Updated: Dec 12, 2020
You’ll find that I have little to say about many of these films from the 1920s, largely because I consider myself a rank beginner in the area of silent film. Thanks largely to my friend Jan and Movies Silently, I have increased my silent film watching and my appreciation of those films. So despite the fact that my thoughts on some of these titles are quite slim, I hope you’ll check out many (if not all) of them. Although I watched many more than this, these are the silents I enjoyed the most this year.
The Cameraman (1928) Buster Keaton, Edward Sedgwick (Criterion Blu-ray)
Buster plays a cameraman trying to impress MGM newsreel department secretary Sally (Marceline Day) by capturing a top-notch news story to propel him to fame and fortune (but mostly to Sally). Keaton’s first film for MGM was undoubtedly his last great feature, and it’s a true delight.
The Circus (1928) Charlie Chaplin (Criterion Channel)
The circus and Chaplin… What else do you need to know?
Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) G.W. Pabst (Kanopy)
From Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list. I may like this even more than Pandora’s Box from the same year.
The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) Jean Epstein (YouTube)
Another silent from Ebert’s Great Movies list. Wonderful short atmospheric French film based on Poe’s story. This film sorely needs a restoration.
The Girl with the Hat Box (1927) Boris Barnet (Kanopy)
Many thanks to Movies Silently for introducing me to this delightful comedy set in 1920s Russia, which was experiencing an enormous housing shortage. Not the stuff of comedy? It is here, with a young woman named Natasha (Anna Sten) making hats for a Moscow hat store when she stumbles across a poor university student with no place to live. Can she pass him off as her husband and get away with it? You can read more about this film at Movies Silently, and if you have Kanopy, please check it out.
The Hands of Orlac (1924) Robert Wiene (Criterion Channel)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (Der Hund von Baskerville, 1929) Richard Oswald (Flicker Alley Blu-ray)
The last silent Sherlock Holmes film, Der Hund von Baskerville, places Holmes (Carlyle Blackwell Sr.) and Dr. Watson (George Seroff) on the case of the mysterious deaths on the moors of Devon. The art direction and cinematography (Frederik Fuglsang) is wonderful, and Seroff brings a different type of Dr. Watson (sly and adventurous) from any I’ve previously seen. The Flicker Alley Blu-ray also includes the 1914 version of the film and other extras I’ve yet to check out, but for fans of silent film and Sherlock Holmes, this is a must-see.
My Best Girl (1927) Sam Taylor (YouTube)
I believe this is my first Mary Pickford movie, and I loved it. Mary plays Maggie, who falls for a 5 & 10 cent store stockroom boy named Joe Grant (Charles Rogers), who’s actually Joe Merrill, son of the millionaire owner of a chain of 5 & 10 stores. Pickford is delightful, nailing the expressions, emotions, timing, everything.
A Page of Madness (1926) Teinosuke Kinugasa (borrowed from a friend)
Very experimental Japanese silent film about a man working at an insane asylum. A must-see, available from Flicker Alley.
The Patsy (1928) King Vidor (Warner Archive DVD)
The Patsy is an absolutely charming comedy starring the adorable Marion Davies as Pat, the neglected daughter in a family consisting of an overbearing mother (Marie Dressler), a self-centered, conniving sister (Jane Winton), and a father (Dell Henderson) who loves Pat, but is overruled by his wife at every turn. An absolute treasure.
The Ring (1927) Alfred Hitchcock (Alfred Hitchcock: A Legacy of Suspense box set DVD, Mill Creek)
Souls for Sale (1923) Rupert Hughes (YouTube)
Another silent film from Ebert’s Great Movies list with Eleanor Boardman as a young woman who’s determined to make it in Hollywood. Also stars Richard Dix.
Tol’able David (1921) Henry King (Kanopy)
Tol’able David is like a time capsule, and in a way, that’s exactly what it is. What begins as a wholesome look at a family’s uncomplicated rural life turns into a vicious revenge story with young David (Richard Barthelmess) at the center of it all. I will refer you to Imogen Sara Smith’s excellent essay on the film.
Un Chien Andalou (1929) Luis Buñuel (YouTube)
Surreal and wonderful short film, another from Ebert’s list. David Lynch must’ve seen this at some point.
The Wind (1928) Victor Sjöström (Criterion Channel)
The Wind is one of MGM’s last silent films as well as Lillian Gish’s final silent role, and she’s tremendous in it. Gish plays Letty Mason, a young woman traveling from Virginia to live with relatives on their remote West Texas ranch. Unused to the west, Letty becomes bothered, then horrified by the unrelenting prairie winds, and even more so by the three men who vie for her hand in marriage. If you’ve always heard the name Lillian Gish and wondered what all the fuss is about, check out this film. On second thought, that might be hard to do. Although The Wind has been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, there’s still no DVD or Blu-ray available (that I know of). Thanks to my friend Michael, I saw this on the film’s last day on the Criterion Channel. (Sorry about that. It’s sort of like apologizing for getting the last donut.) But hopefully that means we may see a Blu-ray release soon. If so, jump on it immediately.
So if you enjoy silents (from the 1920s or earlier, please let me know what you watched and enjoyed this year. If you don't watch many silents, I hope there's at least one film on this list that might strike your interest.
Next time: The 1930s