10 Great Silent Sequences in Sound Movies

The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius’ delightful mash note to the silent cinema, is looking like a sure bet for heavy recognition at this year’s Oscars, racking up three SAG Award nominations, five Independent Spirit Award nominations, and six Golden Globe nominations, in addition to awards for best film of the year from the Boston Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Phoenix Film Critics Society, and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association. It’s easy to see why film critics in particular have taken to it: it evocatively tells the story of the end of the silent era as a silent movie, complete with black-and-white photography and period music (even using the traditional 1.33:1 aspect ratio).

But it’s not the first sound-era film to ape the silent style; aside from Chaplin’s final silent pictures, done well after sound had taken over, there’s Mel Brooks’ 1976 slapstick tribute Silent Movie, and Charles Lane’s 1989 indie Sidewalk Stories. What’s more, countless sound directors have used silent storytelling techniques to great effect, eschewing dialogue (and sometimes even sound effects) to work through their narrative beats via purely visual means. After the jump, we’ve assembled ten great “silent” scenes from the sound era; add your own in the comments.

Duck Soup

Leo McCarey was one of the few genuinely gifted comedy directors to work with the Marx Brothers; he came to his sole collaboration with the team, 1933’s Duck Soup, with a distinguished pedigree of comedy credits dating back to the mid-1920s, including several of Laurel & Hardy’s formative films. With his extensive silent movie background (while working for Hal Roach, he also wrote gags for Our Gang and Charley Chase), it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of the best comic sequences in Duck Soup are throwbacks to that era: the byplay between Harpo, Chico, and competing street vendor Edgar Kennedy, for example, or the movie’s most famous scene, the immortal “mirror sequence.” It’s a bit that goes back to vaudeville, in which Harpo, who has broken into Groucho’s home, dresses as Groucho and attempts to hide his identity by posing as Groucho’s mirror image. It’s still one of the team’s most recognized routines, and was famously reworked by Harpo and Lucille Ball when he guest-starred on I Love Lucy twenty-plus years later.