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Top 25 Films Made Before 1920

Because the language of cinema was still dramatically evolving from 1895 to 1919 and because most of the films made during this period were shorts rather than feature length works, this list mixes shorts and features together and is presented in chronological order rather than order of preference. For the earlier, shorter films, I’ve included links to YouTube videos where they can be seen in their entirety.

As with all of my “best of the decade” lists, I’m also limiting myself to one film per director in the interest of diversity. Otherwise, D.W. Griffith and Louis Feuillade would have about half of the slots on this list locked up.

1. Rough Sea at Dover (Acres/Paul, UK, 1895)

2. Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (Lumieres, France, 1896)

Bertrand Tavernier has referred to this Lumiere Brothers masterpiece as the “first horror movie” because, as legend has it, early audiences reacted to the image of a train moving towards the camera by fleeing in terror. This is a simple “actuality” that depicts just what the title states in a single shot lasting approximately 42 seconds. But it’s also a good example of how well made the Lumiere Brothers’ films were: the dramatic contrast of the black and white cinematography, coupled with diagonal perspective of the composition, makes the film an aesthetically pleasing experience even when viewed today. It can be seen in its entirety on YouTube by clicking the image above.

3. Seminary Girls (Edison, USA, 1897)

4. As Seen Through a Telescope (Smith, UK, 1900)

5. Le village de Namo – Panorama pris d’une chaise à porteurs (Veyre, France/Indochina, 1900)

6. A Trip to the Moon (Melies, France, 1902)

Georges Melies was the polar opposite of the Lumieres; he made narrative films in the fantasy genre that showcased trick photography and special effects. He also shot all of his movies in an ingeniously constructed glass-walled studio in Paris. Melies’ most famous film is A Trip to the Moon, a 14-minute sci-fi adventure about astronomers making a maiden moon voyage, where they do battle with the moon’s alien inhabitants before triumphantly returning to earth. This gained renewed fame when it became a major reference point in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and was subsequently re-released in a splendidly restored color version. I’m including a link to a YouTube video above but please note that the image quality here is far inferior to what you will find on the magnificent Flicker Alley blu-ray.

7. A Daring Daylight Burglary (Mottershaw, UK, 1903)

8. Life of an American Fireman (Porter, USA, 1903)

9. New York Subway (Bitzer, USA, 1905)

10. Rescued By Rover (Fitzhamon/Hepworth, UK, 1905)

11. The Life of Christ (Guy, France, 1906)

Alice Guy, a true movie pioneer, began her directing career in 1896 and is sometimes credited as the first person to make a narrative film (as opposed to Lumiere-style actualities). A DVD compilation of her work released by Kino in 2009 is a revelation: it contains stunt comedies, panoramic views of exotic places, and fascinating early experiments with sound and color. My favorite of her films that I’ve seen is The Life of Christ, which recounts “the greatest story ever told” in 25 single-shot tableaux-like scenes that, at 33 minutes, made it relatively epic in 1906. Especially effective is the climactic resurrection, which is bolstered by a beautiful score on Kino’s DVD. This is my second favorite Jesus movie after Pasolini’s.

12. The Golden Beetle (Chomon, France, 1907)

13. Moscow Clad in Snow (Mundwiller, France/Russia, 1909)

14. A Child of Paris (Perret, France, 1913)

Also included in Kino’s “Gaumont Treasures” DVD set is a an entire platter devoted to Leonce Perret, an important director previously unknown in the States. The major revelation of the set is A Child of Paris, a feature film from 1913 that is shockingly sophisticated in terms of its cinematography (including the kind of camera movements and oblique compositions that wouldn’t become commonplace for years to come). The Dickensian story concerns a little girl who becomes an orphan, is sent to a boarding school, runs away and then is kidnapped by a gang of thieves. The acting is surprisingly naturalistic for the time and the use of real locations – in Paris and Nice – is impressive in the extreme.

15. Cabiria (Pastrone, Italy, 1914)

16. Child of the Big City (Bauer, Russia, 1914)

17. The Cheat (Demille, USA, 1915)

Forget what you think you know about the conservative purveyor of stolid 1950s epics and experience the raw power of Cecil B. DeMille’s scintillating “yellow peril” melodrama when the trailblazing director was just beginning his career in the mid-1910s. Edith Harvey (Fannie Ward) is a socialite who embezzles money from a charity, loses it in a bad investment and borrows money from shady Japanese businessman Hishuru Tori (Sessue Hayakawa) in order to pay it back. The film’s most outrageous scene involves the Asian Hayakawa (an ostensible “villain” who exudes more movie star charisma than anyone else onscreen) literally branding the caucasian Ward with a hot iron. The dramatic use of chiaroscuro lighting was way ahead of its time and anticipates the rise of German Expressionism a few years later.

18. Regeneration (Walsh, USA, 1915)

19. One A.M. (Chaplin, USA, 1917)

20. The Blue Bird (Tourneur, USA, 1918)

21. Tih Minh (Feuillade, France, 1918)

Jacques d’Athys, a French adventurer, returns to his home in Nice after an expedition to Indochina where he has picked up a Eurasian fiancee and a book that, unbeknownst to him, contains a coded message revealing the whereabouts of both secret treasures and government intelligence. This makes him the target of foreign spies, including a Marquise of mysterious origin, a Hindu hypnotist and an evil German doctor, who will stop at nothing to obtain the book. Louis Feuillade’s 12 chapter, 7 hour serial is overflowing with action, thrills, humor and romance and is a strong contender for the title of the most purely entertaining movie I have ever seen.

22. Blind Husbands (Von Stroheim, USA, 1919)

23. Broken Blossoms (Griffith, USA, 1919)

24. Madame DuBarry (Lubitsch, Germany, 1919)

Polish-born Pola Negri was a major international movie star and sex symbol during the silent era and Madame DuBarry, a biopic of Louis the XV’s mistress set (incongruously) against the backdrop of the French Revolution, is one of her finest star vehicles. Funny, tragic and sexually provocative for its time, this historical epic allowed German film studio UFA to break into the international market. Four years later, director Ernst Lubitsch would become the first of many German filmmakers to migrate to Hollywood (where he would achieve even greater fame).

25. The President (Dreyer, Denmark, 1919)

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

10 responses to “Top 25 Films Made Before 1920

  • Stella

    Alright alright alright that’s exactly what I neeedd!

  • david

    What is the first film ever made? I’m confused.

    • michaelgloversmith

      The first film ever made? I don’t think it can quite be pinpointed! There were a lot of short films made, by Thomas Edison and others, in the early 1890s but they were all made to be seen on “kinetoscopes” and other peep-show machines that could only be viewed by one person at a time. Most historians believe the first time film PROJECTION took place was in Paris in 1895 when the Lumiere Bros. first demonstrated their “cinematographe.” The earliest film that played as part of that program was WORKERS LEAVING THE LUMIERE FACTORY, which had been shot in the spring of that year. It can be seen on Kino’s excellent “Lumiere Bros. First Films” DVD (along with a couple hundred other Lumiere shorts).

      • david

        In China,lots of people even film buffs like me have the impression that the first film ever made is Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat,I think I should correct them now!!

  • Derek Winterstien

    I would like to watch a documentary on the first motion pictures, the inventions, and technology that focuses on the late Victorian age up to before 1920. Perhaps PBS Nova has done one, or some similar source. If anyone is aware of a good example I would like to learn of it.

    On a second note I believe Edison to be a hack, and is responsible for some of the first bootleg unauthorized duplication of commercial motion picture film. He made unauthorized copies of Georges Melies A Trip to the Moon, contributing to Melies financial ruin. He was also unoriginal, dismissing the projector in favor of his peep show devices until it became painfully obvious that he was wrong, and audiences were the future of motion picture viewing. Then he just copied an existing technology and branded it.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Hi Derek, thanks for the reply. I wish I knew of a good documentary focusing on Victorian cinema. You think someone would’ve made one by now – especially considering all films from that era are now in the public domain!

      Your views on Edison are pretty close to my own. You might be interested in reading my forthcoming book Empire of Shadows (which is about the history of early film production in Chicago but also explains how the language of cinema was created and how it evolved between 1893 and 1915). Thomas Edison is a major player in the story. It should be out in Spring of 2013.

  • Beer Movie

    This is a great list. I have seen a few, but plenty I need to check out. Loved all of those I have seen, with the exception of Broken Blossoms, which is a film I really did not enjoy when I saw it.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Well, Griffith, with his Victorian moralizing and racial stereotyping, is definitely not for all tastes. But the more one watches early cinema, the easier it is too appreciate his genius.

      • Beer Movie

        Yeah it is weird, I was well aware and braced for all that before watching that film, but it still did not work for me. I should revisit some of his features, I haven’t tried again since that experience. I have watched and loved some of his shorts though.

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