This list gives you the 20 best silent film masterpieces of the 1920’s and the possibility to legally stream most of them online with English subtitles. The best American silent film classics, but even more foreign works of art.
In the 1910’s, film was still in its early experimental stages and came to grow up in the 1920’s. At the end of that decade, when silent film reached its highpoint of perfection as a form of art, it had to undergo its clumsy but necessary conversion to sound. As a ‘talkie’, film had to start all over again. Check out the magnificent Singin’ in the Rain (Donen, 1952) if you want to know what I mean.
Going from slapstick to Russian propaganda, from avant-garde to German expressionism, this list is an ode to that golden era of silent film. Films that only could be made in that age and stage of the history of cinema. Keep in mind that some of the best silent films were after the twenties like Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). As a matter of fact Chaplin is the only one of the slapstick heroes who would survive sound on film. Also, of course we may not forget to mention the Japanese Yasujiro Ozu’s early silent family comedies of which I Was Born, But… (1932) especially is a must-see.
Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin, 1936)
If you expect to encounter swashbucklers starring Douglas Fairbanks in some tight outfit, you will be disappointed. These are our favorites of the silent twenties, please also tell us yours:
20. The General (1926)
Directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman
Featuring Buster Keaton and Marion Mack
If you want some good old slapstick from the twenties, you will have to choose between three wonderful geniuses, the great Charlie Chaplin, the dorky Harold Lloyd and the stunt-crazy Buster Keaton. Chaplin did not make this list because his masterpieces are all made after the twenties really, although his The Gold Rush (1925) and The Circus (1928) are very nice as well. Harold Lloyd will be featured a little bit further down the page.
Buster Keaton’s second best film must be The General (1926) with its frightening stunts, clever jokes and exciting train chases. The crazy thing is that at the time, before this film, Keaton was at the height of his game, commercially and culturally and after it, he did a free fall in popularity that would almost mean the end of his career. The General was a big commercial flop, maybe because of the complexity and it bending genres as action-adventure and comedy together. The story follows a southerner, trying to enlist in the civil war of the 1860’s. He ends up as a machinist on a train, called the General. It could be hard to identify with the losing south and to laugh with the eventual winners of that war, the northerners. Those were off course immortalized in history books as indisputable heroes because they have abolished slavery.
You can watch this masterpiece online for free in its whole on Youtube:
19. Living Russia, or The Man With a Camera (1929)
Directed by Dziga Vertov
Featuring Mikhail Kaufman
Chelovek s kinoapparatom is a Russian propaganda flick about a man with a movie camera. Dziga Vertov follows a day in the life of Soviet Moscovites, going as far as showing important stages in their life like marriage, the birth of a child and even divorce. Besides propaganda, it showcases a lot of revolutionary visual effects and camera angles. By following the cameraman who films it all, on the back of a car, dangerously close to trains, trams, etc., the movie breaks into a refreshing, metafictional narrative. The film even shows the audience, their empty seats and the orchestra accompanying the movie theater. Groundbreaking, extremely interesting and enjoyable feature.
And again, you can watch it as a full film on Youtube:
18. Die Büchse der Pandora [Pandora’s Box] (1929)
Directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst
Featuring Louise Brooks
After Germany distanced itself from other countries’ film industries by perfectioning their own expressionism, people like Georg Wilhelm Pabst made little realist ‘kammerspiels’, associated with the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) movement that characterized the end of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933). Die Büchse der Pandora features the ‘street-realism’ of a prostitute, named Lulu, portrayed by the famous Louise Brooks, who a lot of people still call the most beautiful woman of the silent era.
With this fascinating film and also the one two places further on this list, Pabst can easily share places with the most famous and critically acclaimed directors of his generation: Fritz Lang, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau and Jozef von Sternberg.
Stream this package of joy:
17. The Big Parade (1925)
Directed by King Vidor
Featuring John Gilbert and Renée Adorée
Not only the highest grossing silent film of all time, King Vidor’s The Big Parade was also revolutionary in not glorifying the war. The protagonist for example loses quite unheroically a leg during World War I, the battle this movie is about. Like in the even better anti-war classic All Quiet on the Western Front (Milestone, 1930), you really experience how war is no fun at all and how, in the end, it’s nothing more than empty, meaningless and useless. Besides that, for the most part, the film is just a lovely romantic comedy with Jon Gilbert, who as well is famous because of his public relationship with diva Greta Garbo, who (painful detail) did not show up at their eventual wedding.
No full version here, just a trailer:
16. Tagebuch einer Verlorenen [Diary of a Lost Girl] (1929)
Directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst
Featuring Louise Brooks
Lesser known, but certainly as good as Die Büchse der Pandora (1929), Tagebuch einer Verlorenen contains a lot of misery. The pretty Louise Brooks gets sexually abused, they steal her child and she has to live in a strict reform school, lead by fascist nurses. When she escapes, she becomes out of despair, again (see above), a prostitute. Based on a novel that was based on the true diary of a lady in the business, the film reaches a kind of realism, that clearly exerted an influence on French poetic realism of the thirties and Italian neorealism of the forties and fifties.
Watch the trailer for Tagebuch einer Verlorenen:
15. He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
Directed by Victor Sjöström
Featuring Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer and John Gilbert
The successful Swedish director Victor Sjöström went to Hollywood to make the first movie for MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios). Furthermore, it was the first time its mascot Leo the Lion showed up at the beginning. Lon Chaney, the ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’ and probably one of the best silent actors of his day, portrays a smitten and depressed clown, which he actually did all over again in Laugh, Clown, Laugh (Brenon, 1928). He delivers a brilliant, heartbreaking performance. Also John Gilbert acted his very first big part in this film.
You can watch this great silent one in its whole for free here.
14. Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925)
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Featuring Ronald Colman, May McAvoy and Bert Lytel
One of classic Hollywood’s best filmmakers, the German Ernst Lubitsch, became famous with hilarious masterpieces as Trouble in Paradise (1932), The Shop around the Corner (1940) and To Be or Not to Be (1942). Before those and before his early, silly, romantic musicals with Maurice Chevalier, he made next to some epic historical dramas, also some funny silent films, including this one and the amusing The Marriage Circle (1924) for example. From a play by Oscar Wilde with many wordly jokes, Lubitsch succeeded in transferring it to a lovely comedy about the decadent love lifestyle of the higher middle class in the ‘Jazz Age’.
If you want to watch it, you’re lucky because it’s on youtube:
13. The Penalty (1920)
Directed by Wallace Worsley
Featuring Lon Chaney, Ethel Grey Terry and Charles Clary
Worsley gave Lon Chaney in The Penalty one of his first breakthrough roles and would later on work together with him on a couple of other films. Most famously, Chaney would take the leading role of his The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). After that, the actor did a similar frightening performance in the Phantom of the Opera (Julian, 1925). Despite those films’ huge commercial successes, they did not showcase so much the incredible acting abilities of Chaney. While as a hunchback or a ghost, he looks creepy because of the thick layer of make up, in The Penalty he reaches a creepiness on a psychological level. In that film, a doctor has amputated his legs when he was a child. As time passed by, he became a crime-lord and now, he is determined to take revenge…
Watch this remarkable film in different colors on youtube:
12. Un chien andalou [An Andalusian Dog] (1929)
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Featuring Pierre Batcheff, Simone Mareuil and Luis Buñuel
The great Luis Buñuel made his first film in the twenties together with surrealist painter Salvador Dalí and it became a quite endearing avant-garde piece of work. Alongside its world famous scene of Buñuel cutting into someone’s eye, there is more absurdy wonderfulness to look out for: a strange guy with a strange box falling off his bicycle, ants crawling out of someone’s hand, dead horses on pianos, etc. He definitely exerted a great deal of influence on David Lynch.
Just give it a go and let yourself submerge into the surreal weirdness of this short film (only 16 min):
11. The Unknown (1927)
Directed by Tod Browning
Featuring Lon Chaney, Norman Kerry and Joan Crawford
Looking like a twenties’ version of Jack Nicholson, Lon Chaney this time does not have any arms left. But fortunately, he is still a master at throwing knives. He acts out his art at the young and gorgeous chick Joan Crawford then was and falls in love with her at the same time. He is being misunderstood for it (again) and plot twists occur. The film is set in a circus which generates a pleasing but peculiar atmosphere like in Tod Browning’s strange cult-classic Freaks (1932). Tod would later on earn a lot of fame and money with his horror classic Dracula (1931), featuring cult creep Bela Lugosi.
Full on Vimeo:
10. Körkarlen [The Phantom Carriage] (1921)
Directed by Victor Sjöström
Featuring Victor Sjöström, Hilda Borgström and Tore Svennberg
Before he emigrated to Hollywood, Swedish filmmaker Victor Sjöström was a driving force behind his homeland’s film industry. There, he made this silent classic among others. Later in life, he had the leading role in Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece Wild Strawberries (1957). Bergman also clearly imitated Körkarlen’s atmosphere into his The Seventh Seal (1957) of that same year. More, death literally comes around in both.
Next to one of Chaplin’s favorite movies, it must have been also one of Kubrick’s because he almost perfectly copied an entire scene from it for his The Shining (1980) (when Jack Nicholson’s axe goes through the door). The film itself is about the legend of a freaky phantom carriage. The man, who dies as last in a particular year, has to ride the thing and this year. This year, fate turns to David Holm, a drunken bastard of whom we see his miserable life and bad treatment of relatives in Scrooge-style flashbacks.
Want to watch a nightmarish and thoughtful Swedish classic, way ahead of its time? :
9. The Last Command (1928)
Directed by Jozef von Sternberg
Featuring Emil Jannings
After the Russian Revolution, what happened with all those powerful aristocratic people who were in charge before, in the age of the tsars? At least one of them went to Hollywood and succeeded to maintain a certain appearance of power, by acting out his former function, now as a part in the movies.
One of silent film’s best actors Emil Jannings won the first Academy Award for this performance. The Last Command is a very atmospheric and enjoyable movie about filmmaking. Make sure to check out other Josef Von Sternberg films like Der Blaue Engel (1930) (also with an incredible Emil Jannings). As a master of style, he made couple of splendid films with the wonderfully cheekboned Marlene Dietrich.
Sorry folks, but for now, there’s only a trailer available:
8. Der letzte Mann [The Last Laugh] (1924)
Directed by F.W. Murnau
Featuring Emil Jannings
In Murnau’s best film Der letzte Mann, cameraman Karl Freund brought forth several astonishing camera techniques movements that will dazzle the viewer’s amazement. Freund cinematographed a lot of German and American films back in his time, doing his most notable work in classics as Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (Wegener, 1920), Metropolis (Lang, 1927) and Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt (Ruttman, 1927).
In this expressionistic ‘kammerspiel’, Emil Jannings gives a terrific performance as a depressed man who lost his job as a doorman in front of a prestigious hotel. It is fun to see the images turn psychedelic when the porter gets drunk. Because of his misery of losing his identity, he turns to alcohol. Ufa, the german production studio, forced a happy ending upon the movie, which Murnau applied in a very creative way. Der letzte Mann is still a mind-blowing and extremely well acted masterpiece.
And lucky for you, completely on the magnificent youtube:
7. Häxan [Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages] (1922)
Directed by Benjamin Christensen
Featuring Elisabeth Christensen, Astrid Holm en Karen Winther
The Danish film Häxan is probably the first mockumentary ever made and describes the wonderful world of witchcraft. It is pretty weird and hilarious at the same time. Its sense of humor sometimes resembles to that of Monty Python and is quite ahead of its time because it’s frequently amazingly funny.
Benjamin Christensen went to hollywood and after a couple of films like for instance a commercially disastrous, anticommunist film with Lon Chaney (The Mockery, 1927), it clearly did not suit him there as much as he expected. He soon returned to Denmark, went into theater and did not make any other interesting films.
Enjoy Häxan and its silly devils:
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein
Featuring Grigori Aleksandrov, Aleksandr Antonov and Yudif Glizer
Like Goebbels in thirties Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union tried to use cinema as a propaganda weapon and in addition to that, accomplished in delivering technical highlights in film editing. A clear example of that is the ‘Kuleshov Effect’, which means the associative mixing of images like the slaughter of cattle and the attack on the mass at the ending of Strike.
Strike tells a simple, stereotype story about dishonest exploitation of workers and it may be even stronger than Eisenstein’s chef d’oeuvre Battleship Potemkin (1925) which he made rightly after. The powerful portrayals convince you of the wrongdoing of the rich, lazy and fat capitalist bosses. You would almost turn communist after seeing them. But luckily today, that effect is slightly weakened on our intellectual minds.
Beware, although we’re living in the 21st century, there is still heavy brainwashing going on on our televisions…
See this unique piece of propaganda:
5. Safety Last! (1923)
Directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor
Featuring Harold Lloyd and Mildred David
Harold Lloyd looks like a complete nerd but at the same time he is really cool. His inventive jokes and recklessness at extreme heights come perfectly together in this masterpiece of his, Safety Last! He gets the idea to climb the building where he works as a publicity stunt. You will probably recognize his famous, iconic scene when he hangs at just the tip of a hand of the clock.
It seems like he compiled and rehashed a lot of his jokes, but that makes Safety Last! a roller-coaster ride of continuous gags. I love it when he hides in a coat on a rack! While Chaplin tries too hard to mix drama into his slapstick (f.e. The Kid (1921)), with Harold Lloyd, it’s just comedy all the way through and it’s for the better actually. Too bad, as a silent slapstick maestro, he did not make it into sound.
Have a laugh and watch it here entirely:
4. Metropolis (1927)
Directed by Fritz Lang
Featuring Alfred Abel, Brigitte Helm and Gustav Fröhlich
Brilliant, impressive, incredible, overwhelming, Hitler’s favorite movie, etc., a lot of generous words have been used to describe this masterpiece and they just aren’t exaggerating. This amazing and influential dystopian film showcases decors and visuals you can hardly believe they were conceived in 1927. That city skyline for instance already smells like Blade Runner (Scott, 1982).
Be sure as well to check out other films from Fritz Lang’s impressive oeuvre! His early expressionistic films like Der müde Tod (1921), Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922) and Spione (1928) are extremely fun to watch, M (1931) is a classic and he also did some entertaining Hollywood ‘film noirs’ like The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945).
But Metropolis definitely remains his magnum opus.
Just see it to believe it:
3. Sherlock, Jr. (1924)
Directed by Buster Keaton
Featuring Buster Keaton
You have to love the crazy Buster Keaton for his stunts and his firm pokerface. When you’re watching his films, you’re always wondering how the hell he did that trick! In Sherlock, Jr., Keaton amazes us as usual with a lot of inventive tricks and jokes. He climbs into his movie on the big screen, he plays a detective, plays billiard like no other, races on a motorcycle, drives a car-boat, etc. There is not a thing Keaton cannot do.
The only pity is that it is over before you know:
2. Greed (1924)
Directed by Erich von Stroheim
Featuring Zasu Pitts, Gibson Gowland and Jean Hersholt
In 1924, decadent auteur-filmmaker and ‘enfant terrible’ Erich von Stroheim made a 9,5-hour long ode to humanity’s most selfish and capitalistic behavioral trait. A hopeful and naïve couple wins the lottery and all hell breaks loose. Eventual the film evolves into a proto Western with an incredible finale. We get to know some interesting figures along the way through side stories who eventually got cut out in the ridiculously shortened 2-hour long theatrical version. The studio was not so pleased with Stroheim’s overlong and uncommercially epic first draft.
There was a decent, restored cut of 4 hours on youtube, which did let you discover Greed‘s rich subplots. But sadly, it’s gone!? Even though stills replace some of the lost material, that rendition remains the superior one. So, if you can catch it somewhere, please do so.
Watch the trailer here:
1. The Crowd (1928)
Directed by King Vidor
Featuring James Murray and Eleanor Boardman
At the end of this list, you have Vidor’s The Crowd, revolutionary in its realism and beautiful in its style. It tells John Simms’ life story that could actually be anyone else’s. When he was a little boy, his father told him he was special. According to him, he would even make it easily into the White House. But later in his life, John realizes he is just one of many American individuals, searching to be unique, to find happiness, to find the ‘American Dream’. He plunges into marriage without a decent job and it does not take long until he gets really miserable and full of frustration.
In contrast to Stroheim, Vidor succeeded to keep the studio’s influence to a minimum. The Great Depression also did not crop up yet, so all means were available to shoot this universal story with style. And that’s definitely noticeable. It has for example an amazing shot above a sea of desks that inspired similar takes in Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) and Welles’ The Trial (1962).
Unfortunately you cannot watch The Crowd online for free legally but here’s one of its most outstanding scenes:
If you have seen these twenty or even more of them silent classics, it’s maybe nice to watch Vidor’s more obscure comedy Show People (1928) because it features a lot of cameos by important film-personalities of that day like Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, John Gilbert and others. The movie is about a girl who pursues a career in the silent film industry and it’s totally adorable.
Also read and watch stuff Kevin Brownlow made, he is an expert when it comes to silent film. Certainly his movie documentaries Hollywood (1980) and Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood (1995) are really worth seeing.