The 30 Best Silent Movies in Hollywood History (2022)

The first American movies emerged at the dawn of the 19th century. They told short, simple stories, usually about a chase or a gag, serving as low-cost entertainment to the poor, illiterate mass.

The birth of Hollywood as we know it, however, only came about in the 1910’s, when production moved from New York to California and the Industry started organizing itself. By then, features had proved appealing to middle-class audiences and WWI had devastated the major competitors in the business – the Europeans. It was enough for American producers to gain the upper hand.

Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Buster Keaton are among the pioneers of filmmaking. They experimented in narrative techniques, editing, mise-en-scène and gradually established the basic elements of the ‘film language’. Meanwhile, the medium strived to find respect and disengage its image from the cheap nickelodeons.

Movies became longer, more refined in storytelling and cinematography, and stars like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Lillian Gish and Rudolph Valentino found world-wide success, helping pave the way for the acceptance of film as an art form.

In 1927, Warner Brothers released the first sound film, The Jazz Singer and less than 10 years later, Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times would unofficially put an end to the era. Nevertheless, as Sunset Blvd.’s Silent-Film star Norma Desmond points out “We had faces then”. Indeed they did, and they continue to fascinate us to this day.

Please note that the list is in alphabetical order; it only includes feature-films (40 minutes or longer by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts standards) and a limit of two entries by director has been set.

1. 7th Heaven

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In Frank Borzage’s romantic melodrama, Charles Farrell plays a street cleaner who saves Janet Gaynor from an abusive sister and ends up falling in love with the fragile young woman. He takes her to his modest apartment that stands 7 storeys high, hence the film’s name, and the beautiful quotation from an intertitle: “I work in the sewer, but live near the stars”.

Often compared with Sunrise, which also starred Gaynor, 7th Heaven is an impeccably shot and passionately acted gem from the Silent era. The main couple was one of the most popular from its time and watching the film it’s easy to see why.

Borzage’s sensitive directing sets the perfect tone for an emotional journey that includes the pair’s separation in the war and their subsequent character acts about spiritual and personal growth.

2. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

This 1925 production was one of the films responsible for making MGM rise above its competitors and establish itself as the most powerful studio in town. No expenses were spared for Fred Niblo’s movie and the famed chariot scene rivals William Wyler’s in both entertainment quality and spectacular effects.

Ramon Novarro gives Charlton Heston a run for his money as the title character and the primitive Technicolor used in some chief scenes is not only significant from a Film-history point of view, but quite magnificent to look at.

One can easily argue that, although frequently overlooked in face of its legendary remake – the 1959 version –, the silent Ben-Hur is just as good as its more famous successor, if not superior on some elements.

3. The Big Parade

Among the great Hollywood war epics, King Vidor’s The Big Parade was responsible for making John Gilbert one of the most popular actors of the 1920’s. He plays a wealthy and naive young fellow who becomes a soldier in the American army during The Great War.

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Vidor has us witnessing his training days, his escapades in France and the inevitable changes he goes through over the horrors of the war. The battle scenes are terrifying: soldiers marching to death, bombarded fields and the absolute terror of the trenches. But there is hope amid the chaos, and with some well-dosed humor and irony, our hero loses his innocence only to find love and grow into a responsible man along the way.

4. Broken Blossoms

No luxurious sets or huge production values on this one. In 1919, Griffith validated his status as ‘the father of film’ by telling an incredibly simple story in a sensitive and mature way.

Broken Blossoms follows a fragile girl (Lillian Gish) constantly abused by her father , who finds comfort in her friendship with a gentle Chinese immigrant. The film is ultimately a tale of two lonely, suffering beings who have a small glimpse of hope, in a world plagued by evil and pain.

As the waif, Gish is altogether phenomenal; the scene in which she forces a smile, lifting the corners of her mouth with her fingers, while her small eyes unconsciously reveal her fear, has deservingly become an iconic Film moment. Perhaps no actress in film history has mixed bravery and frailty so well as the Silent-era star did.

5. The Cameraman

1928’s The Cameraman is arguably Buster Keaton’s last masterpiece. His famous gags and acrobatics are present, but the heart of the movie is in its unpretentious love story about an awkward young man, who becomes a cameraman in order to get close to the girl he loves.

The film manages remarkably well to be as funny as his short-films while developing a full-blown narrative. Keaton’s famous stone-face makes him the perfect underdog, fighting villains and romancing leading-lady Marceline Day.

It has laughs, love and an extremely likeable main-character; all in all an irresistible combination that makes it the perfect choice for an introduction to Silent Film.

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6. The Crowd

Only a filmmaking genius like King Vidor could transform the realistic tale of a man and his wife desperately trying to achieve their dreams in the scary turmoil of a big city, into a poetic masterpiece.

The theme is universal in its simplicity, that is why we can still relate to the joys and sorrows of John (James Murray) and Mary Sims (Eleanor Boardman) today. Who has never questioned himself when unable to achieve their personal goals? Surely, most of us have at least once felt insignificant before the greatness of ‘The Crowd’.

Cinematographer Henry Sharp creates some of the most beautiful and innovative shots of Silent-Film and we are treated with some truly awe-inspiring shots of New York City. The film manages to be both intimate and monumental and it deserves its place among the prime of the era.

7. Flesh and the Devil

In this old tale of friendship ruined by a temptress, John Gilbert and Greta Garbo prove that their star-quality could elevate the most simplistic plot to classic film status. Their chemistry is so intense and their love scenes play out in such a natural way, it become quite obvious they were having a real life affair.

Besides its celebrated leading-couple, the greatest appeal of the film rests on its glorious cinematography. While many viewers will most likely forget the details of the story, the image of Leo ( Gilbert) and Felicitas (Garbo) exchanging caresses in a dimly lit garden and the shadowy lighting in the final duel are elements that stay in a movie-lover’s mind forever.

8. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

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The screen’s original “Latin lover”, Rudolph Valentino, is the uncontested star of this melodrama of epic proportions. Under Rex Ingram’s direction, we are told the engaging saga of a wealthy Argentine family torn apart by envy and war.

At the start of the film, we meet a Tango and women-loving Julio Desnoyers, who doesn’t seem to have a care in the world. With the break of WWI, the young man slowly matures into a brave and selfless soldier; a magnificent work of character development by Valentino, that does more than live up to his regal reputation.

There are also many interesting subplots about themes as varied as adultery, father-son relationships, greed and honor, but one cannot argue that the true message of the film is a strong anti-war appeal, well-symbolized by the image of the title’s frightening Four Horsemen riding across a nebulous sky.

9. The General

Set during the Civil War, The General has Keaton as Johnnie Gray, a man with two loves in his life, his girl, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), and his train – The General.

Like a good Confederate, Johnnie tries to enlist, but is refused by the army who thinks he’s too good of an engineer to become a soldier. Called a coward by his family and friends, Johnnie has to prove himself a real hero when his locomotive is stolen by the North.

The General features some of The Great Stone Face’s most daring and inventive gags, but it is ultimately an action movie outlined by many hilarious moments. Keaton’s true genius comes through when we realize he delivers both a flawless achievement in filmmaking, to be studied and referenced, and a plain funny and entertaining film, perfect for a family viewing.

10. Greed

Upon watching the two-hour version of Greed, edited by MGM at the behest of Irving Thalberg, director Erich von Stroheim is said to have commented “It was like viewing a corpse in a graveyard. “

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Stroheim’s original vision for the film, which tells of the negative effects of fortune on three men, had almost 10 hours and it’s sadly considered lost. Nonetheless, in 1999, Turner Classic Movies released a restored rendition which reconstructs the original plot with the aid of still photographs.

In 4 hours, one can only get a glimpse at the genius of Stroheim and his wonderful eye for rich visuals and detailed story-telling. Still, it is undoubtedly a work of great craft that even in its brutally mutilated form remains a must-see for Film buffs.

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FAQs

What is the most famous silent film? ›

The General

Who was the king of silent films in Hollywood? ›

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 were some of the most popular first silent films? ›

What was the first Hollywood silent movie? ›

In Old California is a 1910 American silent Western film. It was the first film shot in Hollywood, California. It was directed by D. W. Griffith of the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company (then based in New York City).

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.

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 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)

What is silent acting called? ›

Silent acting is known as "Mime". It is a form of acting in which no speech or sound is used but the message is conveyed through gesture and body movement.

Why were silent movies so popular? ›

People have always appreciated and loved silent films because they were a new and innovative way to tell stories. Silent films were also popular because they were often very funny and entertaining.

Who invented silent films? ›

The first film was created by Louis Le Prince in 1888. It was a two seconds film of people walking around in Oakwood Grange garden, titled Roundhay Garden Scene. The art of motion pictures grew into full maturity in the "silent era" before silent films were replaced by "talking pictures" in the late 1920s.

What are the 7 film eras? ›

The Evolution of Cinema – 7 eras that defined world cinema.
  • Inception: The Silent Era. ...
  • The Sound Era. ...
  • The Golden Age of Cinema. ...
  • The Blockbuster Era. ...
  • Collaborate. ...
  • The Independent Era. ...
  • New Age Cinema.
7 Sept 2020

What is the 1st movie in the world? ›

On Boxing Day 1906 The Story of the Kelly Gang opened at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne. It was the first multi-reel, feature-length film ever produced in the world.

Who is the first movie of Hollywood? ›

The first film completed in Hollywood was 1908's The Count of Monte Cristo, although production of the film began in Chicago.

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 did silent films stop? ›

The gradual transition from silent films to talkies took place between 1926 and 1930 and included many small steps — both technological developments and adjustments to audience expectations — before it was complete.

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.

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.

What is the first silent movie in India? ›

In 1913 he released India's first silent film, Raja Harishchandra, a work based on Hindu mythology. The film, scripted, produced, directed, and distributed by Phalke, was a huge success and an important milestone in Indian cinematic history.

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).

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