10 great British silent films (2022)

Released in 1929, Piccadilly is a particularly bright example of a new confidence in the British film industry, just as our cinemas were converting to sound, upsetting a decade or two of rapid development in the art of silent filmmaking. Set in London’s glittering West End, it’s a sultry tale of ambition, seduction and murder, undercut with issues of race. The screenplay was written by the famed English writer ArnoldBennett.

British International Pictures, which made Piccadilly, were, as the name suggests, upping their game and setting their sights on the global market. As a result, Piccadilly was well funded, with A-list stars like Anna May Wong and Gilda Gray imported from the US. Director E.A. Dupont was brought over from the well-developed German studios along with a top-notch technicalteam.

Making its Blu-ray debut this June, it’s the kind of film that the British – by then a regular and loyal cinema audience who went weekly in their millions – were coming to expect. Something that could hold its own against importedfilms.

Not every film made in silent Britain offers the same polish, but as the feature film format – cinema’s equivalent to the play or novel– grew in popularity in the years following the First World War, the UK industry maintained a modest domestic production line that resulted in many lasting feature-length releases. At their best, these remain as funny, thrilling and entertaining today, as well as offering invaluable insight into British life in the1920s.

We had world-class directors in Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Asquith, but in the selection below we’ve also highlighted less well-known talents. These are films that display British filmmaking talent of all kinds: acting, directing, photography, writing. They also show us a lost Britain and its people, as we were a centuryago.

BryonyDixon

Piccadilly is out on Blu-ray on 21 June2021.

East Is East(1916)

Director: HenryEdwards

10 great British silent films (1)

A cockney girl (Florence Turner) unexpectedly becomes an heiress, but discovers high society isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and longs to return to her old life and friends. You’d be forgiven for assuming this romance of class mobility might draw a conservative ‘everyone in their place’ moral, but you’d be wrong. The film offers a strikingly sympathetic portrait of working-class life, weaving a variety of familiar habits and locations into its narrative. The picture theatre, the chip shop and the hop fields of Kent are all photographed with the picturesque charm that British films of the period were knownfor.

Florence Turner was both star and producer of a number of British films made by her own company around this time. Henry Edwards regularly starred alongside her, and here also directs. They are delightful together, and it’s a great shame that none of the other films they made together havesurvived.

LawrenceNapper

(Video) My Top Ten Silent Movies of all time.

Watch East Is East on BFI Player

The Lure of Crooning Water(1920)

Director: ArthurRooke

10 great British silent films (2)

The films of co-stars Guy Newall and Ivy Duke, made in the early 1920s, were an anomaly in British film history. These simple, character-driven dramas are beautifully acted and photographed on location. Newall, particularly, was celebrated for his minimalist acting style and often referred to as ‘Britain’s best actor’. Historian Rachael Low expressed real regret that Newall couldn’t take his directorial careerfurther.

The story is a little like Sunrise (1927), the later Hollywood classic directed by F.W. Murnau. Duke plays a glamorous but jaded city actress who is sent to the country by her doctor friend for a rest cure, where she makes married farmer Horace (Newall) fall in love with her – just because she can. This being England, he makes no attempt to drown his wife in a lake (as in Murnau’s film), but the less melodramatic plot does nothing to diminish the electricity between theleads.

BryonyDixon

Sam’s Boy(1923)

Director: H. ManningHaynes

10 great British silent films (3)

English whimsy is perennially popular and this charming feature, one of a series based on the stories of W.W. Jacobs, is very much in the mode of P.G. Wodehouse and Jerome K. Jerome, but hopping down the social scale to the working classes of Britain’s coastal ports. Our hero is the adorable and resourceful orphan Billy Jones (Bobbie Rudd) who, sleeping rough in London’s dockside, observes a stray dog ‘adopting’ a new owner. Following this lead, Billy chooses Sam (Tom Coventry), a seaman and stalwart of the Salvation Army, claiming him as hisfather.

The ensuing social embarrassment drives the comedy, as Sam flees and the persistent Billy selects another likely ‘father’ from the ship’s crew. The confident direction by H. Manning Haynes is complemented by the skilful adaptation from Lydia Hayward, Britain’s most celebrated female screenwriter of this era, perfectly capturing Jacobs’ observational genius. Sam’s Boy was all shot on location, but we have yet to identify the villages on the Kent coast – maybe you can tellus?

BryonyDixon

The Great White Silence(1924)

Director: Herbert G.Ponting

10 great British silent films (4)

In this stunning record of Captain Scott’s expedition to the South Pole of 1910 to 1913, Herbert Ponting’s magnificent cinematography captures the mmense beauty of the Antarctic, proving that this was indeed the ‘heroic age of exploration’. The sheer effort and dedication to filming in dangerous conditions, with heavy hand-cranked cameras and wooden tripods, is rewarded with stunning images of bergs, ice caves and the Terra Nova breaking through sea ice on its journeysouth.

(Video) Buster Keaton - One Week (1920) Silent film

Ponting films day-to-day routines like cooking, eating and cleaning, the efforts of pulling weighted sledges across snowfields, and the men’s delight in encountering playful penguins. His images of Scott’s small party setting off on foot for the Pole are moving beyond belief when we know the outcome of that final journey. The massive understatement of Scott’s last message, “These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale”, can only hint at the suffering they endured. But the overwhelming impression at the end of this film is of humanity’s capacity for hope, survival and joyful camaraderie inextremis.

LarainePorter

Buy The Great White Silence on Blu-ray/DVD

Watch The Great White Silence on BFI Player

The Ghost Train(1927)

Director: Géza vonBolváry

10 great British silent films (5)

Directed by Géza von Bolváry, The Ghost Train is not only an excellent adaptation of Arnold Ridley’s thriller about passengers stranded on a station at night, but also a superb example of the Anglo-German cooperation that typified British features of this period. It was a co-production between Gainsborough Pictures and Phoebus Film, shot in the latter’s Berlinstudios.

The subject and characters may be British stereotypes but the production, performances and special effects are all pure German Expressionism. Reliable British star Guy Newall has no problem playing silly ass Teddy Deakins, but the teetotal spinster Miss Bourne is transformed into a hoochie-coochie cabaret turn, not surprisingly since Ilse Bois (sister of actor Curt Bois) was indeed a star of Berlin cabaret. She adds wonderfully to the sense of Weimar playfulness throughout. The piece lends itself to cinematic shadows, double-exposure and model-work, and if it only slightly touches spine-tingling horror, that’s the fault of the play rather than thefilm.

NeilBrand

Hindle Wakes(1927)

Director: MauriceElvey

10 great British silent films (6)

In Wakes Week, the factory workers of the fictitious Lancaster town of Hindle depart to Blackpool for larks, and a little licentiousness. In the sunshine, a young mill worker named Fanny and the mill-owner’s son, Allan, will meet, kiss and embark on their own private holiday… but will their affair stay secret and just who is really who’s “littlefancy”?

(Video) Cupid's Pranks. 1908 Edison Mfg 10 minute silent film. Violette Hill as Cupid, Laura Sawyer.

In this, Maurice Elvey’s second film of Stanley Houghton’s 1910 play, American actress Estelle Brody is wonderful as the independent-minded Fanny and British actor John Stuart charms as her handsome romantic foil, Allan. It’s realist melodrama, but one spiked with humour, and resistant to cliché and sentiment. The location-shot Blackpool sequences, from the Pleasure Beach to the Tower Ballroom, are filled with life. In fact, the whole film has a verve that carries audiences straight through to the deathless climax. Fanny’s spirit may have shocked prewar theatre audiences, but it’s still a thrill to see her reject conventional attitudes to class, work and sex.

PamelaHutchinson

The First Born(1928)

Director: MilesMander

10 great British silent films (7)

Miles Mander’s The First Born is a beautifully made late silent film drawing on all the techniques developed by filmmakers in that most fertile decade. After seeing it, the argument that British studios didn’t know how to put together a good film no longer holds water. In its story of a philandering would-be politician and his unhappy wife, it tackles sensitive, even uncomfortable ‘adult’ issues about double standards and the political class. It shows the artistic ambition of its principal creator, Miles Mander, who wrote the novel and the play and directed and starred in thisfilmversion.

It’s also the film that launched the career of actress Madeleine Carroll (The 39 Steps), but perhaps most significantly for us today, it’s an example of the work of one of our finest screenwriters, Alma Reville, best known forthe work she did with her husband, Alfred Hitchcock. Mander is a great writer, but we can probably attribute the layers of complexity in the story – perhaps even the film’s ‘Hitchcockian touches’ – to this remarkablewoman.

BryonyDixon

Blackmail(1929)

Director: AlfredHitchcock

10 great British silent films (8)

Thirty-year-old Alfred Hitchcock was in a good position as British cinemas wired for sound in 1929. He had nine solo features under his belt, but he was keen to maintain his prime status as sound film developed. To this end he pulled off a master stroke, directing both a clever sound and a brilliant silent version of the same film. The whole project looks like a calling card for the attention of the topstudios.

In Blackmail, he selected a taut thriller, a genre about to become a fixture in 1930s Hollywood. The first seven minutes is a tour de force of silent film editing, showing the ruthless hunting down, integration and imprisonment of a felon by the London police. This sets the tone for the main plot concerning a case of date-rape, murder and blackmail – all of which concludes with a classic Hitchcock chase over the roof of the BritishMuseum.

BryonyDixon

The Informer(1929)

Director: ArthurRobison

10 great British silent films (9)

Shot and released right on the cusp of sound, the fully silent versionof Arthur Robison’s The Informer is vastly superior to its part-talkie counterpart thanks to its lack of creaky dialogue and clashing accents. It’s a multinational project, with a German director and Hungarian and Swedish co-stars featuring in a British production based on a novel by Irishman LiamO’Flaherty.

An absolutely authentic dive into sectarian Ireland, it features a sterling performance from Lars Hansen as an unthinking man, Gypo Nolan, inexorably coming to terms with the path he has chosen for himself. The long single shot in which Nolan barrels through the crowded street to the police station to betray the partner of the woman he loves is bravura filmmaking. It’son a par with the best of British film of the period. The unflinching shootouts, shadowy gunmen and tough dialogue make for a heady brew that, for this writer, more than challenges the John Ford remake of 1935. Robison is better known for Expressionist crime thriller Shadows (1923), but this film makes one wish he had made more contemporarythrillers.

(Video) Silent Film Score compilation - The Old Times

NeilBrand

Buy The Informer on Blu-ray/DVD

A Cottage on Dartmoor(1929)

Director: AnthonyAsquith

10 great British silent films (10)

Anthony Asquith’s late silent thriller represents the artistic peak of British silent cinema. It features a young manicurist Sally (Norah Baring) who rebukes the obsessive attentions of her colleague, Joe (Uno Henning), in favour of a local farmer, Harry (Hans AdalbertSchlettow).

Asquith deployed European techniques in camera, lighting and editing in a virtuoso sequence set in a provincial cinema where Sally and Harry relax in each other’s company, oblivious to Joe sitting menacingly behind them. The fictional audience enjoys a silent comedy accompanied by the cinema’s orchestra, their laughter and Asquith’s montage gathering momentum as the comedy builds to a climax, the music to a crescendo and Joe’s jealousy to breaking point. Then silence. The orchestra downs tools as the talkie starts, the audience strains to hear the alien sounds emanating from the screen, and an elderly woman has the dialogue relayed into her ear-trumpet. In this one scene, Asquith skilfully develops his thrilling plot and bids a poignant farewell to the art of the silent film and the thousands of musicians who played forit.

LarainePorter

Buy A Cottage on Dartmoor on DVD

Watch A Cottage on Dartmoor on BFI Player

FAQs

What is the most famous silent film? ›

The General

What is considered the best British film? ›

Full list
RankTitleYear
1The Third Man1949
2Brief Encounter1945
3Lawrence of Arabia1962
4The 39 Steps1935
96 more rows

What is the oldest silent film? ›

Roundhay Garden Scene, which has a running time of just over two seconds, was filmed in 1888. It is believed to be the world's earliest surviving motion-picture film.

What were some of the most popular first silent films? ›

Who was the king of silent movies? ›

Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton (October 4, 1895 – February 1, 1966) was an American actor, comedian and filmmaker. He is best known for his silent film work, in which his trademark was physical comedy accompanied by a stoic, deadpan expression that earned him the nickname "The Great Stone Face".

What is the film industry of UK called? ›

The British Film Institute has produced a poll ranking what they consider to be the 100 greatest British films of all time, the BFI Top 100 British films.
...
Cinema of the United Kingdom
Main distributorsWalt Disney Pictures 100% Universal Pictures 53.4% Warner Bros. 18.2% Paramount 16.3% 20th Century Studios 12.1%
14 more rows

Is Dunkirk a British film? ›

Dunkirk is a British war film written and directed by Christopher Nolan. It tells the story of the Allied evacuation from Northern France during World War II.

When was the last silent movie made? ›

In 1922, when Hollywood was young and anarchic, an actor known as Baby Peggy made a silent film called The Darling Of New York.

Who was the first silent film star? ›

Fifty-three years passed before actor and film-history buff Roddy McDowall sprang for a headstone that marked the departed's singular place in cinematic history: “The First Movie Star.” Her name was Florence Lawrence.

When were the last silent films made? ›

Silents are the films of the early era that were without synchronized sound, from the earliest film (around 1891), until 1927, when the first 'talkie', The Jazz Singer (1927) - the first commercially successful sound film, was produced.

What was the first silent film in 1903? ›

Produced by Thomas Edison but directed and filmed by Edison Company employee Edwin S. Porter, the 12-minute-long silent film, The Great Train Robbery (1903), was the first narrative movie—one that told a story.

What is the only word spoken in silent movie? ›

Marcel Marceau reprises his "walking into the wind" routine while trying to lift a phone. He then shouts his only spoken word of the film: "Non!". When the Studio Chief asks what was his answer, Mel Funn cowardly replies that he doesn't understand French.

Are there any modern silent movies? ›

Contemporary silent films
  • Juha (1999) Not Rated | 78 min | Comedy, Drama, Romance. ...
  • Tuvalu (1999) Not Rated | 101 min | Comedy, Drama, Romance. ...
  • The Unusual Inventions of Henry Cavendish (2005) 16 min | Short, Drama, Romance. ...
  • Brand Upon the Brain! ( 2006) ...
  • The Aerial (2007) ...
  • Dr. ...
  • The Artist (I) (2011) ...
  • Return to Babylon (2013)

How many silent films are lost? ›

Seventy-five percent of all silent films made at the end of the 19th Century and in the first three decades of the 20th, are considered lost, according to a 2013 study by U.S. Library of Congress. Some of these vanished artifacts have taunted film historians for decades.

Who was better Keaton or Chaplin? ›

Aside from their comedic styles, Chaplin and Keaton are also different in their strengths. Keaton is considered the more superior filmmaker. On the other hand, Chaplin was better in acting and writing comedic pieces. While Keaton is considered as a serious filmmaker, he concentrated his pieces on silent movies.

Why do silent movies move so fast? ›

Silent films were mostly shot on hand-cranked cameras, which meant they were intended to run at variable speeds through the cinema projector, rather than today's standard 24 frames per second. Run a silent movie at the modern speed and more often than not it will look ridiculous – jerky and comically fast.

Who was the last silent film actor? ›

Diana Serra Cary (born Peggy-Jean Montgomery; October 29, 1918 – February 24, 2020), known as Baby Peggy, was an American child film actress, vaudevillian, author and silent film historian. She was the last living person with a substantial career in silent films.

Who was the famous silent film actor of the 1920s? ›

Charles Chaplin

Chaplin became a worldwide icon through his screen persona “the Tramp” and is considered one of the most important figures in the history of the film industry.In 1919, Chaplin co-founded the distribution company United Artists, which gave him complete control over his films.

What is England's equivalent of Hollywood? ›

Why Borehamwood is called the British Hollywood.

Where is Pollywood? ›

Punjabi cinema, sometimes metonymously referred to as Pollywood, is the Punjabi-language film industry centered around the Indian state of Punjab, and based in Amritsar and Mohali.

What is Russian film industry called? ›

The cinema of Russia began in the Russian Empire, widely developed in the Soviet Union and in the years following its dissolution, the Russian film industry would remain internationally recognized.
...
Cinema of Russia
No. of screens4,372 (2016)
• Per capita2.1 per 100,000 (2011)
11 more rows

Why Dunkirk is a masterpiece? ›

By combining a time-fractured premise, hyper-authentic practical effects, and unparalleled visceral action, Dunkirk perfectly distills the best that Christopher Nolan has to offer into one heart-pounding masterpiece. Set during the Second World War, the film tells the story of an integral turning point in the war.

How realistic was Dunkirk? ›

In terms of accuracy, it rates pretty highly. There are no big, glaring historical whoppers. The characters whom Nolan invents to serve his narrative purposes are realistic, and his scenes depict genuine events or hew close to firsthand accounts.

Who won the battle of Dunkirk? ›

On June 5, when Dunkirk finally fell to the German army and the 40,000 remaining allied troops surrendered, Hitler celebrated the battle as a great, decisive victory.

When you can't remember the name of a movie? ›

Name The Actors

One of the easiest ways to find a movie title is by searching the actors who were in it. You can look up an actor's Wikipedia or IMDb page to check their filmography, and you should find the movie you're looking for there.

Is there an app that can identify a movie? ›

Movsea is a mobile application that allows you to identify movies just recording a fragment of a movie. It is useful when you need to know the title of the movie that you see somewhere on the screen. It works in real time. It is awesome!

How can I find a movie title from a picture? ›

Google Image search is a google search extension that helps you search for results similar to an image of your choice. In other words, you can take a photo of the movie playing in front of you and use it to find the name of the movie.

What was the last silent movie? ›

In 1922, when Hollywood was young and anarchic, an actor known as Baby Peggy made a silent film called The Darling Of New York.

Are there any modern silent movies? ›

Contemporary silent films
  • Juha (1999) Not Rated | 78 min | Comedy, Drama, Romance. ...
  • Tuvalu (1999) Not Rated | 101 min | Comedy, Drama, Romance. ...
  • The Unusual Inventions of Henry Cavendish (2005) 16 min | Short, Drama, Romance. ...
  • Brand Upon the Brain! ( 2006) ...
  • The Aerial (2007) ...
  • Dr. ...
  • The Artist (I) (2011) ...
  • Return to Babylon (2013)

Why were silent films so popular? ›

The first silent films were created in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They were popular because they were a new technology and people were curious to see them. This may seem strange to us now, but at the time it was a new and exciting way to tell a story.

What year did silent films end? ›

The switchover from silent to sound in the American film industry, which began in late 1927, was primarily complete by 1929 (though even in that year silent pictures continued to be produced, though at a heavily reduced rate).

How many silent films are lost? ›

Seventy-five percent of all silent films made at the end of the 19th Century and in the first three decades of the 20th, are considered lost, according to a 2013 study by U.S. Library of Congress. Some of these vanished artifacts have taunted film historians for decades.

What ended the silent era? ›

By the early 1930s, the silent film era was over as “talkies” became a theatre sensation. Hollywood was quick to take advantage of the new technology, but European filmmakers were hesitant and believed sound could diminish the aesthetic value of movies.

What was the first all talking movie? ›

The Jazz Singer, American musical film, released in 1927, that was the first feature-length movie with synchronized dialogue. It marked the ascendancy of “talkies” and the end of the silent-film era.

Where can I watch old silent films? ›

The National Film Preservation Foundation website features a virtual screening room replete with silents, including features such as Hell's Hinges (1916) and rarities such as Orson Welles' lost-and-found slapstick treat Too Much Johnson (1938), and the Library of Congress website offers films dating back to the 1890s.

What movie has no talking in it? ›

17 PM. “A Quiet Place” didn't need any dialogue to become a breakout hit at the box office. John Krasinski's near-silent horror film opened to $50 million and is destined to gross over $100 million by the end of its run. Fortunately, it's not the only modern film to take an artistic risk and go the silent route.

What is the only word spoken in silent movie? ›

Marcel Marceau reprises his "walking into the wind" routine while trying to lift a phone. He then shouts his only spoken word of the film: "Non!". When the Studio Chief asks what was his answer, Mel Funn cowardly replies that he doesn't understand French.

How long did silent films last? ›

In the 1800's, many inventors, such as Thomas Edison and the Lumiere Brothers worked on machines that projected images. This led to the silent movie era which ranged from 1894 to 1929. During this time period, a number of moving pictures were created and shown in theaters on big screens.

Why do silent movies move so fast? ›

Silent films were mostly shot on hand-cranked cameras, which meant they were intended to run at variable speeds through the cinema projector, rather than today's standard 24 frames per second. Run a silent movie at the modern speed and more often than not it will look ridiculous – jerky and comically fast.

What instrument was often played over a silent film? ›

Pianos were the instrument of choice for most movie houses. Both pianos and amateur pianists were readily available in any town. Because young women were typically trained on this instrument, theater owners frequently hired them to serve as accompanists.

Are there any silent film stars alive? ›

The last surviving film star of the silent era, Diana Serra Cary, has died aged 101 according to the Niles Film Museum. Known by her stage name Baby Peggy, Cary starred in over 100 short films and was one of the highest paid Hollywood stars of the 1920s, earning upwards of $1.5 million a year.

What was the first color movie? ›

FIRST MOVIE EVER MADE IN COLOR

The first commercially produced film in natural color was A Visit to the Seaside (1908). The eight-minute British short film used the Kinemacolor process to capture a series of shots of the Brighton Southern England seafront.

Why did silent films have music? ›

With skillful scoring, musical accompaniments to silent films become as important as dialogue, and much more expressive. They add to the image a physical immediacy that counteracts the flat screen.

Videos

1. Oasis - Don’t Look Back In Anger (Official Video)
(Oasis)
2. 10 Silent Movie Songs That You´ve Heard and Don´t Know the Name
(Vinheteiro)
3. Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film - 01 The Pioneers
(João Antonio Franz)
4. TOP 20 MOST BEAUTIFUL SILENT MOVIE ACTRESSES
(Classic Shine)
5. I Travelled 9.937 km trying to get a Hug @MrBeast
(Geleia)
6. Silent movies did some pretty crazy things with trains
(Don McHoull)

You might also like

Latest Posts

Article information

Author: Nathanial Hackett

Last Updated: 10/10/2022

Views: 5603

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (52 voted)

Reviews: 83% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Nathanial Hackett

Birthday: 1997-10-09

Address: Apt. 935 264 Abshire Canyon, South Nerissachester, NM 01800

Phone: +9752624861224

Job: Forward Technology Assistant

Hobby: Listening to music, Shopping, Vacation, Baton twirling, Flower arranging, Blacksmithing, Do it yourself

Introduction: My name is Nathanial Hackett, I am a lovely, curious, smiling, lively, thoughtful, courageous, lively person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.