Although they are largely forgotten today, the best silent film directors established the narrative structure and filmmaking techniques that make modern movies possible. Silent film directors created such concepts as the feature film, showing simultaneous actions in different locations, movie sequels, the close-up and natural acting. Certainly, many of these ideas would have been developed by sound film directors if silent movies had not preceded sound pictures. But, much of the basic experimentation of movie making had been done by silent film directors, so when talkies appeared, they were able to take off quickly without much of the trial and error that went into silent film production. Below is a discussion of some of the best silent film directors.
D.W. Griffith Griffith has been recognized by many exceptional modern movie directors as the best silent film director. He was instrumental in the creation of the feature length film. Before Griffith, very few films exceeded one hour in length and the vast majority were much shorter. With “Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance,” Griffith made the feature film the norm for Hollywood. His use of lighting, camera placement, scoring and stock actors were copied by later silent and sound film directors. Griffith is a controversial figure because his most famous silent film “Birth of a Nation” promoted racial stereotypes and was sympathetic in its portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan.
Charlie Chaplin Most people think of Chaplin as a comedic actor, not as one of the best silent film directors. But the truth is, he did it all. Chaplin was a director, producer, screenwriter, film editor, choreographer and composer. He had total artistic and commercial control over his films, a rarity in Hollywood. This allowed Chaplin to make his films in a unique way. He rarely worked off a script, but instead filmed a series of related gags and built a story around them. The proof that Chaplin was one of the best silent film directors is in the quality of his work and its enduring popularity. Films like “The Gold Rush,” “The Immigrant” and “City Lights” rank as some of the finest motion pictures ever made.
Cecil B. DeMille DeMille is well-known for his sound film work in such spectacles as “The Ten Commandments” and “The Greatest Show on Earth,” but he was also one of the best and most prolific silent film directors. His success with such silent films as “The Affairs of Anatol,” “Don't Change Your Husband” and a silent version of “The Ten Commandments” garnered DeMille a reputation as a director who made profitable films. He was particularly talented at directing large numbers of extras for maximum effect in epic films.
Erich von Stroheim Von Stroheim directed numerous critically acclaimed and commercially successful silent films such as “Foolish Wives,” “Merry-Go-Round” and “The Merry Widow.” Unfortunately, von Stroheim was autocratic and difficult to work with. He wanted complete artistic control of each picture that he directed. He became so difficult and troublesome that, despite the fact that he was one of the best silent film directors, studios stopped hiring him to direct movies. He then concentrated on his thriving acting career.
King Vidor Vidor's directing career was the most lengthy seen to date. He directed pictures from 1913 until 1980. Vidor was the top director at MGM during the silent era and MGM was the most prestigious studio. Vidor was equally adept at directing drama, comedy, adventure and epic movies. Many of his films such as “The Crowd,” “The Big Parade,” “Show People” and “The Patsy” were both enormous commercial and critical successes.