: China

DVD sellers in Region 2:

Blackstar, UK:
DVD World, UK:
DVD Zone 2, Europe:
DVD sellers in Region 4:

Digital DVD Shop, Australia:
DVD Rent, Australia:

How do I find out about theatrical screenings and TV showings of silent film?

The best place to start is The Silents Majority. Poke through there and you'll find an exhaustive listing of silent film screenings and TV showings.


Glen Pringle's site also lists silent film screenings and TV showings.


Thomas Murray's Live Cinema Calendar is another great resource for upcoming silent film screenings.


Live in Manhattan? Just visiting? Well, Tom Moran's site of silent film showings will tell you which silent films are playing where in New York City.


Feuillade, by the way, was the nom de film of a French director who made cult fave and avant-garde serials during the 'teens. If you cycle around Tom Moran's 'site you'll learn all about Feuillade and other great stuff.

The Silent Film Society of Atlanta posts silent film theatrical showings and has great links to other film fests and silent sites.


There are four great annual North American silent and early talkie film festivals held every year. These fests feature theatrical screenings in classic, restored theatres, video and film memorabilia for sale, special guests who are experts on silent film, and the proverbial much, much more.


Where: Syracuse, New York

When: first week of March, four days

For the Cinefest schedule, check out



Where: Columbus, Ohio

When: Memorial Day Weekend (end of May)

The Cinevent schedule can be found at:



Where: Glendale, California

When: Labor Day Weekend -- Aug.-Sept.

For the Cinecon schedule, check out:



Where: Saginaw, Michigan

When: September 28-October 1, 2000

Cinesation is run by the Great Lakes Cinephile Society. For the schedule, visit:


 About 50 miles northeast of Venice, Italy, there's a beautiful town called Pordenone. During nine days in mid-October it is the site of one of the most celebrated of all silent film festivals: The Pordenone Silent Film Festival.

The schedule for Pordenone will be posted at these two Web sites:


 Please note: About a month or so before the great silent film fests kick off, information about them can be found on alt.movies.silent postings; or in issues of the monthly periodical Classic Images, which has a Web site:


and can be found at better newsstands everywhere.

 If you've got cable TV in the US, chances are you can get Turner Classic Movies. Check the TCM schedule to see what's coming up.


If you get a specialty cable channel that shows old films, chances are that (a) it will show silent films from time to time; and (b) it has a Web site. Search for the Web site, bookmark it, and check out the schedule every month to see if a silent film is going to be shown.

One final note on theatrical screenings: even in the smallest of towns, local universities, colleges, public libraries, and second-run film houses will screen silent films from time to time. It's best to check with these institutions to see if any silent film screenings are scheduled.

Where are the other silent film FAQs?

There are three other FAQs for the alt.movies.silent newsgroup: The complete set of alt.movies.silent FAQs lives on Emily Way's REEL WORLD Web site:


The FAQs are also posted to alt.movies.silent, news.answers, and alt.answers once a month. They are also archived automatically at the following sites:

Rick Levinson (Rick.Levinson@sympatico.ca) and Emily Way (emily@vex.net)
Last updated February 15, 2002