Turner Classic Movies (TCM) has provided a wealth of classic movies for cinephiles to watch, commercial-free, since April 1994. They’re a tremendous resource, offering films 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Part of what makes them so lovable is their dedication to silent cinema. They have a weekly feature called “Silent Sundays” during which they air several hours of silent films beginning at midnight. It’s no surprise that the recent success of The Artist, a modern-day silent film, would grab TCM’s eye. To celebrate the film a few weeks ago, they released their own list of the 10 Most Influential Silent Films. It was an impressive list, and can be found here. I think it’s a tremendous starting place for movie-watchers interested in silent cinema. Having said that, I think it could easily be expanded to include ten more films. Here are ten that I think could be added:
TCM included a different Murnau film–Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)–but just as easily could have used Nosferatu. It was a game-changer in cinema, helping establish the template for German Expressionism and the future of horror films, as well as horror villains. It pushed the boundaries of grotesque while linking sexuality and disease, stirring fear among its viewers.
Pandora’s Box (1929)
Thanks to Louise Brooks’ performance, Pandora’s Box created ripples throughout conservative society. Her character altered fashion trends, presented a free female sexuality, and perfectly embodied the lifestyle of the roaring 20s, both in the U.S. and Germany.
The General (1926)
While I can’t dispute any of TCM’s choices, I was shocked that Buster Keaton’s seminal work, The General, didn’t make the cut. Keaton’s comedy has been cited as an influence on everyone from Jackie Chan to Mel Brooks and the Marx brothers. His bits were borrowed by Red Skelton, the Three Stooges, Bugs Bunny, and even Charlie Chaplin. Without Keaton, the bulk of 20th century comedy would’ve been considerably less funny, and The General is his most celebrated work.
If Birth of a Nation (1915) can make TCM’s list on the strength of its technical wizardry, so too can Abel Gance’s Napoléon. Gance reached into his bag of tricks with aplomb throughout the 5+ hour film. It features triptych cinematography; handheld/shaky cam; cameras swooping down from the ceiling onto the French Revolution to accentuate the pandemonium; panoramic shots; split screens; color tinting; and overlapping imagery, just to name a few.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Like Nosferatu of the same era, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was a forerunner of the horror genre, and also laid the groundwork for film noir, as an achievement of German Expressionism. In addition to helping establish templates for the grotesque, Dr. Caligari is widely considered the first film to feature a “twist” ending.
Un Chien Andalou (1929)
This Buñuel/Dali collaboration showed future filmmakers just how much capability they had to create a dream world for their viewers. It showed future filmmakers that strict plot structure was not at all imperative. It showed future filmmakers that they could take a weighty philosophical subtext and embed it in their films. It showed future filmmakers the great effect with which they could use their special effects. In short, it’s a landmark of filmmaking.
The Unknown (1927)
TCM even cites this film in their article, as it’s named a favorite by Michel Hazanavicius, director of The Artist. He calls it “a sexy, perverse film that takes place in a gypsy circus”. It’s also, in my opinion, Lon Chaney, Sr.’s best work. He spends the bulk of the film playing an armless man who must do everything with his feet, and has to inject the air of sexual perversion into his performance at the same time. It’s truly an eye-opener.
The Big Parade (1925)
Just as Nosferatu was a game-changer for horror, The Big Parade did the same for war films. Director King Vidor pulled no punches in showing the effects of war, leaving his protagonist missing a leg amid a flood of carnage and violence.
The Phantom Carriage (1921)
The Phantom Carriage is part of Victor Sjöstrom’s catalogue that famously turned young Ingmar Bergman onto film. The grim reaper clearly gave baby Bergman some ideas for later use. The camera tricks are beautiful, breathtaking, and creepy. And the story is a treasure trove for folklorists, drawing inspiration from an old Swedish folk tale about New Year’s Eve.
Safety Last (1923)
Harold Lloyd’s comedy is iconic if for no other reason than the intense scene in which he frantically grips the hands of a clock atop a skyscraper, with his own impending doom beneath him. It’s one of the most memorable scenes in film history placed in one of the best comedies of the silent era.