Tag Archives: City Lights

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.


Top 25 Films of the 1930s

25. Alexander Nevsky (Eisenstein, Russia, 1938)

24. The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock, UK, 1938)

It seems that 1935’s The 39 Steps has become the consensus pick for the masterpiece of Hitchcock’s British period but, while I do love that film unreservedly, I love this outrageously entertaining spy caper even more. While aboard a transcontinental train, Iris, a beautiful young Englishwoman, befriends Miss Froy, an elderly woman who mysteriously disappears. In a signature nightmarish paranoid plot, Hitchcock has all of the other passengers deny that Froy was ever on the train, which causes Iris to question her sanity. It’s up to Gilbert (Michael Redgrave in his screen debut), an unflappably witty ethnomusicologist, to help Iris get to the bottom of the mystery. This is one of Hitchcock’s most purely entertaining films, which is saying a lot, in part because of the colorful supporting players; I’m particularly fond of the hilarious slapstick brawl between Gilbert, Iris and a nefarious Italian magician. As someone who wore out his public domain VHS copy as a teenager, I am exceedingly grateful to the Criterion Collection for their impeccable 2011 Blu-ray.

23. Freaks (Browning, USA, 1932)

22. The Only Son (Ozu, Japan, 1936)

My favorite pre-war Yasujiro Ozu film is also his first sound movie, an exceedingly poignant story of the relationship between a single mother who slaves away in a silk factory to give her son the best possible education only to be disappointed when he doesn’t grow up to fulfill her lofty expectations. Exquisite direction, including a signature use of cutaways to seemingly random exteriors, nuanced performances and a simple, unsentimental plot combine for a unique and deeply moving experience.

21. Outskirts (Barnet, Russia, 1933)

Although active as a director until his death by suicide in 1965, Boris Barnet is probably best known for his silent film work (e.g., The Girl with the Hatbox and Miss Mend). Outskirts (AKA The Patriots) was Barnet’s first sound movie and remains an unjustly underseen masterpiece of its era. The film is a comedy/drama about the residents of an unnamed town in rural Russia in the days leading up to World War I. It starts off as a comedy that boasts a delightful and innovative use of sound (where animals and even inanimate objects are given voice) but becomes increasingly serious after the war breaks out. Most surprising of all is the tender love subplot that develops between a Russian peasant girl and a German POW. Hopefully, Outskirts will someday receive the loving home video release it deserves and become much better known among cinephiles.

20. Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford, USA, 1939)

19. Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (Shimazu, Japan, 1934)

The one and only film I’ve been able to track down by the esteemed Yasujiro Shimazu is this delightful comedy/drama about the friendship between two neighboring families set in contemporary suburban Japan. The plot concerns a love triangle between a law student who “looks like Frederic March” and the two sisters next door, one of whom is newly separated from her husband. In a lot of ways, this feels like the most modern (and westernized) Japanese movie of its era – the characters play baseball, watch a Betty Boop cartoon and engage in hilarious, flirtatious banter. The exchanges between the law student and the younger sister in particular (the Miss Yae of the title) are highly memorable and infectiously fun.

18. People on Sunday (Siodmak/Ulmer, Germany, 1930)

A remarkable documentary-like narrative film about a weekend in the life of ordinary Berliners, People on Sunday centers on five characters who are portrayed by non-actors with day-jobs similar to those of their counterparts in the story. The film is also fascinating in that it was made by a collective of young amateur filmmakers, all of whom would soon go on to notable careers in Hollywood: it was directed by brothers Curt and Robert Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann based on a script by Billy Wilder.

17. The Blue Angel (Von Sternberg, Germany, 1930)

The Blue Angel is notable for many reasons, including its status as the first German talkie and the film that launched Marlene Dietrich to international stardom. The story is reminiscent of Variety with Emil Jannings again playing a man who is driven to ruin by a treacherous woman, this time a cabaret singer of loose morals named Lola Lola (Dietrich at her most iconic). This was the only German-made film by Austrian director Josef von Sternberg.

16. Mr. Thank You (Shimizu, Japan, 1936)

Like Yasujiro Ozu, Hiroshi Shimizu was one of the top directors at Shochiku Studios in the 1930s – although his work was virtually unknown in the West until the 21st century. Mr. Thank You is an astonishing film about a bus driver known for his politeness who travels from town to town through rural Japan. It takes place virtually in real time and was shot on a real bus traveling through the countryside (no rear projection was used), which makes it an important stylistic precursor to both Italian Neorealism and the road movies of Abbas Kiarostami. Shimizu’s film is both universal (a bus journey as a metaphor for life – a series of sad, funny, ephemeral encounters between fellow travelers) and specifically rooted in Depression-era Japan (a woman sells her daughter into prostitution, a Korean laborer helps to build a road that she herself cannot afford to travel on by bus).

15. Vampyr (Dreyer, Germany, 1932)

14. L’age d’Or (Bunuel, France, 1930)

Luis Bunuel’s first feature-length film is also his first masterpiece, a hilarious Surrealist account of a man and a woman who repeatedly attempt to get together and have sex but are continually prevented from doing so by members of respectable bourgeois society. This is full of famous Surrealist images, which still retain their awesome, funny, unsettling power today: a woman shoos a full grown cow off of the bed in her upper-class home, a groundskeeper arbitrarily shoots his son, a woman lasciviously sucks on the toe of a statue, a man throws various objects, including a burning tree, a bishop and a giraffe, out of a second story window. Like a lot of great works of Surrealist art, this was deliberately meant to counter the rising tide of fascism that was sweeping across Europe at the time.

13. The Goddess (Wu, China, 1934)

12. Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (Hawks, USA, 1932)

11. Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, USA, 1932)

German emigre director Ernst Lubitsch inaugurated his mature period with this elegant, witty and sophisticated comedy about a love triangle between a master thief (Herbert Marshall), a female pickpocket (Miriam Hopkins) and the wealthy businesswoman they are both trying to fleece (Kay Francis). Not only a hilarious film but a very beautiful one; if you want to know what the famous “Lubitsch touch” is all about, this is the best place to start.

10. The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, USA, 1939)

The conventions of the gangster movie crystallized in the early ’30s with the release of The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and Scarface. By decade’s end, director Raoul Walsh and star James Cagney, both specialists in the genre, delivered the definitive gangster movie with this epic and nostalgic look back at the rise and fall of the bootlegging industry. The way the narrative of The Roaring Twenties continually opens up to situate its events within a wider social context (from the first World War to the stock market crash of ’29) would exert a major influence on Martin Scorsese. And, as the heavy, Humphrey Bogart is a match for Cagney made in tough guy movie heaven.

9. The Awful Truth (McCarey, USA, 1937)

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8. City Lights (Chaplin, USA, 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.

7. Earth (Dovzhenko, Ukraine, 1930)

My favorite Soviet film of the silent era is Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth, whose slender narrative about the virtues of collective farming in the Ukraine is merely an excuse for the director to present a succession of rapturously beautiful painterly images: wheat fields waving in the wind, rain falling on fruit, a young woman standing next to a giant sunflower and a series of unforgettable faces that resemble paintings of religious icons. Dovzhenko got his start as a painter and cartoonist and his purely visual approach to storytelling would serve as a model for future Soviet directing greats Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov.

6. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1939)

The first major masterpiece of Kenji Mizoguchi’s career is this towering period drama about the taboo relationship between a wealthy young actor and his family’s wet nurse. The formal precision of Mizoguchi’s exquisitely calibrated camera movements, combined with his signature use of long takes and long shots (there are literally no close-ups in the movie), is perfectly suited to his twin themes of doomed love and female sacrifice. This may have been a routine melodrama in the hands of any other director but Mizoguchi, the consummate perfectionist, knew that his rigorous visual style would touch and elevate the viewer. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums ranks alongside of Mizoguchi’s best post-war films (The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff) as one of the greatest achievements in cinema.

5. Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka, Japan, 1937)

Sadao Yamanaka is considered a major figure in Japanese movies of the early sound era. He died tragically before reaching his thirtieth birthday and only three of the twenty-plus films he directed in his brief, prolific career survive today. This is cause for bitter regret because Humanity and Paper Balloons is probably my favorite Japanese movie of the entire pre-war era, a film I would rank ahead of the greatest early work of the more well-known directors on this list. Set in the Tokugawa era, this story of a kidnap and ransom plot across class lines is a jidai-geki (period piece) that feels like a gendai-geki (contemporary story). Indeed, it’s fascinating to see such an unromanticized view of the samurai class, which went against cinematic trends of the pre-war years. This flawlessly directed portrait of 18th century village life is alternately tragic and funny and brimming with unforgettable characters.

4. M (Lang, Germany, 1931)

My favorite German movie of all time is this police procedural/serial killer thriller based on the exploits of several real-life German murderers of the 1920s. M was Fritz Lang’s first sound film and his innovative use of dialogue, sound effects and music (the killer’s habitual whistling) was hugely influential on subsequent movies. This was also the screen debut of theatrical actor Peter Lorre, chilling and believable as the killer, who would soon follow his director in carving out a memorable Hollywood career.

3. L’atalante (Vigo, France, 1934)

L’atalante tells the story of a newly married couple, a barge captain and his provincial wife, and their tumultuous honeymoon-cum-cargo trip along the Seine river. The simple boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-finds-girl plot is merely an excuse for director Jean Vigo and ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman to serve up an array of rapturously photographed images, all of which correspond to the emotions of his protagonists. In a legendary supporting role, Michel Simon’s portrayal of a tattooed, cat-loving first mate is as endearing as it is hilarious. One of cinema’s transcendental glories – endlessly rewatchable, always uplifting.

2. The Rules of the Game (Renoir, France, 1939)

This is Jean Renoir’s masterpiece and the grandaddy of all films about an assortment of friends and lovers getting together for a weekend-long party in the country. The “rules of the game” are the rules one must abide by in order to get along in society, which involves a considerable amount of dishonesty. Fittingly, the one character who is incapable of lying, the earnest, heart-on-his-sleeve aviator Andre, is also the character who dies “like an animal in the hunt.” Like the best works of Shakespeare or Chekhov, this humanist tragicomedy captures timeless truths about the inner workings of the human heart.

1. City Girl (Murnau, USA, 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.


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