What to Watch Online: Streaming Recommendations Volume 3: Classic Silent Cinema

     January 31, 2014


One of the great secrets of film studies programs is that you can kinda teach yourself.  At least, when it comes to the history of film.  The back catalogue is vast, and filled with films that don’t require a pamphlet to enjoy them (although some do, and I won’t be listing them here).  The point is just to watch.  The films included in this edition of Streaming Recs show how even movies made 100 years ago (which is about a millennium in cinema time) can still make us laugh, scare us, and engage us with the fantastical.  What makes silent films so beautiful is that they are pure cinema — the acting and the directing mean everything, and words are secondary to the visualizations.  Hit the jump for a sampling of some of the silent era’s best, and catch up on prior recommendations here: Volume 1: Dysfunctional Families, and Volume 2: Road Trips.

The General (Netflix)


• Style: Comedy

• Director: Buster Keaton

• Country: U.S.

• Year: 1926

• Stars: Buster Keaton

There is so much to be said about Buster Keaton, a master of comedy and stunts.  His understanding of the construction of humor (his “jokes” never end, they just flow into the next comedic sequence, making every film a kind of elaborate dance), as well as his commitment to the physicality necessary to bring them to life is unparalleled even today.  He has so many outstanding films, most of which are available on Netflix or elsewhere, though The General might be his best and most accessible work.  Set in the Confederate South, Keaton plays “Johnny Gray,” in a story inspired by true events.  The film follows his many travails trying to enlist, and follies throughout the start of the war.  It’s a truly hilarious and well-produced work that, like so many great films, was mostly ignored in its day.  The film uses title cards to explain the settings and some of the dialogue, but it’s not needed — Keaton makes everything beautifully clear.

Le Voyage Dans La Lune / A Trip to the Moon (Vimeo)


• Style: Fantasy

• Director: Georges Melies

• Country: France

• Year: 1902

• Soundtrack: Air

This 15-minute movie by prolific early filmmaker Georges Melies exists in many versions with many soundtracks.  (Soundtracks can really make all of the difference when it comes to silent films, and there’s a rich history to the choice of soundtracks, and live performances, regarding these movies).  But the French band Air’s more modern soundtrack for Melies’ most famous work — about a group of astronomers traveling to the moon via a cannon-powered rocket, and fighting off moon men (the visuals of which have a firm place in pop culture) — is the best.  Though this version is (controversially, to some) colorized (meaning every frame was literally colored in), that feature along with the inspired soundtrack make this Melies film what it should be — a crazy, colorful, super trippy adventure.

Nosferatu (Amazon)


• Style: Horror

• Director: F. W. Murnau

• Country: Germany

• Year: 1922

• Stars: Max Schreck

Horror directors are constantly looking for new ways to scare audiences, but one of the easiest ways used to simply be the presence of Max Schreck.  There are many creepy urban legends to accompany this very atmospheric and maximumly-creepy Dracula tale (though it is an unauthorized version, hence the name changes) by filmmaker F. W. Murnau, but it also stands on its own as a horror film, and as a great example of the German Expressionist movement.  In fact, Robert Wiene‘s 1920 horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, also in the German Expressionist style, makes a perfect pair with Nosferatu (it’s also the first film to use a twist ending).

These are but a few examples of a plethora of fantastic early cinema. Both Netflix and Hulu have an excellent catalogue of too often ignored silent films, though most can also be found for free on YouTube and Vimeo, since they have long been in the public domain.


Latest News