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The Best Movie Discoveries of 2019: The 1920s and 1930s


Confession time. First off, I hate confession time, but I must be honest with you, so here we go: I have great difficulty preparing myself to watch movies from the silent era. There, I’ve said it. I do not understand this, since I always enjoy these films once I start them, but the act of hitting PLAY is often difficult. I know I’m really disappointing many of my online friends such as Movies Silently and a good friend of mine, J., who graciously sent me several silent DVDs, only a few of which I have yet watched. I apologize to all of you.

Perhaps if I schedule a couple of silents a month on my calendar it will help. I have silent films on my watchlists on Kanopy and Criterion, and with the discs I already own, there’s no excuse. Perhaps the cure would be total immersion, such as attending the San Francisco Silent Film Festival or another similar event. Regardless, I will do better in 2020.

I also need to expand out from my “safe zone” of 1930s gangster movies to other types of films from that decade. I know there’s so much great pre-code stuff that I have yet to discover. If not for the gangster films and the Dietrich/Sternberg Criterion box set, my 2019 list of films from the ‘30s would be very slim indeed.

So I’ve got a lot of work to do in 2020 with these two decades. But let me also say that the last two silent films in this brief list absolutely knocked me out. I truly believe these two movies were as powerful as anything else I saw this year. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them, so maybe the silent era is working on me. Stay tuned. So here are the films from the ‘20s and ‘30s (including two short features) that I saw this year for the first time:

1920s (or earlier)

The Man Who Laughs (1928) Paul Leni

Conrad Veidt plays Gwynplaine, an orphan who was punished by the king for his father’s misdeeds by having his face surgically carved into a grin. Yet Gwynplaine, reduced to life as a sideshow attraction, meets a blind girl (Mary Philbin) whom he loves. Many have cited Gwynplaine as an inspiration for DC Comics’ character the Joker, but the film deserves to be remembered for far more than that.

Although this film was recently restored and released on Blu-ray from Flicker Alley, I watched an older edition.

Blackmail (1929) Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock’s first (and perhaps England’s first) sound picture.

The Black Pirate (1926) Albert Parker

This glorious action/adventure tale starring Douglas Fairbanks transcends the limitations of two-color Technicolor.

Two shorts:

The Rink (1916) Charlie Chaplin

The Cook (1918) Roscoe Arbuckle

The Red Lily (1924) Fred Niblo

A troubled romance between Marise (Enid Bennett) and Leonnec (Ramon Novarro) becomes more troubled when the two become separated in Paris, losing track of each other for months. A powerful drama I was not prepared for at all.

The Penalty (1920) Wallace Worsley

A young boy has his legs unnecessarily amputated by a young, inexperienced doctor. He grows up to be a master criminal named Blizzard (Lon Chaney), who runs the San Francisco mob and seeks revenge on the doctor who ruined his life. But there’s more, much more to this thriller, including a very effective score by Rodney Sauer.


These first four films are all a part of the Dietrich/Sternberg box set from Criterion. I’ll admit that after seeing a handful of Marlene Dietrich films when I was in college, I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about her. Now I know. I highly recommend picking up the Criterion set from 2018 or the Indicator set from earlier this year. You can find details of the films through the links above.

Dishonored (1931) Josef von Sternberg

Shanghai Express (1932) Josef von Sternberg

The Scarlet Empress (1934) Josef von Sternberg

The Devil is a Woman (1935) Josef von Sternberg

Dark Victory (1939) Edmund Golding

Bette Davis plays socialite Judith Traheme, who loves riding horses, but not the stable hand (Humphrey Bogart) who's in love with her. Judith is, however, in love with the doctor (George Brent) who tells her she has a brain tumor. Davis is wonderful.

The Mayor of Hell (1933) Archie Mayo, Michael Curtiz

As part of the corrupt political machinery, Patsy Gargan (James Cagney) is placed in charge of a local boys reform school, a post he despises until he learns to care for the guys, providing guidance and tough love. We’ve seen it before, but this is Cagney, who elevates everything he’s in.

Lady Killer (1933) Roy Del Ruth

Another Cagney flick. Dan Quigley (Cagney) rises through the criminal ranks until the heat drives him to Hollywood, where he finds a new career in pictures. But the past - and your old criminal buddies - always catch up to you.

Picture Snatcher (1933) Lloyd Bacon

Former gangster Danny Kean (Cagney once again) goes straight, getting a gig as a newspaper photographer, but falls for a woman (Patricia Ellis) whose father (Robert Emmett O’Connor) is a policeman who knows Kean’s past.

Smart Money (1931) Alfred E. Green

How can you resist Cagney and Edward G. Robinson in the only film they made together? Yet this is primarily Robinson’s film. Robinson plays Nick, who owns a small town barbershop where he employs his pal Jack (Cagney). Nick’s also involved in gambling in the backroom of the barbershop. On a trip to the big city, Nick - always a sucker for the ladies - gets himself in big trouble. But he’ll get even. Or will he?

Port of Shadows (1938) Marcel Carné

Port of Shadows chronicles army deserter Jean (Jean Gabin) as he tries to find a ship to take him away from Le Havre. Before he can achieve that goal, Jean becomes involved with a lovely teenager named Nelly (Michèle Morgan), who herself is attempting to run away from her controlling godfather (Michel Simon), but things get dark and complicated.

My Man Godfrey (1936) Gregory La Cava

Why did I wait all these years to see this movie? Hoping to win a high society scavenger hunt, socialite Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) seeks out a “forgotten man,” finding the homeless Godfrey Park (William Powell). When Irene brings Godfrey home to be the family butler, her sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick) goes on a mission to get Godfrey fired. But Godfrey’s got a sharp mind and knows how to use it. A wonderful film that holds up amazingly well today with much to teach (and humble) us. Plus it's so blasted entertaining...

Triumph of the Will (1935) Leni Riefenstahl

An absolutely terrifying (and controversial) film by Leni Riefenstahl documenting the 1934 Nuremberg Rally. The enormity of not only this event, but its place in history is astonishing. A chilling viewing experience.

Dracula’s Daughter (1936) Lambert Hillyer

Yes, Dracula is gone (see the 1931 classic), but his daughter, the Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) is still around, carrying the same curse as her father. Is it possible that the cure is to be found with the psychiatrist Dr. Garth (Otto Kruger), or will he simply be the Countess’s latest victim? This is not a great movie, but there’s something oddly compelling about it and it's more than Gloria Holden’s gaze…

Also (another Christmas hint!) I’m eager to read the book Dracula’s Daughter - part of the Scripts from the Crypt book series - by Gary D. Rhodes (and with an amazing cover by Michael Kronenberg).

That’s it for the 1920s and 1930s. You’ll see more titles in my upcoming 1940s post, so stay tuned. But until then, let me know which films from the ‘20s and ‘30s you enjoyed this year for the first time.

Photos: DVD Beaver, Movies Silently, Brittanica, Silent Stanzas, Timeout, Classics for a Reason

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