Top 15 of 1927/28

Top 15 of 1927/28

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11. Sadie Thompson
Sadie Thompson is one of those movies that has always interested me just by virtue of its leading lady (I feel obligated to point out that Sunset Blvd is my favorite film ever), and the fact that the story is about her titular prostitute on a tropical island is even better. When the movie starts out, we see that Gloria Swanson is a lively figure who finds it all too easy to give the locals a good time just by being herself. She’s a naturally loose woman with her limber way of moving about, and always with a smile. The good news is that she might have found love with a Sergeant O’Hara (Raoul Walsh, also directing) who doesn’t give a shit that she’s a hooker. The bad news is that also on the island is a hugely self righteous preacher (Lionel Barrymore, strong if a little fittingly over the top) who wants to convert the natives and Sadie into respectable Christian men and women. She doesn’t care and wants to settle down anyway (she describes Barrymore’s character as making her feel like Mrs. Halitosis) but the hypocrisies of the religious right proceed to intervene, threatening to have her deported away from the lovely sets, with strong blacks and harsh lighting giving the beaches and rundown houses a very noir vibe. When some curtains fall and she is tangled, she looks like a bug wiggling her legs, trying to escape the trap that is the potential threat of deportation from a man who is very clearly sexually attracted to her and in a way that manifests itself unhealthily. It all seems a bit simplistic nowadays but the quaintness works in its favor, with the leading lady being a woman with a plan who grimly strides through the pains and problems of having a nutjob harassing you. The movie was based on a short story, and thus everything is neatly contained into one nice little package, with enough visuals containing some characterization to justify this as a picture rather than simply sticking with the novel. Shame there is that missing final reel weighing it down but I’m mostly glad this is a work of art that exists in the first place. There’s so much going on even during the characters performing the most mundane actions that you can pick any random shot and look around the set. Hooray for utilizing the dead space.
Favorite Moment: Sadie dances.

10. Wings
Do people still hate Wings because Sunrise is not considered the true Best Picture winner? How hideously unfair, as the latter may be the true winner in terms of quality but let’s not complain that it won an award of its own that would never be repeated. It makes it feel like the special film it is while giving the former a platform that it very much deserves, for this is a quality melodrama/action blend that still holds up despite the fact that history has revealed a few stronger nominees between the two categories. The male friendship at center stage may be just the start of many hideous male bonding pictures, but back then that wasn’t an overplayed genre in its small number of forms and the dynamic between Jack and David is plenty interesting thanks to how gung-ho in its masculinity it all gets, especially when Clara Bow’s delightful take on the typical Girl Next Door enters the fray and the two men bond in a boxing match (and kiss, but there is no way the director William Wellman even knew what a gay person was based off the evidence of this). But let’s be real, this is a film that endures because of those aerial battles. They are just as fun and exciting to watch as a decent blockbuster that is being made nowadays, and since most of today’s popcorn films don’t qualify as “decent,” well, this is as interesting an intro to silents as anything I can think of. Wellman keeps the tone fairly light even when the men go off to fight, but there is a certain urgency to the events. It’s one hundred and forty minutes of things getting thrown at any audience member who gets in the way without a minute’s hesitation. A little can go a long way, but what we are given is something we have not gotten from any other director again nearly one hundred years later. Unlike certain Oscar winners that try very, desperately hard to be seen as art (and succeed in the “seen” part), this war picture wants to be enjoyable, and it not only refutes the claim that all war movies are inherently pacifistic, but it could serve as a pretty damn good recruitment ad for the best kind of reasons-it’s legitimately stirring propaganda. This cynic having a good time at such a Murica-type work is high praise.
Favorite Moment: The final aerial sequence.

9. The Man Who Laughs
The Man Who Laughs being so quickly filed under “horror film” is unfair and might possibly reflect an ugly attitude among a certain section of the people who watch it. Yes, it is about as horrifying as the pre-sound films ever got, but not because of Conrad Veidt’s rigor mortis grin that does not match the sadness in his eyes. That is a horrifying fate because poor Gwynplaine is condemned to look like a villain even though he is a tragic hero. Made at the peak of the silent era when sound was beginning to make its presence known, the smile looks like a grimace, and when considering how the effect was achieved, that is probably accurate. Far spookier is a scene where duchess comes calling, who fetishizes the sight of all his lips and teeth in full splendor, following a performance where everyone jeers and the simple blind girl who Gwynplaine loves, Dea, declares how beautiful it is that he makes people laugh even though she knows from a backstage talk that he himself is sad. She goes full drag queen after kissing his quivering lips, striking seductive poses while he stares in horror. But then the horrified look turns to her, as she receives a letter that reveals she is not the rightful heir to her lands and I think you can guess who it actually is, it is a silent after all. She becomes the woman who laughs, and in the most spiteful way possible as she happily marries the man, desiring both his rightful wealth and his bite (her mother the queen forces the marriage and a lordship onto him anyway). From here on out the plot discards the tragic ending of the original, but never does away with the Expressionist trappings that make this so successful in the first place. Darkness is everywhere, doorways and ceilings are positioned in a way designed to force discomforting styles of walking, and the minimalist style makes what we do see is made the more potent in what it could potentially symbolize. It is a pure fantasy in the same vein as the best of German Expressionism, painted in inky colors and twisted lines. Only Dea is a symbol of light, and while she really should have been snuffed out to trap Veidt with the more interesting Olga Baklanova as the duchess, the ending of them going off to sea is just ambiguous enough to pretend that they still met a bad fate.
Favorite Moment: The kissing of the laughing mouth.

8. The Circus
There has to be something really infuriating about getting nominated for the Oscar for The Circus and then receiving an honorary instead for whatever reason the people in charge came up with, perhaps that’s why Charlie Chaplin never looked back fondly upon The Circus…aside from all the getting sued by the teenage girl he liked? Whatever the case, you know exactly what you’re going to get, and the idea of The Little Tramp, that Barbie Doll of the 1920s in terms of all his occupations, not understanding why he is considered the funniest person at a big top is the sort of concept that should inspire anyone to seek this out. Don’t be deterred by the horrendous song that opens the show, and simply watch as the normally heroic character starts off by being the biggest asshole Chaplin’s ever been outside of Tillie’s Punctured Romance, conning a man out of his wallet and then having him arrested so he can buy food. (Eating is a big deal in this particular piece of film making, with the romance coming about as a result of that and a whole lot of thievery of what Charlie happens to be craving.) We also get plenty of the usual cliches that come with this particular title, ranging from bumping around in a Hall of Mirrors chase that basically results in his hiring, to a cruel ringmaster with a pretty daughter, to some pretty impressive stunt work with what must have been a real lion. (Oh, no wonder the production on this was a living hell, particularly with Chaplin being such a perfectionist when making his work.) Little touches of “was that intentional?” like a sword swallowing girl appearing in the background on an advertisement when the man and the woman first meet and strike up a connection are everywhere if you keep your eyes peeled. I think the Tramp’s unlikability in this one is the secret weapon in this one’s arsenal, with that small amount of grit that gets into your eyes and doesn’t go away. The most venal parts of our most beloved director’s history are slowly leaking out, and I’d like to think that this was recognized and amplified for the satires of Nazi Germany and the world of crime that he would later set his mind on. You could call that food for thought, but he would steal it for himself.
Favorite Moment: Pretending to be a clockwork statue.

7. Lonesome
Lonesome feels more than plenty dated today and was probably viewed as a cheap knockoff of The Jazz Singer back then thanks to randomly utilizing some talkie sequences for no damn reason that actually hurt the film a little since they are incredibly corny stuff. And yet, when I call it old fashioned, I mean it as a compliment, for if you’ve seen Brooklyn and all its delightful charms then you have a good idea of how Lonesome works, complete with a trip to Coney Island (between this and Speedy, this was a good year for documenting how terrifyingly fun that place seemed to be back then). We start off with two nameless lonely city dwellers in crappy New York apartments going about their jobs, illustrated in ways that seem more than a shade of Soviet montage-y but have a tremendous appeal in the shape of constant clock faces and a perpetually roving camera eye that makes the images nicely dynamic. Time truly is ticking for these two to find their perfect match, no? (Complete with emphasis on the ticking of the second hand in the soundscape, which is pretty great for an early work like this from the days of sound.) From there they decide to go to Coney Island, and I think you can guess what happens from there, especially when I tell you that there’s some unnecessary conflict added for Act 3-they can’t find each other and only have a name and small picture to go off of! Sure, the movie would be better if they simply fell a bit in love and then went home after a fun day, maybe to meet again and maybe not, but where this excels is in the odd ways it chooses to innovate or just use the old standards. Director Pal Fejos has a great eye for the comings and goings of masses of people, and uses it to paint a picture of the difficulties of finding your ideal partner in a city of millions, or just the energy of a crowd separating people. But above all, there is color in this movie, and it is appallingly gorgeous in the shape of a wonderfully hand tinted sunset, with the moon and the glittering buildings in dazzling shades of bright yellow. It is such a perfect image that the dire Mary Had a Little Lamb puns are quickly forgotten as we take it in.
Favorite Moment: The color appears.

6. Napoleon
Sitting through a 3 and a half hour film, with no definite version thanks to a whole lot of overtinkering on the director’s end even when it was supposedly finished (and he had plans to do additional works on the subject, for which I am secretly grateful that he did not), which has been completely slashed down from the original eye popping times that could possilbly near six hours depending on your sources, directed by someone whose two prior films that I’d seen previously were just good for me, sounds as if it is a good way to torture oneself for the sake of cinephilia. But Napoleon is absolutely astounding no matter which version you get to see (or have to go with by default), and the release coming soon to Blu-Ray is an exciting excuse to revisit this staggering monolith…if you have a region free player or are willing to take the illegal route once some kind soul takes a trip to Pirate Bay. Yes, Francis Ford Coppola is an asshole for only allowing his father’s score to be the edition generally viewed in the United States, but it still thrills and I’m sure my revisit to the extended edition if it ever comes here will be just as delightful. Napoleon may be a bit of a hagiography of the man that would no doubt appeal to a certain brand of awards voter as much as it does to me, with everything from his romance with Josephine to his childhood being portrayed in the typical biopic style we are used to, but no crappy Academy biopic was ever shot this thrillingly. The montages we get are absolutely mad and disorienting, like a Sergei Eisenstein film or Man With a Movie Camera with an adrenaline shot to the heart to make it all go even more utterly bonkers for a few precious seconds. And there’s a certain thrill, after watching too many static shots in silents, to see the camera move. And the movement allows for Abel Gance to utilize every single trick in the book, from the simpler tricks of double exposure and cross cutting, to the aforementioned crazy clip montages, to the mad triptych styled like the French flag. Or maybe I’m a sucker for the French Revolution, that sexiest of political stories which grows incredibly relevant as the days and elections pass by, each more miserable than the last.
Favorite Moment: Triptych.

5. 7th Heaven
7th Heaven immediately reveals its intentions a fairy tale of sorts when we open with Charles Farrell’s Chico stuck in the sewers (his ambition: become a street cleaner) and Janet Gaynor’s Diane living with her sister in squalor, only for the girls to be adopted by a rich aunt and uncle who Diane immediately falls for, but when she cannot lie and say she has been good in order to get the wealth, her sister Nana (Gladys Brockwell in a terribly underrated supporting part) chases her onto the streets and begins strangling her right in front of the sewer itself. Guess who rescues her? From there, as she lays in the gutter, the story goes into its religious bent, with Chico not being much of a believer due to thinking that any God so cruel as to leave people lying in the gutter does not deserve to be worshiped or believed in. Ignoring the fact that I am an atheist and think he’s being far more rational here even with his rationale of “God did not answer my prayers for material goods,” and think the device of having a priest show up and give him his desired street cleaner job is an incredibly cheap piece of coincidence, it all somehow just works for me. This is a piece of work that often gets compared to Sunrise simply for its leading lady, which I find vaguely ridiculous. The sets in both have hints of Expressionism but this is a movie far more concerned with the cinematic nature of the human face, with Gaynor and Farrell giving such fully lived in, perfectly physical performances that you could totally see them transferring over to The Artist or Blancanieves with ease. The relationships between characters are sketched out in a few quick strokes-it’s not just a love story even if that’s the bulk of it, but one that loves all relationships that can be formed in a big city, from the most intimate connection to friendly coworkers to total strangers. Fellow Gaynor Oscar nominee Street Angel reunited the same pair to almost as good an effect, for clearly they knew they had something worth watching on their hands. Where Murnau used actors as a way to populate his gorgeous, mind blowing sets and got great performances out of them, Frank Borzage used his stars as the main attraction with the production adding flavor, and since they’re this fleshed out, why not soak up both?
Favorite Moment: Nana chases Diane.

4. The Last Command
The premise for The Last Command is an absolutely once in a lifetime genius idea. The main character is a former Russian general, Sergius Alexander, in exile playing a parody of himself in a big blowout Hollywood movie production and getting paid an incredibly small amount for the job…and the man in charge of the shoot is one of the revolutionaries of that country, Leo Andreyev, who totally despises him and got him deposed to begin with. For those who have seen The Last Laugh, Emil Jannings’ performance here takes the place of the German Expressionism-it is more theatrical from the first frames that he appears in (this is a film that does not waste time throwing us into the scenario), but when he gets stuck in the middle of a huge teeming mass of people all trying to make a living in Hollywood as extras, and it’s revealed his constant head wobble has a story motivated reason (he suffered a shock), you quickly grow more onto his wavelength of acting. Small humiliations proceed to pile up when no one believes his story, and then we flashback to Sergius’ time in Russia as the brutal Grand Duke. Needless to say, the director and the duke have a connection in the form of Leo’s lover, Natalie Dabrova, thanks to Alexander using his power to bully. Despite the fact that we are still technically in the silent era, the performances of Jannings, William Powell, and Evelyn Brent run the gamut in a way that is perfect for Josef von Sternberg’s vision. The first is playing for the back row of the German theater but beautifully so, the second feels like someone out of a talkie in his register such as, say, The Thin Man (sorry), and the woman who connects them feels somewhere in the middle a la Greta Garbo with a massive scoop of pathos on top of her slightly horrifying actions. Spectacle abounds in the meantime, showing us just how great it was to be in power in a broken system and how being knocked off the top of that could leave anyone with issues. But beyond that, all we need is to watch this human go through the wringer while trying to keep what’s left of his dignity, from losing the woman to his title until finally, in the ending scenes, he gets something back that we are never sure if he even wanted.
Favorite Moment: The dressing room humiliations.

3. Metropolis
Watching an independent filmmaker of the times make something out of nothing is a very inspiring process to watch. Watching a big budget blockbuster filmmaker create a whole lot out of an obscenely large budget, the kind that most economies would kill for then and now, is awe-inspiring. That is the Metropolis experience in a nutshell (be sure to watch the most complete cut possible). No future ever combined the extraordinary bang-gonging lack of subtlety of Fritz Lang’s vision of a nightmare New York City where the rich live idly in pleasure gardens and the poor work ten hour shifts of the worst kind of menial labor with the vision to make it look this good. Sure, the motto of “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart” is some of the least subtle screenwriting in existence but when you go big with your visions, go visionary with your social statements. It fits the epic grandeur. And thank god for that restored newfound footage which reveals just how many identity shifts were going on within the events of the story, not just with the bland hero Freder and the worker Georgy trading places so the former can learn about the hellish existence that the lower classes endure, but with Maria and her robot duplicate, featuring Brigitte Helm’s all out performance that covers everything from terror at the horrors she is witnessing to delightfully coquettish evil when she becomes a robot. You have to love how the film constantly, unceasingly reduces the people to cogs in a machine, complete with her sexy dance being the sort of angular German Expressionism madness that makes the best silent films such a visual treat for the eyes. Is this a piece of work that solely rests on pretty? Probably, but my god, those mob scenes at the end, and the sheer spread of everything we get to see! Thankfully there are few intertitles, only shots overlaid upon shots in montages relating to brothels and people talking that mean that not only is this particular Metropolis a world, but a genuine drug trip from someone’s perspective, whether it be the audience’s, Lang’s, or the denizens of this crazy land. My personal theory: all of the above. Such a shame that the opening scenes wound up being a prediction rather than a nightmare, but who does that make the robot in this election?
Favorite Moment: The robot dance.

2. The Crowd
Here is a work of art that goes from the grandest scales to the smallest and most intimate in the blink of an eye and does so with the utmost confidence in its techniques, starting with America’s 100th birthday and the birth of a child on that very occasion. The years quite literally fall down like dominoes, the father who wants the world for his son dies, and we get this grim little poetic statement: “When John was twenty-one he became one of the seven million who believe New York depends on them.” And we go from the glamour of big sweeping buildings to going inside them and seeing the endless desks of men doing the exact same thing, all throughout the day. And all these shots are arranged geometrically, precisely, and neatly so that you can never escape the confines. But John and Mary meet and even when they are happy and in the freedom of Coney Island, and the two actors give two of the best performances of the silent era, the good things must come to an end. Not only is this a work which stands as a contrast to Sunrise in the way it paints the events as far more ordinary and depressing (the wedding is the happiest moment here), but the careers of the actors are a far sadder story. James Murray would go on to become an alcoholic whose career promptly tanked and would die young, while the director’s wife Eleanor Boardman just went unrecognized and had to be made to look less pretty. Their friend, played by Bert Roach, is the ultimate counterpart in the shape of a vaguely venal man who blends right into the stylized acting of the silent world rather than the natural workings of the leading performances, and is thus rewarded for blending in and embracing it. The American Dream is one of the most stealthily hypocritical, nastiest visions ever propagated and this is a piece of art that pushes the limits of being truly unhappy with the way one’s life is going in every way, even more visionary after a certain someone has binged on countless movies made in this era and seeing this rebuff everything those were about. Life may fly by quickly but The Crowd is 103 minutes well spent acknowledging that yep, this is a fairly meaningless and miserable existence you will likely have. Up to you whether it’s embraced.
Favorite Moment: The one death.

1. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
One of the most interesting things about the greatest of all silent films is that it comes very close to beginning and ending with Margaret Livingston’s delightfully vampy Woman from the City, who makes the movie more fun wherever she appears with her drowning title cards and insistence on clean shoes. Does it mean much in a work of art whose entire purpose is to tell a simple story as perfectly as possible? I’m not sure. The city itself is what brings the primary couple, played phenomenally by Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien, back together after an attempted murder towards the former on the part of the latter. Her plan to use the bulrushes so that the Man’s attempts to drown his wife don’t kill him winds up being what saves the life of the Woman and well and truly gets our couple back together again, happy as can be. Psychologically there is no logic here, but when the world is so pumped full of German Expressionism then it’s hard to care much. There is no way that a country this untethered and free could exist only a short train or boat ride away from what’s basically a clone of New York, lending both locations the reality of a world where emotional turbulence is to be found everywhere. And the camera! It’s always a thrill to see the camera move around in a silent era film, and there are so many beautiful shots that I have no idea how F.W. Murnau was able to capture them. How did he get the equipment onto the water, or make it look like the cameraman had the exact same plodding steps as we make our way through the muddy swamp that leaves deep footprints, or practically go through solid ground itself. This is without talking about the superimposed shots that rival Metropolis in precisely what they conjure up, and in the work they no doubt required on a frame by frame level. Finally, it is worth noting that even in a film with all the dialogue told via the title cards, this Song of Two Humans earns that subtitle not only in the primordial nature of the script, but in the sounds. The soundtrack is perfection, complete with crowd noises and ominous changes in the notes whenever noise is made. This is pure poetry in sight and sound, the ultimate expression of everything possible at the time.
Favorite Moment: The drowned title card.


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