This is a guest post for Silent London by John Sweeney. John Sweeney is one of London’s favourite accompanists, composing and playing for silent film and accompanying ballet and contemporary classes. He researched and compiled the music for the Phono Cinéma-Théatre project and is one of the brains behind the wonderful fortnightly Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts. When Silent London started with these lists I joked with a friend that what was needed was a list of silent films to avoid: no sooner had I spoken than films started coming to mind, but I also started thinking of the opposite list, of films that aren’t anything like as well known as I think they should be. So, I’ve settled for five films that you might think would be good but really aren’t, and five films that are definitely worth seeking out. Opinions differ and it’s quite possible that I’ve missed the point of some the films – put me right in the comment space below if you disagree.
Five silent films to avoid
Note: I make no claim that these are the worst films – merely that they should be a lot better given their reputation, or who made them.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916, Stuart Paton)
Yes, this film features groundbreaking underwater photography for a few minutes, but the screenplay is stupid, the acting is ridiculous, and the editing’s completely random. On IMDB someone writes “It’s by no means a bad movie”, but it is, it really is! Do not watch this movie.
- If it’s submarines that float your boat, try Submarine, directed by Frank Capra.
L’Atlantide (1921, Jacques Feyder)
Jacques Feyder was a wonderful director, as anyone who’s seen his Visages d’enfants will know, but this exotic farrago, weighing in at almost three hours, is dreadful. Two French soldiers stumble on the lost kingdom of Atlantis, in the middle of the Sahara Desert (!), which is ruled by the ageless Queen Antinéa. Featuring far too much sand and a decidedly uncharismatic performance from Stacia Napierkowska as the supposedly endlessly fascinating and desirable queen, you really don’t need to see this film.
- Watch instead: Visages d’Enfants.
L’Inhumaine (1924, Marcel L’Herbier)
Continuing the French theme … I remember playing for this film and suspecting after about 10 minutes that it wasn’t going to get any better. It didn’t. This film looks a million dollars, but that’s as far as it goes, and two and a half hours is a long time to be looking at set design.
- L’Herbier did this sort of thing much better in L’Argent.
Kino-Eye (1924, Dziga Vertov)
I like a lot of Vertov, but this film, his first feature, is a mixture of dull and really irritating, with the Young Pioneers posting up propaganda on walls, marching around and generally sorting everyone’s life out. The relationship between the documentary and the experimental in this film is really uneasy.
- Watch The Eleventh Year (1928) instead.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924, Lev Kuleshov)
There are all sorts of things to complain about in this Soviet comedy – an American businessman arrives in the Soviet Union with his head full of stereotypes about the Soviet State and its people but of course the real Bolsheviks are lovely and wouldn’t hurt a fly. But the main problem with this comedy is that it just isn’t funny.
- If it’s Soviet comedy you want, you can’t do better than The House on Trubnaya, directed by Boris Barnet.
Five silent films to seek out
I could choose so many films in this category! For a start, some of the lesser known films of Dreyer and Sjöström, for example Dreyer’s The Parson’s Widow, which always reduces me to tears, and Sjöström’s gripping Ingmarssönerna, not to mention just about any film featuring Ivan Mosjoukine, escpecially the surreal Le Brasier Ardent, or the wonderful adventure story Michel Strogoff, but in the end my five choices are:
The Canadian (1926, William Beaudine)
Made before The Wind, but with a remarkably similar story, I think I like this even more than its more famous cousin. An Englishwoman goes to the wheatfields of Canada to live with her brother on his farm, but quickly alienates everybody there. Seeking a way out, she marries a friend of her brother’s, which doesn’t solve her problems … Less gothic, but just as powerful as The Wind, and unaccountably neglected.
Les Deux Timides (1928, René Clair)
The great (and justified) reputation of Clair’s The Italian Straw Hat has eclipsed this wonderful film: it may not be have that film’s perfection , but I think it’s funnier, and it also has some brilliantly inventive use of split-screen techniques . A timid lawyer makes a mess of defending a client, who then seeks his revenge by trying to marry the lawyer’s sweetheart, while her father is too timid to stop him. Don’t worry – it all works out in the end.
True Heart Susie (1919, DW Griffith)
This film doesn’t have the reputation of some of Griffith’s other films, but to me it’s just perfect, in its strange way. A story of two people who can’t admit to their feelings for each other, it’s a very simple tale, with wonderful performances from Lillian Gish and Robert Harron. There’s a quality to Griffith’s direction, a kind of passionate sincerity, which combined with the wonderful performances, makes this film unforgettable.
Smouldering Fires (1925, Clarence Brown)
A 40-year-old businesswoman falls in love with a much younger colleague. Then her younger sister turns up … This film isn’t as well known as some of Clarence Brown’s other silents, but for my money it’s one of the best, with an extraordinary performance by Pauline Frederick as the businesswoman. Great direction, and a very touching story.
The Goddess (1934, Yonggang Wu)
The IMDB summary puts it succinctly : “Street walker by night, devoted mother by day, a woman fights to get her young son an education amid criminal and social injustice in China.” An unbelievably powerful film made in Shanghai in 1934, starring Lingyu Ruan as the mother, who gives a performance of searing intensity. Unsentimental and quite without melodrama, this is a great film. By John Sweeney
More Silents by numbers