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I've been a fan of silent movies for a long time, watching them growing up, and having my kids watch them with me. If you're new to them, you're in for a big treat. Here's my guide for parents, and my hope that another generation will come to love them like I do.

The Big Three

There are three top comedians in silent films. They set the pace for not only the other filmmakers of their time, but for all those making comedies afterward. Each had his own distinctive on-screen character. All of them were brilliant in their development of physical comedy.

Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin, many critics feel, was the greatest comedian of his time. His character of The Tramp charmed audiences. As a parent, I'd recommend starting with him as you introduce your kids to silent comedies. His work always has an element of pathos -- heartstring-plucking sadness. During those more touching, often romantic, stretches, you may need to explain a bit to your kids. But the empathy he builds in those "slower" sections helps you to care for his character in the inevitable rousing finish.

Even though it's not considered one of his top films, I think The Circus is a great one for kids to start on. My boys and I laughed heartily at his physical antics. And what kid wouldn't love a funny movie about the circus?

Modern Times is a masterpiece. It's filled with his inventive ideas. In this movie, The Tramp tries to find his way in a modern, mechanized world with the help of a young homeless woman. Chaplin speaks in this movie! Well, he actually sings, but the whole song is in hilarious gibberish; see if you can tell the content of the song by his actions. That scene and many others will delight your kids. But there are a few situations that might be problematic as a parent: Charlie gets sent to a mental hospital, is mistaken for a Communist leader, and most unfortunately -- accidently ingests some cocaine! This is Chaplin's final silent film. It's a real gem. By the way, the famous song "Smile though your heart is breaking..." is from this film, and Chaplin wrote it.

The Gold Rush is another of Chaplin's greatest films, well known for the "shoe-eating" segment shown above. Kids will love the oddity of his eating his shoe, and the way he treats it like a real meal. The story is simple: The Tramp goes to find gold in the Yukon. Adventure follows. It has some real moments of sadness, as do all of his films. Balanced with those are scenes of thrills and danger, like when he's trapped in a cabin that totters on the edge of a cliff. Watch for the use of a real bear, which was quite a new idea in movies; directors usually turned to men in bear suits.

Chaplin's other films. All Charlie's films have delightful elements, but I think they are harder for kids to connect to. I just recently saw The Kid, his first major film, in a theater with live music. I was disappointed. It's very heavy on the pathos, and doesn't have as many of the wonderful humorous set pieces. And it ends with an odd dream sequence with angels, all equipped with huge bird wings, which struck me as odd. And The Great Dictator, though a wonderful film, is much too complex in its political references for kids to appreciate. I can recommend his early short films for their humorous content (The Immigrant is fun), but often the film quality is so poor and choppy, they can be hard for kids to follow.

Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton was called The Great Stone Face. He never smiled in films -- or only briefly... I haven't watched every frame. As his world around him spun out of control, his character met everything with a determination and loads of physical energy. My kids and I have been amazed at Keaton's stunts, sometimes stopping the tape and rewinding over and over again to believe he actually did that! Keaton took chances with stunts and took a real beating to his body for it. His character was the everyday underdog; the overlooked, scrappy hero. Against all odds his energy and determination wins the day.

My kids have loved Buster Keaton's films. Yours will, too.

The General

Buster Keaton's greatest film tells of a plucky engineer whose Confederate train that is stolen by Union troops. He goes after it. Along the way, he tries to prove his bravery to a girl he loves.

Your kids might need a fair amount of explanation if they don't understand the idea of the Civil War. What they'll really enjoy is the chase plot, and the inventive problem-solving Keaton's engineer goes through to catch up with his beloved train. This movie doesn't quite have the manic energy of his other films, but if you want to show them quintessential Keaton, this is it.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. gives us Buster as a timid son of a steamboat captain. Once again he's out to prove himself.

This film truly showcases Keaton's genius for stunts, and has one of the most daring, most dangerous stunts ever captured on film. In the rousing finale, Buster runs around the abandoned town in a hurricane. In this famous shot, the front of a house falls right on top of him! Wait until you see how he excapes! You'll definitely want to rewind it and watch it again!

Sherlock Jr. is a film with a concept that many films have imitated over the years. Keaton plays a movie-house projectionist who dreams he's a detective in the film he's showing. There's a wonderful special effect of his dream-self rising up out of his sleeping body. And as the film progresses, the sight gags increase. Watch for my kids' favorite stunt: when he's in the evil gang's hideout, he dives through the window, where's he's placed a disguise in a flat circle bag. He goes through the circle, hits the ground, rolls and jumps up as an old, hobbled woman! Amazing! One caution, though: his girlfriend is kidnapped and at one point is fending off the advances of the villain -- though she's rescued before anything happens, it gets a bit dicey for small children.

Keaton's other films. Of his other titles, I can recommend Seven Chances, in which Buster has to marry a girl by 7:00 that day in order to inherit a fortune. Sound familiar? The movie was recently remade as the terrible flick, The Batchelor. Kids will enjoy his frantic dodging of huge boulders toward the end of the film. Our Hospitality has Buster coming to the South, where he falls in love with a girl whose family has sworn a feud against his familly and all their kin. I haven't seen many of his other films, but I can say this: avoid all of his talking pictures, especially ones from the end of his life where he's a fringe character. It's so sad to see him reduced to the role of pathetic clownishness. How I wish he could have had one more film to showcase his talents in his later years.

Harold Lloyd

Harold Lloyd ranks right behind Chaplin and Keaton as the third great comedian in silent films. HIs movies are a little less known, but the image of him hanging from a clock is a part of our culture, even if many people don't know who that crazy guy was. Lloyd's character was of a squeaky-clean, eager-to-please rube, the kind of nerdy guy who'd exclaim, "Gee whiz!" His trademark props were his large owl-like glasses and straw hat. His plots usually have his character getting in over his head in a situation, and then -- sometimes with equal parts of grit and suppressed fear -- he rises to the occasion. And in one film, rises way above the situation!

What I've found to be kid-friendly in his work is that it's easy for kids to feel superior to his goofy, gullible character, and yet still root for him.

Safety Last is Lloyd's most famous movie, and rightly so. The wild escapade he has on the side of a sky-scraper still holds thrills for even today's jaded audiences. (I could tell you how he was able to do this, but I don't want to spoil the fun!).

In this film, he plays a mild-mannered store clerk who organizes a climbing contest, but then ends up having to do it himself! The tension is very real on that climb. And I love the creative "theme and variation" thinking that went into the problems he faces on each floor.

Here's amazing trivia: Lloyd had his right thumb and forefinger blown off by a movie prop bomb. He did this climb with only eight fingers!

The Freshman is another fine comedy. In this film, Lloyd goes to college and is mocked for his greenhorn eagerness. He sets out to show everyone what he's capable of. There are plenty of funny visual gags, as he tries out different sports. If you have kids who like watching football, they'll be surprised at how simple (and unpadded!) the game was in the twenties. My boys and I loved the goofy, dance-like greeting his character makes up; we found ourselves imitating it and laughing about it days afterward.

Other Harold Lloyd films Other movies that I have seen and can recommend are Girl Shy and Why Worry?, both have the usual energetic Harold Lloyd fun.

Text © 2006 Bruce Van Patter
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