A few years ago, less than a dozen silent features were available for DVD hire or purchase. The super-popular star, Lon Chaney, headed the list with his Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and Phantom of the Opera (1925). Other titles, in order of popularity, were the 1925 version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1926), Charlie Chaplin’s Easy Street (1917), Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last, Douglas Fairbanks’ Thief of Bagdad (1924), and three movies starring the one and only Rudolph Valentino: The Sheik (1921) and its sequel, The Son of the Sheik (1926) , and The Eagle (1925).
By the end of 2008, this list has expanded from eleven to more than 500 DVDs. Of course, they are not all feature films. Some are collections of comedy shorts or cartoons; and some titles have been duplicated. Thief of Bagdad, for example, is available on no less than eight different labels. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that more than 400 silent features are now represented in DVD formats, and are available for purchase or hire.
Some DVDs are on offer for as low as $5. Others cost as much as nine times this amount! Unfortunately, quality varies as widely as the purchase prices, but not in the same proportions. Indeed some cheap versions are actually of far better quality than some of the more expensive.
It was to be expected that some of the silent era’s major stars would be the first to benefit from the public’s suddenly awakened interest in pre-sound movies. This has certainly been the case with Greta Garbo, Mary Pickford, Louise Brooks, Buster Keaton, Colleen Moore, Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Clara Bow, Bessie Love, Conrad Veidt, Ronald Colman, Harry Langdon, Ramon Novarro, Lillian Gish and Pola Negri.
A few of the biggest silent stars like Greta Garbo, Ronald Colman and Joan Crawford, successfully made the transition to sound and became even bigger boxoffice draws in the 1930s and 1940s. Some , of course, fell by the wayside, and either took the opportunity to retire or continued their careers in minor roles or bit parts.
Now, thanks to DVD, many of the hidden glories and triumphs of Hollywood’s past are now available to entertain and enthrall today’s generation of movie lovers.
Specializing in classic cinema, the author of this article, John Howard Reid, is a well-known film critic who has written over 80 books of movie history and criticism, and contributed many articles to film periodicals in America, England and France. Most of Reid’s in-print titles are available from online bookstores such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Reid’s latest book is “Silent Films and Early Talkies on DVD: A Classic Movie Fan’s Guide”. His websites are http://filmindex.0catch.com and http://classicmovieposters.exactpages.com