Have you ever read a movie list you agreed with 100%? Of course not. And that’s the fun of them. A cinema buff’s spluttering outrage over the omission of a favourite title, just like his or her tutting dismay over the running order, fools no one. We love other people’s lists, because they give us the opportunity to write our own. And no doubt our first move is to increase the number of silent films in the countdown.
Well I’m happy to say that Bryony Dixon’s 100 Silent Films offers a very different kind of pleasure. For one, all these films are silent, and its alphabetical presentation means that we are not faced with the problem of comparing, and placing in order, such disparate films as The Big Swallow (1901), Napoleon (1927) and The Battle of the Somme (1916). (You’re thinking about it now, though, aren’t you?)
Dixon, the curator of silent film at the British Film Institute and co-founder of the British Silent Film Festival, has written an engaging guide to the world of silent cinema – ostensibly for novices, but with plenty to please those longer in the tooth. 100 Silent Films is part of a series of Screen Guides that includes 100 Westerns, 100 Shakespeare Films, and so on – but as the author points out, silent cinema is not as easily digestible a topic. “Silent cinema is not a genre; it’s the first thirty-five years of film history … a complex negotiation between art and commerce, and a union of creativity and technology.” So Dixon makes no bones about the fact her project is a vast one, and many of her chosen films have very little in common. Refreshingly, she doesn’t try to fit the awkward square pegs into round holes, but presents each film on its own terms. She’s wary of misplacing “isms” (expressionism, surrealism, feminism) and hesitates to put the titles into anachronistic categories such as film noir.
The result is a list, not of the greatest silent films of all time, but 100 interesting titles that provide a broadminded introduction to early cinema. This is no bluffer’s guide. The enjoyment of silent cinema is Dixon’s priority, and there are no prizes for coming first – you won’t find La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (1895) here, but we do have Mitchell & Kenyon’s longer, livelier film from 1901 :Alfred Butterworth & Sons, Leaving the Works, Glebe Mills, Hollinford.
In fact, 100 Silent Films is quite a personal list, biased slightly but unapologetically towards British film, and covering newsreel, animation and early actualities with the same enthusiasm as it does European epics and money-spinning Hollywood classics. Dixon offers just two Chaplin films (The Kid and The Gold Rush) but finds room for a 21st-century silent: Guy Maddin’s frenzied Soviet-style short The Heart of the World (2000). There are films from China and Japan – as well as what we would now call star vehicles for Rudolph Valentino and Clara Bow. It’s this slight quirkiness that makes the choices memorable, and intrigues the reader enough to keep turning the page. You really don’t know where you are going to end up next.
And hearteningly, this is a very practical list, too. These 100 films are not hidden in archives, but films that you can feasibly watch, whether at screenings, on DVD or even on the internet. (Did you know that all four hours of The Nibelungen Saga is available on YouTube in seven-minute chunks? You do now.) As a blogger, I really wanted to discover an online appendix to the book, explaining which films are available in online archives, or on DVD, but this of course would date very fast. The majority of these films are available on DVD though, and it is remarkable how many of the titles on this list have already been screened in London this year – or are coming up in the next six months. In fact it is because digital technology has made so many silent films are available, that this book is so valuable. Faced with so many options, blossoming silent film enthusiasts may need a guiding hand. And I particularly liked the advice and about when you should “read around” a film before watching it, and equally, when you shouldn’t.
As Dixon says when discussing Hell’s Hinges (1916): “Nearly everything in current cinema can be traced back to the silent era.” And that’s why this guide is so valuable – anyone interested in how cinema became what it is today will find many of the answers here, both in Bryony Dixon’s illuminating book and the films you will rush to watch the minute you put it down.
100 Silent Films by Bryony Dixon is published by BFI/Palgrave Macmillan. If you want to spoil all your fun, the full list of films included in the book is available here.
• UPDATE: If you want to buy 100 Silent Films at a special reduced price for readers of this blog, click here.