I’ve covered a fairly broad selection famous films so far this summer, but it’s high time I turned some attention to the other half of classic movies–the silent era! So, here’s a list of some of the best and brightest silent movies had to offer: the comedies of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.
In all of the following silent movies, you’ll get a sense of how, although the technology was somewhat primitive, it was still a fertile ground for artistic talent. Gifted pioneers emerged and began to produce unique works of art in this brand new field, constantly discovering new techniques and ways of doing things. To us, some of the special effects or shots may not be remarkable at all–but that’s only because we tend to forget how original they were in their own day. The mind-blowing special effects and stunt-man brilliance of today’s films only got where it is because of people like Keaton and Lloyd who were geniuses in their own right and were willing to experiment and risk their necks for the sake of getting a laugh and making a fun movie. These actors, directors, artists, were stepping out into a completely unknown field, becoming masters of a totally new craft. They invented things like close-ups, panoramic shots, zoom in, zoom out, perspective tricks; they were discovering what worked and what didn’t, and consequently laid the groundwork for every other person involved in the film industry that followed. . . . AND, moreover, the results of their labors are lots of fun. 🙂
Of course, you realize it’s hard to find a good quote from a silent movie; so, to make up for that, I’ve put up little clips from the films themselves instead of just pictures!
Safety Last! (1923)
Harold Lloyd was one of the three greatest silent comedians of all time, a trio which included Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin. Steven D. Greydanus (from Decent Films) has observed that Lloyd had a special charm unlike either Keaton or Chaplin, because while those two invented quirky “characters”–Keaton’s extremely deadpan fellow with a funny straw hat, Chaplin’s famous Hitler-moustached “little tramp”–Lloyd came across as simply a “common man” character who got out of–and into–scrapes by his own ingenuity, an “average Joe” persona like that of James Stewart or Tom Hanks. I agree; and perhaps I’m a little biased, but I do love Lloyd best. Here, he plays a small-town boy who goes into the big city to make good and make his hometown sweetheart proud. Then, as my brother would say, “Wacky adventures ensue.”
After you watch him dangling from that clock-face, listen to this bit of trivia: in a photo shoot a few years earlier, just at the start of his rising stardom, Lloyd picked up what he thought was a prop bomb and pretended to light his cigarette from it. However, it was a real explosive, and detonated as he held it, destroying the two first fingers and part of the thumb on his right hand. Some thought this horrible accident would end his career, but Lloyd didn’t let this stop him. He wore a kid glove with prosthetic fingers in all his films after that, which means–that’s right–he’s holding on to that clock with only two real fingers on his right hand. (Also: see the real cars and people moving down below? Yes, he’s that high up!)
Another piece of trivia: his sweetheart in this–the golden-haired, child-like Mildred Davis–was his real-life wife; and he stayed married to her.
The Kid Brother (1927)
I would almost suggest you watch this one first, I love it so much. The story is simple and sweet: in a family of big, brawny “manly men,” out in the Old West, the runt of the family–Lloyd–has to prove himself, win the heart of the girl he loves, and incidentally save the town from disaster. Besides offering some of the very best of Lloyd’s ingenious pranks, pratfalls, and sight gags, this film also is seamlessly written with lots of fun characters (including carnival con men, neighborly country rivals, and a monkey in a sailor suit), thrilling action sequences, and a delightful little romance.
Unfortunately, I can’t find a good clip from the Kid Brother on YouTube, so enjoy this brilliant little montage of Harold Lloyd clips set (anachronistically) to the Beatles’ “Help Me.”
The General (1926)
This is one of Buster Keaton’s greatest and most memorable: the humorous and heroic adventures of a Confederate soldier in the Civil War. Get ready for some Yankee-bashing slapstick and more than a mild dose of chivalrous romanticism about the South.
Like this little clip, the whole film is genuinely sweet and simultaneously funny, and a good introduction to Keaton’s perpetually-poker-faced persona–a very different character doing the same sort of comedy as Lloyd, and pulling it off brilliantly.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
Thinking of Keaton reminded me of this one, which is historically important for more than one reason. First: it’s a hallmark of the era; big changes going on in small communities, expansion and industrialization pushing smaller businesses off the map; this takes a look at how that would play out in a small Southern town along the Mississippi. Keaton plays the fresh-faced college kid, an old steamboat captain’s son, who, upon returning to town, promptly falls in love with his father’s rival’s daughter and then must find a way to save the family business from literally sinking. (There’s a lot of subtlety in old silent films like this; keep on your toes to catch it all.) But besides all that, this one is famous for some of its unbelievable gags and brilliant comedic tricks. For instance, a hurricane whips through the town and wreaks alot of damage, but somehow Keaton turns this situation into a hilarious one by doing such things as the following:
No, folks, there was no CGI, special effects, or stunt doubles used there. That is Keaton himself really standing on the road as the house falls on him. His audacity and ingenuity is simply unequaled by Hollywood’s performers today. (And here’s a little tidbit of trivia: Mickey Mouse made his first appearance to the world in a little black and white cartoon called “Steamboat Willy,” which was a deliberate spin-off of this!)
Well, there’s a fun little sampling of some of the comic genius of the silent era. Maybe, if the summer doesn’t end too soon, I’ll get a chance to do some of the adventures/thrillers of the pre-talkie days, like The Mark of Zorro with Douglas Fairbanks (Sr.).