My ten favorite silent comedies, limiting myself to no more than two films starring the same comic. I also list only films now available on DVD; otherwise Harold Lloyd's The Kid Brother, Raymond Griffith's Hands Up! and Colleen Moore's Ella Cinders might well be included. [ed. update: Lloyd's Kid Brother is now available on DVD, as part of the new three volume set of Lloyd classics.]
- Our Hospitality (Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline, 1923). In this, his second (co-directed) feature, Keaton blended the astonishing gag construction and vigorous physicality of his short films with a newly mature understanding of narrative feature filmmaking. Not as stunningly inventive as Sherlock Jr. nor as assured a spectacle as The General, Our Hospitality shines with a sweetness all its own, traceable to Keaton's superb characterization as a naïve but resourceful outsider entering a world of hurt.
- The Goat (Keaton and Cline, 1921). When folks talk of Joseph Francis Keaton in terms of another Joseph K. - Franz Kafka's creation - they're thinking of this still-relevant social nightmare (and others of his short films like it - Cops, Day Dreams). The best surveillance technology of its time allows an innocent man to be mistaken for a dangerous criminal; armies of cops relentlessly pursue him. Take that, Minority Report!
- Modern Times (Charles Chaplin, 1936). Chaplin's last outing as The Tramp finds him the pawn of mass production, great depression, the prison system and some killer cocaine. Chaplin at once successfully updated his great character and retired him, with the aid of some old time Mack Sennett comics (Hank Mann, Chester Conklin) and perhaps his best female co-star, Paulette Goddard.
- A Dog's Life (Chaplin, 1918). The Tramp finds a partner and true friend in a loveable mutt in what is to me the best of Chaplin's shorter films. All of Chaplin's great themes are there (poverty, hunger, the terrible solitude of urban life) in what may be this artist's most Dickensian of films - all illuminated by Chaplin's flashes of comic lightning. The lovely and underrated Edna Purviance co-stars.
- The Finishing Touch (Clyde Bruckman, 1928). While the tit-for-tat extravaganzas of Battle of the Century, Two Tars and Big Business are commonly considered the cream of Laurel & Hardy's silent achievements, my favorite of their early short films is this one, a simple affair involving their attempted construction of a house. Hilarious turns by on-lookers Dorothy Coburn and Edgar Kennedy only accent this series' central joy, the by-play of Stan and Oliver.
- Tramp Tramp Tramp (Harry Edwards, 1926). Harry Langdon's first major feature, a loosely connected string of gag sequences built around a lad's love for a billboard model (a very young Joan Crawford) and his subsequent participation in a cross-country race. A good introduction to this rather specialized comic's talent.
- The Cook (Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, 1918). This only recently rediscovered and restored short film affords a fine showcase for the vaudeville-honed talents of Arbuckle and his sidekicks Buster Keaton and Al St. John. Loosely motivated restaurant gags give way to completely unmotivated (but hilarious) dance numbers and chases. The irrational slapstick of the teens at its best.
- Mighty Like a Moose (Leo McCarey, 1926). It's "The Gift of the Magi" as a homely married couple (Charley Chase and Vivien Oakland) secretly correct their looks with the aid of some dental surgery... and no longer recognize each other! Attempted infidelity ensues. One of the best of the Chase comedies, proto-sitcoms with great gags and no laugh track.
- Now You Tell One (Charley Bowers and Harold Muller, 1926). A newly available DVD set of Bowers' films finally makes available to more than a few specialists the surrealist madness of this unusual comic. The rather mulish, impassive Bowers mixed a comic persona not unlike Buster Keaton's with state-of-the-art special effects to create bizarre stream-of-consciousness narratives (as here). Note: This film is also available on Slapstick Masters, Vol. 5
- It (Clarence Badger, 1927). The irrepressible Clara Bow blows her way through the best of her silent vehicles. She's a force of nature and cannot be denied! One of a number of good films about the women of the new workforce of the 1920s (see also, if you can, Gloria Swanson in Manhandled and Mary Pickford in My Best Girl).
Thoughts? Questions? Suggestions? Discuss!
Bookmark/Search this post with: