Project: Silent era canon (1.0)
SILENT-ERA CANON 1.0
Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (SHORT 1895, Auguste & Louis Lumière) [short discussed below]
The Waterer Watered (SHORT 1895, Louis Lumière) [short discussed below]
Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (SHORT 1895, Louis Lumière) [short discussed below]
A Trip to the Moon (SHORT 1902, Georges Méliès) [short discussed below]
The Great Train Robbery (SHORT 1903, Edwin S. Porter) [short discussed below]
A Corner in Wheat (SHORT 1909, D.W. Griffith) [short discussed below]
Ingeborg Holm (1913, Victor Sjöström) [cap]
Cabiria (1914, Giovanni Pastrone) [cap]
The Birth of a Nation (1915, D.W. Griffith)
The Cheat (1915, Cecil B. DeMille) [cap]
Regeneration (1915, Raoul Walsh) [cap]
Intolerance (1916, D.W. Griffith)
Les Vampires (SERIAL 1916, Louis Feuillade) [serial discussed below]
Easy Steet (SHORT 1917, Charles Chaplin) [short discussed below]
The Immigrant (SHORT 1917, Charles Chaplin) [short discussed below]
A Dog’s Life (SHORT 1918, Charles Chaplin) [short discussed below]
Broken Blossoms (1919, D.W. Griffith) [cap]
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, Robert Wiene) [cap]
The Golem (1920, Paul Wegener & Henrik Galeen) [cap]
Neighbors (SHORT 1920, Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline) [short discussed here]
One Week (SHORT 1920, Edward F. Cline & Buster Keaton) [short discussed here]
The Parson’s Widow (1920, Carl Theodor Dreyer) [cap]
Way Down East (1920, D.W. Griffith) [cap]
Destiny (1921, Fritz Lang) [cap]
The Kid (1921, Charles Chaplin) [cap]
The Phantom Carriage (1921, Victor Sjöström) [cap]
Cops (SHORT 1922, Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline) [short discussed here]
Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922, Fritz Lang) [cap]
Foolish Wives (1922, Erich von Stroheim) [cap]
Häxan (1922, Benjamin Christensen) [cap]
La Souriante Madame Beudet (SHORT 1922, Germaine Dulac) [short discussed here]
Nanook of the North (1922, Robert J. Flaherty) [cap]
Nosferatu (1922, F.W. Murnau) [cap]
The Toll of the Sea (1922, Chester M. Franklin) [cap]
Our Hospitality (1923, Buster Keaton) [cap]
Safety Last! (1923, Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor) [cap]
A Woman of Paris (1923, Charles Chaplin) [cap]
Ballet Mécanique (SHORT 1924, Fernand Léger & Dudley Murphy) [short discussed here]
Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924, Fritz Lang) [cap]
Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924, Fritz Lang) [cap]
Entr’acte (SHORT 1924, René Clair) [short discussed here]
Greed (1924, Erich von Stroheim) [cap]
He Who Gets Slapped (1924, Victor Sjöström) [cap]
The Iron Horse (1924, John Ford) [cap]
The Last Laugh (1924, F.W. Murnau)
The Marriage Circle (1924, Ernst Lubitsch) [cap]
Michael (1924, Carl Theodor Dreyer) [cap]
The Navigator (1924, Buster Keaton) [cap]
Sherlock, Jr. (1924, Buster Keaton) [cap]
The Thief of Bagdad (1924, Raoul Walsh) [cap]
Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein) [cap]
The Big Parade (1925, King Vidor) [cap]
Chess Fever (SHORT 1925, Vsevolod Pudovkin) [short discussed below]
Paris qui dort (SHORT 1925, René Clair) [short discussed here]
The Gold Rush (1925, Charles Chaplin)
Joyless Street (1925, Georg Wilhelm Pabst) [cap]
The Phantom of the Opera (1925, Rupert Julian) [cap]
Seven Chances (1925, Buster Keaton)
Strike (1925, Sergei Eisenstein)
The Black Pirate (1926, Albert Parker) [cap]
Faust (1926, F.W. Murnau)
Flesh and the Devil (1926, Clarence Brown) [cap]
The General (1926, Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman)
The Lodger (1926, Alfred Hitchcock)
Mother (1926, Vsevolod Pudovkin) [cap]
A Page of Madness (1926, Teinosuke Kinugasa) [cap]
Bed and Sofa (1927, Abram Room) [cap]
Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927, Walter Ruttmann) [cap]
The End of St. Petersburg (1927, Vsevolod Pudovkin) [cap]
It (1927, Clarence G. Badger) [cap]
The Jazz Singer (1927, Alan Crosland)
The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927, Georg Wilhelm Pabst) [cap]
Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang)
Napoleon (1927, Abel Gance) [cap]
Sunrise (1927, F.W. Murnau)
Underworld (1927, Josef von Sternberg)
The Unknown (1927, Tod Browning)
Beggars of Life (1928, William A. Wellman) [cap]
The Circus (1928, Charles Chaplin)
The Crowd (1928, King Vidor)
The Docks of New York (1928, Josef von Sternberg)
The Fall of the House of Usher (SHORT 1928, James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber) [short discussed here]
A Girl in Every Port (1928, Howard Hawks) [cap]
L’Étoile de mer (SHORT 1928, Man Ray) [short discussed below]
The Man Who Laughs (1928, Paul Leni) [cap]
October (1928, Sergei Eisenstein) [cap]
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
Spies (1928, Fritz Lang) [cap]
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928, Charles Reisner) [cap]
Steamboat Willie (SHORT 1928, Walt Disney & Ub Iwerks) [short discussed here]
The Wedding March (1928, Erich von Stroheim) [cap]
The Wind (1928, Victor Sjöström)
Arsenal (1929, Alexander Dovzhenko) [cap]
Blackmail (1929, Alfred Hitchcock)
Diary of a Lost Girl (1929, Georg Wilhelm Pabst)
Eternal Love (1929, Ernst Lubitsch) [cap]
Man With A Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov) [cap]
The Old and the New (1929, Sergei Eisenstein & Grigori Aleksandrov) [cap]
Pandora’s Box (1929, Georg Wilhelm Pabst)
Queen Kelly (1929, Erich von Stroheim) [cap]
Un Chien Andalou (SHORT 1929, Luis Buñuel) [short discussed here]
For slightly over a year I’ve been watching and writing about all of the films on this list, a 2004-vintage survey of the 100 best films made during and prior to the 1920s, conducted and voted on by the users of the Criterion Forum, a message board dedicated to but not affiliated with the eponymous boutique DVD label. (I chose to modify the list by presenting it chronologically, since the forum requires registration to see its ranked results and for all I know there’s a reason.) The motive for this project was to finally push myself to fill out the “gaps” in my film knowledge and see a whole slew of movies and supplemental items for which I’d wanted to carve out time for years. I’d been heavily concentrating on knocking out and writing reviews of all of the movies in the “American canon,” so to speak, for a number of years, a goal I still think is interesting and worthwhile, but finally I decided I wanted to have more fun, and more fun for me is spending time with the movies made in the time periods that most interest me, then slowly moving forward using collections of titles decided on by seasoned cinephiles who, to be frank, know a lot more than I do. You can think of it as a sort of “self-imposed” film appreciation course to move way beyond what had been the confines of this blog; when I started SOC I intended to build to a project like this fairly slowly, until suddenly I decided I’d rather just dive right into the deep end.
My reasoning for using this particular forum’s collection of lists is mostly a matter of self-motivation. I get more done when I’m more organized, and the fact that the forum dedicates itself consistently to each era of filmmaking in turn made their silent list more attractive to me than various others, since I can then use the same resource for each decade thereafter. I’m a sporadic poster at the CF, though I’ve never blended in there particularly well (much too wordy and aloof), and have participated in the making of some of the communal lists myself. As their user base has changed over the years and allowed in a lot of ruffians like me, the decade lists have been revised, which also gives me a handy project to return to. Of course, the board isn’t a perfect resource — it skews overwhemingly male, and obviously an internet forum populated by internet people will have a more eccentric take on film history than a Molly Haskell or a Pauline Kael or certainly a Roger Ebert — so we’re not abandoning other lists of films to delve into, but the object of this blog has always been to cover as many movies of as many varying types as possible, and the forum lists will give me a great cornerstone to work from. (There are also genre-based lists, and lists of runner ups or “also rans” and even “orphans,” lonely films voted for by just one person, that will very likely provide us much entertainment in the future.)
At the end of this first chapter of the project I hoped to present a faintly sketched-out vision of how movies got to where they were by the end of 1929, but to be quite honest I haven’t done my homework — I’ve only read two lengthy books about the silent era, both mostly about Hollywood and one of which I devoured almost ten years ago — but we run this blog with the mindset that the best way to learn about movies is to watch movies. I don’t know if anyone finding this will want to follow along with this project, but if you were to view the above films chronologically — which I didn’t do, but it seems like it could be fun — I think you’d emerge with a pretty clear picture of the first decades of cinema, clearly skewed in favor of the most artistically vibrant samplings, with a few oddball choices mixed in (which I think is great).
Boring housekeeping info before we continue: I started this project on November 22, 2015 (The Man with a Movie Camera) and finished it on December 31, 2016 (The Old and the New). (It took longer than future decade lists will because I was still working on the 250 at the same time for the first several months.) I watched 58 feature films for the first time for this project out of a total of 79 features on the list (some of which had been reviewed here already; I revisited all the others, and many of those). I don’t have an exact count handy but about half of the shorts were new to me. This was easily my favorite project for this blog so far, easily unseating Best Screenplay.
PART ONE: 1890-1919
We begin, like most narratives of early cinema do, with Edison, Méliès and the Lumière brothers. The Edison studio — the first to publicly show its films in America, in 1894 — is represented here only by one of its later, more advanced efforts, the truly peerless The Great Train Robbery, which we’ll come to in a moment. But the pre-1900 short films often called “actualities,” running usually less than a minute, are included by way of some iconic efforts from the Lumières in France, two brothers whose landmark work includes the invention of perforated film; they started making films as a sort of fairground novelty in 1895. Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory is the first piece of footage they shot, and it gains most of its value then as now from novelty: to the modern viewer, it’s a fascinating glimpse into another time that seems unstaged, at least more so than the contemporaneous American films. The most famous early Lumière picture is Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, supposedly the cause of terrorized audience members unnerved by the sight of a huge oncoming train on a large screen, though this has been credibly established as an urban myth. It remains fascinating for the same reasons as Workers, with passersby curious about and mystified by the presence of the camera. What’s interesting is that these slightly voyeuristic glimpses into everyday activity would be, in their own way, nearly as compelling if made now; we are all awfully nosy, so it’s surprisingly easy to trace the “Rear Window Ethics” of all the greatest films of future decades back to these moments of unfiltered life.
Not every Lumière actuality is so natural. Though the Edison sneeze likely gives it some competition, The Sprinkler Sprinkled (also translated in some places as The Waterer Watered) is sometimes called the first film comedy. It’s certainly the first example of a cheap laugh in the Candid Camera or America’s Funniest Home Videos vein, and just as obviously staged: a prankster obstructs the flow of a garden hose, then lets his foot off when the victim holds it up to check it. One of the oldest practical jokes in the book, though the Lumières follow it with an amusingly gratuitous bit of violence when the perpetrator gets chased, soaked and beaten up in a rather awkwardly extended coda.
Needless to say, the Lumière actualities are, like the Edisons, hard to judge as films; for some hobbyists and cinephiles they will prove utterly beguiling. I personally can’t get enough of them and frequently enjoy them more than most early (pre-1920 or so) feature films. Since they’re very brief and tend not to belabor their basic, nickelodeon-friendly concepts, and since they are still so drunken on the sheer novelty of the film camera, I also find them less annoyingly repetitive than the films of Georges Méliès, though I certainly do love my share of those as well. Still, lots of viewers seeking entertainment are bound to find their worst suspicions about the easily amused qualities of cowtown early 20th century audiences confirmed by the actualities. For their part, the Lumières seem to have sort of agreed, moving quickly away from actual filmmaking when they tired of it and returning to the creation of new technologies.
None of these caveats apply to the films of Georges Méliès, which retain their ability to enthrall audiences so long as you don’t attempt to subject them to more than a couple at a time. The first real magician and special effects maverick of the movies is represented here by the film universally chosen as his quintessential icon, deservedly so, A Trip to the Moon (Voyage Dans La Lune). This ten-minute comical sci-fi masterpiece is the earliest motion picture that has survived in the cultural consciousness across generations all the way to now. A series of static camera shots illustrate, with Méliès’ usual flair for childlike whimsy, wild costuming and ornate, theatrical sets, a group of scientists who plan the titular voyage, make their way to the moon’s curiously angry face, land in its eye and then have a close encounter with moon creatures, one of whom they capture and bring back to Earth. Méliès’ narrative is clean and unobtrusive, still communicating well to modern audiences despite the absence of closeups or extensive editing; like the best science fiction of all eras, it retains its ability to instill wonder, now not at its silly ideas about space travel and the moon itself but its sheer poetic beauty and mild surrealism. For myself and surely for most people around my age, this film was introduced to me by the Smashing Pumpkins’ music video “Tonight, Tonight,” which gorgeously updated Méliès’ imagery without violating its essence; younger kids now are likely to have been introduced to the film by Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. Regardless of the method of exposure, this film has had such a long life for obvious reasons inherent to its peculiar, enthusiastic genius. Similar praise should justifiably be applied to Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery.
Porter’s film was made for Edison, after that studio — influenced by the work surfacing from overseas — made a transition to storytelling as opposed to simple stagings of performances or gags, or actualities (which were always less common than they were in France; Edison tended to lack artistic ambition, choosing to bring stage acts and the like around to their studio rather than going out to find action). The Great Train Robbery, running twelve minutes and making use of innovative editing techniques, color tinting and fairly extensive location shooting, is the first real American western, and the beginnings of the cinema’s permanent love affair with violence. Its simple but compelling story is ferociously tough and action-packed, inaugurating a seemingly endless series of “chase films” from the first decade of the twentieth century. Porter’s ideas are ambitious and just chaotic enough to remain effective and surprising today; particularly notable is the film’s final shot, which abstractly takes the out-of-time tactic of having an outlaw point his gun directly at the audience and shoot, perhaps egging on a response akin to the Ciotat legend (and famously appropriated by Scorsese in Goodfellas). If you see no other films made before 1915, obviously A Trip to the Moon and The Great Train Robbery are the infallible essentials.
With camerawork steadily growing more adventurous, and following the introduction of title cards to convey dialogue and exposition, we arrive next to one of the more controversial questions of early cinematic history: how much did D.W. Griffith really invent? You know of course that Griffith, the egomaniacal son of a Confederate colonel, was the first film director to become world famous strictly for making movies, and his pair of large-scale epics made in 1915 and 1916, The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, are credited with revolutionizing the form and, by some metrics, creating the Hollywood film industry as we know it. There’s no doubt that Griffith’s fusion of breathless demagoguery, finger-wagging moralism and populist energy, a kind of storytelling by brute force, had an immeasurable impact on cinema for the century to follow, especially insofar as the heightened reality of his wildly successful features demonstrated the utility of film as a universal, shock-to-the-senses entertainment — making the majority of cinema that predated his major works seem languid and quaint — but also as a tool for the persuasive expression of ideology, no matter how deplorable. Griffith’s impact doesn’t seem to have just been on cinema. His title cards read at times like the bile-spewing screeds of a Michael Savage, a didactic message of dread and fear spread far and wide over the country, and the constant parade of unabashed, lowbrow melodrama recast as phony historical documentation, for both the recent and the distant past, suggests the stream of manipulation bursting forth from 24-hour news.
Therefore, if Griffith truly is as influential and important as most accounts of the era claim, it may well have been in the most dire, nefarious sense. The shorts he made at Biograph Company, a New York film studio founded in 1895, are almost the opposite of the Edison actualities. While still easily seen as exercises in basic cinematic technique, they aren’t nearly so skeletal, and allow for a remarkable portrait of early film’s capability of mesmerizing and manipulating a viewer. Griffith made hundreds of short films; in the course of his career the power of the medium came into focus, a magnificent and terrifying thing to be wielded by someone with so many backwards ideas, and such a compellingly exposed understanding of human nature.
The one Biograph short screened in this project is one of the highlights of Griffith’s output, certainly for me as I consistently prefer his shorts and his somewhat more modest later features (especially Orphans of the Storm, unfortunately not a part of this list) to the two juggernauts. A Corner in Wheat is a socialist-leaning document of wealth as an oppressor of the working class: the decadent rich are shown chortling over and rolling in the spoils of an arbitrary increase in the value of wheat. In around fifteen minutes Griffith takes this scenario to all of its obvious conclusions, including the gruesome death (later cribbed by Peter Weir’s Witness) by the tycoon who attempts to “corner” the wheat market, but allows no real respite for the poor families newly unable to afford bread, or the shop owners who have no choice but to hike up the price. The film is both politically progressive and strikingly bleak, and its admonishing, grim tone and use of broad contrasts to juxtapose the lifestyle of the upper and lower classes would have a direct impact in the twenty years to follow on propaganda film, especially that made in the Soviet Union by Sergei Eisenstein, whose best-known films can be argued to have a direct root in A Corner in Wheat.
It’s somewhat ironic that Griffith’s shorts are represented here by a film whose values could be considered almost the direct opposition to those espoused by Birth of a Nation, until one considers that Griffith’s primary sociological interest was in being a scold over something, whether “intolerance,” Reconstruction, polygamy, the wealthy classes or a zillion other targets. The director’s two most celebrated features, when seen in tandem with other movies made simultaneously with and just before them, demonstrate that he was less an innovator than a master of PR, aggressive self-promotion and the conjuring up of Events. Thanks to his extensive honing of his craft at Biograph, his directorial skill and flair for commercialism had a particularly loathsome impact, by most accounts directly resulting in a rejuvenation of the Ku Klux Klan; while The Birth of a Nation is powerfully made, much of its ability to instill such zeal in wrongheaded crowds is down less to Griffith’s filmmaking than to his gift for pandering. That doesn’t make him a bad or even a subpar artist, nor does it make him less important to the history of film, but before accepting the received wisdom about the film and its impact, it’s important to take a long look at what was already happening… especially, but not exclusively, in Europe.
Technically, the first feature-length film ever made was most likely the boxing match between Bob Fitzsimmons and James Corbett shot on May 22, 1897 by Enoch Rector; in turn, the first narrative feature film is generally believed to be the 1906 Australian true-crime drama The Story of the Kelly Gang, most of which has been lost. However, Victor Sjöström is credited at times with making the first “classical Hollywood” feature — though other film historians argue that this perception is born of their predecessors not having seen enough movies — and he made it not in Hollywood or for an American studio but in Sweden. Ingeborg Holm displays a Griffith-like passion and showmanship in its very theatrical morality play about a woman left destitute after her husband’s death. Sjöström’s camera is static and his actors overcompensate routinely for their distance from it, but the simple story is communicated very effectively, certainly at the same level of artistry seen in Hollywood films around the same time if not a couple of steps beyond them in its sensitivity and emotion.
Somewhat more fun, and more directly measurable in its effect on Griffith, is Giovanni Pastrone’s long, striking, ridiculous Cabiria, an outsized Italian epic steeped in classical Roman imagery that still impresses with its sheer scale, even if it features some of the worst acting of any historically significant film (demonstrating every stereotyped tendency of the form you’ve seen parodied in the likes of Singin’ in the Rain). All the same, its beauty and entertainment value haven’t dimmed and it’s a much more enjoyable film to modern eyes than you-know-what and you-know-what-else.
But no one outside of the comedians had more fun with cinema in the 1910s than Louis Feuillade, whose innovations have less to do with technique than with the inaguration of what would quickly become the lexicon of filmed suspense and espionage; the French director is best known for a trio of serial thrillers made during this period, represented here by Les Vampires, which isn’t the horror picture it sounds like but an endlessly inventive, delightfully messy and disorganized tale of crime and intrigue, with a reporter trying to crack open the case of a crime syndicate that’s terrorizing France and, eventually, his own family. Feuillade conquers few of the limitations that will strike viewers of most films of the pre-WWI years. The acting is goofy and over the top; the camera only sporadically shows any sort of energy or motion; the sets are confined, the story sloppily told and the dramatics overbaked. But in addition to their ability to render these issues irrelevant via wild, unrelenting joy (and the occasional strikingly beautiful shot), these are the kinds of films for which such problems somehow become advantages; the homespun, almost random quality of the richly involved storytelling, which will remind some seasoned viewers of Saturday morning serials like the wonderfully dumb 1940s Batman & Robin in all its impossible, deceptive cliffhangers, retains a real feeling of excitement and almost childlike intensity. There’s also an undercurrent of genuine darkness and fear in the characterizations of villains like the legendary androgynous seductress Irma Vep. All ten episodes of the series are uniformly delightful.
To return to America for a moment, there is also the matter of a couple of key films included here that were made and released in the same year as The Birth of a Nation. Cecil B. Demille’s sadistic The Cheat, about blackmail and adultery, exhibits stunning lighting technique, inventive camerawork and lurid subject matter that already seems to move beyond the supposedly vital Griffith innovations, like his use of cross-cutting and close-ups. And better yet is Raoul Walsh’s truly exceptional Regeneration, the first so-called gangster picture though one that shares far less with its modern brethren than, say, Von Sternberg’s Underworld; Walsh’s sense of naturalism and exquisite use of Bowery locations is well matched by the subtlety in his work with actors, which makes for an astounding comparison to the performances seen in the films of his peers, especially given that he worked underneath Griffith and even appeared himself in Birth of a Nation. Regeneration is the earliest feature screened for this project that can be unreservedly recommended to even a viewer unfamiliar with the process of watching and appreciating silents.
The Birth of a Nation is a film, on the other hand, that we cannot screen without an apology for its content. It’s probably not a coincidence that its production and release coincide with a major leap forward in American cinematic art, but for today’s viewer its glorification of the “lost cause” Civil War narrative and of the KKK mark it as a relic — indeed, it was already a relic when it was released, met even then with protests and progressive objection — and frankly as a disgusting piece of film whose importance was vastly overstated at a time when many smaller pictures of its day were much more difficult to see. That’s mostly by design; as Michael Grutchfield has argued in his superb Century Films blog, Birth acquired its air of mythological largeness and relevance because that’s what Griffith, like a terribly pretentious P.T. Barnum, was selling. Nation wasn’t the first American feature, nor did it introduce cross-cutting and close-ups and various other watershed achievements frequently ascribed to it. It does have some merit as an impressive synthesis of the prior decade’s worth of film technique… but the two other U.S.-made 1915 films seen as part of this project demonstrate that the likes of Walsh and DeMille were already moving past Griffith as artists, innovators and storytellers.
I do not question Birth‘s right to exist as a monument to a turning point in Hollywood and cinematic history; I also don’t particularly want to talk as much about it and Griffith in this post as I already have. It’s obviously essential viewing for anyone who wants a full perspective on silent cinema. But two things bother me immensely about its legacy, both of which I think date to the beginnings of modern silent “appreciation” in the ’60s and ’70s. The first is the way partisans of the film, those who consider it not just a significant monument but genuinely great, are so outrageously defensive of its racist content. The most glaring and probably archetypal example of this I’ve seen (also cited by Grutchfield’s aforementioned blog) is the chapter about the film in William K. Everson’s American Silent Film, an important book in helping to develop the modern understanding of silents as an artform unto themselves. Everson is so outraged at protests over revival screenings of Birth of a Nation that he essentially denies the film has any racist content at all, that it’s simply misunderstood, as though every African-American (and for that matter every person, period) raising objections to the movie’s outrageously hateful narrative thesis and its cultural omnipresence is just being difficult or contrarian.
Everson came from another era, and his propping up of Griffith above all other silent directors wasn’t by any means his only bout of questionable taste. (Check out his interview with Alfred Hitchcock wherein he won’t stop pestering the Master about Number Seventeen, possibly Hitchcock’s worst film and one that only Everson inexplicably liked enough to waste so much time prodding him over.) The problem is I still see this behavior, especially in film school types. Again, it’s not that I object to anyone finding value in or even loving Birth of a Nation for their own individual reasons, nor do I imply ulterior motives here on the part of the picture’s defenders in regard to its social messaging. It’s quite possible to appreciate or champion problematic or racist art without promoting racism; for my part, I rate Bob Clampett’s Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs as one of the most vibrant and exuberant cartoons ever made. The difference is that if a black person or anyone else challenged me on my comfort or forgiveness of its content, I would not immediately shoot back with a litany of reasons why they’re wrong. Supporting a work like Birth of a Nation requires our own acceptance of what the film is saying, and that we must answer for it when prompted. The correct response is to argue the film’s merits in spite of its obvious wrongheadedness, not to deny such wrongheadedness exists or to suggest that nonwhite students deserve to be sneered at for being troubled by it.
Secondly and more to the point — and this applies also to Griffith’s Cabiria-inspired, almost unbearably dull Intolerance, a festival of eye-popping sets and tired cross-cut trickery between multiple barely relevant plotlines and tepid characterizations, all wrapped up with Griffith’s usual exhausting title card editorials about nothing much — is the way that Griffith has managed to dominate the conversation about Hollywood silent film for decades. Even after he became the object of popular scorn and the Academy made the decision to wash the blemish of his name from one of their honorary awards, Birth of a Nation and Intolerance remained, in the popular imagination and certainly in many a basic film curriculum, “the” American silent films of note. The long-term result of this has been a lot of people who believe silent cinema is socially regressive, overwrought and boring. The rest of this list is positively filled with movies that deserve to be equally famous, that require no or very little excessive context or challenge, and that could easily instill in young viewers a lifetime of interest and love in early cinema. The idea of a world in which The Crowd and The Wind are given the respect, esteem and exposure shown for decades to Birth of a Nation and Intolerance is frustratingly thrilling to me.
(Before we move on fully from Griffith, this is a fair enough place to mention that his two later features included here, Broken Blossoms and Way Down East, are both more politically complex and more artistically interesting than Birth and Intolerance. Blossoms is still quite dated but has some visual merit, while East is great fun, and both employ outstanding central performances by Lillian Gish, whose fame was perhaps Griffith’s greatest long-term contribution to Hollywood film. Both pictures show Griffith freely adopting others’ techniques and ideas, which was really always his forte. By the late ’20s, he could no longer keep up and became increasingly irrelevant. I didn’t really mean to write a hit piece on Griffith here, but you can find any number of sources valorizing him and I do want to compensate a bit for the disproportionate emphasis placed on him.)
One artist whose work’s popular appeal couldn’t be diluted by any amount of scholarly neglect is Charlie Chaplin; it’s interesting that he alone among major silent directors stubbornly refused, for a full decade, to adopt spoken dialogue, and it’s a testament to his vast popularity that he even had the commercial standing to do so. Chaplin is like Hitchcock and Welles, one of the handful of directors so obviously in the pantheon that any film scholar or writer who doesn’t champion them shouldn’t be taken seriously. Chaplin made numerous great short comedies for the studios Keystone, Essanay, Mutual and First National; only a tiny sampling makes its way to this particular survey and really these films deserve more dedicated attention than this space can allow. As good as Chaplin’s features are, the shorts are his most elegant and effortlessly funny work, and their splendidly agile direction places them firmly as among the finest comic films shot in any era. Easy Street casts Chaplin’s Tramp persona as a cop on the toughest beat in the city, with hilarious and balletic results; A Dog’s Life runs close to feature length (34 minutes) and finds time for the Tramp to disrupt a restaurant and dance hall with an adorable mutt named Scraps. Both are masterful; The Immigrant is somewhat less focused and succumbs to some of the cheap sentimentality that occasionally would find its way into the director’s features, but the better moments easily excuse the indulgence. These films are all monuments of timing, obsession, artistry and will have no trouble communicating to any modern day viewer.
PART TWO: THE 1920S
Before I started this project, the 1920s were already second only to the ’30s as my favorite decade of cinema — this systematic collection of long-overdue screenings only served to reinforce that feeling. With the essential building blocks of a grand artform and industry in place by 1919 and with World War I over (after its decimating effect on European filmmaking), great directors went to town, especially in Germany, America, Sweden and Russia. The level of tireless creativity and pure artistry seen in this era extends far beyond the titles on this list. It’s extremely pressing to note that this is also the decade in which avant garde cinema, represented sporadically here, came into being as a radical and thriving medium, in the U.S. as well as overseas.
The most indelible impressions are inevitably made by the German films of the period, particularly the Expressionist titles hailing in large part from the Ufa studio that housed Murnau and Lang. The earliest triumphs taken in here are Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and, even better, Paul Wegene and Henrik Galeen’s The Golem. The former is celebrated for its unnerving, strange set designs and surreal camera angles in service of a story built on a dreamlike absence of real logic, though its overly rational frame story breaks the spell for some audiences. The Golem is weird in a somewhat less accessible, but considerably more rewarding, fashion, a spiritual and idiosyncratic horror tale with fascinating special effects and atmosphere.
But Murnau and Lang are bound to dominate all surveys of 1920s German cinema, and this list is no exception. Of Lang’s major films from the first half of the decade, Destiny — a sort of anthology of dreams that has Death permitting a woman to resurrect her lover on the condition that she can allow romance to conquer all in three separate episodes — is the most accessible and engaging. Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler and Die Nibelungen require a greater commitment of time; for my part, while Nibelungen is a remarkable sight to behold at times, fantasy stories do so little for me that I couldn’t help finding it a slog. The winding, complicated plot of Mabuse was more fun for me, though it required some supplemental commentary listening to make complete sense. Lang’s best work was let to come; that also goes for Murnau, whose uncredited Dracula adaptation Nosferatu may be the most famous silent film of all among general audiences, so influential it can seem trite to someone initially seeing it. Seeing it with expectations of a frightful night out, even on a large screen, may lead to disappointment, but as a curious, playful and strange example of the Ufa model, it’s indisputably essential. (We have several examples beyond Germany of the treatment of the supernatural in Europe during this period: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Parson’s Widow is a spiritual comedy that plays the church, and the realm of the dead, for laughs while retaining a jolting sense of the great beyond. Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage, apart from demonstrating a gift for striking imagery and trick photography that was moving beyond other filmmakers, is far more grim and dispiriting in its casting of a much more joyless and ominous Death than Fritz Lang’s. Benjamin Christensen’s remarkable documentary Haxan, about the history and mythology surrounding witchcraft, gives the Danish director a chance to toy with the imagery and ideology of horror without fully subscribing to it or pandering to its usual excesses.)
It’s probably fair to say that the first silent movies a lot of people watch for pleasure are the comedies, and little wonder; those films were made by some of the first true geniuses of cinematic art. The most generously represented of them in this project is Buster Keaton, whose dour visage and rubbery physicality make him still a marvel to behold. Keaton’s greatest work is to be found in his short films, widely available in boxed sets from Kino; three of those shorts show up here. All have their moments (I prefer The High Sign to a couple of them) but the best by far is One Week, in which Buster and his lady try to build a house out of less than ideal materials. Elegant, genuinely hilarious and even sexy, it’s twenty of the best minutes of filmed entertainment ever produced in America.
Keaton was a good director with a good eye for striking visuals and was excellent at blocking, all the more impressive since most of his technical skills were entirely self-taught with little outside assistance. (A number of his films were co-directed by others, however.) If Keaton had a mild weak point it was in his writing. Many of the shorts are hit and miss and lack focus, with often phenomenal gags that don’t really hang together. His features gradually attained more and more unity — Our Hospitality was improved on by The Navigator, which it turn was built upon by the legendary Sherlock Jr., finally leading into the most pleasing of the lot, Seven Chances, and the most famous, The General (Steamboat Bill Jr. was credited to another director and fits in somewhat awkwardly) — and can seem to run together if seen in close proximity, but all are quite good and sometimes great.
The Keaton influence is on strong display in the outstanding Harold Lloyd comedy Safety Last!, which uses the Keaton formula of outrageous-looking stunts mixed in with great feats of comic timing and slapstick, but places its hero (a clerk in a department store who’s been faking upward mobility for his long-distance girlfriend’s sake) in a world that seems much more vivid and alive than the skewed, satirical surrounding universe in Keaton’s films. The beloved building-climbing sequence is as fantastic and harrowing as legend reputes, even after you know how it was done, but if you’re like me you may well be surprised by how consistently funny and thrilling everything that comes before it is as well, masterfully executed with perhaps the best production values of any 1920s comedy.
Of course, Charlie Chaplin was in his own class and it’s honestly reductive to even label him a screen comedian. By the time he began making features he was already considered an “artist” in a sense afforded few other directors, and he spent the ’20s painstakingly and slowly crafting endlessly worked-over and tweaked movies that justified such a distinction. The Kid, with Jackie Coogan as the Tramp’s adopted son, is the only one with the seams showing, a populist melding of outlandish chase scenes, great comic setpieces, aggressively affecting pathos and several tangents that have little to do with the story; these flaws make it more human than the par for Chaplin and so some may prefer it to his later films. Chaplin’s technical expertise and feel for human emotions and relationships is well established by his drama A Woman of Paris (in which he doesn’t act), though it’s a conventional enough melodrama for one to wonder if it would enjoy its considerable reputation with a different director helming it. By contrast, The Gold Rush is one of the most foolproof and accessible of all American silent films, a delightful expansion of the Tramp shorts dealing with economic strife, unrequited love and the bottomless charm of its besieged hero, all to monumentally funny and resonant effect. The same essential concepts would follow Chaplin to his next three features, two of which fall outside the time span of this project, but The Circus — which I think is even better than The Gold Rush — shows how Chaplin’s more careful, detailed approach to filmmaking paid off: his movies might share basic themes and plot elements but each seems unique and valuable unto itself, and each takes every possible advantage of its premise. The Tramp as a fixture of a traveling circus is such an obvious notion it could easily fall flat, but nearly every scene in the film is outstanding. Chaplin’s work warrants study and hero worship, but more than anything it invites simple enjoyment that readily extends to plenty of people who will never see any other movies made before 1930.
I’m somewhat ignorant about silent comedy outside the U.S., though there are a few very funny films I reviewed for this project. One is René Clair’s short flight of sci-fi fancy Paris qui dort, about a scientist’s ray that causes everyone in Paris to freeze where they stand, good but not as good as the other Clair short taken up (see below). Prior to the seizing of Russian cinematic resources as an arm of the Soviet propaganda state, Vsevolod Pudovkin made Chess Fever, which feels like a salty parody of comic conventions and the like, decades ahead of its time and featuring one of my favorite title cards of all time: “Finally, someone else who hates chess!” Even better and wittier, though not a straight comedy, is the surprisingly mature domestic story Bed and Sofa, about a couple living in Moscow that becomes polyamorous — an initially liberating arrangement that goes south when the woman in the triad is forced to contend with her housemates’ callousness and sloppiness. Bed and Sofa is one of three foreign features about domestic partnerships that show surprising progressivism that would not be seen in mainstream American pictures for decades (if ever). The others are Dreyer’s Michael, an achingly beautiful and sensitive portrait of a waning love between two men, an artist and his model; and the equally throttling French short La Souriante Madame Beudet. Lamentably the only film on this list directed by a woman, Germaine Dulac (Lois Weber’s work will come under the microscope at a later date), this devilish and sharply feminist work about an artistically inclined lady trapped in a terrible marriage to a complete cad is difficult to categorize: it’s surreal, it’s socially conscious, it’s hilarious and it’s quite brutal in its pessimism. What the films in this paragraph share, if not exactly a vibrant sense of humor, is the fact that they’ve aged with extraordinary grace — they could be made today, with very little alteration, and make a major impression.
What that demonstrates is that cinema had matured by the mid-’20s, to the point that it could encompass almost anything. Avant garde film was stretching the possibilities, and presented its own parallel narrative. City symphonies Berlin: Symphony of a Great City and Man with a Movie Camera compressed the known world into wild, rhythmic, phantasmagoric imagery unimaginable in the days of the Edison actualities. (Another story worth telling that isn’t represented much here is that of the development of documentary; it didn’t really begin with Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, but that film’s success certainly opened many doors.) In France, the wonderfully musical Entr’acte by René Clair; the arresting, jarringly modern Ballet Mécanique from Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy; and the teasing, poetic L’Étoile de mer by Man Ray demonstrated cinema that did not simply forego narrative, like the earliest motion pictures did, but reject, subvert and redefine it. (The synthesis and antithesis of these works would be the most hilarious and confrontational French surrealist film of all; more on it at the end of this history.) My feeling is that Ray’s film will appeal primarily to those already predisposed to enjoy abstract cinema. No such caveat exists for Clair’s effort, one of the earliest films to generate a feeling of being in motion, almost weightless; it gives Clair a chance to show his usual penchant for offbeat humor too, as well as a touch of the erotic. Ballet Mécanique is somewhere in between; when scored well, it’s a monster, an overwhelming and powerfully creative experience disembodied from conventional notions of filmmaking past and present.
Not all of the avant garde films welcomed into this canon moved wholly outside of narrative: Watson and Webber’s gleefully strange adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher is a film school staple for good reason, but I’d argue it pales a bit next to the Japanese nightmare of insanity and imprisonment A Page of Madness, which was built for offscreen narration that’s now lost but functions for us as a wholly disembodied example of radical storytelling and alarming editing and photography. The evolution in these two fields is far more immediately evident outside the American film industry in the first half of the ’20s than within it; film quickly became less an art than a business here, which was often but not always to its detriment. The popular Hollywood hits of the ’20s that have lingered enough to be acknowledged generally have at least some merit. An exception is It, a star vehicle for Clara Bow and a rather tepid comedy that was probably my least favorite of the films I discovered in this project. Plenty of the others correspond to the casual moviegoer’s stereotype of silent cinema: The Thief of Bagdad and The Black Pirate (an early example of two-strip Technicolor), both starring Douglas Fairbanks, are full of impressive derring-do and engaging action at first but, as in modern Hollywood films, the obligations of convention end up bogging them down a bit. That goes as well for romances like Flesh and the Devil and Beggars of Life, both of which have a lot to recommend anyway, and even scrappy comedies like Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port (not to mention urbane ones like Ernst Lubitsch’s uncomfortably callous The Marriage Circle), all of which either kowtow a bit to studio and commercial whims or feel uncomfortably tied to their era in a way the European films mentioned above do not.
Having said that, there were ambitious Hollywood pictures in this era that did escape the trappings of familiarity and remain striking. One was the gorgeously photographed and immensely popular gangster film Underworld, made for Paramount by Josef von Sternberg and overcoming what now feels like a skeletal script (it was too influential to seem otherwise) to masterfully present images that feel iconic, whether they are or not. John Ford’s The Iron Horse probably wrecked nostalgic memories of Griffith, rendering a large-scale and complicated account of an early American railroad as a streamlined, gripping narrative with no visible strain and plenty of the sort of subtlety Ford’s antecedent lacked. No less ambitious and quite a bit crazier was Erich von Stroheim, architect of the amusingly decadent and unbelievably bleak (by the finale) Foolish Wives, about gamblers and professional crooks taking wealthy folks for a ride, and especially the butchered but still remarkable MGM drama Greed, four hours of encroaching dreariness, living and dying by an accumulation of details and incremental character changes, somehow funded by a big studio and then never given proper respect by it, or by seemingly anyone. Even a vapid story like the M. Butterfly adaptation The Toll of the Sea, one of the first color features and a lovely one at that, manages to harness the studio system for the concoction of achingly evocative imagery despite the script’s limitations and outrageous racism.
Victor Sjöström, who’d made Ingeborg Holm and The Phantom Carriage in Sweden, was one of the first of a slew of immigrant directors brought in to the Hollywood studios who played a major role in lighting a fire under the artistic integrity of those storied outlets. His He Who Gets Slapped, a bizarre film about a disgraced scientist who becomes a masochistic clown, is deeply flawed but makes for a convenient segue into American horror, which offered many of the most prominent examples of artistic ambition and commercial success synthesizing in Hollywood cinema, a rare event then as always. The star of the moment was Lon Chaney, a gifted actor with an incongruously kind face who was known for his staggering ability to re-mold himself to suit a given film; he’s even sometimes unrecognizable in between scenes in a single film, as when he makes his transformation in Slapped. Chaney movies followed a formula that makes Chaplin and Keaton seem like avant garde stalwarts: in just about all of them, he’s an ugly or grotesque figure with a heart of gold pining for a younger woman, and in most of them he must become the bigger man and accept her commitment to another love. Not surprisingly, his most memorable films are those in which his character isn’t so mature about the situation. Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera and especially Tod Browning’s The Unknown make a strong case for Chaney as a horror phenomenon — mean, frightening and fully convicted. It helps that both films are truly beautiful and evocative, harnessing the resources of their respective studios to make films that are shockingly elegant and unnervingly scruffy and lived-in, respectively.
These Chaney movies — not to mention the very Chaney-like The Man Who Laughs, a visually inventive vehicle for Conrad Veight — owe the most obvious and far-reaching of debts to German expressionism, in particular the previously covered Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Since those landmarks Ufa and the German industry had only grown in stature and strength. If Nosferatu can be slightly difficult to fully appreciate now, no similar curse plagues Murnau’s The Last Laugh — a nearly title-free blitz of pure cinema, tracking the story of a fallen man memorably portrayed by Emil Jannings — and Faust, a peerless interpretation of the legend and simply one of the greatest and most entrancing films ever made. Fritz Lang can claim no lesser accolade for the gargantuan sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis, another of the very few silent films that has never receded from the cultural imagination and one that, unlike Nosferatu, rarely suffers for it. Lang’s next film Spies is in the same vein as Mabuse, if a bit less politically serious-minded; it only pales next to Metropolis because almost anything would. All four of these films are probing, sensual, powerful and intense, moving far beyond the playful strangeness of Caligari and The Golem. Lang and Murnau were destined for further greatness; both would end up in Hollywood, though Murnau was to die tragically young.
Georg Wilhem Pabst’s work in Germany was a bit more subdued than that of his most beloved peers — he generally favored less busy design and more straightforward camerawork, with fewer photographic effects and less frenetic editing — though he worked in the same circle. Joyless Street is a starkly realistic social drama with future megastar Greta Garbo; The Love of Jeanne Ney reverses the general pathway by showing the blatant influence of classical Hollywood storytelling in its hackneyed story of espionage and forbidden love. Pabst too would come into his own and blossom, though on a smaller scale than Lang and Murnau; his films did not have the surrealistic goals or often macabre, blackly comic sensibility of theirs, which is not to say that Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl — his two landmark features starring Louise Brooks, as much their author as he is — are either sprightly or humorless affairs. They’re both sophisticated, subtle movies with an undercurrent of progressivism, presumably the reason they’ve aged as well as Metropolis and Faust without the flashy directorial innovations of those films.
The most endlessly inventive cinema of all might also have been the least accessible for new audiences. For our purposes here, three directors represent the USSR in the latter half of the 1920s. Alexander Dovzhenko is arguably the most admired of the three today; I had trouble comprehending his Arsenal, but evidently his complex films with their covert messaging and nonlinear storytelling transcend propaganda and deeply reward repeated exposure. More familiar to film school students are Vsevolod Pudovkin and, of course, the great Sergei Eisenstein, who wrote and rewrote the rulebook of editorial film grammar as a form of communication. The radical cutting and forceful communication of Strike, not to mention its straightforward and righteous pro-union message, makes it the most admirable of all these films today, though portions of both Battleship Potemkin (source of one of the most famous scenes in all cinema, the falling baby carriage) and October retain much of their audacious technical and emotional power. Eisenstein’s work can come across as cerebral and even impenetrable; while there’s much passion in all of these films, Pudovkin’s work is more tentative and emotional. Mother may be the easiest introduction to Soviet propaganda, boasting the usual cinematic pyrotechnics but also a tender anchor in its characterization. (Eisenstein attempts something similar in The Old and the New, about farm collectivization, but somewhat less effectively.) There seems to me a slight overrepresentation of late ’20s Russian film on this list; I’d be inclined to consider The Old and the New and Pudovkin’s The End of St. Petersburg as ideal only for more seasoned viewers. It can be very difficult, if one is not a scholar of this moment in history, to feel much about these movies, Strike (completely) and Mother (partially) excluded. A surfeit of technical brilliance at the expense of all else is also my primary impression of Abel Gance’s massive Napoleon; damn the old-world conventional wisdom, the real masterwork of late silent-era France is of course Dreyer’s humbling, inexpressibly powerful The Passion of Joan of Arc.
That missing empathy and warmth also shows up and truly marks the best of the later Hollywood silents. The waning years of the silent era brought its most monumental achievements in storytelling as a pure cinematic art, and a major part of this was the influx of directors working in America who harnessed the medium to tell increasingly complex stories of interpersonal relationships while also becoming ever more lyrical and sumptuous in their use of subtle, sublime performances, striking cinematography, and (for the most part) an only sporadic use of title cards. The innovations in Germany, France and the U.S.S.R. gave rise to a kind of empathy and emotional depth that only seemed possible through the use of major studio resources by gifted filmmakers. For early evidence of this commitment to humanism, watch the key scene in King Vidor’s somewhat bloated Great War epic The Big Parade: a reluctant departure forced upon two intense lovers, whose final goodbye is played against the march of soldiers in the opposite direction. The performances of this scene by John Gilbert and Renee Adoree are heartbreakingly believable and intense, laid against Vidor’s expertly nonchalant vision of the uncaring world passing them by.
Within two years the flood begins. From this survey alone: Murnau’s Sunrise, about which enough has been written but plenty more probably could be, in my view the greatest of the silent films; Vidor’s The Crowd, one of the few perfect movies and an indispensable model for future studies of people who give the impression of being actually alive and breathing; Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York, a compassionate study of doomed, superficial love so vividly sad you could swear you heard its characters speaking in your memory of it; Erich von Stroheim’s The Wedding March and Queen Kelly, two more expressions of utter hopelessness from the master of opulent dread; Lubitsch’s yearning adolescent romance Eternal Love, vastly underrated probably because of its Shakespearean emotional scale and dim view of human nature, incidentally among the most aesthetically gorgeous of all these films; and lastly The Wind, Victor Sjöström’s greatest achievement despite irksome studio meddling, the harrowing chronicle of a desperate woman alone, driven insane by the weather and the terrible men it brings swirling into her life. It’s here, watching these films, that one can feel the legend and mythology built up around Hollywood has at least some basis in truth, which makes it sadder yet that it’s a legacy these same studios tend now to ignore.
THE WAY FORWARD
The Wind, kept from release for a full year, is effectively the swansong of silent Hollywood. The artform’s fate was sealed by the introduction of synchronized dialogue, heard most prominently in the major Warner Bros. hit The Jazz Singer, a sentimental and antiquated silent picture with a couple of striking sound sequences. It would take years for the industry to recover from the jolt of the period that followed. Though they would bring new stars and new possibilities (the Hollywood musical would quickly become the most welcome new advantage), the star system was uprooted and some directors managed the transition scarcely any more securely than their actors. Cinema seemed to regress for a time; the earliest sound films are typically clumsy, awkward affairs that are of interest to a far smaller niche than the best silents, and certainly a great deal less defensible on artistic grounds.
There were exceptions. The cinema of the United Kingdom in the 1920s doesn’t have much of a legacy, but in 1926 one stark thriller based partially on the Jack the Ripper legend had managed to make a sizable mark domestically and overseas. With Ivor Novello in the lead as a mysterious stranger, scarf ominously covering the lower half of his face when he’s first introduced, The Lodger stood out starkly from other thrillers and other British films by virtue of its striking visual imagination — full of what would come to be called little “touches,” flourishes that made a strong impression in and of themselves but also communicated important elements of the story — and its unusually naturalistic acting (a few years ahead of this becoming essentially the norm in America, though the arc had begun to turn this way with the introduction of closeups), visible here and in the early films of John Ford and Raoul Walsh but hardly anyplace else up to now. The Lodger was also noteworthy for its ambiguous finale and air of unnerving tension. Its director otherwise mostly made romantic melodramas in the ’20s (as well as one interminable comedy, The Farmer’s Wife) but returned to the thriller genre — and to the basic story format of The Lodger — in his first sound film, Blackmail.
While The Lodger is a striking and memorable effort, Blackmail is something on a different level. It was initially shot as a silent film, so — despite the aural trickery of using a different actress, offstage, to speak the leading lady Anny Ondra’s dialogue due to her thick accent — its dialogue scenes feel less stilted and tacked-on than in most early talkies. There’s even a song sequence, which serves less to show off the synchronization trick than to ramp up the tension in the moments before a horrific rape and murder. And this film does not merely use the new resource to transfer title cards to audible words, it uses sound in the same way The Lodger used staircase railings, a shaky ceiling fan and a glass-bottom set: to present information nonverbally. The incredible empathy we feel toward Ondra — playing both the victim and the perpetrator of a crime, though the murder she commits is obviously justified — is demonstrated in a moment when every word she’s hearing is replaced with one that brings back the weapon she used, and in one horrifying moment the word is shouted (“KNIFE!”) and she’s jolted out of her trance, as are we. No other director in 1929 was using sound to make people feel unsafe. That director, reared on and passionate about silent film in a way that would inform his entire brilliant career, was Alfred Hitchcock, and his name will reign above all others in future installments of this history.
Synchronized sound was more often harnessed to generate pleasure and laughter. The third Mickey Mouse cartoon and first initially created with sound, Steamboat Willie, shows off the potential of the new medium before most live action directors had reckoned with it. An animator with a seemingly infinite imagination but little technical skill and even less business sense, Walt Disney had been kicking around various characters of his for years — Alice, a live action little girl surrounded by “funny animals,” and the proto-Mickey known as Oswald the Lucky Rabbit — but he struck gold with Mickey, and the success that resulted increased his ambition. The Mickey cartoons, whose comic verve quickly began a steady uptick culminating in the introduction of other, better characters, were often imitated and never effectively duplicated, and Disney’s then-tiny studio became a hot spot for inventiveness and talent. Before the end of the 1920s, Disney had inaugurated another series: the Silly Symphonies, the first of which — The Skeleton Dance — would heavily imply that cartoons might be a truly limitless form of filmmaking. Disney would have successes and failures, he would sometimes be too far ahead of his audience to get the success he deserved and would sometimes pander to their impulses shamelessly, but there would never be a time when he was not the most ardent mainstream progenitor of the idea that art without boundaries — even commercial art — was one of the greatest practical fulfillments of human potential.
Or was he? Avant garde film had always existed outside of, and parallel to, the commercial movie industry in every country that embodied practitioners of it. But it somehow never caused the kind of ruckus that Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali generated when their untouchable Un Chien Andalou premiered in Paris in 1929. There are surreal films, there are art films, there are “weird” films, and then there’s this film. Entr’Acte might have been odd and funny. The Fall of the House of Usher might have been effectively creepy. Ballet Mecanique might have been challenging. But Un Chien Andalou was an act of violence, and a gleeful one at that. Its disconnected but strangely logical imagery proceeded from one awful, alluring dream to the next, opening with its classically absurd indictment of its viewer, when a woman’s eye is grotesquely sliced — cross-cut with a cloud bisecting the moon overhead — as we watch gaping. Buñuel and Dali adopt every stand-by technique of cinematic art established from Edison, Lumière, Griffith, and onward and mockingly subverts each of them systematically, leaving them dead. Eisenstein’s editorial “rules” become the erotic joke of a woman’s armpit reappearing as a man’s mouth. The humor is mordant, cold, charged. The entire film is a confrontation, and it asks things of us that it knows can never be answered. It still sits before us, unresolved, ugly and unimpressed, towering over everything before and since. Perhaps it doesn’t point a “way forward.” But I think the deep discomfort it inflicts suggest that everything in the future of cinema is just a complement to it. A medium that could produce as unique and irreducible an experience as Un Chien Andalou did not need further justification for its existence, and it never will.
NOTES ON AVAILABILITY (FEATURES)
Originating as it does from the users of an internet forum at a certain point in time, this top 100 list for the silent era is undeniably weighted in favor of films that were readily available in 2004. And some evidence of this imbalance is in the fact that despite the under-representation of silent films on home media, every single movie here has made its way to some form of home video (though sometimes just VHS) at some point. But not everything on the list was easy to track, then or now. I’m treating the features and shorts as a separate matter for our purposes here. In this section I’m listing the features that I was unable to find through any of the following methods and avenues:
– Netflix streaming subscription
– Amazon Prime streaming subscription
– Filmstruck streaming subscription (this is the new cinephile-targeted streaming service from Criterion and TCM, which became available during the course of this project and which I wholeheartedly recommend)
– through public and academic libraries (collections vary, of course, but I’m in a rural county not known for its eccentric film appreciation so I think it’s reasonable to use this as a measurement)
– through the online rental services: iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Youtube.
I was unable to retrieve the following features through any of the above utilities, but they are in print as of this writing:
– Beggars of Life and A Girl in Every Port are in print on DVD-R through Grapevine Video (and also in a couple of burn-on-demand box sets of Louise Brooks films through Classic Video). I can’t attest to the quality of either source because I watched the films on Youtube.
– He Who Gets Slapped is in print on DVD-R via the MOD Warner Archive service. The film hasn’t been restored but its transfer is of reasonable quality.
– Michael is in print from Kino and was also issued in the UK on DVD by Masters of Cinema.
– The Toll of the Sea is included in the exceptional, long out of print Treasures from American Film Archives boxed set from the National Film Preservation Foundation — physical copies are pricey, but 47 of the 50 films in the set, including this one, are now streaming on the NFPF website. Drop them a donation while you’re at it. There are also various public domain and gray market DVD releases in print.
Additionally, Abel Gance’s Napoleon completed a restoration project by the BFI during the course of this year and is now available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK, though I’m told that an American release is unlikely.
These titles are currently out of print, as far as I can tell:
– Arsenal was released by Image but is now gone, and it’s rather difficult to see an English-friendly version of it at present. A print without subtitles is on Youtube.
– Regeneration, released on DVD by Image back in the ’90s, has been deleted for an eternity and used copies are expensive; there is apparently an MOD edition from Flicker Alley but it’s available exclusively from their website. I’m reluctant to list this as “in print” since I don’t have a UPC number for it or anything, but FA is a reputable company so if you don’t mind DVD-R discs…
These films, astoundingly, have never appeared on DVD. (A special mention also for Greed, which hasn’t been commercially issued on physical media since the VHS era but is available to download on iTunes; I saw it on TCM so I don’t know how the online version looks.)
– The Crowd and The Wind are part of the Turner-MGM library controlled by Warners, which means that not only have they not rereleased them in decades, they also pointlessly police the internet to remove any trace of a stream or download permitting interested parties to watch them. (Even my usual bootleg dealer, who’s got a lot of silent movies much more esoteric than these, doesn’t carry them.) I had to secure VHS copies of both to watch them for this project. Along with a thousand other people I’ve been asking and begging and asking again for Warner to do something with these films since I became aware of them around 2004-05. Even back when WB was considered the definitive studio for catalog releases, they let these important titles sit around, the excuse always being that they needed restoration. Then the same company botched a release of The Big Parade that was supposed to be a “test” of the market for their silent releases, and when that didn’t sell astronomically they used it as an excuse not to do further work on these films. That would be bad enough, but Warner also has the Archive Collection service which cheaply burns unrestored films on demand. They’ve dumped what seems like their entire catalog onto this format but evidently feels that Cars music video collections and forgotten TV sitcoms from the mid-1970s are more important than some of the greatest cinema ever produced in the United States. An MOD release of The Crowd, The Wind and Greed, while not ideal, would at least partially satisfy the desire some of us have to own these films and have copies of them at the ready, but still nothing. We can only hope that a third party like Criterion or Kino will ultimately be able to license them.
– The Wedding March is in a similar fix, but it’s Paramount film which means Universal probably controls it, and they’ve never demonstrated much interest in doing anything with their silent library; luckily this film seems to consistently appear on Youtube and torrent sites for anyone itching to watch it.
– A Page of Madness has never appeared on DVD anywhere. I’m not sure who controls the rights but it seems like an obvious candidate for eventual release by Eureka or Criterion or some such boutique label.
THE NON-FEATURES AND WHERE TO FIND THEM
In chronological order:
– Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat / The Sprinkler Sprinkled / Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895): the most generous package is Kino’s The Movies Begin, excerpted by Image on the single disc Landmarks of Early Film (later reprinted as a DVD-R by Flicker Alley), which has all of these films. Other collections of Lumière pictures are surely out there, and anyway these are all on the internet.
– A Trip to the Moon (1902): included on the Kino The Movies Begin boxed set (with a full disc of Méliès films). If that’s too much for you, it’s also on the Image DVD Landmarks of Early Film, a solid release that will give non-enthusiasts the gist of pre-1920 cinema. You can also find this online.
– The Great Train Robbery (1903): same as above.
– A Corner in Wheat (1909): on Youtube, but Kino’s Biograph Shorts collection may interest you. Again, Flicker Alley’s MOD program also offers several compilations of Griffith shorts.
– Les Vampires (1916): in print from Kino. Keep in mind this is a six-hour serial split into ten episodes so you won’t be watching it in one sitting unless you’re probably far beyond me in film appreciation.
– Easy Street / The Immigrant (1917): Chaplin’s Mutual films are collected on a dual format set by Flicker Alley. You’ll probably want to secure the rest of his shorts (for Keystone, Essanay and First National) at the same time or soon after, though I don’t believe a definitive release of the First National films exists yet.
– A Dog’s Life (1918): you can watch this on Filmstruck and it’s branded with Janus/Criterion logos, which probably means Criterion will ultimately do something with Chaplin’s First National films.
– One Week / Cops (1920) / Neighbors (1922): Kino has released all of Buster Keaton’s shorts in one terrific package on multiple formats.
– La Souriante Madame Beudet (1922): sadly you’ll need Youtube for this one, though it’s been released on DVD overseas and may be worth tracking down if you’re multi-region capable.
– Ballet Mécanique (1924): included on both Unseen Cinema (Image) and Avant Garde Vol. 1 (Kino), both deleted; it’s difficult but not impossible to find a good used copy of the former, and as of now Netflix’s DVD service still has the latter.
– Entr’acte (1924): an extra on the Criterion edition of Clair’s A Nous La Liberte, a wonderful movie.
– Chess Fever (1925): shows up on several public domain releases. Image’s version pairs it with Bed and Sofa, a fine idea.
– Paris qui dort (1925): an extra on the Criterion edition of Clair’s Under the Roofs of Paris, which I’m afraid I haven’t seen yet!
– The Fall of the House of Usher (1928): included on seemingly every compilation of early avant garde film: Unseen Cinema (Image), Treasures from American Film Archives, and the Kino Avant Garde Vol. 1 set; some library near you almost certainly has one of these. (And although it’s out of print, Unseen Cinema is a bargain at most any price.) If not, you shouldn’t have trouble finding this elsewhere.
– L’Étoile de mer (1928): Kino’s Avant Garde Vol. 1, out of print but currently readily available by mail from Netflix.
– Steamboat Willie (1928): periodically released here and there on Disney compilations of old Mickey Mouse cartoons, definitively on the well-curated Walt Disney Treasures volume Mickey Mouse in Black and White, Vol. 1, but good luck finding it. I’ll never part with mine.
– Un Chien Andalou (1929): numerous DVD releases, readily viewable online. My DVD is an old one from Facets, I’m sure there are more definitive editions out there. If you care about having movies on disc in the first place, this is one you should own.
APPENDIX: BY COUNTRY
France: Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat; The Sprinkler Sprinkled; Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory; A Trip to the Moon; Les Vampires; La Souriante Madame Beudet; Ballet Mecanique; Entr’Acte; Paris qui dort; Napoleon; L’etoile de mer; The Passion of Joan of Arc; Un Chien Andalou
U.S.: The Great Train Robbery; A Corner in Wheat; The Birth of a Nation; The Cheat; Regeneration; Intolerance; Easy Street; The Immigrant; A Dog’s Life; Broken Blossoms; Neighbors; One Week; Way Down East; The Kid; Cops; Foolish Wives; Nanook of the North; The Toll of the Sea; Our Hospitality; Safety Last!; A Woman of Paris; Greed; He Who Gets Slapped; The Iron Horse; The Marriage Circle; The Navigator; Sherlock, Jr.; The Thief of Bagdad; The Big Parade; The Gold Rush; The Phantom of the Opera; Seven Chances; The Black Pirate; Flesh and the Devil; The General; It; The Jazz Singer; Sunrise; Underworld; The Unknown; Beggars of Life; The Circus; The Crowd; The Docks of New York; The Fall of the House of Usher; A Girl in Every Port; The Man Who Laughs; Steamboat Bill, Jr.; Steamboat Willie; The Wedding March; The Wind; Eternal Love; Queen Kelly
Sweden: Ingeborg Holm; The Parson’s Widow; The Phantom Carriage; Haxan
Germany: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; The Golem; Destiny; Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler; Nosferatu; Die Nibelungen: Siegfried; Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge; The Last Laugh; Michael; Joyless Street; Faust; Berlin: Symphony of a Great City; The Love of Jeanne Ney; Metropolis; Spies; Diary of a Lost Girl; Pandora’s Box
Soviet Union: Battleship Potemkin; Chess Fever; Strike; Mother; Bed and Sofa; The End of St. Petersburg; October; Arsenal; Man with a Movie Camera; The Old and the New
United Kingdom: The Lodger; Blackmail
Japan: A Page of Madness
APPENDIX: U.S. BY STUDIO
Edison: The Great Train Robbery
Biograph: A Corner in Wheat
Griffith: The Birth of a Nation; Intolerance
Paramount: The Cheat; It; Underworld; Beggars of Life; The Docks of New York; The Wedding March
Fox: Regeneration; The Iron Horse; Sunrise; A Girl in Every Port
Mutual: Easy Street; The Immigrant
First National: A Dog’s Life; The Kid; Cops
United Artists: Broken Blossoms; Way Down East; A Woman of Paris; The Thief of Bagdad; The Gold Rush; The Black Pirate; The General; The Circus; Steamboat Bill Jr.; Eternal Love; Queen Kelly [unreleased in U.S.]
Metro: Neighbors; One Week; The Toll of the Sea; Our Hospitality
Universal: Foolish Wives; The Phantom of the Opera; The Man Who Laughs
Pathe: Nanook of the North; Safety Last!
MGM: Greed; He Who Gets Slapped; The Navigator (distro only); Sherlock Jr. (distro only); The Big Parade; Seven Chances (distro only); Flesh and the Devil; The Unknown; The Crowd; The Wind
Warner Bros.: The Marriage Circle; The Jazz Singer
Celebrity Pictures: Steamboat Willie
APPENDIX: SIGNIFICANT GAPS
The following films appeared on subsequent versions of the list I adapted for this project; thus, if they’re not already covered before I get to it, they will be added to our database at that time. (Some were reviewed here already for separate reasons and are just included for completeness.) This supplement to the above list may be helpful for readers, especially because to helps to fill in ranges of years (particularly in the shorts) that tended to be neglected a bit in our sampling.
The Invaders (1912, Francis Ford)
Le mystère des roches de Kador (1912, Leonce Perret)
L’Enfant de Paris (1913, Leonce Perret)
The Student of Prague (1913, Stellan Rye)
Twilight of a Woman’s Soul (1913, Yevgeni Bauer)
The Avenging Conscience (1914, D.W. Griffith)
The Mysterious X (1914, Benjamin Christensen)
The Wishing Ring (1914, Maurice Tourneur)
Hypocrites (1915, Lois Weber)
The Italian (1915, Reginald Barker)
Posle Smerti (1915, Yevgeni Bauer)
Civilization (1916, Reginald Barker/Thomas H. Ince/Raymond B. West)
The Fire (1916, Giovanni Pastrone)
Blind Justice (1916, Benjamin Christensen)
Gretchen the Greenhorn (1916, Sidney Franklin)
Hell’s Hinges (1916, William S. Hart)
Homunculus (1916, Otto Rippert)
Where Are My Children? (1916, Lois Weber & Phillips Smalley)
Bucking Broadway (1917, John Ford) [capsule review in Movie Guide]
A Man There Was (1917, Victor Sjöström)
Rapsodia satanica (1917, Nino Oxilia)
Umirayushchii lebed (1917, Yevgeni Bauer)
The Blue Bird (1918, Maurice Tourneur)
I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918, Ernst Lubitsch)
The Outlaw and His Wife (1918, Victor Sjöström)
The Whispering Chorus (1918, Cecil B. DeMille)
Blind Husbands (1919, Erich von Stroheim)
The Doll (1919, Ernst Lubitsch)
Herr Arnes pengar (1919, Mauritz Stiller)
J’Accuse (1919, Abel Gance)
The Oyster Princess (1919, Ernst Lubitsch)
Præsidenten (1919, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
South (1919, Frank Hurley)
The Spiders (1919, Fritz Lang)
Victory (1919, Maurice Tourneur)
When the Clouds Roll By (1919, Victor Fleming)
Erotikon (1920, Mauritz Stiller)
The Last of the Mohicans (1920, Maurice Tourneur & Clarence Brown)
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921, Rex Ingram)
Hintertreppe (1921, Leopold Jessner & Paul Leni)
Never Weaken (1921, Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor)
Orphans of the Storm (1921, D.W. Griffith) [capsule review in Movie Guide]
Scherben (1921, Lupu Pick)
Cœur fidèle (1923, Jean Epstein)
Die Straße (1923, Karl Grune)
La Roue (1923, Abel Gance)
Big Business (1924, Robert F. McGowan)
Girl Shy (1924, Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor)
The Freshman (1925, Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor)
Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925, Ernst Lubitsch)
The Merry Widow (1925, Erich von Stroheim)
Variete (1925, Ewald Andre Dupont)
Visages d’enfants (1925, Jacques Feyder)
The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926, Lotte Reiniger)
The Scarlet Letter (1926, Victor Sjöström)
Tartuffe (1926, F.W. Murnau)
Hindle Wakes (1927, Maurice Elvey)
The Kid Brother (1927, Ted Wilde)
L’Invitation au Voyage (1927, Germaine Dulac)
My Best Girl (1927, Sam Taylor)
7th Heaven (1927, Frank Borzage) [full review]
The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927, Ernst Lubitsch)
Wings (1927, William A. Wellman) [full review]
Abwege (1928, Georg Wilhelm Pabst)
The Cameraman (1928, Buster Keaton & Edward Sedgwick)
The Fall of the House of Usher (1928, Jean Epstein)
Hungarian Rhapsody (1928, Hanns Schwarz)
L’Argent (1928, Marcel L’Herbier)
The Last Command (1928, Josef von Sternberg) [full review]
Lonesome (1928, Paul Fejös)
Maldone (1928, Jean Grémillon)
Show People (1928, King Vidor)
Storm Over Asia (1928, Vsevolod Pudovkin)
Street Angel (1928, Frank Borzage) [full review]
Zvenigora (1928, Alexander Dovzhenko)
Applause (1929, Rouben Mamoulian)
Asphalt (1929, Joe May)
A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929, Anthony Asquith)
Dans la Nuit (1929, Charles Vanel)
Days of Youth (1929, Yasujiro Ozu)
Finis Terræ (1929, Jean Epstein)
The Love Parade (1929, Ernst Lubitsch)
Lucky Star (1929, Frank Borzage)
My Grandmother (1929, Kote Mikaberidze)
Piccadilly (1929, Ewald André Dupont)
A Throw of Dice (1929, Franz Osten)
The Undying Pearl (1929, Hiroshi Shimizu)
The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrovna (1929, Hanns Schwarz)
Monkeyshines No. 1 (SHORT 1890, William K.L. Dickson & William Heise)
Dickson Experimental Sound Film (SHORT 1895, William Dickson)
Serpentine Dances (SHORT 1896, Louis Lumiere)
Départ de Jérusalem en chemin de fer (SHORT 1897, Alexandre Promio)
Laveuses sur la rivière (SHORT 1897, Auguste & Louis Lumiere)
The Big Swallow (SHORT 1901, James Williamson)
Panoramic View of the Morecambe Sea Front (SHORT 1901, James Mitchell & Sagar Kenyon)
Tram Ride into Halifax (SHORT 1902, Sagar Mitchell & James Kenyon)
A Chess Dispute (SHORT 1903, Robert W. Paul)
A Desperate Poaching Affray (SHORT 1903, William Haggar)
Life of an American Fireman (SHORT 1903, Edwin S. Porter)
Mary Jane’s Mishap (SHORT 1903, G.A. Smith)
Skyscrapers of New York City, from the North River (SHORT 1903, J.B. Smith)
The Impossible Voyage (SHORT 1904, Georges Méliès)
Coney Island at Night (SHORT 1905, Edwin S. Porter)
New York Subway (SHORT 1905, G.W. Bitzer)
The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ (SHORT 1906, Alice Guy)
From Leadville to Aspen (SHORT 1906, Francis J. Marion)
A Lively Quarter-Day (SHORT 1906, J.H. Martin)
The ? Motorist (SHORT 1906, Walter R. Booth)
The Teddy Bears (SHORT 1907, Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon)
Fantasmagorie (SHORT 1908, Emile Cohl)
The Airship Destroyer (SHORT 1909, Walter R. Booth)
The Country Doctor (SHORT 1909, D.W. Griffith)
Le printemps (SERIAL 1909, Louis Feuillade)
The Abyss (SHORT 1910, Urban Gad)
A Day in the Life of a Coal Miner (SHORT 1910, unknown)
Frankenstein (SHORT 1910, J. Searle Dawley)
Mobilier fidele (SHORT 1910, Émile Cohl)
The Cameraman’s Revenge (SHORT 1912, Wladyslaw Starewicz)
The Land beyond the Sunset (SHORT 1912, Harold M. Shaw)
The Musketeers of Pig Alley (SHORT 1912, D.W. Griffith)
The Painted Lady (SHORT 1912, D.W. Griffith)
The Passer-By (SHORT 1912, Oscar Apfel)
The Courage of the Commonplace (SHORT 1913, Rollin S. Sturgeon)
Suspense (SHORT 1913, Lois Weber & Phillips Smalley)
Fantômas (SERIAL 1913-14, Louis Feuillade)
Child of the Big City (SHORT 1914, Yevgeni Bauer)
Gertie the Dinosaur (SHORT 1914, Winsor McKay)
The Man with Wax Faces (SHORT 1914, Maurice Tourneur)
Daydreams (SHORT 1915, Yevgeni Bauer)
Cenere (SHORT 1916, Febo Mari)
Judex (SERIAL 1916, Louis Feuillade)
The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (SHORT 1916, John Emerson & Christy Cabanne)
One A.M. (SHORT 1916, Charles Chaplin)
Revolutionary (SHORT 1917, Yevgeni Bauer)
Za schastem (SHORT 1917, Yevgeni Bauer)
The Cook (SHORT 1918, Roscoe Arbuckle)
The Sinking of the Lusitania (SHORT 1918, Winsor McCay)
Ask Father (SHORT 1919, Harold Lloyd)
The Scarecrow (SHORT 1920, Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline)
Manhatta (SHORT 1921, Charles Sheeler & Paul Strand)
The Playhouse (SHORT 1921, Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline)
Ménilmontant (SHORT 1925, Dimitri Kirsanoff)
The Three-Sided Mirror (SHORT 1927, Jean Epstein)
Walking from Munich to Berlin (SHORT 1927, Oskar Fischinger)
There It Is (SHORT 1928, Harold L. Muller)
H2O (SHORT 1929, Ralph Steiner)
Rain (SHORT 1929, Mannus Franken & Joris Ivens)
Indochina: Children Gathering Rice Scattered by Western Women (SHORT ????, Louis Lumiere)
Indochina: Panorama Taken from a Rickshaw (SHORT ????, Louis Lumiere)
APPENDIX: LUMINARIES (1890-1929)
You can find extensive biographical information the directors and artists covered here at the usual places; if you want to go deeper, I recommend Kevin Brownlow’s book The Parade’s Gone By and William K. Everson’s American Silent Film for Hollywood filmmakers. I hope I can offer more suggestions geared to world cinema by the time we do this again. For now, what I’ve offered below is a quick filmography for the era (features only except for films covered in the list of 100 above) for directors and major performers who appeared more than once in this list. I’ve indicated via underlining the films seen for this project. The purpose of this exercise is contextual, to give anyone following along an idea of where the films in this list sat within the careers and the artistic evolutions of their authors.
Louise Brooks (actor, 1906-1985): The American Venus (1926); Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em (1926); A Social Celebrity (1926); It’s the Old Army Game (1926); The Show Off (1926); Just Another Blonde (1926); Evening Clothes (1927); Rolled Stockings (1927); Now We’re in the Air (1927); The City Gone Wild (1927); A Girl in Every Port (1928); Beggars of Life (1928); Pandora’s Box (1929); The Canary Murder Case (1929); Diary of a Lost Girl (1929).
Lon Chaney (actor, 1883-1930): Richelieu (1914); Father and the Boys (1915); Bound on the Wheel (1915); The Mark of Cain (1916); The Grasp of Greed (1916); Bobbie of the Ballet (1916); The Gilded Spider (1916); Tangled Hearts (1916); The Grip of Jealousy (1916); The Place Beyond the Winds (1916); If My Country Should Call (1916); The Price of Silence (1916); The Rescue (1917); Pay Me! (1917); Anything Once (1917); The Scarlet Car (1917); Triumph (1917); Fires of Rebellion (1917); A Doll’s House (1917); The Flashlight (1917); Hell Morgan’s Girl (1917); The Piper’s Price (1917); The Girl in the Checkered Coat (1917); Danger, Go Slow (1918); The Talk of the Town (1918); That Devil, Bateese (1918); Riddle Gawne (1918); A Broadway Scandal (1918); Fast Company (1918); The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin (1918); Broadway Love (1918); The Grand Passion (1918); Victory (1919); The Miracle Man (1919); A Man’s Country (1919); The Wicked Darling (1919); The False Faces (1919); When Bearcat Went Dry (1919); Paid in Advance (1919); Nomads of the North (1920); The Gift Supreme (1920); Outside the Law (1920); Treasure Island (1920); The Penalty (1920); Daredevil Jack (1920); For Those We Love (1921); The Ace of Hearts (1921); Bits of Life (1921); Voices of the City (1921); Flesh and Blood (1922); A Blind Bargain (1922); The Trap (1922); Quincy Adams Sawyer (1922); Oliver Twist (1922); Shadows (1922); While Paris Sleeps (1923); All the Brothers Were Valiant (1923); The Shock (1923); The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923); He Who Gets Slapped (1924); The Next Corner (1924); The Unholy Three (1925); The Tower of Lies (1925); The Phantom of the Opera (1925); The Monster (1925); The Blackbird (1926); The Road to Mandalay (1926); Tell It to the Marines (1926); Mr. Wu (1927); The Unknown (1927); Mockery (1927); London After Midnight (1927); The Big City (1928); Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928); While the City Sleeps (1928); West of Zanzibar (1928); Where East Is East (1929); Thunder (1929).
Charles Chaplin (1889-1977): The Immigrant (short 1917); Easy Street (short 1917); A Dog’s Life (short 1918); Shoulder Arms (1918); The Kid (1921); The Pilgrim (1923); The Gold Rush (1925); The Circus (1928).
René Clair (1898-1981): Entr’acte (short 1924); Paris qui dort (short 1924); The Phantom of the Moulin-Rouge (1925); The Imaginary Voyage (1926); The Prey of the Wind (1927); Two Timid Souls (1928); The Horse Ate the Hat (1928).
Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968): The President (1919); The Parson’s Widow (1920); Leaves from Satan’s Book (1920); Die Gezeichneten (1922); Der var engang (1922); Michael (1924); Master of the House (1925); The Bride of Glomdal (1926); The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).
Sergei M. Eisenstein (1898-1948): Battleship Potemkin (1925); Strike (1925); October (1928); The Storming of La Sarraz (1929); The Old and the New (1929).
Douglas Fairbanks (actor, 1883-1939): Double Trouble (1915); The Lamb (1915); The Half-Breed (1916); Flirting with Fate (1916); Reggie Mixes In (1916); The Good Bad Men (1916); The Habit of Happiness (1916); His Picture in the Papers (1916); The Americano (1916); American Aristocracy (1916); Manhattan Madness (1916); A Modern Musketeer (1917); Reaching for the Moon (1917); The Man from Painted Post (1917); Down to Earth (1917); Wild and Woolly (1917); In Again, Out Again (1917); Say! Young Fellow (1918); Bound in Morocco (1918); Headin’ South (1918); Mr. Fix-It (1918); Arizona (1918); He Comes Up Smiling (1918); When the Clouds Roll By (1919); His Majesty, the American (1919); The Knickerbocker Buckaroo (1919); The Mollycoddle (1920); The Mark of Zorro (1920); The Three Musketeers (1921); The Nut (1921); Robin Hood (1922); The Thief of Bagdad (1924); Don Q Son of Zorro (1925); The Black Pirate (1926); The Gaucho (1927); The Iron Mask (1929); The Taming of the Shrew (1929).
Greta Garbo (actor, 1905-1990): A Happy Knight (1921); Luffar-Petter (1922); A Scarlet Angel (1923); The Atonement of Gosta Berling (1924); Joyless Street (1925); Flesh and the Devil (1926); The Temptress (1926); Torrent (1926); Love (1927); A Woman of Affairs (1929); The Mysterious Lady (1928); The Divine Woman (1928); Wild Orchids (1929); The Kiss (1929); The Single Standard (1929).
John Gilbert (actor, 1899-1936): The Sin Ye Do (1916); Shell 43 (1916); The Phantom (1916); The Apostle of Vengeance (1916); Golden Rule Kate (1917); The Mother Instinct (1917); The Bride of Hate (1917); The Hater of Men (1917); The Millionaire Vagrant (1917); Happiness (1917); The Dark Road (1917); Princess of the Dark (1917); The Weaker Sex (1917); Up or Down? (1917); The Devil Dodger (1917); The Dawn of Understanding (1918); Three X Gordon (1918); The Mask (1918); Wedlock (1918); More Trouble (1918); Shackled (1918); Nancy Comes Home (1918); Should a Woman Tell? (1919); Heart o’ the Hills (1919); Widow by Proxy (1919); For a Woman’s Honor (1919); The Red Viper (1919); A Little Brother of the Rich (1919); The Man Beneath (1919); The Busher (1919); The White Heather (1919); Deep Waters (1920); The White Circle (1920); Ladies Must Live (1921); Shame (1921); The Servant in the House (1921); Calvert’s Valley (1922); Monte Cristo (1922); Honor First (1922); The Yellow Stain (1922); Arabian Love (1922); Gleam O’Dawn (1922); A California Romance (1922); The Love Gambler (1922); The Exiles (1923); Cameo Kirby (1923); St. Elmo (1923); Madness of Youth (1923); Truxton King (1923); While Paris Sleeps (1923); A Man’s Mate (1924); Just Off Broadway (1924); The Snob (1924); His Hour (1924); He Who Gets Slapped (1924); The Lone Chance (1924); Romance Ranch (1924); The Wife of the Centaur (1924); The Wolf Man (1924); The Big Parade (1925); The Merry Widow (1925); La Boheme (1926); Bardelys the Magnificent (1926); Flesh and the Devil (1926); Man, Woman and Sin (1927); Love (1927); The Show (1927); Twelve Miles Out (1927); The Cossacks (1928); Four Walls (1928); The Masks of the Devil (1928); A Woman of Affairs (1928); Desert Nights (1929); His Glorious Night (1929).
Lillian Gish (actor, 1893-1993): Home, Sweet Home (1914); The Battle of the Sexes (1914); Judith of Bethulia (1914); The Lily and the Rose (1915); The Birth of a Nation (1915); The Children Play (1916); Diane of the Follies (1916); The House Built Upon Sand (1916); Intolerance (1916); An Innocent Magdalene (1916); Sold for Marriage (1916); Daphne and the Pirate (1916); Souls Triumphant (1917); The Greatest Thing in Life (1918); The Great Love (1918); Hearts of the World (1918); Broken Blossoms (1919); The Greatest Question (1919); True Heart Susie (1919); A Romance of Happy Valley (1919); Way Down East (1920); Orphans of the Storm (1921); The White Sister (1923); Romola (1924); La Boheme (1926); The Scarlet Letter (1926); Annie Laurie (1927); The Enemy (1927); The Wind (1928).
D.W. Griffith (1875-1948): A Corner in Wheat (short 1909); Judith of Bethulia (1914); The Avenging Conscience (1914); Home, Sweet Home (1914); The Escape (1914); The Battle of the Sexes (1914); The Birth of a Nation (1915); Intolerance (1916); The Great Love (1918); Hearts of the World (1918); The Greatest Thing in Life (1918); True Heart Susie (1919); A Romance of Happy Valley (1919); Scarlet Days (1919); Broken Blossoms (1919); The Mother and the Law (1919); The Girl Who Stayed at Home (1919); The Greatest Question (1919); Way Down East (1920); The Love Flower (1920); The Idol Dancer (1920); Dream Street (1921); Orphans of the Storm (1921); One Exciting Night (1922); The White Rose (1923); America (1924); Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924); Sally of the Sawdust (1925); That Royle Girl (1925); The Sorrows of Satan (1926); Drums of Love (1928); The Battle of the Sexes (1928); Lady of the Pavements (1929).
Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980): The Pleasure Garden (1925); The Mountain Eagle (1926); The Lodger (1926); Downhill (1927); Easy Virtue (1927); The Ring (1927); The Farmer’s Wife (1928); Champagne (1928); The Manxman (1929); Blackmail (1929).
Buster Keaton (1895-1966): Neighbors (short 1920); One Week (short 1920); Cops (short 1922); Our Hospitality (1923); Three Ages (1923); Sherlock Jr. (1924); The Navigator (1924); Go West (1925); Seven Chances (1925); Battling Butler (1926); The General (1926); College (1927, actor & uncredited director); Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928, actor & uncredited director); The Cameraman (1928, actor & uncredited director); Spite Marriage (1929, actor & uncredited director).
Fritz Lang (1890-1976): Harakiri (1919); Halbblut (1919); The Spiders (1920, in two parts); The Wandering Image (1920); Destiny (1921); Vier um die Frau (1921); Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922); Die Nibelungen (1924, in two parts); Metropolis (1927); Spies (1928); Woman in the Moon (1929).
Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947): Zucker und Zimmt (1915); Blindekuh (1915); Aufs Eis gefuhrt (1915); Der G.m.b.H. Tenor (1916); The Merry Jail (1917); Ossis Tagebuch (1917); Carmen (1918); The Ballet Girl (1918); The Eyes of the Mummy (1918); I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918); Der Fall Rosentopf (1918); Der Rodelkavalier (1918); The Doll (1919); Meyer from Berlin (1919); Rausch (1919); Madame DuBarry (1919); The Oyster Princess (1919); The Schwab Maiden (1919); My Wife the Movie Star (1919); Romeo and Juliet in the Snow (1920); Anna Boleyn (1920); Sumurun (1920); Kohlhiesel’s Daughters (1920); The Wildcat (1921); The Loves of Pharaoh (1922); Rosita (1923); Forbidden Paradise (1924); Three Women (1924); The Marriage Circle (1924); Kiss Me Again (1925); Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925); So This Is Paris (1926); The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927); The Patriot (1928); Eternal Love (1929); The Love Parade (1929).
F.W. Murnau (1888-1931): Emerald of Death (1919); Satanas (1920); Der Bucklige und die Tanzerin (1920); Der Januskopf (1920); Abend – Nacht – Morgen (1920); Der Gang in die Nacht (1921); Desire (1921); The Haunted Castle (1921); Marizza, genannt die Schmuggler-Madonna (1922); Nosferatu (1922); Der brennende Acker (1922); Phantom (1922); Finances of the Grand Duke (1924); The Last Laugh (1924); Tartuffe (1925); Faust (1926); Sunrise (1927); 4 Devils (1928).
Georg Wilhelm Pabst (1885-1967): The Treasure (1923); Joyless Street (1925); Man spielt nicht mit der Liebe (1926); Secrets of a Soul (1926); The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927); The Devious Path (1928); White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929); Pandora’s Box (1929); Diary of a Lost Girl (1929).
Vsevolod Pudovkin (1893-1953): Hunger… Hunger… Hunger (1921); Chess Fever (short 1925); Mother (1926); Mechanics of the Brain (1926); The End of St. Petersburg (1927); Storm Over Asia (1928).
Victor Sjöström (1879-1960): Tradgardsmastaren (1912); A Ruined Life (1912); Miraklet (1913); Marriage Bureau (1913); Half Breed (1913); Ingeborg Holm (1913); Livets konflikter (1913); The Voice of Passion (1913); Lady Marion’s Summer Flirtation (1913); Laughter and Tears (1913); The Strike (1914); Saints and Sorrows (1914); Hearts That Meet (1914); A Good Girl Keeps Herself in Good Order (1914); The Price of Betrayal (1915); Stick to Your Last, Shoemaker (1915); The Governor’s Daughters (1915); One of the Many (1915); Therese (1916); Kiss of Death (1916); She Triumphs (1916); The Ships That Meet (1916); Girl from Stormy Croft (1917); A Man There Was (1917); The Outlaw and His Wife (1918); His Grace’s Last Testament (1919); Sons of Ingmar (1919); Karin, Daughter of Ingmar (1920); A Lover in Pawn (1920); The Monastery of Sendmir (1920); The Phantom Carriage (1921); The House Surrounded (1922); Mortal Clay (1922); The Hell Ship (1923); Name the Man (1924); He Who Gets Slapped (1924); Confessions of a Queen (1925); The Tower of Lies (1925); The Scarlet Letter (1926); The Divine Woman (1928); The Wind (1928); The Masks of the Devil (1928).
Erich von Stroheim (1885-1957): Blind Husbands (1919); The Devil’s Passkey (1920); Foolish Wives (1922); Merry-Go-Round (1923, credited to Rupert Julian); Greed (1924); The Merry Widow (1925); The Wedding March (1928); Queen Kelly (1929)
King Vidor (1894-1982): Hurricane in Galveston (1913); Poor Relations (1919); The Other Half (1919); Better Times (1919); The Turn in the Road (1919); The Jack-Knife Man (1920); Love Never Dies (1921); The Sky Pilot (1921); Peg o’ My Heart (1922); Conquering the Woman (1922); Dusk to Dawn (1922); Real Adventure 91922); Three Wise Fools (1923); The Woman of Bronze (1923); Happiness (1924); Wild Oranges (1924); Wine of Youth (1924); The Wife of the Centaur (1924); His Hour (1924); The Big Parade (1925); Proud Flesh (1925); Bardelys the Magnificent (1926); La Boheme (1926); Show People (1928); The Patsy (1928); The Crowd (1928); Hallelujah (1929).
Josef von Sternberg (1894-1969): The Salvation Hunters (1925); A Woman of the Sea (1926); Exquisite Sinner (1926); Underworld (1927); The Dragnet (1928); The Last Command (1928); The Docks of New York (1928); Thunderbolt (1929); The Case of Lena Smith (1929).
Raoul Walsh (1887-1980): Carmen (1915); Peer Gynt (1915); Regeneration (1915); Pillars of Society (1916); Blue Blood and Red (1916); The Serpent (1916); The Pride of New York (1917); This Is the Life (1917); The Conqueror (1917); Betrayed (1917); The Innocent Sinner (1917); The Silent Lie 91917); The Honor System (1917); I’ll Say So (1918); Every Mother’s Son (1918); The Prussian Cur (1918); On the Jump (1918); The Woman and the Law (1918); Should a Husband Forgive? (1919); Evangeline (1919); From Now On (1920); The Deep Purple (1920); The Strongest (1920); Serenade (1921); The Oath (1921); Kindred of the Dust (1922); Lost and Found on a South Sea Island (1923); The Thief of Bagdad (1924); The Wanderer (1925); The Spaniard (1925); East of Suex (1925); What Price Glory (1926); The Lady of the Harem (1926); The Lucky Lady (1926); The Loves of Carmen (1927); The Monkey Talks (1927); Me, Gangster (1928); The Red Dance (1928); Sadie Thompson (1928); Hot for Paris (1929); The Cock-Eyed World (1929).
And that’s that. With any luck you will find us back here in a year with a similar post about the 1930s. (Also, the regular monthly post should be up over the weekend.) Until then!