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Category Archives: Best Films Pre-1920

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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