I’m not sure what this says about my aspirations as a parent, but one exciting thing about my kid getting older is that we can now watch more TV together.
Modern Times, starring Charlie Chaplin.
We’ve been finding more shows to get into as a family – when it’s time for MasterChef Junior, for instance, the three of us will stop what we’re doing immediately, migrate to the couch, snuggle up under a blanket, and get ready to watch a group of tiny home cooks dazzle us with their culinary creations. Television viewing now feels more like real bonding time rather than please-sit-here-and-watch-this-animated-drivel-so-I-can-get-stuff-done time.
A genre we’ve recently added to our TV queue is silent films. I first read the recommendation on Reddit – parents noted how great some of the classic comedies are for children. Charlie Chaplin films. Buster Keaton’s stunt-driven masterpieces. Anything with Laurel and Hardy.
Kids are drawn to these shows because the stories are relatively simple and told purely through physical theatre – they can dive right in without much context. Many are shorts, so they’re ideal for those with limited attention spans.
And since there’s little or no dialogue, the films force kids to build their imaginations. Their brains must fill in everything that isn’t spoken – what the characters are feeling, why they made certain decisions, and what they’re hoping will come next. Parents can also add in their own prompts and dialogue, making the whole viewing experience surprisingly interactive.
With my five-year-old daughter, we started with Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 silent-talkie hybrid about a factory worker who subjected to being a cog in the grinding wheels of the Industrial Revolution. It’s absurd fun – I figured the kid might check out because the film is in black and white, but she didn’t. She couldn’t take her eyes off of Chaplin, and chuckled at his antics for a good 45 minutes.
Throughout the show, I read the written words that would appear, and it kind of felt as though we were moving through an interactive book.
At one point, she astutely noted: “Mum, this movie isn’t silent at all – there’s music.” She was right. It was neat to notice together how music can make things feel more exciting.
When it was finally time to turn off the TV, she asked, “Can we watch more of that show later?” We can and we will.
As some viewers have pointed out, it’s important to guide kids through the adult themes that can appear throughout these old silent movies – some films show smoking, drunkenness, vandalism and theft. There was an early scene in Modern Times when I thought to myself, “Yeah, that is definitely sexual harassment in the workplace,” and murmured to my kid, “Should we chase people who do not want to be chased?” (She replied “no”.)
That said, I think it’s great to give your kids an appreciation of the dying artistry, flaws and all. A cool thing about watching these films now is that there’s all sorts of behind-the-scenes content that you can also show your kid if they’re curious – for instance, you can see how they filmed with famous rolling skating scene in Modern Times (it’s so neat!).
If you’re interested in watching silent films with your kid, here are some classic ones to start with.
Modern Times (1936) – Charlie Chaplin
The iconic feeding machine scene.
The Circus (1928) – Charlie Chaplin
Kids will never forget Chaplin in the lion’s cage.
Sherlock Jr (1924) – Buster Keaton
With chase scenes and plenty of surprises, this 44-minute film flies by.
One AM (1916) – Charlie Chaplin
Chaplin carries the movie alone in this grand showcase of his physical comedy.
In Liberty (1929) – Laurel and Hardy
The construction set scene is fun (and intense!) for kids and adults.