One way to liven up family movie night is to introduce your kids to all different types of movies. For hilarious comedy, swashbuckling adventure and spaced-out fantasy, these silent movies are golden. Because the stories are told without words, parents can prompt their children about what the characters are feeling and what they think the characters will do next. We’ve leaned heavily on comedy because kids and slapstick go together like, well, kids and slapstick. Though most of these silent movie classics are almost 100 years old, they are ageless and will thrill and delight just as they did almost a century ago.
“Battle of the Century”
About 11 minutes into this classic Laurel and Hardy short, a pastry chef slips on a banana peel, blames Hardy, and hits him in the kisser with a pie. Hardy retaliates, but misses the chef and accidentally hits a refined woman on her behind. She returns fire but likewise misses, hitting a man getting his shoes shined. And thus begins the greatest pie fight—a reported 3,000 pies were used— in movie history.
This Laurel and Hardy short is an even better introduction to the beloved comedy team. Here’s all you need to know: Stan and Ollie want to sell a homeowner a Christmas tree. The homeowner does not want to buy a Christmas tree. Little will be left standing by the time this slapstick-palooza is over.
How popular was Charlie Chaplin? All a theater owner had to do to fill the seats was just display a picture of Chaplin’s iconic Tramp character. In this sublime romantic comedy, one of his greatest, the Tramp devotes himself to an unwitting blind flower girl. Roger Ebert called the film’s perfect final scene, in which the flower girl, her sight restored, gazes upon the pitiful Tramp, whom she now realizes was her benefactor, as “one of the great emotional moments in the movies.”
This thrilling Civil War adventure never gets old. Buster Keaton stars as an engineer who will stop at nothing to retrieve his beloved train that has been stolen by Union spies. Kids will thrill to the acrobatic Keaton performing his own death-defying stunts (one, in which he is doused with water, broke his neck!). The climactic bridge collapse is no special effect: it’s real and was the most expensive scene ever filmed for a silent movie.
Introduced as “a picture with a smile – perhaps a tear,” Charlie Chaplin’s first feature film is heavy going at first, but once the Tramp finds an abandoned baby (Jackie Coogan, best known as Uncle Fester on “The Addams Family” TV series) and decides to raise him on his own, the laughter and pathos are blended perfectly.
“The Mark of Zorro”
The first masked superhero and he did all of his own stunts! Silent screen idol Douglas Fairbanks stars as Don Diego Vega, the dandy son of a wealth rancher. What dad doesn’t know is that his son is actually Zorro, a dashing, swashbuckling protector of the oppressed peasants. This adventure has it all: great sword fights, romance, and a dash of humor.
Harold Lloyd is not well known today, but his fame once rivaled that of Chaplin and Keaton. His character, a plucky, optimistic go-getter, plays well with kids, as does his unique brand of thrill comedy. This film contains one of the signature scenes in silent comedy: Harold, hanging from the minute hand of a clock that is slowly detaching from the wall 12 stories above the city street.
“Steamboat Bill, Jr.”
This is another Buster Keaton masterpiece. College man William is nothing like his rough and tough father, whose steamboat business is in danger of sinking. To make matters worse, William is in love with his rival’s daughter. But in classic Keaton style, he heroically redeems himself during a cyclone. This is the film with the see-it-to-believe-it stunt, in which an open window saves William when a house wall collapses around him. Fun fact: If your children are fans of “Dunston Checks In,” they will recognize some of this film’s gags; the director is a big Keaton fan.
“A Trip to the Moon”
Director George Melies’s fantasy is short (18 minutes), ridiculous (in a good way) and out of this world with its innovative editing and primitive special effects that dazzle to this day. The image of the rocket capsule landing in the eye of the moon face is one of the most enduring in cinema.
We would love to know your child’s reaction to watching a silent movie. Let us know what movies worked best for you. If you have a silent movie suggestion of your own, please share it in the comments!
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