The silent era in film history, roughly covering the first three decades of cinema, already saw the first Hollywood superstars climbing their way to the firmament. Gifted with beauty, glamour, and amazing powers of expression, they didn’t need voices to conquer the heart of a public who was just discovering the magic of moving images.
Many of these quietly magnetic stars are now, if not entirely forgotten, only remembered by film buffs and historians. A select few, however, have never quite left the firmament. Their charisma and unique talent have kept them relevant to later audiences as icons of classic cinema.
1. Charlie Chaplin
Sir Charles Chaplin is without doubt one of the greatest entertainment legends of all eras. Both actor and film-maker (as well as screenwriter and composer), he has no rival as the most famous figure of silent cinema.
Born and raised in London, Chaplin took to the stage early in life and shot to stardom soon after his first film appearance in 1914. Master of both comedy and pathos, he has since brought laughter and tears to millions in films such as The Gold Rush, The Kid, City Lights, and the part-talkie Modern Times, released in 1936, a few years after the advent of sound.
The Little Tramp, Chaplin’s silent film alter-ego, lives on to this day as one of the easily recognisable cultural icons of the past century. His funny walk and funny appearance, including moustache, bowler hat and cane, are familiar to people aged from 9 to 99.
Despite a difficult and reluctant transition, Charlie Chaplin continued to make great films long into the sound era, but without ever repeating the success of his silent masterpieces.
2. Greta Garbo
One of the iconic faces of classic cinema, Swedish-born Greta Garbo began her acting career in her native country and only arrived in Hollywood towards the end of the silent era. However, she had time enough to become one of its biggest stars--the very image of silver-screen glamour and class.
Between 1926 and 1928, Garbo formed a famous screen (and off-screen) couple with John Gilbert, one of the silent stars whose career foundered with the advent of the talkies. Flesh and the Devil, their first of three films made together, propelled Garbo to international stardom.
Despite her silent film success, Greta Garbo’s legendary status today is at least partly due to her winning transition to sound film, which began in 1930 with Anna Christie and continued throughout the 1930s in such memorable classics as Grand Hotel and Ninotchka.
3. Buster Keaton
American funny man Buster Keaton had an amazing talent for physical comedy, which made silent film the perfect medium to showcase his skills. Like his fellow comedic genius Chaplin, he began performing at an early age (in vaudeville) and later pursued a film career as both actor and director.
Keaton's trademark was his stony, impassive expression which never left his face—not even when performing the most spectacular stunts, which in most cases he devised and orchestrated himself. Nicknamed The Great Stone Face, he remains unequalled as a master of deadpan humour.
Explosive railway comedy The General, set during the American Civil War and co-directed with Clyde Bruckman in 1926, is considered Keaton’s masterpiece and one of the greatest comedy films ever made. Other Buster Keaton classics include Sherlock, Jr. and Our Hospitality.
4. Rudolph Valentino
The original Hollywood heart-throb (and Latin Lover), dashing Rudolph Valentino was the idol of much of the female film-going population in the 1920s. Born in Italy, Valentino emigrated to the United States in his late teens, where he made his way into the entertainment world first as a dancer and then as a bit player in Hollywood.
His breakthrough came in 1921, with his role in the year’s biggest box office hit The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, featuring a passionate tango sequence that captured the imagination of the public. Valentino’s other hits, all Romantic dramas that showcased him as the seductive leading man, included The Sheik, its sequel The Son of the Sheik, The Eagle, and Blood and Sand.
Rudolph Valentino died tragically in 1926, causing considerable grief to his hoards of devoted fans, who would never get the chance to hear him talk in a film. He was only 31 years old.
5. Lillian Gish
Perhaps the first great screen actress, Lillian Gish starred in several films by pioneering director D. W. Griffith, who typecast her as the mistreated ingénue, a role she nevertheless managed to bring to life with her ethereal beauty and impressive acting skills.
Her first major part came in the famous (or infamous) 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation, one of the most innovative films of all time, profoundly marred by its violent racism. Her other Griffith films included historical extravaganza Intolerance, and tear-jerking melodramas Broken Blossoms and Way Down East.
Gish’s younger sister Dorothy was also an acclaimed silent film actress, the two appearing together in Orphans of the Storm, another Griffith classic. Gish even directed her sister in a now lost 1920 comedy, her only effort as a film-maker.
With the arrival of the talkies, Lillian Gish chose to focus her career on the theatre, but continued to do the occasional film (and television work) until late in her impressive eight-decade career.
The five iconic figures above are far from being the only superstars of the silent era. The true lover of silent film can never forget:
- Theatre great turned silent star John Barrymore
- Quintessential flapper Clara Bow, one of the first sex symbols in Hollywood
- Horror legend Lon Chaney, nicknamed The Man of a Thousand Faces
- Swashbuckling leading man Douglas Fairbanks
- Acclaimed silent and sound star Janet Gaynor, winner of the very first Academy Award for Best Actress
- Comedy legend Harold Lloyd, famous for his daring and hilarious stunts
- Silent film pioneer Mary Pickford, the first celebrity to be nicknamed America’s Sweetheart
- Glamorous leading lady Gloria Swanson, best known for her comeback in the 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard