The top 10 silent film dream sequences

Silents by numbers

This is a guest post for Silent London by Paul Joyce, who blogs about silent and classic cinema at Ithankyouarthur.blogspot.co.uk. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.

Cinematic dreams are a staple of the silent era more than any other, possibly because much of what was on screen had only previously been experienced in dreams for contemporary audiences. Now our dreams are founded on over a century of cinema and we’re so much harder to impress but … we can still dream on. Here’s a top ten of silent dreams with a couple of runners up as a bonus.

The Astronomer’s Dream (1898)

A madly inventive three minutes from George Méliès in which an old astronomer is bothered by a hungry moon as the object of his observation makes a rude appearance in order to eat his telescope.

Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906)

A feast of special effects in Edwin S Porter’s cautionary tale on the matter of over-indulging in beer and cheese. Jack Brawn plays the titular fiend who suffers all manner of indignities once he staggers home to his bed, whereupon his sleep is interrupted by rarebit imps and his bed flies him high into the night sky … Proof that the whole cheese-and-dreams rumour is actually true.

Atlantis (1913)
Atlantis (1913)

Atlantis (1913)

In August Blom’s classic – the first Danish feature film – Olaf Fønss’ doctor dreams of walking through the sunken city of Atlantis with his dead friend, as the passenger ship he is on begins to sink. It’s either a premonition or recognition that his true feelings have been submerged … JG Ballard was obviously later inspired to write The Drowned World.

Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)
Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

After being accidentally overdosed with sleeping draught by careless servants, Mary Pickford’s character falls into a deep and dangerous sleep …  As she hovers on the edge of oblivion the story runs parallel between the doctor trying to save her and her dreams in which those she knows are transformed in her Oz-like reverie. Sirector Maurice Tourneur excels as “the hopes of dreamland lure the little soul from the Shadows of Death to the Joys of Life”.

When the Clouds Roll By (1919)
When the Clouds Roll By (1919)

When the Clouds Roll By (1919)

Douglas Fairbanks is harassed by vengeful vegetables after being force-fed too many in an effort to drive him to suicide (yep, it’s a comedy). Directed by Victor Fleming, who later returned to dreams with Dorothy and that Wizard.

The Wildcat (1921)
The Wildcat (1921)

The Wildcat (1921)

Pola Negri dream-dances to a snowmen band in Ernst Lubitsch’s absurdist romp. Then she eats her lover’s heart as a biscuit. But of course … Negri flings herself around the bed and blows out her cheeks as she dreams, barely stifling a mile-wide smirk. Lubitsch’s comedy overdrive is Pola-powered!

The Haunted Castle (1921)
The Haunted Castle (1921)

The Haunted Castle (1921)

Murnau’s narrative here is more concerned with haunting guilt than spirits, yet one especially nervous house guest dreams of sinister, spindly arms reaching in to drag him away from his room in the night. It’s vaguely familiar, but Count Orlok was merely biding his time and he would oversee a proper haunting in the following year’s Nosferatu.

Sherlock Jr (1924)
Sherlock Jr (1924)

Sherlock Jr (1924)

Buster Keaton’s projectionist falls asleep and dreams of solving the crime he is accused of committing, famously walking into the film he is projecting to do so as people from his real life start appearing as characters on screen. After a breathless sequence of comedic capers, he wakes to find that his girl has sorted everything out for him! Good things happen to those who dream.

Feu Mathias Pascal (1925)
Feu Mathias Pascal (1925)

Feu Mathias Pascal (1925)

Ivan Mosjoukine’s Pascal has visions of battling himself as he tries to reconcile his assumed identity with his original one, then he daydreams a vicious attack on his lover’s fiancé. Superb technical work from director L’Herbier illustrating his character’s conflict: the film’s reality is scarcely different from the dream.

A Page of Madness (1926)
A Page of Madness (1926)

A Page of Madness (1926)

An old man dreams of saving his mad wife’s life in Teinosuke Kinugasa’s brilliantly disturbing examination of the nature of sanity … or does he? Masuo Inoue gives a quite brilliant performance, providing us with an identifiable “hero” whose shifts into hysteria are all the more shocking for that. But does he actually lose it or does he dream it?

Runners up:

The Devil’s Needle (1915)

Tortured artist Tully Marshall dreams of seeing fairies in his fireplace. Drugs are involved and it’s all Norma Talmadge’s fault!

Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924)

Yakov Protazanov’s sci-fi parable turns out to be all a dream, but I wanted the costumes to be real!

By Paul Joyce

Do you agree with Paul’s choices? Share your suggestions below

Advertisements

15 thoughts on “The top 10 silent film dream sequences”

    1. Thanks very much for your comments Steve. I wasn’t aware of the Little Nemo link. I love McCay’s style, it looks a little like Moebius and a number of later artists – very influential all round! Paul

    1. Apologies if you haven’t seen the film – there’s a lot more to Aelita than the reality or otherwise of the narrative and it says a lot about Russia in 1924. And, the art direction is amazing! Best wishes, Paul.

  1. Great list Paul. I once accompanied a French feature, which also turned out to have all been a dream. I won’t tell you which film though, just in case you haven’t seen it!

  2. Agree with all your selections. I would add Le Brazier Ardente, but that one is so intense it kind of makes the rest of the film a let-down. Chaplin had a weakness for dream sequences, but the only one of his that really rates mention I think is The Gold Rush — the dance with the bread rolls is all a dream.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s