Maybe it’s because nothing makes me laugh out loud quite like the deadpan slapstick of Buster Keaton, or because I like reading so much, I feel it’s necessary to do so while watching movies, as well. Or perhaps it’s because I went to school with a kid named Rudolph Valentino, or because I always thought it was pretty neat that some of the early film studios were in Fort Lee, NJ.
Whichever it may be, silent films are one of my greatest, not-so-guilty pleasures. The movie stars seem so much more glamorous, and the slapstick boys seems so much sweeter. Here are my a few of my current favorites:
I love Buster Keaton. Seriously, I cannot not laugh when watching any single one of his silent movies. (It just wasn’t the same when he switched to talkies.) The Cameraman was the first Keaton movie I ever saw, and it’s what got me hooked on him. The scene where Keaton’s character is getting changed in the dressing room at the public pool, and another fella walks in, is classic. The ensuing deadpan, passive-agressive stand-off is both so realistic, and utterly comic.
Louise Brooks is amazing in this movie, but it’s the story line that consistently surprises me. Diary of a Lost Girl was filmed in 1929 and tells the story of a young girl (Thymian) who is raped, gives birth to her child, and is shipped off to a reform school for girls. When she escapes, she finds relative refuge in a brothel where she inevitably turns to sex work. Despite expectations for the era, her character is portrayed with empathy, compassion, and an impressive self-awareness. In many ways, it seems more modern than films today.
I came across this movie when TCM was having a Lilian Gish marathon. To be honest, I’m not usually one for historical films, but I couldn’t pull myself away once I was drawn into Orphans of the Storm. It depicts two sisters during the French Revolution, both of whom end up falling in love, one with an aristocrat, and the other, a beggar. When Louise (Dorothy Gish) goes blind, Henriette (Lilian Gish) promises to care for her forever. The love between the two is so intimate and endearing, and unparalleled in another other sisterly film.
4. It, 1927
Before I knew about It, I knew about Clara Bow. Talk about a girl with spunk. Betty Lou Spence (played by Bow) is a cute-but-tough shopgirl working in a department store in New York City. She sets her sights on her handsome, and handsomely wealthy, boss, but risks her reputation after claiming that her sickly roommate’s child is her own when social workers threaten to take the infant away. In the end, it’s her hard-headed tenacity and wit that gets her just what she wants.
Photo of Buster Keaton from Wikimedia Commons.