October 2007 marked the 80th anniversary of Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer—and the beginning of the end of the silent era. Though Hollywood continued to release silents into 1929, and silent pictures lingered into the early 1930s internationally, in many ways 1927 was the death knell. Thanks to DVD, however, silent films are more readily available today than they have been for decades—and the visual quality is often infinitely better than the subpar VHS tapes film buffs suffered through for years. That makes now the best time to revisit the top directors of the era, the artists who, through their bodies of work, laid the foundation of modern moviemaking. Each of the directors profiled below are innovators who influenced the development of cinema in a critical way during its formative years, and all left behind legacies that extended far beyond their filmographies.
Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977)
It’s appropriate that Chaplin’s name comes first. After all, with apologies to Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, there was no bigger star in the silent era than Chaplin. For many, Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” remains the iconic image of the period and its most enduringly recognizable personality. For the half-century following his screen debut in 1914, Chaplin wrote, directed, edited and scored most of his 80-plus films, making him one of cinema’s first true auteurs. He also had the box office clout to have the final say on every aspect of his pictures, and to continue making silents long after the rest of Hollywood had converted to sound. The Gold Rush and City Lights are widely regarded as his best silent features, filled with moments that are now part of movie lore. Yes, he can be sappy, but so what? Chaplin is not for incurable cynics, but then, neither are the movies.
Recommended Viewing: The Kid (1921), A Woman of Paris (1923), The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936)
Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959)
DeMille was Hollywood’s greatest showman and a master of the epic, so it’s no surprise that he started by making features—shorts were just too small for his ambitions. His debut film, The Squaw Man, which he co-directed with Oscar Apfel, is curious both as a highly accomplished and entertaining piece of moviemaking and for its historic value (it was the first feature shot in Hollywood). Another of his early efforts, The Cheat, shows DeMille at his most experimental, particularly in the film’s photographic beauty and its innovative use of editing and lighting. Perhaps more than any other moviemaker before or since, DeMille instinctively understood what American audiences wanted to see. While some of his films may seem creaky to today’s audiences, it’s important to remember that he established many of the storytelling templates that moviemakers follow to this day.
Recommended Viewing: The Squaw Man (1914), The Cheat (1915), Male and Female (1919), The Ten Commandments (1923), The King of Kings (1927)
Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948)
“Fun” is not a word that comes to mind when describing Eisenstein, but that should not dissuade anyone from seeing his films. The “master of montage,” he was also the primary figure in the explosion of innovation in Soviet cinema in the 1920s. The much-studied “Odessa Steps” sequence in Battleship Potemkin alone would be sufficient to guarantee him a place on this list, but each of Eisenstein’s major silent features contains numerous other sequences of equal brilliance. Battleship Potemkin, of course, is his most important work, and for years it was practically the standard by which other films were judged. Even today, Eisenstein’s theories on editing continue to be discussed, but it is the power of his images that remains the most remarkable aspect of his work. Unlike most of his Soviet contemporaries, Eisenstein did not get bogged down in the propaganda of the times, nor were his movies cold exercises in cinematic experimentation. His films were first and foremost about emotion, and it is that element which remains undiminished.
Recommended Viewing: Strike (1925), Battleship Potemkin (1925), October (1928), Old and New/The General Line (1929)
Louis Feuillade (1873-1925)
Of all the moviemakers on this list, French director Feuillade was the earliest to emerge (2006 marked the centennial of his directorial debut), yet his films seem the most modern. Championed by the surrealists but dismissed by the establishment as merely a director of crime serials, Feuillade’s films need no contextualizing when viewed today. The cinema of Feuillade is one of action and adventure—a world of secret passageways, multiple aliases, clever disguises, double-crossings and shocking murders. The serial (and by extension, episodic television) owes a great deal to Feuillade, especially his sense of pacing, his visual flair, his taste for violence and his desire to surprise audiences with each unexpected twist of the plot.
Recommended Viewing: Fantomas (1913-1914), Les Vampires (1915-1916), Judex (1916), Tih Minh (1918), Barrabas (1919)
Robert Flaherty (1884-1951)
Flaherty’s output in the silent era was small, but how many directors can claim to have practically invented an entire form of moviemaking? The documentary tradition dates back at least to 1895, when the Lumiere brothers’ depictions of daily life, so-called “actualities,” became a staple of moviegoing. But the release of Flaherty’s Nanook of the North was a watershed event. This epic depiction of one Inuit hunter’s ceaseless struggle to find food for his family was an unprecedented box office sensation, and it inspired generations of moviemakers to travel the globe with their cameras in search of cultures and stories previously unrepresented in the cinema. While the debate continues over whether his methods would qualify as “documentary” by today’s standards (he made considerable use of dramatic recreation), there is no denying that Flaherty launched the wave of documentary moviemaking that has lasted, with ups and downs, for more than 80 years.
Recommended Viewing: Nanook of the North (1922), Moana (1926)
Abel Gance (1889-1981)
In explaining the importance of Gance’s work, film historian Kevin Brownlow singles out La Roue and Napoléon, as “they are packed with the most astonishing and daring sequences of the entire silent era.” Yet today Gance is almost invisible, and his place on this list is precarious. His major works—Napoléon, La Roue and J’accuse!—remain largely unavailable. He has become one of those early directors about whom film buffs hear much but see almost nothing. In the 1910s and 1920s, however, Gance was France’s foremost director. He was a relentless experimenter, admired for increasing the mobility of the camera and pioneering the use of widescreen and multiscreen techniques. Even more significant was his work with rapid-style editing, which influenced the Soviet masters of the 1920s and the French New Wave directors of the 1960s. But in order for a director’s body of work to endure, it needs to be assessed, debated and—most importantly—seen.
Recommended Viewing: Mater dolorosa (1917), The Tenth Symphony (1918), J’accuse! (1919), La Roue (1923), Napoléon (1927)
D.W. Griffith (1875-1948)
Every person who has made a movie in the past 100 years, regardless of whether or not he or she has ever seen one of Griffith’s movies, has been influenced by him. It’s not that he invented the techniques of moviemaking, but rather that he used them in revolutionary ways, which essentially created what we now recognize as the very grammar of cinema. The Birth of a Nation, his most notorious and important work, is overflowing with racist imagery that remains shocking and indefensible. Nevertheless, the film remains a titanic achievement, by turns deeply offensive and overwhelming poetic, and in many ways the principal blueprint for the next century of moviemaking.
Recommended Viewing: The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921), Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924)
Buster Keaton (1895-1966)
Dubbed the “Great Stone Face” (though he was more expressive than that nickname implies), Keaton perfected the bewildered loner persona and was as sardonic as Chaplin was sentimental. In an era of physical comedians, he was perhaps the greatest of all. Like Douglas Fairbanks and Gene Kelly, he had the ability to perform astounding physical feats on camera, yet make them look easy and graceful. His fondness for large-scale props, from the ocean liner in The Navigator to the train in The General, is legendary. Keaton directed or co-directed most of his films and, like Chaplin, exercised such a degree of control over his movies that he was one of the earliest movie star auteurs. Fans of silent comedy will forever debate over who was greater, Chaplin or Keaton, but the dispute is silly: Both are essential figures.
Recommended Viewing: Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The General (1927)
Fritz Lang (1890-1976)
Lang was perhaps the silent era’s premier master of the genre picture. In the course of just a decade, he made a succession of films that helped establish the basic tenets for many of the genres that are now staples of modern moviemaking. The Spiders is an exotic swashbuckling adventure that anticipated the Indiana Jones franchise, Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler is the tale of a larger-than-life criminal mastermind and an early example of the pulp crime thriller; Die Nibelungen is an epic-sized fantasy saga that foreshadows everything from Ray Harryhausen’s films to The Lord of the Rings trilogy; and Spies is an international espionage story in the vein of the later James Bond pictures. Metropolis is, of course, Lang’s most celebrated and influential work; a film that continues to be mined—sometimes shamelessly so—by present-day moviemakers. There’s no question that Lang was deeply influenced by Feuillade, and this influence is especially evident in his early films, but Lang also firmly established his own identity, and unlike many of his contemporaries, continued to be an important moviemaker for decades after the silent era ended.
Recommended Viewing: The Spiders (1919-1920), Destiny (1921), Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922), Die Nibelungen (1924), Metropolis (1927), Spies (1928)
Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947)
Today, Lubitsch is known for his comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, including Trouble in Paradise and To Be or Not to Be, but his silent films are equally noteworthy. Lubitsch initially tried his hand at a variety of genres, including historical dramas, but it was clear from the start that his true talent lay with comedy. His German comedies, such as The Oyster Princess and The Wildcat, are masterworks of absurdity and chaos, and reveal a bolder, more experimental Lubitsch than viewers are accustomed to seeing. Once in Hollywood, he further refined his approach and became one of the first directors to turn away from the slapstick style that monopolized American comedy. In that regard, The Marriage Circle is a seminal film. Its success launched a wave of imitations and established the upper-class comedy as a staple genre of the American screen—with Lubitsch as its ringleader.
Recommended Viewing: The Doll (1919), Madame DuBarry/Passion (1919), The Oyster Princess (1919), The Wildcat (1921), The Marriage Circle (1924), Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925), The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927)
F.W. Murnau (1888-1931)
Murnau was only 42 when he was killed in an auto accident, and of the 21 films he directed in his short life, five are bona fide classics. What is striking is that the films in this quintet look and feel so dramatically different from each other, yet are unmistakably the product of the same creative mind. Murnau’s interest in the psychological and his knack for creating a visual tour de force are always present, as is his insatiable appetite to challenge himself from film to film. Thus we have Nosferatu, still one of the most chilling horror films ever made; The Last Laugh, a heartbreaking portrait of despair, humiliation and isolation; Faust, the Goethe legend refashioned as an example of almost unchecked cinematic imagining; Sunrise, his first American film and simultaneously the darkest and most romantic portrait of marriage ever filmed; and Tabu, an enchanting film on life in the South Seas that is both a tale of forbidden love and an early example of ethnographic cinema.
Recommended Viewing: Nosferatu (1922), Phantom (1922), The Last Laugh (1924), Tartuffe (1926), Faust (1926), Sunrise (1927), City Girl (1930), Tabu (1931)
Victor Sjöström (1879-1960)
Today, Sjöström is recognized for his wistful starring performance as the old professor in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. In the 1910s, however, he was the dominant figure in the first wave of Swedish cinema, and one of the first directors to gain a worldwide reputation. He was a master at using natural landscapes and his best work was often characterized by the struggles of men and women against forces beyond their control. But while his work frequently featured stunning photography, magnificent locations, complex lighting and vivid depictions of nature, he was equally capable of creating tender love scenes, such as those between Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson in The Scarlet Letter. Without abandoning melodrama, and indeed often embracing it, Sjöström used these potentially conflicting elements to point the cinema toward greater emotional maturity and complexity.
Recommended Viewing: Terje Vigen (1917), The Outlaw and His Wife (1918), The Phantom Carriage (1921), He Who Gets Slapped (1924), The Scarlet Letter (1926), The Wind (1928)
Dziga Vertov (1896-1954)
Vertov was the documentary’s truest believer. It was his belief that film should only be used to pursue the truth, and that such elements as acting, sets and plot were best left to the theater. This admittedly dogmatic view was born from the years he spent as an editor of compilation films during World War I, the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War. It also situated him as the forefather of cinéma vérité and other forms of documentary moviemaking that would emerge with the development of new, more liberating technologies in the 1950s and 1960s. His masterwork, The Man with a Movie Camera, is as much an experimental film as it is a documentary, an ode to both urban life and moviemaking itself. It may also very well be the purest example of cinema ever made, with its boastful rejection of actors, intertitles and even a scenario.
Recommended Viewing: Kino-Eye (1924), A Sixth of the World (1926), The Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
King Vidor (1894-1982)
Vidor was a Hollywood rarity: A director who worked within the studio system, yet somehow managed to make highly personal films. No doubt, Vidor knew when to fight the studio brass and when to compromise, and the result was a career in features that spanned 40 years and 50 films. The Big Parade, his epic retelling of World War I, superbly balanced powerful scenes of then-modern warfare with a sentimental love story, and became one of the biggest box office sensations of the 1920s. But the highpoint of Vidor’s career, and the film upon which much of his reputation largely rests today, is The Crowd. In many ways, The Crowd is almost defiantly anti-Hollywood, particularly in its focus on the anonymous everyman, a topic which often appealed to Vidor. Like Murnau’s Sunrise, it is an example of the inroads that German Expressionism was making into American silent moviemaking.
Recommended Viewing: The Big Parade (1925), La Boheme (1926), The Crowd (1928), The Patsy (1928), Show People (1928)
Erich von Stroheim (1885-1957)
Was von Stroheim a genius crushed by philistines running the studios or was he a pretentious, undisciplined egomaniac who needed to be tightly controlled? He has been both damned and praised for his self-destructive obsession with realism, his refusal to compromise and his budgetary extravagances. Von Stroheim burned bridges from one studio to the next, and time and again was either fired from his films or had them recut by other hands. As a result, when viewed today, what we’re usually watching is someone else’s version of a von Stroheim picture with only fragments of the director’s intentions. Greed, at 140 minutes, is still only about a third of its original running time. Yet even in its butchered form, it’s one of the great silent films which, like von Stroheim’s other films, can be inspiring, frustrating, brilliant, confusing, self-indulgent, poetic and perverted—sometimes all in the same reel. He was never average and he certainly never played it safe, but one could also argue that he didn’t play it particularly smart. If he had been less of a self-created martyr, he would have had a longer career and we would have a few more complete von Stroheim films around today.
Recommended Viewing: Blind Husbands (1919), Foolish Wives (1922), Greed (1924), The Merry Widow (1925), The Wedding March (1928), Queen Kelly (1929)