A Tale of Two Silents

This past week was a bit of a triumph for me. I finally caught up with a couple of classic silent films I was told are “must see.” My reaction to each piece was a personal revelation.

Let’s start with City Lights, the 1931 silent feature written, directed and starring one Charlie Chaplin.

At the time of the film’s release, silent pictures were on the wane, ushered in by 1929’s The Jazz Singer. So you can imagine how worried Chaplin was about the reception this film would receive in the public. Chaplin need not have worried.

The story of “The Tramp” and his love for the blind Flower Girl (Virginia Cherrill) was equally parts funny and enchanting. In other words, I absolutely loved it. There is something about the coordination of the physical, narrative and musical performance that pulls you in and does not let go.

Even if you are not a fan of silent film, I can guarantee that this is a great entrée into the genre.



The story of the multiple restoration efforts has become something of legend. I feel as if that these stories only added to the idea of Fritz Lang’s sci-fi extravaganza as a “lost masterpiece.” As a result, Metropolis has been on my must-watch list and now, I was going to witness the mastery first-hand.

Click here for Metropolis synopsis (source: IMDb)


Well, while there is no doubt that the film is visually arresting in scale, scope and ambition (there was nothing like it at the time), I found the narrative quite wanting and middling in places. This definitely was not the futuristic dystopia I was hoped to see. But I was determined – I kept on watching, hoping at once to have that “eureka” moment, where I understand what the fuss was all about. Unfortunately that moment never came for me.

Let me clarify: the film is not bad, but rather I did not respond to it in the way I really wanted to. This somewhat (but not intentional) contrarian view on Metropolis left me wondering … did anyone have the same reaction after seeing it?


  1. What a contrasting pair Iba! I’ve seen both several times at the cinema over the decades and, like most silent movies, they benefit enormously from the level of audience participation that the silent style engenders (and demands). CITY LIGHTS, made four years after THE JAZZ SINGER was a sort of valentine to the simplicity of movie pantomime and is a truly beguiling mixture of laughs and pathos. METROPOLIS is a strange mixture of biblical parable, gentle fantasy and hardcore science fiction – it is in many a truly incoherent work (I have a good friend who likes nothing better in times of stress to mime Freder’s mad attempts to keep time through vigorous arm gestures! It’s a peculiar melange and shouldn’t work though I think the restored version does largely make sense of the plot and on its own terms is a real masterpiece even if at various points it does seem to change from one kind of film into another. As a sort Expressionistic fantasy on the perils of mechanisation and modernity it is certainly hard to beat! I’ve always had a soft spot for the version scored by Giorgio Moroder, which is now available on DVD too.
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    • Well your knowledge base is far superior on Metropolis than mine, so I will take your word for it.

      I think my issue with the film has to do exactly with what you are describing so eloquently. In other words, all of the stories I have heard about ‘missing footage,’ scoring and this being a complete film, etc. really, I mean REALLY built up my own personal expectations for the film. In the end, I felt let down by my own hopes for the film. Not for nothing the scale of the film especially for the time is noteworthy in its own right.

      My next silent is likely to be Murnau’s “Sunrise”.

  2. Glad to hear you really enjoyed City Lights. I saw that for the first time last year and fell in love with it.

    Metropolis is part of my current movie project so I plan on catching it soon. It will be interesting to see how our thoughts compare.
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  3. I agree with you about Metropolis. Visualy it’s stunning but the plot is a little too messy.

    As for City Lights, I think it is my favourite Chaplin film. It wonderfully mixes his best romantic plot with some of his best comedic moments.


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