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Subject: alt.movies.silent Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), 4/4
This article was archived around: Sat, 16 Feb 2002 02:00:11 +0000 (UTC)
Copyright: (c) 1999-2002 Rick Levinson and Emily Way
Maintainer: Emily Way <firstname.lastname@example.org> and
Rick Levinson <Rick.Levinson@sympatico.ca>
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 silent films 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?
1. Which silent films are considered "required viewing"?
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
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
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
Abel Gance: NAPOLEON (1927, France)
A six-hour epic with multiple action on split screens. One of the greatest
of all silent historical epics.
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 '25]; OCTOBER aka
TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD ['27] [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 ['27]
A documentary of a day in the city. Dazzling photographic effects.
Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, UN CHIEN ANDALOU aka ANDALUSIAN DOG ['29]
A short masterpiece of surrealism. L'AGE D'OR ['30] is the talkie
Rene Clair, AN ITALIAN STRAW HAT ['27] [France]
One of the most charming farces of the silent era.
Alfred Hitchcock, THE LODGER ['26] [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? 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.
2. 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
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
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
Early Color Motion Picture Processes
3. 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; you can shop online.
Based in Chicago, Facets has a great selection of silent films on
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
For other laserdisc and DVD links, check out:
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
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 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.
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 <email@example.com> and ask him to snail mail the catalog.
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: http://www.blackstardvd.co.uk/
BIMVS, UK: http://www.buy.at/bimvs
DVD World, UK: http://www.dvdworld.co.uk/setup.html
DVD Zone 2, Europe: http://www.dvdzone2.com/
DVD sellers in Region 4:
Digital DVD Shop, Australia: http://www.digitaldvdshop.com/
DVD Rent, Australia: http://www.dvdrent.com.au/dvd/
4. How do I find out about theatrical screenings and TV showings of
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
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
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
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
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
5. Where are the other silent film FAQs?
There are three other FAQs for the alt.movies.silent newsgroup:
* Online resources for silent film
* Books and documentaries about silent film
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Last updated February 15, 2002
Emily Way * emily at vex.net
"No one knows what's on his mind except him and his monkey"