12 Silent Films (You Can Watch) That Still Hold Up
It's sometimes surprising to realize that movies have been around for over a century and that movie staples we know and love like fight scenes, car chases, and old men getting hit in the groin with a football are nearly as old. Cinema started with silent films that would have been accompanied by live music and still held a lot of stage traditions -- including some serious eye makeup for everyone.
But do they hold up? Well, yes and no. For one thing, a lot of them have literally not held up; the film has disintegrated or been otherwise destroyed, and many, many movies are considered lost films. Other surviving films feature things, mainly gross racist stereotypes and bullshit that would have been considered acceptable 100 years ago but are actually objectively terrible. However, some of them manage to retain their charm over the decades. The following is a list of silent films that more or less hold up today, and they're all available on YouTube. Watch them with a proverbial grain of salt because, after 100+ years, some of their new and exciting elements are, well, 100 years old by the time we're seeing them ...
The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari By Robert Wiene, 1920
This moody film is the pinnacle of German Expressionism, full of distorted, nightmarish sets and makeup that inspired the goths of the future. The story tells of a mad doctor who uses a sleepwalker to murder people ... or does it? The surreal, high-drama scenery gives this movie a timeless quality that makes it hold up a century later and has influenced countless other artists. It's also fun to see how far-reaching its influence has been on cinema and more.
Stuff That Doesn't Hold Up: The movie has an "asylum" theme that reflects mental health practices of the time, which by today's standards is ... pretty horrific.
Watch It: YouTube. Run time 75 minutes. Intertitle cards in German.
The Lodger: A Story Of The London Fog By Alfred Hitchcock, 1927
A mysterious but handsome lodger moves in with a family, while a killer stalks women with blonde hair (but only on Tuesdays). As the lodger and the family's daughter, who happens to be blonde, fall in love, suspicions about the lodger's past begin to surface. This is the fourth of Hitchcock's films, and while he's most famous for his sound films, you can already see the trademarks of his directorial style and noirish subject matter. Our heroine, Daisy, is a model, and so we get some great 1920s high fashion moments. This film also uses different colors to show night, day, and indoor scenes.
Stuff That Doesn't Hold Up: Hitchcock gonna Hitchcock, and his blonde fetish is right out in the open here. It's also questionable as to why Daisy is into the lodger in the first place because he's real weird.
Watch It: YouTube. Run time 91 minutes. The video has not-original music added, and they made some strange choices.
Faust By F. W. Murnau, 1926
Based on Goethe's 1808 classic as well as older versions of the German folktale, this movie tells the story of an alchemist who sells his soul for youth, beauty, and riches but must contend with the consequences. The set pieces are still impressive, and the special effects, which include simple practices like double exposures, drawing on the film, and miniatures, still manage to be completely effective. It was a commercial flop when it first came out in the '20s, but is considered today to be one of the finest examples of German Expressionist cinema.
Stuff That Doesn't Hold Up: This film holds up pretty well. It assumes familiarity with Christian ideas, but nothing too deep.
Watch It: YouTube. Run time 115 minutes. Intertitles in English.
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Metropolis By Fritz Lang, 1927
Considered a pioneering film in the sci-fi genre, Metropolis features sweeping city vistas and images of a technological future as well as a sharply stratified society. The film was truncated for a long time, but when a lost reel was found in Argentina in 2008, a more complete version was released. The film's exploration of class, technology, and progress still feels relevant, but the movie has been interpreted in various ways by many people over the years.
Stuff That Doesn't Hold Up: Well, the technology imagined in the '20s isn't exactly accurate, but the wealth disparity sure is. The film's solution about "working together" might feel a little pat for modern audiences, and the implication that protesting workers are equally as bad as exploitative tycoons feels off in today's time.
Watch It: YouTube. Run time 149 minutes (it's long). Intertitles in German and English. The complete 2010 restoration is also available to watch on YouTube but clocks in at over three hours and only has German intertitles.
A Page Of Madness By Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926
Lost for 45 years, before being rediscovered in a warehouse in 1971, this film was created by an avant-garde literary group called the Shinkankakuha, who were interested in a more expressionist way of making movies. The film, which relies solely on visuals to depict the story with no dialogue, tells the story of a janitor working in an asylum and the fantasies he experiences when the asylum and his personal life begin to overlap. Full of surreal imagery and innovative camera work, including some animation, the film is dreamy and fascinating.
Stuff That Doesn't Hold Up: Like Caligari, the film takes place in a 1920s asylum, which is very dated by today's mental healthcare standards, and also includes reference to the stigmas against mental health common in 1920s Japan.
Watch It: YouTube. Run time 71 minutes. No intertitles.
A Trip To The Moon By Georges Melies, 1902
This movie tells the story of, well, some people taking a trip to the moon. It's less a narrative and more a spectacle of the technology of film, which was in its infancy in 1902. The special effects consist of camera cuts, and the film is full of wacky costumes, set pieces, and props, and there's a definite "school play" feeling about it, with lots of bumbling around and wild emoting; one imagines it was pretty silly in 1902, as well. But it's also really inventive, and a lot of fun and has influenced a number of modern artists. You can see references to it in everything from the Smashing Pumpkins to Futurama.
Stuff That Doesn't Hold Up: Spoilers: Melies' 1902 ideas about rocketry and the moon are not accurate. The Earthlings definitely exhibit some imperialist tendencies, though it's been suggested that the film is actually satirizing this and has anti-imperialist ideals. Discuss this with your friends.
Watch It: YouTube. Run time 13 minutes. This version has no intertitle cards and no sound. Provide your own music and dialogue.
Body And Soul By Oscar Micheaux, 1925.
Oscar Micheaux was a prolific Black filmmaker who created "race films," movies created specifically for Black audiences with Black casts and crews. His films portray the complex lives of contemporary Black people, a refreshing change from the ugly stereotypes that littered movies made by white directors. This film is a thriller about a criminal disguised as a reverend who takes advantage of a community and a family, with tragic consequences. Full of suspense as well as some truly upsetting violence, it's also actor Paul Robeson's film debut as the dual roles of the Reverend and his good twin brother.
Stuff That Doesn't Hold Up: The regional accents spelled out in the intertitle cards can be hard to read; use the pause button.
Watch It: YouTube. Run time 79 minutes. The version that exists today is not the original; it was edited down to appease the Motion Picture Commission. Micheaux's original version, which was much longer, is considered lost today.
It By Clarence Badger, 1927
No, not the one about scary clowns. This rom-com is about as far away from anything Stephen King as you can get and was the film to give rise to the term "It Girl." The It Girl in question here is the perennially adorable Clara Bow, who plays a shopgirl who falls in love with her boss, and uses her "It" factor to win his heart. If you like rom-coms with all their misunderstandings and wacky scenarios, you'll like this. Clara is delightful as the quintessential 1920s modern young woman, and the movie is full of great flapper fashion. Highlights include scenes of Coney Island in the '20s and old-timey slang like "Hot socks!"
Stuff That Doesn't Hold Up: Part of the plot hinges on social opinions of the times about single mothers. Dating your boss is also now an HR nightmare. The definition of "It" assumes heterosexuality. 1920s eyebrow trends might be due for a comeback, though.
Watch It: YouTube. Run time 77 minutes.
Suspense By Lois Weber, 1913
This short thriller tells a home invasion story and the daring rescue that must take place to save a woman (played by director Lois Weber) and child. The story is nothing particularly new, but the film features some effects that would, in later years, become cinema standards, including a car chase and split screens to show people talking on the phone, and it's fun to see how these familiar features in one of their earliest forms. Weber was a pioneering female director and used her films to make social statements.
Stuff That Doesn't Hold Up: The main idea of this movie seems to be "homeless people are scary," which isn't cool.
Watch It: YouTube. Run time 10 minutes.
Mary Jane's Mishap By George Albert Smith, 1903
This silly short teaches us the dangers of lighting a stove with a full container of paraffin wax, which is totally something most of us deal with in the 21st century. Actress and filmmaker Laura Bayley, who was also director Smith's wife, stars as Mary Jane, a bumbling maid who makes this mistake and explodes. The film is really a showcase of techniques, including superimposed shots to create the effect of a ghost (Mary Jane looking for her paraffin can in the afterlife). It's silly. They knew it was silly.
Stuff That Doesn't Hold Up: Paraffin and stove-lighting aren't exactly the relatable things they used to be.
Watch It: YouTube. Run time 4 minutes.
Herr Arnes Pengar (Sir Arne's Treasure) By Mauritz Stiller, 1919
This Swedish period piece tells the tale of three Scottish mercenaries who murder a nobleman and his family for their treasure. A lone daughter survives, and she and one of the mercenaries fall in love without realizing who the other is. The story ends in tragedy, of course. It features some great period costumes from the 16th century when the story takes place. There's also a dog and some great long shots across frozen land and sea.
Stuff That Doesn't Hold Up: The story is a bit melodramatic. In addition, this movie, in particular, has very dense narrative intertitle cards, and there's quite a bit of reading. The cards, designed by Alva Lundin, are beautiful, but they're long.
Watch It: YouTube. Run time 96 minutes.
Within Our Gates By Oscar Micheaux, 1919
Created in direct response to D.W. Griffith's racist epic Birth of a Nation, this film is an unflinching look at the prejudice and violence faced by Black communities in the South as well as the North and explores the Great Migration. It tells the tale of Sylvia, who, rejected by her fiance, dedicates herself to saving a school in the South for the children of Black sharecroppers. The story starts with a love triangle, then explores larger themes of race in the United States. Micheaux also explores and denounces lynching and rape of Black people by white people, as well as other less overt but no less insidious forms of racism. It's a hard movie to watch at times; the violence is harrowing, but it's a direct and absolutely necessary take on the realities faced by Black communities.
Stuff That Doesn't Hold Up: Micheaux has been criticized for falling into colorism, casting lighter-skinned actors in more heroic roles.
Watch It: YouTube. The original English intertitles have been lost. The ones you see here are translated from a Spanish version of the film, so this is not the original dialogue or narrative.
These are very early shorts in which directors explore various camera tricks, narrative elements, and more. Perfect for cinema history on the go.
The Big Swallow, dir. James Williamson, 1901: Camera tricks make it look like a guy swallows the camera (and the cameraman) whole.
La Fee aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy), dir. Alice Guy-Blache, 1900. Arguably the first narrative on film and the first film directed by a woman, this film actually used to be longer, but only this fragment remains of a fairy pulling babies out of a cabbage patch. Probably don't take advice on handling babies from her.
The X-Rays, dir. G.A. Smith, 1897. From the same weirdos who brought you Mary Jane's Mishap comes the story of two flirting skeletons.
Edward Turner Clips, 1901-1902. These are just clips, but they're the earliest color film examples known.
Top Image: Parufamet