From last year, my Best of 2020: The 1920s
Today begins my journey through my favorite movie discoveries from (mostly) each decade. Some decades will have more films than others, but I hope you'll find something to discover.
There are so many silent films that I’ve never seen, so I’m really still exploring what I consider a new world. Here are the films I most enjoyed from the 1920s (and one from the 1910s) this year:
Underworld (1927) Josef von Sternberg (3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg box set, Criterion DVD)
Underworld is an essential component of film noir archeology, if you will, yet seems to point the way toward the types of movies we would see several years later. Crime kingpin “Bull” Weed (George Bancroft) finds a former lawyer, now a drunken derelict named Wensel (Clive Brook), renames him “Rolls Royce,” and making him his right-hand man. When rival gangster “Buck” Mulligan (Fred Kohler) muscles in on Weed’s territory, Rolls Royce shows his loyalty. Or does he? Rolls Royce is beginning to fall for Weed’s girl Feathers (Evelyn Brent). If all of this sounds like standard gangster fare, it’s not. The Oscar-winning Ben Hecht screenplay, Bert Glennon’s cinematography, superb acting, and von Sternberg’s own genius make Underworld a stunning picture that seems at least 10 years ahead of its time.
He Who Gets Slapped (1924) Victor Sjöström (Criterion Channel)
He Who Gets Slapped is a must-see for anyone, not just fans of silent cinema. Lon Chaney plays scientist Paul Beaumont, whose work is not only stolen by his patron Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott), but presented to the Academy of Sciences as Regnard’s sole work. When Paul protests, Regnard slaps him, causing laughter from the Academy and humiliation for Paul. Years later, Paul has reinvented himself as a circus clown whose trademark is getting slapped repeatedly during his act, which has become an audience favorite. Working with Paul, now billed as “HE who gets slapped,” is daredevil horseback rider Bezano (John Gilbert) and the beautiful Consuelo (Norma Shearer). Of course Bezano is in love with Consuelo, but so is HE. Complicating matters, Consuelo’s father (Tully Marshall) hopes to regain prominence by having his daughter marry someone wealthy, someone like… Baron Regnard.
He Who Gets Slapped is far more than a love story, although it certainly is that. It’s also an action picture, a thriller, and a drama, with elements of horror, surrealism, and tragedy. I try to watch any Lon Chaney film that comes along, but this is one of the best.
The Cat and the Canary (1927) Paul Leni (Kanopy)
After our discussion of Tol’able David (video below), my cohost Darnice and I were talking with Fritzi Kramer, who totally sold me on watching The Cat and the Canary, and I’m so glad she did. I don’t know if The Cat and the Canary (which has been remade at least five times) is the original “Reading of the will in the old dark house” movie, but it’s terrific, a perfect blend of comedy and horror. That’s really all you need to know. Just watch it and have a great time. Highly recommended.
Foolish Wives (1922) Erich von Stroheim (Kino Lorber DVD)
I don’t know enough about silent film to make an intelligent comment on the level of genius of Erich von Stroheim, since so many of his films were tampered with and beyond his strict creative control. His third film, Foolish Wives was cut from 21 reels to seven, then later restored to the most complete version we now have at 143 minutes. The film is fascinating and very much unlike many of the typical silent dramas of the era, not only in its look (the most expensive Hollywood production at the time), but also in its examination of culture, morality, and high-society crime.
The film takes place in Monte Carlo where “Count” Vladislaw Sergius Karamzi (von Stroheim) is spending the summer in a rented villa with his cousins, Her Highness Olga Petchnikoff (Maude George) and Princess Vera (Mae Busch). It’s all a sham; they’re really a trio of con artists looking for their next big score. All they need is a rich chump to take to the cleaners. Enter American diplomat Mr. Hughes (Rudolph Christians) and his wife Helen (Miss DuPont), who’ve just arrived in Monte Carlo.
Sergius takes it upon himself to focus his attentions on Helen, which leads to many extraordinary situations and moments that touch on many aspects of desire, human nature, and more. Foolish Wives is filled with great scenes including those at a large casino and the spectacular fire sequence near the end of the film. (How did they safely do this?) The Kino DVD (and also the Blu-ray) contains an excellent commentary by von Stroheim biographer Richard Koszarski.
A Man There Was (1917) Victor Sjöström (Criterion Channel)
A silent classic about a wronged man who discovers he's right on the cusp of realizing the revenge he craves.
The Gold Rush (1925) Charlie Chaplin ((The Chaplin Collection, Warner DVD))
Why did I wait so long to see this? Plus I am now hopelessly in love with Georgia Hale. A true classic everyone should see.
The Last Command (1928) Josef von Sternberg (Criterion DVD)
The film opens with a Hollywood director (William Powell) telling a studio underling to contact a certain Russian immigrant named Dolgorucki (Emil Jannings) for the part of a general in an upcoming production. During a long flashback, we learn that Dolgorucki was once an Imperial Russian general who had a previous history with the film director when he was a revolutionary. The premise may be a bit hard to swallow, but perhaps not. Josef von Sternberg was a master filmmaker, and The Last Command is a silent masterpiece, solidified by a tremendous Oscar-winning performance by Jannings, making him the first winner of the Best Actor Oscar.
The Golem (1920) Paul Wegener, Carl Boese (Kanopy)
A rabbi (Albert Steinruck) in 16th century Prague reads the stars and determines that disaster is about to strike the city’s Jewish population. Sure enough, the emperor (Otto Gebühr) begins banning Jews the very next day. Yet the rabbi has built a statue called the Golem (Paul Wegener) he hopes to bring to life to protect the Jewish people. Many consider The Golem a precursor to the 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein. Regardless, it’s a terrific film.
Peter Pan (1924) Herbert Brenon (Kino Lorber DVD)
Even though it’s nearly 100 years old, this film is magical. Please seek it out.
Seven Chances (1925) Buster Keaton (The Ultimate Buster Keaton Collection, Kino Lorber Blu-ray)
Buster stands to inherit $7 million if he can get married before 7pm on his 27th birthday, which is, of course, today.
Please let me know what you enjoyed from this era.
Next time: The 1930s