Top 10 of 1928/29
10. Queen Kelly
In a sea of Erich von Stroheim films that were cut down from obscenely long lengths to durations of running time that simultaneously feel cramped and padded (only Greed feels like something that holds itself together for the majority of the time), Queen Kelly holds up the best after Greed despite being the most famously victimized by the scissors and financial shutdown of the board thanks to it ending his career and showing up in Sunset Blvd. The scenes in the convent where Gloria Swanson, playing the titular character, is stuck after she is humiliated for flirting with the Prince, Wolfram, whom she later comes to love are the best, featuring the sort of creepy claustrophobia that characterizes all the stickiest convents in the movies. This is partially because it is the more coherent of the two halves, with intertitles frequently doing a whole lot of heavy lifting, but the brief connections to the second half that utilize comparisons and contrasts in the way of life are well thought out, so I think we had something special here even with all the production madness. Swanson astounds as always. She may have been better at playing the corrupted rather than the relatively innocent thanks to her eccentricities but there is enough life behind her eyes to power towns. Strongest in the show, however, has to go to the relatively unknown Seena Owen as the vicious Queen Regina. Hammier than any Disney villain, no doubt, but she demonstrates a very precise form of nastiness anyway and makes such a strong impression that it’s impossible to resist her cackles and spiteful looks from under her bright blonde hair. Some will say this is a work that lacks a climax because of the shutdown, and that is understandable, but I did not feel that way in a negative sense. It works well on the level of “this story lacks a real ending. It is an unhappy tale of woe so I shall stop here and give you the cliff notes of what happened afterwards.” Still, one has to be depressed that the two greatest works of art this director tried to make were the most butchered in a career where almost nothing survives in the way he wanted it to be presented to the public. His cynicism may seem quaint today but it was revolutionarily harsh in the olden days of early silent cinema.
Favorite Moment: The laughter over Kelly’s humiliation.
9. Wild Party
The Wild Party is a breath of fresh air after watching several godawful early sound films and several great silents in a row, and thus I might be inclined to overrate it, disregarding that it is based on a plot that’s fairly idiotic (I am forever going to cherish the moment when the lead, Stella, throws a spoon on the ground and it makes a noise that does not sound like that at all, it sounds more like a crate). The acting is relatively natural even with some overemphasized line deliveries and fun-such a thing we take for granted! The main reason this leaps out is thanks to the two leads in Clara Bow and Fredric March. The former may have taken some flack for her Brooklyn accent at the time but it lends her vocals a fun cadence, and she never ceases to look as if she’s just a naturally big character as opposed to someone who’s overacting and talentless. Her terror during an attempted rape/kidnapping scene (which is super out of place tonally in a work that’s otherwise light and comedic but I don’t mind it) which she quickly turns into coy flirting to escape is a nicely handled little turn in mood. Fredric March as the uptight professor who she ends up falling for may just be a generic straight man but he’s the good kind, in part thanks to Dorothy Arzner’s direction. This material is best directed by a woman even if it’s a woman who was never going to be a real subverter of gender roles. Still, the discussion between the stars over how the founder of the college the movie takes place at is viewed as a great, whereas the ladies who are currently attending are nothing but vapid pleasure seekers to Professor Gilmore, followed by the two kissing…it takes real talent on both sides of the camera to make this come across as a genuine undercutting of his words that encourages thought rather than simply a weird tonal shift. This is one of those rarities in early cinema, a film that genuinely makes me want to be transported to that time to hang out at this particular college, no matter the fact that it’s all girls and occurred when you could get away from kidnapping ladies from road houses. The male writers probably meant this as a joke but thank goodness for justifiable ambiguity.
Favorite Moment: The kidnapping.
8. Fall of the House of Usher
Favorite Moment: X
Sergei Eisenstein’s October was dismissed in the Soviet Union when it first came out after he spent the infinite money that they threw at him thanks to the fact that it wasn’t a realistic enough depiction of the titular Revolution that was celebrating its ten year anniversary for the leaders of the country’s picture board, or whatever it was they had, to consider it a true event of taking your whole family to go see the propoganda. Even if you ignore the fact that surrealism should be celebrated, not dismissed within cinema then you have to consider how blatantly untrue this is…at least within certain sections, where the symbolism is so rampant that you have to wonder if there’s any subtlety to it. Also equally interesting are the documentary type portions which are so filled with volume that the filmmakers later added a sound mix consisting of real footage from that time period that goes along nicely as a complement. If all of this makes October sound like a homework assignment, don’t take it as one. The Soviet montage cinema always moved along at a zippy pace (hence my fondness for it, as I am a sucker for crazy editing if it’s done right like here) and this is no exception, but the scale of this is so awe inspiring that it just instinctively works. When not going as big as possible in showing the desires of the people in their desire to build a society by and for the proletarians, complete with a moment that blatantly plagiarizes from Battleship Potemkin right down to the same Odessa Steps score (hence a low ranking here), it still looks original thanks to the deranged visuals ranging from a horse hanging from a bridge and the silence that comes after, to my personal favorite with the young men in their uniforms getting compared to peacocks, to title cards that find any attempts at objectivity towards the events of those ten days that changed the world thrown out the window (“COWARDS!”). No one really gives Eisenstein enough credit as a director of great compositions, with the insert shots always resembling the perfect ideal of whatever object they are meant to be portraying. The movie itself is also the near-ideal of what it means to be showing us, a fascinating collage weaved together by the power of Sergei’s scissors to make meaning take form.
Favorite Moment: Peacocking.
Nosferatu may have robbed Dracula blind without giving Bram Stoker any credit for it, but where the movie differs from the novel is in how sedate and tame the first half hour is. Where Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the mythology is a mercilessly pretty setup in the castle of the count, here, the titular vampire does not do much outside of possess a truly horrifying makeup job that not only makes the villain look appropriately like a rat or a bat as opposed to a sexy immortal, but compliments Max Schreck’s appropriately trembling, staccato performance in a surprisingly underutilized part. When visionary director F.W. Murnau finally takes over the reins, however, the results are the right level of, well, spooktacular. (Sorry.) Where the early portions of the movie are befitting of the material is in how seriously it takes the vampire mythos. Similar to Haxan, which was made in the same year (1922) before getting a United States release at the same time in 1929, there is no skewering to be found, because this is the grandfather to all bloodsucking horror shows in a similar vein to the supposed documentary taking on the role of grandmother to all the tales of women who cast spells and sleep with the devil. The sincerity sometimes does not benefit the work, with a lecture on Venus Fly Traps only being a piece of capitalized SYMBOLISM from a director who usually was better at showing restraint in that area. But that complaint fades away in the mind when we get a good look at the ship that Count Orlok has stowed away upon. Even without his levitation from the ground, which is still alarmingly, the scenes of rats coming out of the coffin and everyone sickening and dying are far creepier than the usual flickering light shows we get today in our horror films. Even better is the gift of the silent equivalent of the aforementioned lighting tricks: the shadow stalking up the staircase, ready to take a victim. Everything comes undone in the end thanks to a woman, and while I don’t think Murnau can rightly be called a feminist, he was remarkably ahead of his time in the treatment of women, with the Wife being the soul of Sunrise and Orlok getting actively tricked by a woman hoping to kill him as opposed to a staking by a he-man come to rescue her.
Favorite Moment: Shadow on the wall.
Lots of films that confronted racism back before civil rights were a thing had a tendency to contain a certain self righteousness…and, well, let’s just say that me saying “HAD a tendency” is a very generous usage of the term on my part. Hi Stanley Kramer! The white savior trope sort of exists in Piccadilly, with Anna May Wong’s dishwasher Shosho only getting the chance to perform because one man quits and another offers her a contract after seeing her dance in the kitchen area where she works. But still: she rises to the top and becomes a success thanks to her own talents as a dancer, and I would argue that what with the scenes of her demanding a very specific dress for her show, she knows (and so does the director) that her and the boyfriend she hired to do the music for the show is the talent now. She is a victim in the end, but not constantly and for the whole duration of the work, and she’s no plaster saint either-by silent standards, she’s practically a fleshed out character. Only a true star gets to make that kind of demand, and fuck whoever decided that Gilda Gray should be billed first which underwrites everything that this has going for it in terms of progressive attitudes that hold up pretty well even outside of the 1920s. With that being said…Gray is actually great even with her hamming it up a bit. She does not make it any kind of question that her character is a little bit of a bigot, but ultimately cares more about being the main event of the attraction than the fact that Shosho is a minority who got her job. While I wish that the reason for the tragedy that dominates the final minutes of Piccadilly was more focused on the racist aspects of British culture resulting in the murder, it ultimately does not bother me since you can definitely read “anger over interracial relationships on both the white and Asian sides of the couple” into it. Best of all, director E.A. Dupont takes his cues from the best of all silent films-the ones without any intertitles. There are some, but they are used so infrequently that when they appear, they matter, and the wording is sufficiently vague so that it feels like the sort of part that Wong deserved.
Favorite Moment: The dance in the kitchen.
4. The Cameraman
Buster Keaton’s direction had the unfortunate habit when creating his movies, no matter the studio (this was his first after going to MGM, a decision he later said he regretted), of making the first half of his (usually on the shorter side anyway) films so low key that the shift into big, spectacular gags for the second half would inevitably make what we watch before come across as a labored form of setup. His best works, of which The Cameraman doesn’t quite make the grade (but I’d rank this around the same level as The General so what do I know?), have a nice gradual shift upwards into the glamorously dangerous stunts we all came here for. Much like the far weaker Our Hospitality, a work that is pretty lacking in jokes that feel like they’re meant to go for the slapstickier brand of humor in the opening scenes, this is a movie that does not go for anything too outrageously funny in the eyes of a modern day viewer outside of introducing the recurring joke of the window in the office consistently shattering due to some accident, and makes the character Keaton plays in this look a bit creepier in his failures than his usual well meaning losers. (The fact that the titular man is kind of a creep is actually a compliment on my end.) It’s the stuff afterwards that truly packs a punch on every level possible, with MGM’s supposed interference making everything done in the final minutes seem a bit more sad and relevant, with the shot of the monkey rolling the camera as Buster gives a woman mouth to mouth resuscitation summing up just how the star felt about his industry and lifework. After a whole work of silly piggy bank in the wall and cramped dressing room gags, we get something truly grim when he catches his big break, only to promptly get screwed over by someone who has not even fully evolved yet. The Tong War scenes are full of energy, the dejection of the generic girl’s bullying asshole of a boyfriend is as real as it has ever been thanks to the pathos of the situation, and even with an ending that is so silly it is totally implausible it still works perfectly as the sort of ending that all newsreels seem to wind up with-one that is happy, but filled with pathos too.
Favorite Moment: Ending.
3. Docks of New York
Josef von Sternberg was so devoted to the visual language he created for whichever particular picture he was making at the time (we can give him a pass for Thunderbolt since he was still learning about sound films) that it’s easy to see just where the primary relationships happen to stand throughout the running time of The Docks of New York just by looking at the way the dollies are moved around during the passing of the events. But you don’t need to pay attention to the details of the camerawork in order to appreciate the depths of his grim aesthetic, with everyone’s minds and bodies being deeply stuck in the depths of the thick, heavy fog that coats all the exteriors, forms itself in their heads thanks to booze and mental illness, and feels like it is seeping inside the supposed respite of the black as night interiors. Emotionally, this is a perfectly fitting choice, for despite the big and broad silent acting (relative to today rather than the era) everything that is manipulated in our minds is imperceptible as the characters (a phenomenal ensemble of George Bancroft, Betty Compson, Olga Baclanova, and Clyde Cook who bounce off each other like they are trying to crack through…something) go through the motions of a long, booze soaked night where any common decency is found by accident but still very much counts. Where Sunrise went for the most beautiful form of poetry even in capturing some very deep darkness within the mind of The Man, this film is along the lines of a beautifully written pulp novel. Not a whole lot happens even when Gustav von Seyffertitz’s grim priest performs a marriage ceremony between the two lonely, broke down people who have only met each other that evening, but does it matter when the work is this stylish in its take on German Expressionism that feels entirely its own thanks to the visuals being a bit more straightforward? The ending may be a tacked on happy one, but it bizarrely works for me despite the fact that there is no foreshadowing to it whatsoever. I choose to take everything that preceded it as a long, foggy nightmare while the courtroom realization and swim back to shore is the characters quietly growing up and facing reality. See how you can somewhat justify anything with all the ideas preceding this movie containing something so intelligently evocative?
Favorite Moment: The preacher meets our crew.
2. The Wind
Victor Sjostrom lives up to the promise of that title: there are a whole lot of gusts, gales, and air molecules moving around in The Wind. Lillian Gish’s character, Letty, has hair and a hat that is always being flapped around viciously (and in beautifully dramatic fashion) and getting covered in dust. She never fails to look like at any minute now, she will be sent floating up into the air. Appropriately, the only other major female character is Cora, played in a horribly underrated performance by Dorothy Cumming, who can handle herself just fine but does not inspire affection from anyone in her familiarity with a butcher’s knife, her grumpy personality and her short, stout figure. Any feminist readings to be made in this have to consider the fact that all of the troubles are the result of Cora refusing to put up with Letty stealing away the attention of her children and the men of this desolate region, but let’s set that aside for a minute and go back to the visuals. Even without the billowing madness that envelops all the exterior and several interior shots, there is gorgeous visuals of white horses galloping and kicking up dust in the shape of a spirit that justifies a murder for aggressively perverted behavior on behalf of a particularly mean spirited suitor. The score is grim and pulsating, as ferocious as the storms that rock the region where this story takes place. Some may hate the fact that a happy ending was filmed, and while I cannot deny that the idea of Lillian Gish wandering off to die in some kind of a sandstorm thanks to her guilt over killing her suitor is a tempting one for the sake of dramatics, everything up to that point works so well as an allegory that either a happy or a sad ending can be justified nicely. Either our lead is punished for her feminist decision (although the point that it is of her own making makes me like the end we were forced to have much more), or she is rewarded for it. Sometimes, artists are not the best interpreters of their own work, and what works so well here is the sort of thing that can keep this particular wind blowing for many more decades, with no corrosion of the lungs thanks to the sand and anger over the awful nature of studios.
Favorite Moment: The horse appears.
1. Passion of Joan of Arc
The face of Maria Falconetti is one that never ceases to haunt even if there is no denying that certain elements of her performance are very much of the silent era. But that is precisely why Passion of Joan of Arc is such a masterpiece. The dialogue is relayed entirely through the title cards and the reactions of the cast, and the feeling is conveyed through the incredibly stark but gorgeous set design. The key word in that title: Passion. Right down to the bones, there is an unassailable belief that she is acting upon God’s will, and is being punished for nothing. The cruelty of her inquisitors ranges from offering her poisoned, no-win choices to threats of torture but our leading lady never shies away from the interpretation that Jeanne was nothing more than a simple girl who suffered delusions related to religion. At least, I think she does. She did vanish entirely from cinema, after all, and thus her status is elevated even with her and Carl Theodor Dreyer working together to achieve a synthesis that is totally unable to quite reach this level in any other work of film. This atheist views this work of art as the best piece on the power of religion. You can and should factor in the gorgeous ambiguities of the trial’s dialogue when considering the attitude it all contains, but the sympathy for this burned woman is the result of us being stuck in the perspective of someone who is mad at best, and the point of view of a gust of wind, floating around from different eyelines to cause a disorienting effect, at worst. Continuity is spat upon, but the very purpose of this decision is…what? Does it make us more likely to identify with the nature of the trial or make it impossible to understand the mind of our heroine in any way? That little question assumes a binary route, which is not appropriate for something like this, particularly when you factor the Church’s well meaning condescension and reluctance to really harm Jeanne is contrasted with the hair shaving and straw crown, deliberate humiliations that do not line up with the final, obscured burning at the stake, a horrifying vision and the smallest of small mercies we are bestowed. No piece of art has ever given us a greater understanding into a character with so little, just closeups and snippets.
Favorite Moment: Head shaving.</p