Buster Keaton in The General (1926)

Shaking up the silent canon: is The General the greatest silent film?

I like silent movies even more than I like chocolate. And I do really like chocolate. So when I saw Richard Osman, best known as the co-host of Pointless, holding the World Cup of Chocolate on Twitter a few years back, I pondered whether I could do the same for silent movies. It’s a simple idea – a knockout tournament in which voters pick their favourites, based loosely on the rules of the football World Cup. I don’t have as many followers as Osman (by a very long chalk) and I had no desire to spam people’s feeds with retweets, so I shelved it.

Then Twitter introduced a nifty poll feature – multiple choice questions you could share on the social network, which stayed active for exactly 24 hours. And that meant that this year Osman’s chocolate bar tournament was bigger and more successful than before. So shamelessly, I pilfered his idea. Thanks Richard Osman!

Moroder's Metropolis
Moroder’s Metropolis
I hoped that the followers of Silent London’s Twitter account would get into it, and boy oh boy they did. To start the draw, I arranged the top 32 films from this list on silentera.com into eight groups of four and set the whole thing live. The Silent Era list, it seemed to me, was fairly uncontroversial – almost too uncontroversial – a consensus view of the established classics. And I assumed that the silent movie hipsters you find online would challenge that. But I was wrong, mostly.

In the end, Osman’s Twitter followers voted for the traddest choc bar imaginable – the dependable Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. And the Silent Londoners voted for … well the number one film on the Silent Era list, The General (1926). I have nothing against The General – it’s an unassailable classic – but I was expecting a giant-killing. The General is probably the Dairy Milk of silent cinema. Not only that, but positions number two and three on the SE list, Metropolis (1927) and Sunrise (1927) were right there in the semi-finals – with Murnau’s film making it through to the final with Buster Keaton.

So perhaps you guys aren’t as iconoclastic as I thought (those of you on Twitter that is), or perhaps from this distance the silent film canon is settled. Maybe a century later we can look at these movies and dispassionately rank them, quality sifting surely to the top. The General, and the majesty of Buster Keaton, aside, there were a few surprises in my World Cup results,* which suggest there is still plenty to play for.

The Crowd (1928)
The Crowd (1928)
First up, availability clearly had an impact on popularity, with a feted but rarely seen film such as Napoléon (1927) exiting the competition in its early stages. Ditto The Crowd (1928), and also The Big Parade (1925), a popular favourite still not available on DVD/Blu in the UK. The Birth of a Nation (1915) is widely available, but its unpopularity probably doesn’t need to be spelled out. Though I was bewildered that the other Griffith films on the list fared no better.

Then again, which film joined The General, Metropolis and Sunrise in the semis? Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928), starring the divine Lillian Gish. Gish, and The Wind, clearly had some big fans on Twitter, but I was astounded (happily so) to see a film placed 13th on the list make it so far through the competition. Especially when it isn’t widely available on DVD. There have been a few Sjöström retrospectives recently, which may have boosted its chances, and of course The Wind did win a Silent London award back in 2011 so it is clearly a film that connects with 21st-century audiences.

Lillian Gish in The Wind (1928)
Lillian Gish in The Wind (1928)
The real shock of the tournament though, came wearing a brush moustache and a bowler hat. Chaplin. He sank without trace – don’t tell me this is a backlash. Three Chaplin films surely weren’t enough to split the vote either. City Lights (1931), The Kid (1921) and The Gold Rush (1925) – none of them reached the quarters.

Voters seemed to prefer more “offbeat” silent staples: Nosferatu (1922), The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). The triumph of Pandora’s Box (1929) against Safety Last! in a bonus round “penalty shootout” suggests that it is the cult films rather than the felgood comedies that get Twitter voters clicking. And Pandora’s Box’s subsequent victory over City Lights in the second round, well, I consider that a turn up for the Brooks.

Louise Brooks Pandora's Box (1929)
Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box (1929)
Perhaps this (American) list wasn’t suited to the audience. No Hitchcocks in the top 32 for one thing. I can definitely see a win for a certain European sensibility – at one point I thought German films and directors would sweep the board. And that would account for the rise of The Wind. Even The General has a cynicism that doesn’t seem very “Hollywood”, but perhaps that is just my Anglo-centric point of view …

I enjoyed hosting the World Cup of Silent Film and I would like to say a huge thanks to those who voted or shared the polls – it would have been frankly rubbish without your time and enthusiasm. Perhaps I will try it again, maybe with a modified list. I have already had requests for some more “niche” tournaments: all British silents, all pre-1904 films, or even lost movies. It might be tricky to pick up so many votes for those mini-cups, but I am very intrigued to see how much the canon can shift over time, and it’s often the jostling in the early rounds that is more interesting than the overall winner.

What do you think? Can anything knock The General off-track? Don’t forget that it fell far behind fellow silents in the latest Sight & Sound poll … but don’t let that worry you, Buster?

Buster Keaton in The General
Buster Keaton in The General

* Yes, I know all this is highly unscientific.





7 thoughts on “Shaking up the silent canon: is The General the greatest silent film?”

  1. I was on holiday so cut off from the internet (it was good, I promise), but my vote for #1 would have been Murnau’s Faust.

  2. Very interesting…..I don’t do Twitter so was unaware of the continuing drama…..perhaps for next time you could start with a longer shortlist, 64 films perhaps. Because I don’t think that The General is even the best Keaton feature……that would be Steamboat Bill Jr….. 🙂

    1. I think Our Hospitality is his best film, but when you’re talking about Buster’s best, it’s an embarassment of riches, and we’re lucky to be seeing them on Blu-ray and in cinemas 90 years on.

  3. “The General is probably the Dairy Milk of silent cinema.” Brilliant statement. It’s the sort of harmless and non-threatening film you show someone when you want them to see that silent cinema works – even for “modern audiences.” Bleh. Me, I hit them with something dramatic, such as “Flesh and the Devil” or, yes, “The Wind.” As far as Chaplin goes, I’ve presented evenings showing a few of the Mutuals, ending with “The Rink.”

    “The General.” It don’t even think it represents silent cinema all that well. Wow. Oh well, it took a billion years for “Sight and Sound” to get “Citizen Kane” out of their systems and replace it with “Vertigo” – and pop music critics are starting to shift towards calling “Revolver” the greatest album The Beatles ever made.

  4. I very much prefer The Wind… and I love M. And another favorite of mine is Intolerance. But I would have to agree about the General being blegh. It’s good, quite good, but not the best.

  5. I love the Wind, it’s my favorite of the top four definitely. Of course I love Sunrise too. My favorite German Expressionist film is not Nosferatu or Metropolis…. it’s Greed. I’m surprised Intolerance didn’t make it on there. I don’t think I can choose my favorite silent film though.

  6. I love the Wind, it’s my favorite of the top four definitely. Of course I love Sunrise too. My favorite German Expressionist film is not Nosferatu or Metropolis…. it’s Greed. I don’t think I can choose my favorite silent film though. But I can still choose my favorite silent film actor. Lillian Gish. 😀

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