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A Silent American Cinema Primer, pt. 2

A continuation of last week’s list of essential silent American films. The thirteen titles listed here begin with Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven from 1927 and continue through F.W. Murnau’s late-silent swan song, the Robert Flaherty co-directed Tabu: A Story of the South Seas from 1931.

In chronological order:

7th Heaven (Borzage, 1927)

Frank Borzage’s best-loved film details the touching romance between Parisian sewer worker Chico (Charles Farrell) and waifish prostitute Diane (Janet Gaynor), unforgettably set against the outbreak of World War I. Borzage believed in romantic love as a kind of transcendental force and nothing, not even death, could keep his lovers apart. Borzage’s sense of the spiritual aspect of love is conveyed nowhere more memorably than in the remarkable crane shots that follow the lovers in 7th Heaven up seven full flights of stairs to reach Chico’s garret apartment.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau, 1927)

William Fox brought German Expressionist master F.W. Murnau to Hollywood in 1926 and gave him carte blanche to create this masterpiece, one of the most artistically ambitious silent films. The story is a simple “folk tale” about redemption concerning a farmer who very nearly murders his wife after being seduced by a wicked city girl. The low-key lighting and elaborate tracking shots changed the way films in Hollywood were made overnight (neither Frank Borzage nor John Ford would ever be the same again). One of the most influential films of all time and a kind of Citizen Kane for the silent era.

The Unknown (Browning, 1927)

Tod Browning is best known today for early sound-era horror classics like Dracula and Freaks but I think this dark and sinister tale of a love triangle set in a traveling circus represents the high point of his entire career; Joan Crawford (young and dishy) is the daughter of a circus owner who is torn between the affections of an armless(!) knife thrower (Lon Chaney) and the circus strongman (Norman Kerry). This singularly grotesque wonder unfolds with the terrible illogic of a nightmare and remains for my money the best of all silent American horror films.

The Crowd (Vidor, 1928)

King Vidor was the king of Hollywood following the boffo box office of The Big Parade and he admirably used that clout to realize this downbeat story of the dark side of the American dream: John Sims (James Murray) was born on the fourth of July in the year 1900 and dreamed of becoming President of the United States. Instead he ends up an anonymous office drone in a very impersonal New York City, which Vidor relates in a series of stunning (and hugely influential) tableau images. “The crowd laughs with you always but it will cry with you for only a day.”

The Docks of New York (von Sternberg, 1928)

Arguably Josef von Sternberg’s greatest film, this ravishingly photographed tone poem tells the story of a virile stoker (George Bancroft) who is tempted to give up his love ’em and leave ’em ways after saving the life of a suicidal prostitute (the revelatory Betty Compson). This sublime romantic melodrama is perfectly complimented by von Sternberg’s amazingly atmospheric mise-en-scene, which captures New York City’s dock-front milieu with an exquisite interplay of light, shadow and fog.

A Girl in Every Port (Hawks, 1928)

Louise Brooks’ most well-known American film is also Howard Hawks’ first notable directorial effort, although she is given a relatively thankless role as the “love interest” in what is essentially a homoerotic comedy about the adventures of two brawling sailors played by Victor McLaglen and Robert Armstrong. Nevertheless this is unmissable as an early example of the same plot, themes and even dialogue that the mighty Hawks would continue to rework for the rest of his lengthy career.

Lonesome (Fejos, 1928)

Paul Fejos’ unjustly under-seen classic is a kind of smaller-scale version of The Crowd – though arguably an even better film. It begins by intercutting between the workday of a man who operates a punch press (Glenn Tryon) and a woman who works as a switchboard operator (Barbara Kent) in New York City. The two narrative strands become intertwined when these lonely people meet by chance at Coney Island and share a night of magic and romance. Tragically, they find themselves separated and realize that, since they never even learned one another’s names, they may never meet again. The plot is simple but the execution is passionate, capturing some universal and timeless truths about urban living.

The Man Who Laughs (Leni, 1928)

Director Paul Leni (Waxworks) and star Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) were major players and collaborators in the silent German cinema before migrating to Hollywood where they re-teamed for this influential Expressionist take on Victor Hugo’s novel. The plot concerns Gwynplaine (Veidt), the son of a Lord in 17th century England who, due to the sins of his father, is denied by King James II of the title that should be his birthright and has a hideous permanent smile carved into his face instead. He ends up becoming a popular stage performer (where his disfigurement is a source of morbid curiosity), but one day his past comes back to haunt him. This is similar to earlier literary adaptations/historical epics made by Universal like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, only it has the virtue of being directed by a real director; Leni, who started out as a set designer, makes the “period” truly come alive in this melodramatic quasi-horror gem.

The Wind (Sjostrom, 1928)

Letty (Lillian Gish in one of her finest performances) is a young woman who moves from the East to live with relatives in Texas. Once she arrives she finds that she must contend with a harsh, arid landscape, sinks into a depression and marries a man she doesn’t love (handsome Lars Hanson). The wind that is constantly swirling and blowing the sand into the air is a perfect metaphor for characters whose hearts are in tumult. The climactic sandstorm (shot, like the rest of the film, on location in the Mojave desert) is a thrilling piece of cinema, one of the highlights of the entire silent era.

Lucky Star (Borzage, 1929)

My personal favorite Frank Borzage film is this late silent masterpiece about a love triangle between farm girl Janet Gaynor and two World War I veterans – the duplicitous Guinn “Big Boy” Williams and nice guy Charles Farrell (whose war wounds have confined him to a wheelchair). Gaynor and Farrell made many films together and more often than not her fabulous acting is the point of interest. Here, Farrell is a revelation as a good-hearted man whose attempts to come to terms with his disability are heartbreaking. But, this being a Borzage film, the rural farmhouse setting is turned into a mystical, impressionist dream place where miracles can happen – and you’ll be very glad that they do. Originally released in a part talkie/part silent version, the lone print that survives today is completely silent and probably all the better for it.

City Girl (Murnau, 1930)

F.W. Murnau’s final Hollywood movie was lost until the early 1970s, then seriously critically reappraised when excellent quality DVD and blu-ray versions appeared in the 21st century. The film charts the relationship between a young wheat farmer (Charles Farrell) and his city girl bride (Mary Duncan) through blissful courtship, disillusion with meddling in-laws and the austerity of farm life and, ultimately, hard-won and believable reconciliation. As with all of Murnau’s best work, documentary realism is combined with breathtaking and poetic flights of fancy: Farrell and Duncan’s “run through the wheat” is probably my favorite 30 seconds in any movie ever.

City Lights (Chaplin, 1931)

Charlie Chaplin had more success than any of the silent clowns in transitioning to the sound era – in part because he delayed doing so for as long as possible. City Lights was his last true silent and the penultimate outing of his beloved “Little Tramp” character. Here, the Tramp falls in love with a poor, blind flower girl who mistakenly believes him to be a rich man. Alternately funny and poignant in the best Chaplin tradition, this film also provides the best example of Chaplin’s still relatively unheralded genius as filmmaker: the only close-ups that occur in the entire film are in the final moments, which make them all the more impacting.

Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (Murnau/Flaherty, 1931)

F.W. Murnau teamed up with Robert (Nanook of the North) Flaherty for this independently produced, ethnographic excursion into the lives of native Tahitians. The documentary-minded Flaherty abandoned the project early, leaving Murnau the Romantic Artist to finish it on his own. And it’s a good thing he did: the story of a doomed romance between a fisherman and a young woman deemed “taboo” by the island’s Old Warrior in deference to the Gods – an exotic version of the Romeo and Juliet story – is a fitting epitaph for Murnau (who tragically died in a car accident on the way to the premiere) as well as the entire silent era. The film’s visually stunning images and Paradise / Paradise Lost structure would influence everything from Shohei Imamura’s Profound Desires of the Gods to Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.

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About michaelgloversmith

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

6 responses to “A Silent American Cinema Primer, pt. 2

  • suzidoll

    I just saw A GIRL IN EVERY PORT at the Silent Summer Film Fest at the Portage Theater. It was crisply edited; and, Louise Brooks just owned the screen. However, the “friendship” between the two men was so overdone. Their names by the way were Spike and Salami. Good grief. Plus, the two actors, McLaglen and Armstrong, who are generally good, were way too hammy . Still, the film was so well crafted and very Hawksian.

  • michaelgloversmith

    Spike and Salami, you’ve got to love it! Pre-code Hollywood at its finest!

  • Prue

    This is way more helpful than anything else I’ve lokeod at.

  • Eric

    What a great list. I am admittedly a silent film novice — I have only seen a handful of Keaton and Chaplin features — but I am eager to dig into the era. Thanks for sharing these selections.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Eric, thanks for stopping by. I just checked out your blog and really enjoyed your review of City Lights, which I think really gets to the heart of what makes that film so great. I too am always making lists of movies that I need to see. Keep watching silents!

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