The silent era is now a footnote in Hollywood history, and has been for almost 100 years at this point. As depicted recently in Babylon, sound films began getting released in 1927 and were immediately a hit (according to Octane Seating). Within a matter of years, the vast majority of silent movie directors and actors had either transitioned to sound films or found themselves feeling like relics of the past, and cinema as a whole had changed forever.

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It’s one of the most significant periods of transition in the history of film. As such, many movies have been made about the drama such a transition caused for the industry, and the individuals within it. None of the following are silent movies, yet provide commentary on this time in history, either directly or subtextually. Some find humor in the dramatic reinvention of the cinematic art form, and others mine drama – or even tragedy – from the transition.


1 ‘Babylon’ (2022)

Nellie lying on the floor with her eyes closed and a cigarrette on her mouth in Babylon.
Image via Paramount Pictures

The latest high-profile movie about making movies is Babylon, directed by Damien Chazelle and featuring a huge cast led by Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt and Diego Calva in the lead roles. It aims to depict the wild lifestyles of those who worked in the film industry in the 1920s, show how some adjusted to the advent of talking pictures and some didn’t, and then serve as a love letter to film as a whole, acknowledging the sacrifices that artists and actors made along the way.

That makes it a film that tries to do a lot, but with a runtime of over three hours, it largely finds the space to deal with so many ideas and characters. Stylistically, it’s loud, bombastic and fast-moving, making it feel remarkably different from the style of movies it depicts being made, but it’s a maximalist style that works in tandem with the length, large performances and ambitious scope.

2 ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ (1952)

Gene Kelly dancing with an umbrella in Singin' in the Rain

A fantastic musical comedy that still holds up over 70 years on from release, Singin’ in the Rain is rightly regarded as a classic. It presented a story about the transition from silent films to talkies just 25 years after it had happened for real, meaning it was likely an event in living memory for many of the people who watched Singin’ in the Rain.

Given its age, Singin’ in the Rain itself is now a part of Hollywood history, which is one reason why it was both referenced and featured in Babylon. It’s fascinating to see a light-hearted take on a revolutionary time in the history of cinema and the way the 1920s were viewed by people in the 1950s. And the music, dancing and comedy all hold up too, making Singin’ in the Rain undeniably entertaining on top of being historically interesting.

3 ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (1950)

William Holden and Gloria Swanson in front of a spotlight

Sunset Boulevard is notable for coming out shortly before Singin’ in the Rain and taking a very different approach to its story about the transition from silent films to talkies. It’s primarily a drama (with some very dark comedy) about an actor who once thrived in the film industry when the movies were silent, but struggled to find work after 1927 and became a recluse, essentially living in the past and being haunted by her once-thriving career.

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It’s one of the earliest films to critique Hollywood and show its darker side, in this case being about a once renowned figure who was discarded by the industry she helped push forward, and the consequences that come from that. Gloria Swanson herself – who plays Norma Desmond in the film – had a history with Hollywood that reflected her character’s, and it’s not surprising then that she also gets name-dropped in Babylon.

4 ‘Hugo’ (2011)

Image Via Paramount Pictures

Even if Martin Scorsese never made a movie about making movies, it’s clear that he’s someone with a deep affection for cinema. He references plenty of movies in his own work, has made movies that have gone on to be influential, and campaigns for the preservation of classic films when he’s not directing his own.

His most obvious love letter to the films of old comes with 2011’s Hugo, which is a rare family-friendly movie from Scorsese. It centers on the unlikely friendship between a young boy and the reclusive Georges Méliès, a pioneer of silent cinema likely best known for his 1902 short film A Trip to the Moon.

5 ‘Modern Times’ (1936)

Charlie Chaplin in 'Modern Times'

When it comes to discussing the transition from silent cinema to talkies, Modern Times only does so through its subtext. First and foremost, it is a movie about humanity’s place – or lack thereof – in a world where technology seems to be overturning everything, and threatening to make people less necessary, or even obsolete.

While it doesn’t discuss silent cinema specifically, it’s easy to see it as something that Modern Times discusses implicitly. Filmmaker/actor Charlie Chaplin was one of the last directors to make silent movies after 1927, and the technology overwhelming his character in Modern Times could be a stand-in for Chaplin being challenged by the changes in filmmaking technology. And Modern Times is mostly a silent film… though it does have some spoken dialogue mostly near the start, even if it’s only heard through loudspeakers and video screens.

6 ‘The Aviator’ (2004)

DiCaprio The Aviator

An ambitious biopic about an ambitious historical figure, Scorsese’s The Aviator tells the story of Howard Hughes. He was a businessman, a pilot, and a filmmaker all in one, with some of this almost three-hour-long film detailing his movie-making as a producer and director, which included being involved with some silent films.

It’s admittedly a fairly small part of The Aviator, especially when compared to Scorsese’s later film, Hugo, which focuses on the silent era in more detail. Still, it is at least part of Hughes’ remarkable and tumultuous life story, so it makes sense for it to have some attention paid to it in a biopic about his life.

7 ‘Three Amigos!’ (1986)

Three Amigos - 1986

A silly but undeniably fun Western spoof, Three Amigos! is about a group of silent film actors known for playing cowboys who get mistaken for the real thing. A village under constant attack by bandits hires the three actors to defend their village, only for things to become complicated when it eventually becomes clear that they have no combat experience.

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It’s a comedic take on The Magnificent Seven, which itself was a Western remake of Seven Samurai. And Three Amigos! itself later got essentially remade, in animated form and starring insects, with A Bug’s Life. It all goes to show that filmmaking trends may come and go (like the Western and silent cinema as a whole), but a good story sticks, and will be recycled/reconstructed endlessly.

8 ‘The Artist’ (2011)

The Artist

The Artist is a film that’s almost completely silent, with just a few words of dialogue spoken in the film. This is fitting, given it’s another movie about one actor falling out of favor with the movie industry because of the transition from silent films to talkies, this time told as a romantic comedy.

Sure, it’s being a little pedantic to not call this a silent film, but there are just a few words that hold it back from being completely silent. In any event, much of it does play out like an old-fashioned silent comedy, and while it’s fairly simple and ultimately not too deep, it is charming and an overall pleasant watch.

9 ‘Shadow of the Vampire’ (2000)

Max Schrek as Nosferatu creeping on a woman lying in bed in the movie Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
Image Via Lions Gate Films

Shadow of the Vampire is a heavily fictionalized take on the making of one of the silent film era’s most well-known movies: 1922’s Nosferatu. John Malkovich stars as the film’s director, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, while Willem Dafoe plays the film’s star, Max Schreck, who played the vampire in Nosferatu.

Things take a turn towards the (possibly) supernatural when Schrek is shown getting scarily into his role, leading to speculation that he may indeed be a vampire. It’s a creative and strange movie about the making of a silent movie gone wrong, and worth watching to see Dafoe sink his teeth into such an unusual character.

10 ‘Chaplin’ (1992)

Marisa Tomei turning away from Robert Downey Jr. in_Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin was arguably the most famous American director/actor of the silent era, and so it’s unsurprising that his life got the standard biopic treatment. This came in the form of 1992’s Chaplin, with Robert Downey Jr. playing the iconic figure, with the film spanning many years and focusing on his rise to Hollywood stardom.

Thanks to a strong lead performance and a solid screenplay co-written by the great William Goldman, it ends up being a pretty good biopic overall. Much of it provides insight into the silent film industry that Chaplin thrived within, making it an interesting looking at Hollywood history on top of a Charlie Chaplin biopic.

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