That’s right, you read it correctly: silent films for kids. It seems like silent + film = a dirty phrase for most folks out there, but you (and your child) might be more receptive to the idea than you think. Given the popularity of The Artist in mainstream and cinephile circles, as well as silent cinema being “snuck” into two-thirds of Wall-E (not to mention the powerful, “married life” montage in Up), it seems like some of the aversion is dying off. Hopefully, this will encourage audiences of all ages to (re)discover some awesome films.
Kids especially will enjoy the exaggerated expressions of the silent world, the very element in these films that many adults scoff at. One of the joys of silent comedies is the slapstick humor, the same vaudevillian methods that Warner Brothers used to fuel Looney Toons for decades. However you feel about cartoon violence (quite the PC issue in the last 20 years or so), there’s no denying its appeal to children… and we all turned out all right.
Many of the films are shorts, so they’re perfect for those with a small attention span. I have chosen films that have few to no intertitles (or are easily comprehended without them), so the movies will be accessible to nerdlings who have not yet mastered reading. Watching silent movies with your child can reinforce the connection between words and their meaning, especially if you read the words aloud with them. The result is like reading an interactive book with moving, old-timey pictures.
Melies is probably the easiest way to introduce anyone to silent film. He was the master of early fantasy and illusion (naturally, being a former magician), and his films are delightful and entertaining. They’re worth watching for the intricate props and set pieces alone. I’m a bit of a purest; so before you think “Hey, wouldn’t Hugo be the best way to introduce the kids to Melies and silent film in general?” please just watch the original movies. They are fun enough that you don’t need a 2-hour CGI-laden film to encourage your family to see them (although, I’ll admit Melies would probably love CGI).
From Earth to the Moon (1902) is a film that everyone (especially lovers of fantasy) should watch, and I think children will appreciate it the most. Many get confused by the narration of this film, but it was originally screened with “lecturers” reading a description/explanation of what was on screen (as were many silents). This, in addition to music and sound effects, is a prime illustration of how silent film was never really quiet.
Follow up this classic with The Impossible Voyage (1904), which is in the same vein—some guys travel in space (this time in a train instead of a rocket) and encounter a strange (and awesome) new world. The Astronomer’s Dream (1898) is another short that displays some of Melies fantastic set pieces; even if the plot makes little to no sense, wee ones won’t care because a giant moon with people hopping out of its mouth is hysterical.
The Alice Comedies (1923–1927)
Most folks don’t realize that combining live action and animation was a fairly common practice during the silent era. After Walt Disney saw the popular Max Fleischer “Out of the Inkwell” films, featuring an animated character interacting with the real world, he decided to create shorts with a real character in the animated world: Alice.
These films are perfect for younger viewers because of their relatable child star, and simple but entertaining plot lines. The intertitles for these are few and far between, but really not needed at all. Alice’s adventures take her into various toonlands, interacting with different animated characters and animals. Alice turning around to shake a finger at the pack of cartoon lions chasing her, dancing with a cat, and driving a toon car should get at least a few giggles from your youngling.
Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of Walt Disney Treasures. They are a series of Disney DVDs specifically geared towards collectors. Since the Mouse didn’t have kids in mind when they released these films, you can find stuff that they would have never let see the light of day otherwise, either because it wouldn’t have had a big enough market or they are not politically correct (remember the time period these were released). Because they are collectors’ items, some of them can be pretty expensive; luckily the set with the Alice shorts is still reasonably priced—something positive about silent movies not drawing a big crowd. Film nerds rejoice!
Felix the Cat (1919–1930)
Before Felix had his own TV show in the ’50s, and before his image was splashed across every product imaginable, he was a silent film star. The anthropomorphic kitty was dubbed “the world’s most famous cat,” and “the cat with the killer personality;” he’s considered to be one of the greatest cartoon characters of all time. Felix has become a part of the pop culture landscape, and is recognizable even to those who have never seen one of his cartoons. He also gets some bonus points from the toddlers in your brood, because there are practically no intertitles in these flicks. So give the feline some love, and watch one of the founding fathers of toonland and his surrealist, Jazz Age antics.
Most of Felix’s best work is non-existent on DVD, but there are a couple sets with some good ones. Although it’s out of print, Presenting Felix the Cat is probably the best, and you can still find fairly inexpensive used copies. There’s some lower-quality shorts on the crazy 600 Cartoon Collection, and you’ll be able to find a few on the Internet Archive and YouTube as well.
So sit back and enjoy some fun film history!