Movies for silent nights

The Gold Rush

★★★★★

During the onslaught of the holiday season, it’s sometimes nice to have a little quiet, and there’s nothing better for that than movies from the silent era. Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925, above) is particularly perfect, with its wintry landscape and its heartbreaking New Year’s Eve sequence. Undoubtedly one of the greatest movies ever made, this masterpiece established that genius, art, and popular entertainment actually could go hand-in-hand. Chaplin’s funniest sequences, including the eating of the shoe and the dance of the dinner rolls, are here, but delicately blended with pathos and sadness. The version streaming on Netflix is the original 1925 silent release, and not Chaplin’s preferred 1942 cut (which contains spoken narration and new music), but both are recommended.

Sherlock Jr.

★★★★★

Another of the greatest, funniest movies of all time, Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924) takes a slapstick romance and a mystery about a stolen watch and uses it to tinker with ideas of dreams, reality, and cinema. The most memorable scene has Buster trapped inside a movie screen, and subject to various pitfalls as the scene behind him keeps cutting and changing. Though many still like to argue over the superiority of Keaton vs. Chaplin, they were both brilliant, and both still hilarious.

It

★★★★☆

Clarence G. Badger’s It (1927) is a more sophisticated comedy, i.e. one with less slapstick and more drama. Based on a story by Elinor Glyn, the movie popularized the concept of “it,” or a kind of animal magnetism that both men and women can have (or not have). Certainly star Clara Bow had “it” in spades. She plays a simple shopgirl, Betty Lou, who falls for her wealthy boss and jumps through many hoops, both comedic and melodramatic, to win him. Some sources say that the great director Josef von Sternberg also worked on the movie, without credit.

Diary of a Lost Girl

★★★★★

Drastically different in tone, but also starring an “it” girl, Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) was one of only two films director G.W. Pabst made in Germany with American actress Louise Brooks (the other being Pandora’s Box). True to the title, it’s a pure, sexy, dark, delicious melodrama in which the heroine must deal with one heartbreak and tragedy after another. Brooks’s career was on the rise in America when she broke her contract to travel to Germany with Pabst, and she was all but blackballed for the rest of her career. Her astounding onscreen allure, her boldness, and her acute intelligence (as evidenced by a great book of essays she wrote about Hollywood) have made her the object of fascination by an ever-growing cult of fans.

Metropolis

★★★★★

Another movie with a strong cult following is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), possibly for the cool female robot, but more likely for the still-astonishing visuals, depicting a mind-blowing city of the future. Happily, we have this newly restored 2010 version that incorporates footage recently discovered in Argentina. This version runs two hours and 28 minutes, and it’s the first version—perhaps since the film’s premiere—that feels like it has a proper flow. The story about a man and a woman standing up against a mechanized society and its soulless leaders now plays more logically and less hysterically.

The Thief of Bagdad

★★★★★

Boasting awesome design and art direction by William Cameron Menzies, Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924) is easily the equal of Metropolis, though with more adventure and less social uprising. While Chaplin and Keaton were famous for their incredible physical comedy performances, Douglas Fairbanks was famous for more athletic, exciting stuntwork. His performances can still leave audiences breathless; very few have ever equaled him. In The Thief of Bagdad, Fairbanks plays a scrappy, happy-go-lucky thief who falls in love with a princess. And, yes, a flying carpet comes into it. Another cult actress, Anna May Wong — the first Chinese-American movie star—also appears.

The Last Laugh

★★★★★

German-born F.W. Murnau was one of the greatest of all directors, making Expressionistic movies in Germany before transferring to Hollywood and eventually dying in a car crash at age 42. The Last Laugh (1924) is notable for its almost complete lack of intertitles, telling the story in an entirely visual way. (One title card pops up to explain the movie’s strange and controversial happy ending.) Emil Jannings stars as an aging washroom attendant at a big hotel, who loses his job and finds that life without his uniform (and his purpose) is unacceptable. So he lies to his family and friends and tries to pretend that he is still employed. Despite its dark subject matter, the movie contains some devastatingly beautiful passages, and a great centerpiece performance.

Intolerance

★★★★★

American film pioneer D.W. Griffith is best known for his Civil War-era epic The Birth of a Nation, which was a huge hit and is still hugely controversial. Perhaps responding to some of the outrage, Griffith next made another epic, Intolerance (1916), which is set during four different time periods: ancient Babylon, Calvary, sixteenth century France and modern-day America. Each story depicts a tragedy resulting from some form of government or some puritanical group that inflicts wrong on the less fortunate. As the movie builds to an climax, Griffith uses his gift for intercutting to bring the stories to simultaneous exciting conclusions. In an impressive touch, Griffith’s greatest star, Lillian Gish, only appears in a wraparound sequence, as a symbolic “mother” figure, indicating the timelessness, and the individuality, of the movie’s theme. Unfortunately, the expensive film, with its massive sets and huge cast, flopped and Griffith’s career never fully recovered.

Un Chien Andalou

★★★★★

Spanish director Luis Bunuel made his debut on the 14-minute wonder, Un Chien Andalou (1928), made alongside the great surrealist artist Salvador Dali. Its unconnected, plotless images are simply designed to make a strong impact, and one in particular still does: the slicing of an eyeball (it was apparently a cow’s eye). Much to the disappointment of its makers, it was a success. Bunuel and Dali followed it with the 60-minute L’Age d’Or, which caused more outrage. Many decades later, Bunuel would win an Oscar for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972).

The Artist

★★★☆☆

Unlike any of the other movies mentioned here, The Artist (2011) is a Best Picture Oscar winner, though it has arguably less style or personality than any of them. It borrows some of the themes that were better explored in Singin’ in the Rain to tell the story of a silent-era movie star (Jean Dujardin) whose career suffers with the coming of sound, while a spunky new starlet (Berenice Bejo) rises through the ranks. It’s sluggish and depressing at times, and has very little respect or admiration for silent films of the period, but it also contains many beautiful and inspired sequences… and it has many fans. Perhaps they can be inspired to dig deeper into silent movies.

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