You Gotta Know These Silent Films
- The Corbett–Fitzsimmons Fight (1897) is a film of the 1897 match in which boxer Bob Fitzsimmons knocked out Jim Corbett in the fourteenth round, becoming the World Heavyweight Champion. The film, footage for which was shot by three separate cameras, contained all of the match’s rounds; thus, its run time of over approximately 90 minutes made it the first feature-length film ever created. The film was overseen by Enoch Rector, an employee of the Kinetoscope Exhibition Company who created the huge Veriscope camera, and utilized the innovation of the Latham loop, which stabilized a strip of film and allowed films to be much longer than previously possible. Much of the film is now considered lost.
- A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) (1902) was written and directed by pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès, who also plays the film’s protagonist, Professor Barbenfouillis. The professor leads a group of explorers who travel to the moon by entering a bullet-shaped capsule that is fired out of a cannon; this leads to the film’s most iconic shot, as the Man in the Moon is struck in the eye by the capsule. On the moon, they are observed by Greco-Roman gods, find a cave filled with giant mushrooms, and encounter a strange race of lunar creatures (Selenites) who disappear in a puff of smoke when struck. The explorers are captured by the Selenites; after killing the Selenite ruler, they flee back to their capsule and return to Earth—with a Selenite clinging along for the ride. The film, which was based on the works of Jules Verne, runs between approximately 10 and 20 minutes, depending on the speed the film is played.
- The Great Train Robbery (1903) was a Western film directed by Edwin S. Porter and distributed by Thomas Edison’s manufacturing company. Outlaws force a telegraph operator to order a train to stop; the outlaws then board the stopped train, steal the mail on board, rob the passengers, and escape on the decoupled locomotive. Meanwhile, the telegraph operator is discovered and freed, and a posse is organized to chase the robbers. In a climactic battle, the posse kills all of the outlaws. The film, 12–13 minutes long, was a huge commercial success, and is often claimed to be the first narrative film—which is completely untrue. In an iconic scene included with the film, Justus Barnes (who played the outlaw leader) fires his pistol directly into the camera.
- The Birth of a Nation (1915), directed by D. W. Griffith, is simultaneously lauded as a landmark work in the history of filmmaking and reviled for its horrifying racism. The film, which was based on and originally titled for Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman, is a three-hour epic that follows the Stoneman family of D.C. and the Cameron family of South Carolina through the eras of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The families are united by the love of Elsie Stoneman (played by Lillian Gish) and Ben Cameron (played by Henry Walthall). In the film, Ben Cameron founds the Ku Klux Klan to rescue white southerners from newly freed and empowered African-Americans; the film is commonly cited as the major factor behind the rebirth of the real-life KKK shortly after its release. At its release, the film was protested by the NAACP and many other groups due to its overt racist content.
- Intolerance (1916), also directed by D. W. Griffith, was partly inspired by what Griffith considered to be the “intolerant” reactions of those who protested against The Birth of a Nation. Griffith’s film—which, at a run time of over 200 minutes, was even longer than Birth—weaves together four tales in which intolerance causes a great tragedy: the fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of Christ, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and the contemporary story of a fictional mill worker strike. The film repeatedly cuts between the four stories, using the image of a woman (Lillian Gish) rocking a cradle to transition between them. The film was notable for its massive budget, and for its massive sets—for the depiction of Belshazzar’s Feast in the “Babylon” section of the film, Griffith built a 300-foot-tall set complete with monumental sculptures.
- The Thief of Baghdad (1924) is an adventure film loosely based on the Arabian Nights directed by Raoul Walsh, starring Douglas Fairbanks (who had previously starred in 1922’s Robin Hood) as a thief named Ahmed. After sneaking into the caliph’s palace, Ahmed falls in love with the princess; he subsequently disguises himself to compete with three other princes for her hand in marriage. Although he is exposed as a common thief, he eventually manages to win over the caliph by summoning a magical army to defeat the forces of the treacherous Mongol prince. This film—with its at-the-time staggering budget of over 1 million dollars—was notable for its lavish special effects, including a flying horse and a flying carpet.
- The Phantom of the Opera (1925) is an adaptation of the Gaston Leroux novel of the same name. The film starred legendary horror actor Lon Chaney as Erik, a deformed polymath and composer who haunts the Paris Opera House and torments managers and stars. Erik falls in love with Christine Daaé, a young singer whom he tutors in secret. Christine is also loved by the vicomte Raoul. The Phantom captures and nearly kills Raoul, but relents when Christine pleads for Raoul’s life; the Phantom is eventually killed by a mob as Raoul and Christine escape together. The film is notable for Chaney’s horrifying makeup as the Phantom, which Chaney devised himself; the iconic scene in which Christine removes the Phantom’s mask and first reveals his skull-like face has remained shocking to even 21st-century audiences.
- Metropolis (1927), directed by German filmmaker Fritz Lang, was a landmark epic film in the science fiction genre. Freder (played by Gustav Fröhlich) is the son of Joh Fredersen, the “master” of a city whose upper-class elite live lives powered by machines run by impoverished workers. After falling in love with Maria, a member of the worker class, Freder joins with the workers in their struggle to improve their lives, wishing to serve as a “mediator” between the upper and lower classes. An inventor named Rotwang creates a robot double of Maria to disrupt the workers’ attempts at organizing. At its release, Metropolis was lambasted for its length of 2.5 hours. The film is renowned for its pioneering and influential robot costuming, as well as for cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan’s technique for using mirrors to make human actors appear to be part of miniature sets.
- Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) (1929) is a collaborative work between artist Salvador Dalí and filmmaker Luis Buñuel. It is an iconic work in the artistic style of surrealism, as it intentionally has no discernable plot; its title cards also indicate unusual time jumps, such as “eight years later,” “sixteen years earlier,” “about 3 in the morning.” The film opens with one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history: a short of a cloud crossing in front of the moon is intercut with a shot of a man slicing a woman’s eye open with a razor (actually the eye of a dead calf). The film’s other notable shots include ants emerging from a man’s hand and two people buried in sand. Dalí himself appears in the film as a priest. Dalí and Buñuel collaborated on a followup to the film, L’Age d’Or (The Age of Gold), released the following year.
- City Lights (1931) was written by, was directed by, and starred Charlie Chaplin, in his recurring character of the “Little Tramp.” While wandering the street, the Tramp meets a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill), with whom he falls in love; due to a series of coincidences, the flower girl comes to believe the Tramp is wealthy. Through his encounters with a millionaire—who repeatedly befriends the Tramp while drunk, but forgets having done so once sober—the Tramp acquires enough money to pay for a medical procedure that will restore the girl’s sight. Her vision restored, the flower girl recognizes the poor Tramp as her benefactor via the feel of his hand. City Lights is unusual in that it was a silent feature film made after The Jazz Singer (1927) had inaugurated the era of “talkies”; while City Lights does not feature any spoken dialogue, it does have a synchronized soundtrack.
This article was contributed by NAQT member Jason Thompson.