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A Guide to Films From the Silent Era

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A Guide to Films from the Silent Era



Imagine watching a film with no dialogue or sound, just actors on the screen. What type of film would this be you might ask. These types of films are called, silent films. Silent films were first introduced in 1888. A silent film was shot at variable speeds, 16 to 23 frames per second or even faster, which depended upon the year and the studio. The actors in silent films would emphasize both their body language and facial expressions in order for the audience to understand the actor’s role and emotions being portrayed. Another tool that was used to help the audience understand the actors were intertitles. The films’ intertitles were used to narrate story points, present any key dialogue, and even comment on certain actions. Even though these were defined as silent films, they were always accompanied by live music. A silent film may be something that doesn’t catch your eye, but they were very popular in the 1920’s during the silent film era. Below is a list of the most popular silent films of that era:

 

  • Birth of A NationBirth of a Nation was made in 1915 by director/producer D. W. Griffith. The movie was filmed in Hollywood and was released on February 8, 1915 in Los Angeles at Clune’s Auditorium. During its first release, the original title of this film was The Clansmen. On March 3, 1915, the film title was changed and released under Birth of a Nation. The story behind the movie consists of two families, the Stonemans and the Camerons, as they join opposite sides during the Civil War. The film also depicts the development of the Civil War, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, as well the Ku Klux Klan. The main actors are: 
    • Spottiswoode Aitken – Dr. Cameron 
    • Josephine Crowell – Mrs. Cameron
    • Henry B. Walthall – Ben Cameron, the “Little Colonel”
    • Joseph Henabery - Abraham Lincoln
    • John Ford - the Klansman 
    • Miriam Cooper - Margaret Cameron, the older sister
    • Violet Wilkey - Flora Cameron, the younger sister as a child 
    • Mae Marsh - Flora Cameron, the younger sister when she’s older
    • George Beranger - Wade Cameron, one of the "chums"
    • Maxfield Stanley - Duke Cameron, one of the "chums"
    • Justin Stoneman - father of the Stoneman family
    • Lillian Gish - Elsie Stoneman, the daughter
    • Elmer Clifton - Phil Stoneman, the older brother
    • Robert Harron - Tod Stoneman, the younger brother
  • Broken Blossoms – This is another film directed by D. W. Griffith in 1919. It was also filmed here in the USA. Broken Blossoms tells the tragic love story of a Chinese man who is in love with a young girl named Lucy. The father of the girl enters a boxing match but is defeated. Because of his defeat, he punishes his daughter by brutally beating her and eventually killing her. The Chinese man then kills the father and later commits suicide. The main actors of the film are:
    • Richard Barthelmess – immigrant Chinese man
    • Lillian Gish – Lucy
    •  Donald Crisp - Burrows

 

  • The Cabinet of Dr. CaligariA film directed in Germany in the year of 1920, by director, Robert Wiene. Dr. Caligari shows up in a town one day and sets up a somnambulist show, which is also known as a sleepwalking man show. The sleepwalker, by the name of Cesare, is the star of the show. When night falls, Cesare is released from his casket and engages in killing sprees across the town. The film’s actors are:
    • Werner Kraub – Dr. Caligari
    • Conrad Veidt – Cesare

  • Nosferatu – Nosferatu was filmed in 1922 in Germany by director F. W. Murnau. This particular film is the story about a vampire named, Count Orlock and his quest to bite the beautiful neck of Ellen Hutter. The actors in this film are:
    • Max Schreck – Count Orlock
    • Gustav von Wangenheim – Thomas Hutter
    • Greta Schroder – Ellen Hutter
    • Max Nemetz – captain of the boat
    • Alexander Granach – Knock
    • Gustav Botz – Dr. Sievers
  • Nanook of the NorthThis film was directed in 1923 in the USA by director Robert J. Flaherty. Flaherty wanted to show the audience how life for an Eskimo is. He followed Nanook, an Eskimo, who is the main character as he went about life hunting for food and shelter.

  • The Last LaughThe Last Laugh was directed in 1924 in Germany by F. W. Murnau. The film tells the story of an aging doorman demoted to lavatory duty and how he tries to hang on to his former status. The actors are:
    • Emil Jannings – the doorman
    • Hans Unterkircher – hotel manager

 

  • StrikeThis is a film directed by Sergei Einstein in 1925 in Russia. Set in a factory in Russia during the Czarist rule, a worker hangs himself after he is falsely accused of robbery. A strike among the workers follows shortly after this horrible event. The characters in this film are as follows:
    • Ivan Klyukvin – activist
    • Alexander Antonov – member of the Strike Committee
    • Grigori – Alexandrov – factory foreman
    • Mikhail Gomorov – worker
    • Maxim Strauch – police spy
    • I. Ivanov – Chief of Police
    • Boris Yurtsev – King of Thieves
    • Judith Glizer – Queen of Thieves

  • Potemkin - The Battleship Potemkin is a film directed by Sergei Eisenstein in 1925 in the country of Russia. The film tells the story of the crew’s decision to put mutiny into action due to the horrible conditions aboard. The characters in this film are:
    • Vladamir Barsky – Captain Golikov
    • G. V. Alexander – Chief Officer Giliarovsky
    • A. Antonov - Vakulinchuk

  • The Gold RushThe Gold Rush was directed by the famous Charles Chaplin in 1925 in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Alaska’s Yukon Gold Rush of 1898 inspired the story behind this influential film. The film stars the following characters:
    • Charlie Chaplin – the lone prospector
    • Mack Swain – Big Jim McKay
    • Tom Murray – Black Larson
    • Georgia Hale – The Girl (Georgia)

  • Streets of SorrowA film set in Germany and directed by G. W. Pabst in 1925. Another name for this film is The Joyless Street. It shows life in Vienna after the First World War. The inspiration of this film came from Pabst’s personal experiences with poverty in Vienna after World War I. The cast includes:
    • Asta Nielsen – Maria Lechner
    • Greta Garbo – Greta Rumfort
    • Elnar Hanson – Lieutenant Davis
  • Metropolis – Direct Fritz Lang directed this film in 1927 in Germany. This film is considered one of the earliest and perhaps the most expensive science fiction films. In the year 2026, workers are forced to be underground slaves for a capitalist society who lives on the surface in the lap of luxury. The main plot consists of a love story between a woman from the lower class and a man from the upper class. The characters in this film are:
    • Alfred Abel - Joh Fredersen ( Master of Metropolis)
    • Gustav Frohlich - Frederer Fredersen
    • Rudolph Klein-Rogge - Rotwang
    • Brigitte Helm – Maria the robot

  • Sunrise – This is another film by director F. W. Murnau, which was filmed in 1927 in the U.S. Sunrise is the story of a farmer who has an affair with a woman from the city. The characters are:
    • George O’Brien – the man
    • Janet Gaynor – the wife
    • Margaret Livingston – woman from the city
  • The Blue Angel – A film directed in 1929 by Josef Van Sternberg in Germany. The film tells the story of a high school professor who falls in love with a cabaret singer, played by  Marlene Dietrich. Life for the both of them doesn’t result in what neither of them had wished for.

  • All Quiet on the Western Front – Filmed in Germany in 1930 by Lewis Milestone. A film set during World War I and shows the story of a group of German schoolboys who are forced to enlist in the war by their teacher. The main cast of this film are:
    • Lew Ayres- Paul Baumer
    • Louis Wolheim – Kat Katczinsky
    • John Wray - Himmelstob
    • George "Slim" Summerville - Tjaden

  • M – This is another Fritz Lang film made in Germany in 1931. The story is a gruesome one, telling the tale of a young man named Hans Beckert, who is obsessed with strangling children. The cast of this film are:
    • Peter Lorre – Hans Beckert, the murderer
    • Otto Wenicke – Inspector Karl Lohmann
    • Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur – Chief of Police
    • Rudolph Blummer – defense lawyer

  • City Lights – Here’s another film by Charlie Chaplin made in 1931 in Hollywood, CA. Chaplin falls in love with a blind flower girl who mistakes him for being a millionaire. The main actors are:
    • Charlie Chaplin – The Tramp
    • Virginia Cherrill – blind flower girl

  • Modern Times – This is also a Charlie Chaplin film directed in 1936 in the U.S. The film is based on one simple element, time. The main characters of this film are:
    • Charlie Chaplin – The Tramp
    • Paulette Goddard – The Gamine

 

The silent film era introduced us to a world where actors had to take their body language to another level in order for the audience to be one with them. This was merely a stepping stone for many young actors. Although thousands of silent films were still made even with the introduction of sound, it is estimated that 80 to 90 percent of these films were lost. Some of these lost silent films include Saved from the Titanic (1912), The Apostle (1917), and Cleopatra (1917). Even though most of the lost films will never be recovered, some have been discovered in private collections and even film archives. One great example happened in 1978 in Dawson City, Yukon.  Buried reels of nitrate film were uncovered by a bulldozer when excavating a landfill. The films found are now safe at the Library of Congress. With the world today being a great technology era, silent films can be preserved by transferring them to a CD-ROM or other types of digital media. Silent films may be the thing of the past, but the era will always be remembered as a great one.