Top 50 of The Silent Era
43. Saga of Gosta Berling
The Saga of Gosta Berling is considered the last major production of the Swedish silent era, with many of the stars subsequently going onto America and trying to make their fortunes there. Greta Garbo was the one who really succeeded, but let’s not take away from Mauritz Stiller’s film, which has a certain uncanny power even if it’s more rooted in the chamber drama nuances than his prior snowfilled Sir Arne’s Treasure. At three hours, it’s much too long in that DW Griffith sense, but the fundamentals of how to make a compelling film remain powerful the whole way through. You don’t need to know what’s being said in the sermon, you just need to see his face.
Favorite Moment: Ending.
37. Hands of Orlac
Favorite Moment: The accident.
35. Blind Husbands
Favorite Moment: Mountain climbing.
31. Tih Minh
Louis Fueillade’s Tih Minh feels ahead of its time despite being from 1918 and only being available in a horribly degraded copy. Ernst Lubitsch’s The Wildcat, right above it in this post, stole the odd irises, while almost everyone who came after and made a silent film with a sense of fun owes a lot to this movie’s spy conspiracies that spiral out of control. It’s not quite as modern or exciting as Les Vampires, but the ever unraveling narrative is a pure pleasure, even if you can’t help but wish that Criterion would do something about the quality of the film as a whole. Things like forgetfulness potions and gambling collide against mind control and a trip to the mountains. When your hero is French and the rival is a German man named Marx, you know you’re in tricky political territory despite the film being released so far ahead of anything like that. It’s aged beautifully in all ways except the quality of the print itself. You can still watch it online and should probably set aside 5.5 hours to do that in order to get some enjoyment of silly twists and enjoyable schemes out of the way. It’ll make you feel better about the state of cinema going from here.
Favorite Moment: Forgetfulness potion.
31. The Wildcat
The Wildcat, on paper, is the forerunner to the many comedies about the military and princesses that Ernst Lubitsch would take up in musical form once he hit Hollywood and would go on to make many “all Parisians want to do is fuck” comedies with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald singing nonsense songs. We don’t have any singing, and Pola Negri is the leading lady, but there’s a military related plot about a fort getting captured by a group of bandits and a charismatic lieutenant guarding it, right? Sounds so sensible on paper, but in practice, this is pure batshit crazy that you would only get during the days where the rules of what you could/could not do were much less defined and everything was nuttier. Negri’s performance pretty much validates why Billy Wilder took a look at her for Sunset Boulevard, with all the shots being framed in the typical cutouts for the time as she vamps it up…except it looks like they were stolen off the set of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari rather than constructed for a nice little comedy. There’s a dream sequence involving some snowmen that just looks like terrifying talking marshmallows. Sex is absolutely everywhere, of course, but there’s also skulls and gigantic mustaches that I’m pretty sure were swiped off Emil Jannings’ face and glued onto Victor Janson’s. Watch the uber sophisticated sound works, the Trouble in Paradises or Design for Livings of his career, and then look at this and marvel at how the Lubitsch Touch feels more along the lines of a throttling, slapping the funny into everything that should by any sense be terrifying, from the opening gag of a man leaping an impossible height onto his top bunk bed. No idea how they did that, and while I don’t claim to understand anything regarding this bugfuck crazy picture, still: why the irises at almost every moment to make us focus our attention? Is the fairytale setting of sorts really that necessary? Why on Earth is every single character lusting over either Rishka or Alexis? No idea, but it undoubtedly came from the mind of a comedy genius, as it is damn hysterical. If I Don’t Want to Be a Man gave you food for thought while making you laugh, this gives you something you can eat and chew on with relish but provides something that doesn’t resemble calories, exactly.
Favorite Moment: Dream sequence.
31. Sir Arne’s Treasure
Sir Arne’s Treasure tends to be forgotten in favor of the Victor Sjostrom works from the same period and country, but Mauritz Stiller’s story is a relentlessly bleak and powerful series of images, with some of the most realistically nasty winter snow ever put on screen even though the film is nearly 100 years old. The story is, after all, a winter ballad in five acts, and the coldness is unprecedented. The tints are bright blue most of the time, and the warmth is hard to come by in such frosty images, with large sweeps of silhouettes that we call men walking across the pristine and chilly sets. The modern soundtrack on the copy I watched, meanwhile, adds some sound effects: footsteps for a man walking through a hallway, odd electric strings, and a series of increasingly nasty facial expressions. Mary Johnson was an actress with a generic name, but she provides this film’s beating heart, with relevations aplenty coming through like the sun on a winter’s day. She reminded me a little bit of a very minor Falconetti, which I don’t think I’m dropping lightly. Lillian Gish and Ossi Oswalda gave better performances than her the same year, but it’s still a year of such unusual invention that you have to wonder why this doesn’t get more credit.
Favorite Moment: Into the sea.
30. The Doll/strong>
Lubitsch’s The Doll is one of the most oddball of the silent comedies from the 1910s, full of sophistication and smut as always. Watching what appears to be the director himself assemble a sort of diorama of a house on a hill is unusual, but then it becomes real, a set that these characters must live in and make their way around. The preordained path leads you right into a lake, and it forces you to pray to the Sun that you won’t die as a result of following this lifestyle. Luckily, this world has a kind god that allows the sun to shine, even if it scalds you in the process, but all that is interrupted by the need to find a suitable heir for the Baron’s nephew so that his lineage will not die out. It’s a Cinderella story, with a twist: a large chunk of the hour involves a lot of running around when the maidens see the heir escaping from the window, right down to breaking out of the stage of sorts. Lubitsch was already breaking new ground in 1919, but even if I’m glad he eventually discovered the power of line deliveries, there’s something to be said for the weird sexual undercurrents once Ossi Oswalda as the titular character makes her entrance (there’s an act involving monks that is pretty amusing but mostly just consists of food and money jokes). The advertisement involving the dolls says they’re for “bachelors, widowers, and misogynists” in what has to be the most modern joke in all of Lubitch’s filmography and which made me pause the video so I could crack up in peace: it was the hardest I laughed in all of 2017. Eventually, the doll is purchased, and the jokes turn into a strange, slow motion sort of Keaton or Chaplin picture with much more static frames. Horses begin to talk after a certain point, so it’s appropriate that the action of this strange little tale takes place in a world with no pretense of realism thanks to that opening setup. It was the only appropriate way to begin, and while it isn’t quite as fresh or subversive as I Don’t Want To Be A Man, it definitely has a similarly bawdy sense of humor, yet with a great sophistication behind it. Shame that the ending is so clean as opposed to the low key tragedy of the 1918 picture.
Favorite Moment: Setting the stage.
29. A Man There Was
Victor Sjostrom was not just the main character in Wild Strawberries, but also one of the first great directors, with A Man There Was being the first of his successes that would go on to even greater heights in Phantom Carriage and its revolutionary visual effects, and The Wind’s delirious atmosphere of gusts and gales driving poor Lillian Gish crazy. The latter surrounded its characters in a desert of sand and wind, the middle surrounded them with death and gloom. Here, we are enveloped by water, and with the film being based on a poem, everything is just that: poetic. A man opens a door and finds himself face to face with a rocky shore against the angry rhythms of the sea, with so many different color tints for the film’s moods that you could practically lose track of the possible emotional states. The intertitles appear no more or less than usual, but they are different in their use of rhymes and rhythm, capturing the free style of the original poetry that I have no doubt is beautiful in Swedish if they were able to create such a stunning film from it. Swedish cinema was about to be born as a result of this, and it got the appropriate start with this gloomy tale of the director himself losing his wife and child thanks to getting forced to prison for the simple crime of getting involved with a British ship when he happened to be on the sea. As a tale of revenge, with a storm allowing him the chance to potentially get it, there is a certain timelessness to it that takes place in the very best silents, and it only runs a little under an hour to boot. The action sequences are still fairly exciting, as they are on real boats in the water, and with cameras that could not move around too much as they trawled their way across harsh atmospheres that are truly at the mercy of Mother Nature in all her power. The graveyard of the final shot, crosses against a low tide in a place that seems unchanging and finally at peace, is an appropriately haunting ending for such a gloomy mythology. The human condition are those rocks hit by the waves, so when the storm finally calms down, it is better even if we have crumbled away from the sheer force of the smack by the waves.
Favorite Moment: Ending.
28. I Don’t Want To Be a Man
I Don’t Want to Be a Man feels revolutionary, the first true queer film in its own way thanks to Ernst Lubitsch turning a lighthearted but still critical eye onto the hypocritical nature of gender roles, and in the silent era to boot. Ossi is tired of getting bossed around by her nasty guardian and the hypocritical adults in her area for doing things like sitting on a table and smoking with two male friends as they play poker. After a hilarious bit where it turns out that she is stuck with total hypocrites in every way, our female protagonist, a total tomboy, decides to dress up in boy drag and enjoy the privileges of male life when her uncle leaves the area and she winds up stuck with a mean doctor to boss her around. She looks a little like Marlene Dietrich in that tuxedo in Morocco more than a convincing man, but the grass is not greener on the other side anyway thanks to her new friend and the lack of gentle treatment that is afforded to the women in the era of over the top chivalry. Said new friend is the doctor, and they wind up kissing quite a bit when they are inebriated. After a good chunk of theatrical bedroom farce in an attempt to avoid getting caught, Ossi and Dr. Kersten wind up realizing the truths, namely the fact that they love each other even though the former is actually a woman. Sure, they end up together in a…romantic ending, but just who was that title really referring to in this scenario? No matter what the director’s intent was in this particular case, it’s very hard to argue that any modern reading is going to skew towards the tragedy of being gay or queer in 1918, and just how sympathetic it all was to have the two end up together despite his attraction being presumably homosexual in nature. This is all very analytical, so why don’t we focus on the main draw: this is a funny movie, recalling the director’s best sound works rather than his rough transitional stage. The tableaus are perfect, with simple actions serving to make us laugh while also helping to understand the basic character psychologies that are sketched out. It is theatrical and framed by doors in exactly the right ways, and I would happily watch a full length remake.
Favorite Moment: Kiss.
27. Foolish Wives
By no means do I like the fact that Erich von Stroheim’s epic and expensive productions were slashed to bits by producers who had issues with his pretentious personality and his spending habits all in the name of Great Art, but several of them are quite frankly too long even if they impress on numerous levels of design. While the cuts to Greed are legitimately tragic and make it very hard to judge the picture, Foolish Wives strikes me as something that got slashed by a somewhat appropriate amount, retaining the best qualities of Norma Desmond’s future butler and the burned man of Renoir’s masterpiece mad indulgences in the field of cinema. What makes a good intertitle in a silent film? Sunrise is the one to beat thanks to the melting power of the suggestion to drown the Wife, but Foolish Wives’ text consists of streams of consciousness that stutter and feel both accurate to the way people think and to the lives of the primary trio of characters that live lives of hedonism and seduction of rich women to write the checks they normally cannot pay. In an epic entrance that feels stolen from The Great Train Robbery, we get a shot of the Count shooting straight at the camera, something that was no doubt still shocking and which is followed by a lengthy duration of his character snatching up big sums of cash and then blowing it all at the casino while laughing about his efforts as his two female partners give shady side eye. He was the predecessor to the Hitchcocks and Bunuels and Solondzes and so on who just wanted to horrify the average suburbanite that went to go see a movie, and I say good for him even if he could have done it in a running time that didn’t numb the ass so much. The climax is a fire caused by a maid he has fucked over, and when karma burns down the building he has been living in and kills his position in high society, it is only a matter of time before he turns to the one person left who will have him and is promptly murdered by her father for having the damn cheek to pull off a stunt like that. So many hyphens to make the reading process and thus the thinking process incredibly jagged, and that also applies to the teeth of this satire.
Favorite Moment: The fire.
Intolerance does not hold together at all despite the story’s very structure demanding that it does just that. Of the four stories that are used to illustrate the theme, we barely get anything related to Jesus on the cross except to tie together some parallels in the two main stories, while the rumors about D.W. Griffith making this as an apology for Birth of a Nation are complete bullshit, The entire movie was nothing more than Griffith’s need to defend his right to be racist, with the older of the two pictures viewing the KKK the same way certain directors view a certain species of angry, manly men who beat up others just like them. So the theme of the movie, stated in the title, barely exists except in the sense of an incoherent statement about the prison system, numerous historical inaccuracies on the Babylonian times, and Griffithian characters with generic names in a blatant ploy to make them more relatable. If not for Mae Marsh’s expressive face, which renders all single tears believable, what does this bring to the table besides an overly familiar language? It feels a little like harping praise on whoever made the English language what it was, but not too many films have produced such glorious spectacle as the mad folly that was this epic. It is rendered in broad, colorful strokes that cannot date in how primally it renders a double epic, while using another pair of substories to connect them. Cloud Atlas may have done it better (I will fight people on this) but this is the one that paved the way. The first true masterpiece of cinema, perhaps? Flawed for sure, a disastrous political argument (women who want social justice are portrayed as evil despite trying to get fair wages and reforms to a system that he later condemns) that could convince not even the most naive child, and probably only worth experiencing on the big screen due to Griffith’s complete inability to actually use the editing he supposedly refined, but overwhelming in its scope, and quietly genius in its use of color, mood, and shameless manipulation. The tenements are bland and part of a simple attack on modern living, the past is something to be admired but also no better than the lives we live today, with even the commonest of men suffering the same trials as the supposed son of God himself.
Favorite Moment: Climax.
Lois Weber’s Shoes was happily restored recently, and while it lacks the punk ethos of her earlier Hypocrites, it’s still a great movie, a followup to her earlier film on abortion Where Are My Children? (She was unfortunately pro life.) It declares itself to be a piece of entertainment aimed at educating people over the course of a free hour, but despite all her caterwauling about moral ruin coming about as the result of not having proper clothing to get by, she makes her points eloquently and with great force, right down to the book declaring that she sold herself for a pair of shoes. Weber’s female gaze makes itself admirably felt when we see a lecherous man give a truly wonderful creepy grin, but the sense of melodrama is always kept lively thanks to titles like the ones that claim she walked upstairs past the smell of rotting food. Ridiculous, of course, but it’s so earnest that I can’t resent it, and the narrative’s development goes to some places that really unnerved critics back in the day and still seem pretty potent: the shot of bare foot in disgusting mud was deemed too horrifying to put up with by some writers. It’s still fairly gross even now. A calendar marking the days as they go by is a neon strip glowing yellow in the darkness, and the tableau that is the family’s dining room table is only kept alive by the mother working constantly while the father reads in bed and then again during dinner, as if he were the son from Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece Jeanne Dielman (so bizarre that this was what the unemployed were portrayed as doing back in the day). Eventually, cardboard boxes are what gets used to make temporary soles for the feet, but they can’t sustain themselves and we progress into the closeups that horrified audiences around the world back in 1916 when Weber’s career was considered worth preserving. She fell out of favor when Hollywood began taking over and men began to rule the industry, with all the toxicity that implies. She deserves remembrance as a great director in her own right, ahead of her time in how she showed social ills and the way she directed her images. Check out the new restoration from Artificial Eye and support their restorations of forgotten talents, as only Dorothy Arzner’s been more unjustly forgotten with time.
Favorite Moment: Closeup of the nail being removed from cardboard.
Lois Weber’s Hypocrites is only 45 minutes long, but it is so ahead of its time that it doesn’t even matter that it’s short and frankly more than a little bit preachy about matters that have aged a little oddly. Nevertheless, the images she conjured up are so forceful that it’s a shame she got shoved to the side in favor of Griffith once too much of her work was lost. She nevertheless came up with a truly provocative work in this, a film which is over one hundred years old and features honest to god nudity. It’s admittedly meant to be taken in the same vein as a statue being nude, but how she managed to get away with this in a way that involved calling out people for their hypocrisy on certain matters is sort of crazy to modern eyes, enough to make this more than just a curio, right down to the lovely golden filters that make the statue’s body glow in the funny little tableaus she conjures up. “My Platform is Honesty!” declares one politician’s banner, while other scenes involve children reading books with appropriately capitalized titles for the subject matter. She’s not a subtle director, but that doesn’t matter, as her subsequent Shoes (almost as good) featured shots meant to horrify. This is merely meant to educate, and her sensibility is charmingly big and bold, as ridiculous as the biggest scenes from Intolerance despite having infinitely less of a budget and much more problems with maintaining a career thanks to Hollywood. It’s a shame that they didn’t recognize talent when they had it, but perhaps she was able to transfer her powers over to Dorothy Arzner once the sound era kicked in? Seek this one out and give a major artist from the day her due.
Favorite Moment: Naked truth.
23. Les Vampires
Les Vampires, despite technically being ten films in one, is considered one of the longest films ever made thanks to Louis Feuillade’s love of making epic length serials that were designed to be pure fun. Yet the static camera makes the rooms into dioramas where the cast plays out their convoluted schemes from each separate episode. Try to keep up, but focus all your attention on the first great screen villain in Irma Vep, who would go on to inspire an Olivier Assayas film that practically looks ready made to be a punk object (have not seen it yet, argh). There are two ways to go about watching all this nonsense, and both are equally valid. The first is a pretty piece of escapism, with a dull premiere episode to set things up leading into a deliriously bonkers second film featuring a beautiful dance that leads to death, and a few more episodes that even us in this era of peak television cannot hope to match. Screw the length requirements, write whatever damn running time you want, for this is what cinema is for and thus why I am glad serials never really caught on as a trend. The experience of seeing it as a stealthy commentary on the nature of corruption being an unremovable part of society, however, is what is just as thrilling. The characters know they are inside a motion picture and wink at the camera in response, turning us into commiserators and victims of a certain kind of paranoia that makes it unclear just what kind of universe we are living in. The director may have been a notorious anti-intellectual, but he was still smart in his own way in trying to craft pure escapist nonsense, inspiring Rivette and Bunuel in very different ways. The gang, not actually bloodsuckers, simply wants to make the Parisian bourgeoisie miserable by killing and stealing whatever they can. They are hiding in plain sight, hence the name Irma Vep-but what if he is imagining things? Hard to think he is not when everyone is entering the frame via any means they can. Crawl through a hole in the roof, exit through a grate, use gas to knock everyone out and run for it. We root for the gas to be fatal thanks to that missing head that starts the epic off, so who are we really siding with in this?
Favorite Moment: Ep2 dance.
22. The Faithful Heart
The Faithful Heart’s claim to success is not so much that it innovates (although the type of story it was telling and how it told it would not become mainstream techniques in 1928 as opposed to 1923), but in how it utilizes cinema in telling a story so ridden with potential cliches and pitfalls. Marie, an orphan in a crabby cabaret bar of sorts, is treated as an exploited servant by the owner and his wife even though they are her adoptive parents. She loves Jean, but Little Paul wants her, and he has parental approval to boot. They are going to be married on a merry go round, swirling and twisting the enjoyment of the fair-goers into something twisted and grim, but a brawl results in the stabbing of a policeman and the wrong man getting arrested for it. One year passes, and Jean finds that Little Paul is drinking away all of Marie’s money and has saddled her with a child to boot (although one shot of an enormous tear in her eye as she looks at the child is both wonderfully phony and impressively gorgeous). The director’s wife, a crippled woman, tries to help the new couple, but gossip tears them all apart when Paul’s senses come back to him and he ends up being saved by Mrs. Epstein herself. (You can read a whole lot of auteur theory into that small interaction.) Simple enough in its choice of material (he was heavily influenced by Abel Gance’s epic and undefinable La Roue, and I think there is some Menilmontant in there too), and frankly a bit silly on paper, but pictures speak a thousand words and the ones included in Coeur Fidele are wonderfully strange and unique, with the standard ones being so crystal clear and the closeups so communicative that when we go into Expressionist territory and the visions blur and slide across the screen, we know exactly what territory we are in and travel along with it anyway. The ending in particular is so weird and wonderful and twisted that it feels like we are staring into some perverted nightmare in the way the movements suddenly feel exaggerated even for the silent era. The face is the ultimate canvas for Epstein, and the closeups never cease to be anything less than delirious in the way the actors give good face while simultaneously going broad as hell.
Favorite Moment: The teary eye.
21. The Kid
The default comments on Charlie Chaplin’s reputation tend to focus on how funny he is, but nobody seems to give him enough credit for being an emotionally manipulative bastard. I should totally hate on a movie where The Little Tramp adopts a cute baby that grows up into the titular character, and yet it’s arguably one of his finest hours as an actor and director, in part because it’s so efficient. Not a frame is wasted, with even the gags having a story purpose. Sure, the plot is boilerplate stuff with the mother giving up her child and then wanting it returned right when the authorities try and come for Jackie Coogan (one of the great silent child performances, which may be due to lack of options but his mimicry of his father is fairly spot on stuff, and he looks like his father to boot), but The Kid doesn’t want to be an inventive picture that rewrites the rules of the medium. It wants to meld comedy and tragedy and it does so seamlessly that any viewer with a heart cannot tell where the laughs end and the tears begin. Sure, The Tramp may use The Kid for his own purposes (that window breaking scheme is inspired) but he does it out of love and desire to keep the adorable little shit safe and well fed. And then the movie takes the weirdest detour into…Heaven. Yes, our two leads become angels in heaven, complete with molting wings and poor dogs floating around on wires, clearly confused as fuck. There is no narrative reason for it in all honesty, but by that point we are too caught in the moment of assuming it will have a payoff that we don’t care. The punchline, involving the return of the cop, is so delightfully sneaky that it makes the film barely crossing the line into “feature” territory a relief so that it can be counted with the big dogs, from the lumbering racist epic that outgrossed it to something equally small and spectacular from Keaton. We have plenty of films exploring a similar dynamic for a similar viewing audience thanks to Spielberg and Disney, but whether they are aware of it or not, they owe it all to this man, for this is the only silent that I have ever seen which handles the parenting dynamic as sensitively and funnily as this.
Favorite Moment: Heaven.
20. The Phantom Carriage
The Phantom Carriage’s take on alcoholism (with a few hints in the direction of tuberculosis that were apparently largely cut, and with good reason) is the sort of thing that no one remembers even after they’ve just seen the film, for the soundscape of things that go bump in the night, and the visual effects that still look vaguely groundbreaking are what really garners one’s attention. When looking at the nature of the protagonist’s selfish behaviors (which feels like a fairly vicious yet well rounded characterization even today) independent of his drinking problem, the film takes a stand on assistance that feels both progressive and regressive, depending on which of the two people who attempt to help David you think is in the right. Most won’t care about the beautiful, boring, and beatific nun Sister Edit (yes, her name means “to revise”), but the old friend of David’s who has now been tasked with collecting the souls of people who have passed away thanks to being the last person to die in a year, now that’s a memorable character if only for the horrifying visual. Everything in the movie looks like it’s on the verge of rotting, and while I wish Victor Sjostrom, the star and director of the picture, had gone full-tilt towards Expressionism, the little teases we get are just as effective, and the structure of nested flashbacks makes everything that much more interesting to follow. But the titular sight is why we are here, and it’s arguably as good as the double exposure ever got used within the motion picture industry. Don’t grit your teeth too hard when trying to make it through the movie’s scenes that feature the women in the form of Edit and David’s wife, two plaster saints that show a serious inability to write women, but really…could anyone at that time? Take it all in as it was written: a morality tale with a major element of redemption, and it’s a story that is totally unafraid to condemn the ordinary bad behavior of a drunkard (and at a hilariously banal New Year’s Eve party to boot). The theatricality of all silents takes on a toxic and slurred vibe of the days of drunkenness blurring into one long endless night of the soul, condemned to hell on Earth in the form of collecting the dead or being a member of the walking dead.
Favorite Moment: First appearance of the carriage.
19. Safety Last
Harold Lloyd is no longer as beloved as his contemporaries in silent comedy and perennial favorites on this list, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. There’s plenty of justified reasons for that even if what makes something funny is a lot harder to pin down than what makes an effective film, for his jokes did not seem to fit him quite right in the same way that they did the other two. He was simply too ordinary a man and wasn’t quite born to play his silly roles. But even with my reservations about the other films of his that I’ve seen, Safety Last can never be taken away. The small scale jokes of the first act is as good as anything from the lighter comedic routines typical of the more popular silent comedies of the age, with the department store shenanigans of rioting women being the real standout, but it’s when our nameless hero gets suckered into climbing up the face of the tower that everything is milked for all that it’s worth. The most revolting gag is the mouse climbing up his pant leg, and the funniest involves the rope forcing him to hit his head repeatedly, but what’s most effective is that it all appeals right to my phobias as much as the funny bone. I cannot abide heights and we are not given the slightest of chances to briefly forget that he’s hanging from a building, with a high drop to the sidewalk that’s growing further away always present in the corners of the frame. In the cringe comedy vein, there’s a certain something about Lloyd’s real life wife thinking he has become the Assistant Manager and him desperately lying to keep up the charade definitely reminds me of the brain searing, deliciously and painfully awkward sequences of The Comeback. And hell, you could possibly read a very cheap little metaphor into the shenanigans. The American Dream has never seemed like more of an upward climb than it does now, and we’re naturally predisposed to be struck by vertical images. When the boy loses his shoes in the very last joke of the movie, it feels like a punchline to the whole concept of making it big, whether it’s by working one’s way to that managerial position or by getting rich quick by being a human insect and forcing one’s way up the side of a building.
Favorite Moment: Hanging on a clock.
18. Seven Years Bad Luck
If people discuss the best comedies of the silent era, the discussion always rightfully comes back to Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton with a little bit of Harold Lloyd mixed in (not as much my thing outside of Safety Last). Max Linder, however, was not only the star who influenced Chaplin (he called him “the master”), but he was just as good as all of them based off his most important surviving feature film that you can watch for free on Wikipedia: Seven Years Bad Luck. And why yes, there is a broken mirror in this film, and it is the locus of one of the best and most iconic gags ever. It is the one where someone stands in a mirror and mimics the movements of another person. If Keaton existed in the real world rather than some loopy place where the universe was constantly conspiring against him, you would have this. Really, all you need on its own merits is to watch a man make himself look silly and unlucky by standing in the frame of a ruined pane of reflective glass and impersonate its qualities, but eventually, we get another gag involving transfiguration when we get arguably the only harmless blackface joke ever. Yes, it’s distasteful, but I’ll confess: something about a man putting on blackface and successfully disguising himself is…not funny, exactly, but it just happens to be a single disguise in a whole series of them. Sadly, not too many of the other features of this genius survive, and his career was derailed by World War I where he suffered from depression for a long time afterward, but there is definitely a certain level of sadness in scenes like a psychic causing him to lose his girlfriend when in real life, he sadly chose to die in a suicide pact with his wife. The comedy of SYBL comes partially from silly body movements, yes, but it is also melancholy and sad, with a dream sequence that somehow works nicely yet provides a counterpoint to the weird shenanigans that we have otherwise been engaged with for the rest of this feature’s brief and zippy running time. Never second guess a movie that makes you laugh and think for an hour before quickly bowing out, it is a quality that is not utilized enough and the sign of true artistry in the realm of a comedy movie.
Favorite Moment: Mirror gag.
17. The General
Buster Keaton’s most acclaimed work is a mildly overrated one. Perhaps the appeal lies in not knowing that the train is going to do that thing at the end during the scene on the bridge? Just in case that’s how it is for me, I adjusted the wording appropriately so others are less likely to make the same mistake of spoiling the fun, although so many other gags are tremendously effective that I can’t imagine why anyone would think too badly of this. And the use of the word mildly is deliberate, I only mean it in the sense that he has two more movies further down in the post that deserve to have all the acclaim that seems to default to The General and more, so don’t lose your hair over it. And there’s no taking away from the iconic shot of poor Johnnie Gray himself sitting on the train and getting carried away when it starts up, blissfully sad and unaware, or when he sits on the front of the locomotive and throws a wooden plank to knock another one out of the way, thankfully avoiding getting brained or concussed on camera. (This movie’s humor being so centered on something big and bulky like trains is probably a small part of why it’s slightly less appealing to me.) Still, there’s no denying the power of the best of the self-serious gags in the Keatonverse, and we get plenty of those here in the shape of some simply awe inspiring stunts, and the classic brilliant setup of locations and gags for much later when the tables are turned and the directions change. The primal level of the poor engineer being totally unable to win his girl the honorable way by joining the army is as good a story for the silents as you could ask for, with basic human decency triumphing over all, and that is Keaton’s own reward. Let’s just ignore the hideous politics of the Confederacy and the Lost Cause romanticizing…to a degree, as that might be why I was never able to get on the wavelength of this as much as something harmless and unpolitical as the other two true masterpieces. Still, the stunts themselves are pretty subversive stuff, with Gray’s aspiring general becoming his best self in the face of danger and making us laugh the way through the speedy runtime while doing it.
Favorite Moment: Sitting on a train with planks to throw.
16. Within Our Gates
Film history has long since had a certain place for Birth of a Nation, a movie that is very well made technically but racist as all out get. What no one talks about when discussing DW Griffith’s epics: they’re really fucking boring. I can give some credit to the man for inventing several cinematic techniques, but the bloat in runtimes that is ever present in everything but Broken Blossoms, combined with his incredibly predictable takes on morality that turn his women into plaster saints, are why the silent era is so frequently derided as stodgy, and the bigotry in BoaN has had a trickle-down effect in many sorts of ways. Thankfully, the Library of Congress finally acknowledged the so angry that it borders on inarticulate response in Within Our Gates, believed lost for many years and still missing a hefty chunk of footage. Oscar Micheaux takes on the racism of the time in ways that don’t even try for subtlety, and with a story structure that feels vaguely mad. We start off following Evelyn Preer’s schoolteacher attempting to raise money for the education of black students, but then makes a shift into very successfully tackling an entire history of bigotry in the form of a flashback to the lynching of her parents and a white man attempting to rape her…only for it to be stopped by the attempted rapist being her father. Name five other works that have attempted a statement so nervy. For better and for worse, the script doesn’t portray the African American characters as without fault, or the white ones as unanimously disgusting, but I’ll admit to harboring some issues with the fairy tale ending and the zeal with which the script embraces black cast members selling each other out to the racists of the South. However, there’s actually some debate to be had over the relative merits and failures of that approach, whereas the intermittent sense of style used in the movie is decidedly an issue. There’s a bit too much dependence on the intertitles in the first half. Even with this movie’s faults, you’d think it would be more embraced by cinema scholars, and far more baffling is that it seems to be still ignored by audiences of all races in the same way that “race films” were at the time. Someone get Spike Lee or Ava DuVernay to make a case for its restoration if possible!
Favorite Moment: The rape that becomes something else.
15. La Roue
Abel Gance’s La Roue is an epic in the truest sense of the word, right down to the director’s complete inability to decide on a final cut and thus putting us in a weird situation where the film, already in an incomplete state, is hard to determine in terms of its finality. His modern sensibility nevertheless shines through gloriously, with some of the craziest editing ever to strike a film. Everything is layered on top of something else, the plot is a melodrama dragged out way past the proper duration (I think the most commonly accessible version is 3 hours), and there’s so many train crashes along the way thanks to the focus on the wheels of the train in the threesome dynamic of the two men and their adoptive daughter and sister of sorts. Way ahead of its time in terms of subject matter, and while Napoleon would be the point at which the director’s sensibility would really crystallize, this is still way ahead of anything else that was being made in 1923, and the fact that we’ll never know how the complete version would have gone is a pity. There’s so many of the same type of shots utilized here that you could pull up any five minutes and have a good idea of the gist of what happens, but the nature of the film allows you to most likely supply your own soundtrack since the version of the work available on YouTube is totally mute at the moment. It’s hard to say anything else of substance about La Roue beyond “ooh, look at that cool shot of a train! How’d they pull all those stunts off in 1923?”, but it really is a great way to spend a day if you can get behind the aggressively long duration.
Favorite Moment: Train crash.
14. Die Nibelungen
Note: This entry is for Siegfried before I elected to combine the two.
The first half of Fritz Lang’s two part series is bathed in evocatively nostalgic golden hues throughout its running time and is the more interesting piece of work. Siegfried’s portion of the tale has to juggle the talented ensemble in a story that may run over 140 minutes but holds the interest through the strength of its unusual visuals and minimal use of title cards, proving that Lang was arguably the greatest talent of the silent era. Siegfried himself is not the ordinary leading man, with a barking intensity from Paul Richter that makes him look like a highly capable and incredibly angry madman rather than the bland, annoyingly sincere heroes so characteristic of this era in the film making industry. Hanna Ralph as Queen Brunhild is delightful support, providing some laughs through her quick strokes of broad comedy even when she never ceases to be taken seriously, for her strength is believable and something you never stop believing she could use against you. But thankfully, the only link we have to this chapter when the second entry in the series rolls around is the strongest in the shape of Margarete Schon as the betrayed queen Kriemhild. Her slow, gradual twisting over the course of the two stories is its greatest asset, and her being placed in the foreground of Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Rache, fully in the same pulpy revenge mode as The Bride, is a sight to behold in and of itself. And yet, the star attraction that might just stick in the mind of the viewer the most comes very early on in the form of the battle with the dragon. It definitely looks clunky and unconvincing, but not as much as you might think for a silent picture from the early 1920s, and there is no shot in the film more evocative than the one of the fig leaf fluttering down onto Siegfried’s shoulder as he essentially becomes Achilles by literally bathing in his victory. Die Nibelungen: Siegfried may owe all of its debts to Greek mythology and epic poems, but that is something that appeals directly to my childhood obsessions with the myths, and it’s why I prefer it to Schon’s tour de force of revenge in the second movie. Watch the final goodbye melt into a skull, or Brunhild’s suicide that closes things on a grim note, and try not to feel the grand, epic sized emotions.
Favorite Moment: Dragon fight.
13. Adventures of Prince Achmed
The Adventures of Prince Achmed is primarily focused on the titular royalty and his magical flying horse (no flying carpet here), and despite being directed and choreographed by a woman, it has a bizarrely regressive view of its female characters that will no doubt date it for some people. Still, when considering that the modern 1992 Aladdin’s gender roles are only slightly more progressive, in the sense that Jasmine has about two personality traits, one can ignore it for the time. Far more painful is the slight orientalization of the characters, but it feels so minor when compared to other, less successful films of the age (hi Birth of a Nation!) that it can be tuned out as well. And how is all this so easy to do? Because this full length animated movie, only the third of its kind (the first two, South American political satires, were destroyed and are sadly lost…and they are most certainly not Snow White), is so eye popping in the amount of detail you get from the silhouettes that one cannot believe it was made in the 1920s. The color tints are rich, and in an age where one is used to the limited black and white spectrum of the silents, it must have been like nothing nobody else had seen before. The puppets that Lotte Reiniger uses are not only ridiculously detailed in their movements, providing enough material for a great study of posture, but the backgrounds are just as evocative. Look at the movement of the little ripples in the water during a bathing beauties scene and try not to gasp. The amount of work this required (three years in production!) is mind boggling stuff, and it shows. We may only have an hour’s worth of story, and said story fits right into the Disney company ethos rather than the challenging stuff that we so often lack in the field, but every minute was a labor of love. And it all started with one woman. It is living proof that a primitive aesthetic and a whole lot of work can result in something that feels vaguely timeless in its visual appeal. There’s a huge influence from the avant garde, Expressionistic influences that are as close as one can get to “pure cinema,” and that is a feat that overrides any squeamishness one may have about the relatively harmless politics of the film.
Favorite Moment: Water bathing.
12. By the Law
One of arguably the most unfairly forgotten silent films is also one of my favorites of the bunch. The Polish By The Law, directed by the long since forgotten Lev Kuleshov, is most readily available on YouTube with a pulsating, pounding modern electronic soundtrack, and subtitles that you need an SRT file for, even if they’re not particularly necessary after the opening scenes of the Irish and outsider member (Vladimir Fogel in a very underplayed performance for the silent era) of a gold prospecting team losing his mind from the group’s mockery and killing two of the people on the team. He’s left alone in a horrible cabin with the last two members during a harsh winter. They are a married couple, and the wife (Aleksandra Khokhlova, whose performance is the very opposite of Fogel’s) is not only going insane from the cabin fever and violence, but might be falling in love with him. While the incredibly thin plot of “should we wait and let him get a fair trial, or should we take it into our own hands” is rather thin, the runtime is shrunk down appropriately, and the time spent waiting in that marvelously gross shack is well worth it. An absolute parade of Mother Nature’s abuses is thrown at the threesome, culminating in a rainstorm that never ceases to pound the black windows while the soundtrack throbs away. I’ll admit that half the appeal of By the Law rests in the music. With so many soundless pictures utilizing the same old dusty piano score that was common at the time, I can get a little bored with it. Hearing something modern is not only refreshing, but it works beautifully in its sparse minimalism that matches the unceasingly gloomy nature shots. Our primary relief from the barbaric location is the faces, and with Khokhlova pulling the kind of smirks and shrieks that would seem a bit much even during the first days of cinema, she fits right into the dream logic that Kuleshov’s direction may not have intended to aim for, but he hits it right on the nose. The eyes of the cast may not have the same realism of a Falconetti, but they are just as piercing and arguably in a similar range of how convincing they are. Let’s try and whip up some appreciation for this film, for deranged Polish horror shows need love too.
Favorite Moment: Cabin storm.
Greed’s status as one of the most legendary works of the silent era is a fascinating topic simply because of its infamous currently incomplete condition. I have my doubts that the nine hour cut that represented the full depths of Erich von Stroheim’s mad folly of a vision of plagiarizing the entire novel for his script and bringing it to life visually was a truly necessary auteurist choice for the success of the final product. However, the four hour version (which is the one I watched) is undeniably a tragedy of what could have been, for the screencaps and storylines that were dropped entirely for the short version that made the rounds back in the 1920s hint at a deliciously expressive potential. I’m a sucker for a film that uses color well, and something that I badly missed when binging all these silents was beautiful Technicolor and delightful sound work. The latter is still a little bit away, but the former is here in the form of wonderful gold tinting to make the objects of desire stand out, from a golden tooth to a canary or the coins that Zasu Pitts’ character fetishizes, plays with, and polishes. Her performance is among the best of the era before the talkies came around, with sympathy for her potential rape underlying all the creepiness and miserly behaviors, but eventually Gibson Gowland kills her and goes to Death Valley, where the hot sun turns everything into the mad ecstasy of gold. The scenes in that burning hot hell, where von Stroheim really did nearly kill the cast, are realism taken to the maddest extreme of unreality. Indeed, Greed itself works that way, with the realistic troubles that could come about as the result of that most underrated of sins heighted, twisted, and blown up to their extreme melting point. Sure, a real mine was used for certain scenes, but nothing about it feels like reality except in the cynical eye that is turned onto the feuding desperadoes who want nothing but to satisfy their basest, viciously carnal desires. Even with the five missing hours rotting away in the heels of many ladies’ shoes or simply crumbling to dust, the visions feel like something that you couldn’t see anywhere else in cinema’s history. And for this, the director was turned into a butler and a servant to the last fading star of the days of the silent films.
Favorite Moment: The hands with the coins.
Sergei Eisenstein’s most legendary films that predate the existence of the Academy Awards (I’m fully away that this is a stupid way to organize things but bear with me on it) are the still popular Strike, and for the ages critical favorite Battleship Potemkin. The latter is covered later down in the post and is probably the one you need to watch far sooner of the two in your priorities list, but this is the picture that is probably easier to watch, with every blink of the eye bringing a new visual to the forefront of the screen, ranging from men getting compared to animals due to deliciously hammy behaviors or a child straying too close to a group of galloping police horses. The entirety of this particular tale of worker’s revolt that the director loved so much to focus on feels a bit fresher, not too heavily considered, and packed with a higher volume of action in the rhythms, with something happening in the very simple story of “there is a justified strike and it goes horribly wrong” every second. Set up shots such as the opening visuals of smokestacks against the sky, which start the movie’s usage of compare/contrast shots in the Soviet montage style, are just the right amount of fat to give some flavor. For despite scenes as grim as a child being thrown several stories down when the police get involved with the protests, Eisenstein is clearly having fun making this movie, just happy to have access to a camera and reels of film to make the story he wants to tell even if it’s loaded with plenty of political rage and the high volume of AGITATE NOW fury that is usually a bit more buried in something like Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. For all the acclaim the editing deservedly gets, it’s also worth celebrating the factory itself, a clanking machine hell that has plenty of personality even if, like all non-chocolate factories in the movies, it’s a grim place with a dour personality. Still, ugly factory cliches had to come from somewhere, and this is one of the most electric debuts in the history of cinema, so I cannot think of anything more appropriate to set it into motion. Also, you know what film I rewatched for class before doing this writeup that it reminds me of? Tangerine. Food for thought, and merry Christmas bitches!
Favorite Moment: The animal comparisons.
F.W. Murnau’s reputation is so deservedly high that even something like his definitive version of Faust, his final German film before he went to America to create one of the greatest movies ever made, can come across as a bit minor to some when compared to outright masterpiece Sunrise. And yet, his take on a story that ranks among the simplest and most iconic stories in all of history endures as a masterpiece of visual creativity. The opening scenes of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, followed by the Devil himself spreading his gloriously, apocalyptically black cape over the town where the titular character lives, are gloriously spooky. The whole world that is realized within this movie is as coherent as visions that have been created about a century later in a movie such as Hard to be a God. It feels just as wonderfully insane, too, with the twisted nature of the Devil’s deal and how it is expressed visually quickly taking us into the life of the mind that Murnau was so good at projecting. The trinity at the center of the film in the shape of Emil Jannings as the devil, Gosta Ekman as Faust, and Camilla Horn as his love Gretchen all turn in some of the best performances of the silent era. The first may be mugging for the cameras a bit, the second is receiving an assist for the unbelievably convincing old age makeup, and the last may be stuck with the most boring role, but their peaks are undeniable even if they receive a heavy boost from the director in those moments. Who can forget that depressing phony vision of a cradle in the snow as Gretchen hallucinates in the blizzard, or the initial transformation, or the standing over that model? Sometimes, it’s rewarding to remember that while watching someone make a lot out of nothing is rewarding, making a whole lot out of plenty of money is absolutely mind boggling, and the rise of the Nazis sadly put an end to some of the greatest productions in the history of the medium and the financing of insane passion products. I’d call this one of the definitive, important works of cinema anyway in how to demonstrate to people that the medium is a visual art more than anything, and you can take any basic tale and make it great just by cinematic prowess like this.
Favorite Moment: Four Horsemen ride.
8. Broken Blossoms
He may have played a huge part in the development of cinema as we are used to it, but D.W. Griffith’s reputation is fairly inaccurate nowadays. You’ve all heard about or actually seen Birth of a Nation, no doubt, but you know what nobody really discusses when talking about it? It’s a well-crafted bore until the KKK shows up, and by that point it’s too gross to truly appreciate the thrills. Pass. His shorter films are much better on the whole. True Heart Susie is a fun little weeper and this movie in particular is the best evidence for brevity and plenty of editing being his friend. Sure, the yellowface makeup and Richard Barthelmess’ performance have not aged well, but it was 1919 and I feel that I can give credit on a curve here. It’s all topped off by Lillian Gish’s performance, which is arguably the best of the whole silent era. Her role is a thankless generic waif one, but that doesn’t take away from it being a masterclass in arousing sympathy just from the sheer desperation and panic in her movements, a horrifying twitching effect that holds up well today. Her career enduring even when the talkies began is no surprise. Arguably just as terrifying in a very different sense of the word is Donald Crisp as her abusive tyrant of a father, who may be laid on a bit thick even by the old fashioned standards of acting but it’s effective as hell, especially in this world of sharply used color filters and thoughtful production design that underscores the nightmare world that the cast is stuck in. Cheng Huan’s apartment is neat and symmetrical and overlaid with an inviting purple color, while the squalor of Lucy and Burrows’ apartment gets a dingy brown. Sometimes the title cards get into dangerously emotionally manipulative territory (“10000 murders” got a laugh at the screening I attended, along with the truly unfortunate card referring to Cheng Huan as a chink), and watching Griffith try and make himself out like he’s the victim for the reception to BoaN via this movie is a depressing experience, but the most visceral parts of Broken Blossoms are the kind that would trickle down nearly one hundred years after the picture was made, pushing themselves into other films that were knowingly or unknowingly borrowing from the playbook of The Yellow Man and the Girl.
Favorite Moment: Closet.
7. Seven Chances
No, I couldn’t resist putting this movie in the numerically appropriate spot. What can I say? It deserved it anyway. Seven Chances is a film that lends itself to being very easily divided into two parts in critical discussions. The first half of the piece of work, focusing on Buster Keaton trying to win over a group of guess how many women so he can inherit his distant relative’s absolutely massive fortune by both the standards of the time and today, is full of the small scale, silly and lightweight jokes so common to the early portions of silent comedy. But what really makes it all work near-perfectly is the chase sequence that dominates the second half in the same vein as a certain work at the top of this list. Keaton’s magnificently silly and distinctive run lends itself beautifully to the admittedly mildly sexist premise of hundreds of angry women in bridal outfits chasing after him (although that’s really no worse than any other sexist joke), with punchlines galore ranging from boulders to the bridal posse taking a brief moment to mourn him when they think he’s died and they can no longer acquire his fortune…only to realize that he’s fine and begin the chase again. The stunts themselves are truly electrifying, with our lead somehow managing to capture the exact perfect running speed and gait to get the maximum laughs out of a joke as potentially stupid as a turtle hanging onto his clothes. We need more epic length gag sequences that somehow fit the plot perfectly, and thus I have a tremendous affection for what some people may call a minor Keaton. I say it’s better than almost all his other work, with Our Hospitality wasting a good half hour and The General being a bit too focused on big train stunts for my liking. It shocks that this one, like all the director and stuntman’s other work, were so poorly received at the time simply because he never cracked a smile, even during the final small humiliations when he finally gets the girl and can barely fulfill the requirements of the will…or does he even manage to pull it off? Oh who cares. This is one of the few romances of the age to actually be somewhat convincing as extra credit in my favoring of this work above most of his others…but not all!
Favorite Moment: Bride posse and the rocks.
6. The Gold Rush
Firstly, you should make sure to watch the original 1925 cut, which reportedly has the far better ending and has a justified longer running time that seriously improves the quality to boot (I have not actually seen the new version, simply going off the recommendations of others who I trust, and this version is so perfect that I have no urge to change my viewing habits). Howard Hawks’ attitude towards making movies was summarized by the famous line “Three great scenes, no bad ones.” No movie directed by another filmmaker applies more perfectly than in the case of The Gold Rush, which Charlie Chaplin called the film he wanted to be remembered for and with good reason. Between the dancing rolls, the eating of the shoe, and especially the cabin teetering on the edge of a cliff…you have three of the funniest scenes of the time. Buster Keaton may have been the master of the silly run, but Chaplin was king of the silly walk, and his desperate, slipping on ice run across the cabin floor as the wind blows him out the door is precisely what this tale of winter needs. Yet there are other reasons to love this movie beyond its humor, with Mack Swain as one of the best supporting players in the director and star’s catalogue and a pitch perfect freezing soundstage, loaded with some of the most convincingly chilly winter snow to be dumped upon the cast and astounding technique that never shows the seams of this being a piece of corporate mass produced product. With so many obligatory romances cluttering up the comedies of the silents, it’s particularly pleasurable to see one where, even if the girl is not exactly some great character (see what I just called her? Exactly), the romance is perfectly melancholy. There are few moments more sad than watching The Little Tramp Turned Gold Prospector come up with little individualized gifts for all the girls he’s expecting at his New Year’s Eve Party, while they frolic at the tavern, having totally forgotten him. The stakes are as high as they have ever been for The Tramp, with almost every joke carrying life or death stakes (I’ve had to go to Alaska and this is a very accurate film, complete with shoe being a delicacy), and it feels just so right when everything turns out all right in the end.
Favorite Moment: Cabin teetering on the edge.
5. Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
What does one appreciate the most about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? It feels like the start to the first animated films, but with some live action characters that happen to wander into it in some ways, with the twisted predecessor to a Dr. Seuss town being plenty a nightmare even without the good doctor himself arriving and murdering everyone indirectly. The set design may be what the film is justifiably most iconic for, but the strengths of the cast save the bland leading men are paramount. Lil Dagover may be given one of the creepiest “love interest” roles ever and it’s thus fairly hard to fuck up such lovingly scary framing, but she milks it anyway, with her final turn in the insane asylum making everything she does all the spookier. As the titular character, Werner Krauss rather resembles a mean spirited little boil or patch of acne, cackling away as he uses his powers to torment whoever he sees fit to the blindness of others, even when he’s embracing the hamminess that fits the mood perfectly. But the real standout is Conrad Veidt in the role of the tragically doomed somnambulist, pouring hidden complexities and inner torment into something as simple as a long stare at the camera with his eyes that are a combination of a ghost’s and a snake’s, and perfectly accentuated via the makeup. You can extract a whole lot of critiques of politics from something as simple as this story, especially when you learn about the PTSD-filled military background of the writers, but while it’s a fun armchair reading to impose, I doubt the filmmakers had anything more politically complicated in mind than ideas along the lines of “authority is consistently shitty, resist it” and the message thus endures. Still, as a premonition of the rise of the Nazis and other political parties of the type, Caligari still possesses some spook independent of its marvelously twisted and turned lines and angles. It possesses the primal power of stories as straightforward as those from a fairy tale or an urban legend, so deliciously vague and stripped down it is, with the painterly pictures that set the stage grabbing onto the theatrical roots of it all. The excitement of the anger that’s just underneath the feet of this cabinet, rattling away, is what really latches into the mind as potently as the insanity of the original tale of the doctor.
Favorite Moment: The eyes of the somnambulist open.
4. A Page of Madness
When discussing A Page of Madness, the elephant in the room, as with almost all the other silent films that didn’t receive acclaim at the time, is the missing footage. This particular example is a notable one, for it is lacking a full third of its running time (it currently runs about an hour), and yet it still endures for exactly the reasons that it was meant to. Summarizing the plot is pointless, for it is the simple tale of a man who becomes a janitor at a particularly expressionistic insane asylum during a rainy night (with plenty of viciously bright lightning that could possibly warrant an epilepsy warning to boot) in an attempt to break his murderous wife out. There is not a single title card outside of the credits, and everything unfolds in avant garde fashion, complete with Eiko Minami dancing like a madwoman at random intervals as the score plunks away. Your mileage may vary, but Teinosuke Kinugasa’s vision endures brilliantly, with a mix of a nerve rattling score and an editing style that plucks from all sorts of countries to become something more unique. It feels mind bending even in the age of David Lynch, and while Cabinet of Dr. Caligari may be the more fully realized work, it has the advantage of being fully intact. This is a delirious trip that culminates in a sequence involving masks that remain frightening no matter the high standards set by the many spooky face disguises that were to come later on in film history. The fact that Kinugasa was so successful at creating the atmosphere he clearly desired despite the lost thirty minutes is a clear argument for masterpiece status, for how many other movies could be gutted like this and still remain so intact? Even Greed wasn’t quite this successful or unrelenting in slicing apart the delusions to be found everywhere in this madhouse. The inmates run this asylum, and we the viewer are the better off for it. No doubt there is a political allegory in here that I am not as familiar with, but does that matter when the story we are told is so engaging in its cryptic vagueness. Perspectives shift, masks are dropped and put back on, and everyone’s mental state deteriorates from the perceived as cruel doctors to the husband and wife’s inability to see anything clearly. We see everything, and it’s magic.
Favorite Moment: The dance.
3. The Last Laugh
FW Murnau’s pre-Academy Awards masterpiece (one of many) has a plot that sounds so hokey it requires more than a little bit of suspension of disbelief: a doorman at a luxurious, popular hotel who takes far too much pride in his occupation (no doubt due to the shiny uniform) is transferred to the (to him) humiliating position of washroom assistant because of his advanced age and struggle to lift heavy objects, and proceeds to lie to everyone about the fact that he now has a new job. Even the director acknowledged that this was essentially a promotion, for the man would make more money. And yet, Emil Jannings and Murnau form a partnership of sorts that brings this melodrama into unprecedented territory. While the ability to actually move the camera is old hat today, the mobility of The Last Laugh still holds up because Murnau was never much one for reality and the film itself thankfully has no use for title cards. The montage of laughing faces when the charade is exposed is visceral and humiliating, the hotel towering over the doorman after the opening minutes make us see him as towering above everyone else at the building is as spooky as the devil above the village in Faust, and things like the camera appearing to move through a plate-glass window still have a small thrill about them. And then the German allegory takes a turn into a new direction right when our lead hits his lowest point of humiliation after being caught at his lies. The sole intertitle informs us that in reality he would have nothing to look forward to but death, we are getting a goddamned happy ending and we better like it! It’s improbable, and for some a fatal flaw thanks to the many decades that have given us improbably stupid happy endings to otherwise tragic stories, but the apologetic nature of the text is key, and it gets underlined thanks to all the riches and happiness being poured onto Jannings. It’s over the top, cartoonish, and artificial as hell, complete with people mugging for the roving eye of the director even by the standards of a silent. We know it’s a complete lie and nothing awaits but death, and all the grim ironies never cease to stop hitting us. By the standards of the time, this and Page of Madness are as close as you can get to pure cinema.
Favorite Moment: The one intertitle.
2. Battleship Potemkin
For a film that is in the Top 20 of the They Shoot Pictures Don’t They list, and thus frequently appears on many a Best Films list, and which essentially revolutionized editing to boot…no one really gives Battleship Potemkin enough credit for being a fairly easy piece of High Art to watch. It has the morality and storytelling of a program for children, with Sergei Eisenstein’s rabble rousing being the sort of thing that goes down easily in the shape of this sailor’s revolt, with perpetual forward momentum and anger driving all the technique on display. The maggots in the meat that are supposed to pass for decent rations aboard the ship, the cry of “Brothers! Who are you shooting at!” that results in an inspired riot…and finally, that most famous example of the Soviet editing style of the time, the Odessa Steps sequence. We’ve probably seen the parodies of it all before we’ve seen the sequence itself, ranging from the completely helpless baby carriage falling down the stairs, to the ferociously maternal ogre of a woman carrying her child while yelling at the czarist troops for the misery they have wrought, to the broken bloodied glasses of the peaceful protester. It is a feast of cinema, something that is so well done it instantly gets the film a masterpiece status, the very life essence of the montage of attractions stylization injected directly into the eyeballs every time you breathe or blink, if you dare to do so. Did you ever think this myth was fact, a historical anecdote re-enacted for the purposes of the camera? No one will ever blame the viewer for that little misconception, especially since history has gone out of its way to validate it. It’s the sort of thing that would feed countless, infinitely less well meaning and noble forms of propaganda over the decades since. Hitler himself no doubt was fascinated by this movie, and thus, the plentiful shots of these men moving in unison are associated more with the Nazis rather than a union of sorts for the sailors. Art this good is too easy to corrupt, even if familiarity has stripped it and it occasionally feels like an exercise in technique rather than anything else. Give in to this magical mutiny and don’t resist the nature of what Eisenstein delights in throwing at you in the form of symbols of revolt and visceralness.
Favorite Moment: Odessa Steps, of course.
1. Sherlock Jr.
Sherlock Jr. is the sort of picture that is so sneaky about the way it puts forward its social commentary (which feels even more uncannily accurate now in some ways, depending on your Internet usage) and hides it under so many brilliant gags that one has to wonder if Buster Keaton, no matter how masterful he was at his art, was even intending his film that barely passes the limits of what is generally considered a short to be the very first look at the nature of obsessive cinephilia and the variety of methods that it uses to screw with people’s perceptions of reality. It’s a 45 minute work where the main plot conflict relating to the stolen watch and Keaton’s character desiring a certain girl gets solved before we get into the absurdist stunts that our hero was famous for. How does he accomplish said stunts? Why, by jumping into a crappy romantic drama, of course, and getting away with near murder by sheer wish fulfillment. The thesis of “movies are a terrible guide to living life” may become most obvious once we become familiar with the weird world of Hearts and Pearls, complete with that final gag at the end that might be the most subversive sex and meta-relationships joke of all time let alone the 1920s, but we see it in the first twenty minutes too, with the smaller scale comedy ranging from everyone stealing poor Buster’s money to his banana peel schemes against the caricatured tough guy (all the characters are a bland archetype in this movie) backfiring. This is pure cinema stripped down to the barest of essentials in runtime, aesthetic (just look at that cheap Hollywood set meant to masquerade as a town!), and plot. Right when you think things can’t be topped, the boat sinks and the axe drops. It’s a counterfeit hundred dollar bill that is practically undetectable from the real thing. You can absolutely learn something from this movie that says not to learn anything from it, but that contradiction is close to the entirety of the fun of it. Truly a testament to the power of the imagination, both the boy/Sherlock Jr’s and the creators of the film that we are actually watching. Bonus points for the amazing, dry humor filled intertitles. The director may have avoided them like the plague, but when he used them they were nearly as good as you could hope for.
Favorite Moment: The ending.