Prompt #21: A Silent Movie

Intertitle from Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931)

This is one of my favorite prompts and I’m so excited for it!

Silent movies are a thing of the past… literally. Before a single iconic quote was uttered on screen, before sound editing / mixing were given their own awards, before talkies shocked audiences as state-of-the-art cinema, a man and his piano were the only thing you’d hear to accompany a film. Sometimes the film reels came with sheet music, sometimes the musician improvised, sometimes a record was put on instead. Regardless, ‘going to the cinema’ in the early parts of the 20thcentury was a very different scenario than the audio-heavy, surround-sound experience of movies today.

There are pros and cons to the dichotomy of old cinema versus new, in my opinion. On the one hand: of course the constant development of technology in filmmaking has opened up the medium to endless possibilities of entertainment (and education, let’s not forget the development of documentary alongside any narrative cinema). On the other hand: movies have developed into an all-encompassing experience where imagination sometimes simply gets in the way for an audience member. Back when cinema was little more than theater on screen, imagination was still a necessity: the man dressed in spandex was actually an alien, the actor wildly gesturing with his hands was truly saying the words written on the intertitles, and a man with a rocket stuck in his eye was a proper representation of the moon. In short, our collective suspension of disbelief has plummeted in a world where a robot can be a fully-rendered CGI being, not Brigitte Helm in an uncomfortable metal costume. Yes, the advent of sound, the developed techniques of an editing language, and the impressive progression of special effects has given us unparalleled storytelling and art, but sometimes I wish I was in a movie house, watching Buster Keaton perform his miraculous (but very real) stunts while a piano clunked along to the images.

Fortunately for me, I can make that wish come true. I am lucky enough to live near a metropolis (haha, get it?) that has arthouse cinemas the likes of which occasionally show silent films with live accompaniment! So do a quick online search for arthouse cinemas near you; you never know what you may find (shout out to Coolidge Corner and Somerville Theatre in Boston!). If you don’t have something like that at your disposal, you’ve still got the handy-dandy internet. That’s right, the technology I just poo-poo-ed a second ago has given us wonders (such as streaming) and a world of films old and new are now at our fingertips. Two words of warning, however, and those two words are “score” and “color”. It would do well to take an extra minute to research the version of whatever film you’re about to see and make sure that it 1) has the original score (or, if that’s not possible, a professionally-rendered replacement), and 2) if it’s colored, it’s supposed to be colored. Sometimes re-releases of these classics involved experimentation that simply do not work, and you don’t want your experience ruined because joe-schmo tried his hand at making an original score for Nosferatu.

To that end, here are my recommendations. Enjoy!


  • A Trip to the Moon (1902): I think people are getting sick of me talking about Georges Méliès and Le Voyage Dans La Lune. Well, tough. The world should know about this man and I will never stop loving this movie. You may be familiar with Méliès: he was the subject of the film Hugo a few years back (an adorable love letter to him and his legacy) and just the other week Google presented its very first VR / 360° interactive Google Doodle on the subject of Méliès and his work (check it out here). In short, Méliès was one of the very first to create a narrative film (not THE first: Lumière beat him to the punch, as did Alice Guy-Blanché – you go, girl) but his films (especially this one) are often cited as the beginning of narrative cinema and A Trip to the Moon is often deemed the medium’s first science fiction / fantasy film. That wasn’t short, was it? In any event – this is a wild ride of a film that is entertaining as hell and everyone should see at least once.


  • The Kid (1921): I went through a Charlie Chaplin phase a few years ago. At the end, I had amassed quite the collection of Chaplin films – both short and feature – and, let me tell you, The Kid is his masterpiece (with fairness, The Gold Rush is a close second… and many will argue Modern Times or City Lights is actually his best and have reason to do so… and you will NEVER find a better film monologue than the one from The Great Dictator. Seriously, go look it up. I’ll wait.). Okay, okay, so basically any silent Chaplin is a great option for this prompt and you have so many to choose from, but The Kid is my personal choice for many reasons: it was his first feature, he portrays his iconic tramp to its fullest potential, and I’m always a sucker for an orphan story. If those sound like things you want to watch, you won’t be disappointed.


  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920): If you’re a visual person, this is a must-watch. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the go-to title when referring to German Expressionism, and with good reason. A highly stylized horror, this is a silent film that uses the lack of sound to its fullest advantage, focusing instead on lighting, set design, and make-up to creep its audience out and purposefully give a sense of unease. I mean, the main character is an insane hypnotist: need I say more?


  • Family-Friendly Alternative* – Cinderella (1922): I’ve also been told I talk too much about Lotte Reiniger (I recommended another one of her works in week 10: The Adventures of Prince Achmed). Again, don’t care. Lotte Reiniger was a German animator with a steady career of features, shorts, and even advertising. She did stop-action silhouette animation (one of the first to do so) and her most popular were based on fairy tales such as Cinderella. Simply put, it’s enchanting, it’s gorgeous, and it was clearly done by the hand of an artist.

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