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Tag Archives: Frank Borzage

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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Top Ten Home Video Releases of 2010

Below is a list of my fifty favorite home video releases of 2010 – the top ten in preferential order and a 40-way tie(!) for number eleven. The only titles below that I didn’t actually purchase were the Von Sternberg, Costa and Gaumont box sets, which I rented instead, and that was mainly due to my fear that they will become available in better quality Blu-ray editions in the near future. In making the list, I arrived at my rankings by averaging my estimation of the quality of the movie as a whole, the image/sound transfer and the supplemental material. I also decided to spread the love around a little by including only one film per distributor in my top ten. Criterion and Masters of Cinema would have otherwise locked up most of those slots and I believe that a lot of other distribution companies deserve recognition for the brilliant work they’ve done. As this list should make clear, we are living in a true golden age of home video where the history of world cinema is readily available in breathtaking quality as it never has been before (at least for anyone with a multi-region Blu-ray player).

The Top Ten (preferential order):

10. Dust in the Wind (Hou, Taiwan, 1987) – Central Pictures / Sony Music Blu-ray

This disc isn’t perfect. For one thing, the image is interlaced instead of progressive scan. But this is such a quantum leap over the old non-anamorphic DVDs in every other area (clarity, color, depth and contrast), that I was still ecstatic to see it. The film itself, a delicate love story about teenage country bumpkins who move to Taipei in search of greater opportunity in the 1960s, remains one of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s best early works, paving the way for the opening segment of his masterpiece Three Times. I had previously thought of the cinematography in this movie as merely functional. Sony’s Blu-ray proves that it’s actually very beautiful. I can’t wait for more HHH in HD!

9. Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960) – Universal Blu-ray

Universal haven’t gotten things 100% right when it comes to Blu-ray. They haven’t been as meticulous about image quality as, say, Warner Brothers (see last year’s perfect North By Northwest disc for comparison), and I find their generic menus especially annoying. But I did enjoy Psycho‘s subtle but effective new 5.1 surround sound mix, which did not require the recording of new music/effects tracks like the blasphemous 1990s “restoration” of Vertigo. Bottom line: this version is the best that Alfred Hitchcock’s most disturbing film has ever looked and sounded on home video and is an essential addition to any serious movie library. More here.

8. Le Cercle Rouge (Melville, France, 1970) – Studio Canal Blu-ray

Jolly am I made by what I consider the greatest of all heist pictures, a crime subgenre of which I am quite fond! Studio Canal deserves kudos for being the first to marry Jean-Pierre Melville, the undisputed king of French film noir, with the Blu-ray format. The end result is a thing of beauty, more than making up for their botched job of Godard’s Le Mepris from last year. Now bring on the Criterion Army of Shadows. Full review here.

7. A Star Is Born (Cukor, USA, 1954) – Warner Brothers Blu-ray

Warner Brothers has consistently bested the other Hollywood studios when it comes to putting out lovingly restored, high-quality Blu-ray discs of their “catalogue titles.” For me, their best 2010 offering was this new high-def transfer of Ron Haver’s 1983 labor-of-love restoration of George Cukor’s epic musical/melodrama. Judy Garland’s force of nature performance as rising star Vicki Lester has caused many to regard this as the greatest “one woman show” in film history but I think it’s James Mason’s quietly devastating performance as fading movie star Norman Maine that gives A Star is Born its soul. The Blu-ray format is particularly well-suited to Cukor’s mise-en-scene, which alternates between brilliantly vibrant Technicolor sequences and unusually dark images with diffused shadows dominating.

6. A Man Escaped (Bresson, France, 1956) – Gaumont Blu-ray

French distributor Gaumont made my dreams come true by releasing one of my favorite movies ever in a region-free edition with English subtitles. The image quality may not provide as eye-poppingly drastic of an upgrade over previous editions as did their immaculate restoration of Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (also available region-free with English subs). But A Man Escaped, an exciting prison escape drama made in Robert Bresson’s inimitable “essentialist” style, is simply the better movie and, indeed, one of the towering achievements of the film medium. Hopefully, the rest of his catalogue will soon follow. Full review here.

5. Lucky Star (Borzage, USA, 1929) – Carlotta Blu-ray

The still-underrated Frank Borzage is the most romantic filmmaker of all time and Lucky Star from 1929 may be his finest hour: a luminous melodrama concerning the love that blossoms between a farm girl (the always superb Janet Gaynor) and a disabled WWI vet (a never better Charles Farrell). Incredibly, this was a “lost” film until a print turned up in the Netherlands in 1990. That print serves as the source for this transfer and appears to be in remarkably good shape — better than any prints Fox had in their vaults of Borzage’s other silents. Strange that a Hollywood masterpiece like this would only be available on Blu-ray from a distributor in France, but this is an essential purchase for lovers of silent film.

4. Metropolis (Lang, Germany, 1927) – Kino Blu-ray

Fritz Lang’s sci-fi masterpiece looks more prescient than ever in this “complete” cut, in which 25 minutes have been restored for the first time since the film’s 1927 premiere. The missing footage was long considered one of cinema’s holy grails (alongside the missing footage from Greed and The Magnificent Ambersons), so this release is cause for celebration. Kino’s Blu-ray is perfect. More here.

3. Late Spring / The Only Son (Ozu, Japan, 1949) – BFI Blu-ray

Last summer, the British Film Institute did the world of cinephilia a massive favor by releasing four of Yasujiro Ozu’s best films on Blu-ray (with more on the way in 2011). Two of his most sublime domestic dramas about intergenerational family conflict, The Only Son from 1936 and Late Spring from 1949, appeared on a single disc, automatically vaulting it to the top of my list of the year’s best releases. This is how all high-definition transfers should look — as faithful as possible to the experience of seeing the films as they would look projected in a theater, including whatever damage is inherent to the original film elements. Very film-like and very beautiful. Full review here.

2. Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy (Rossellini, Italy/Germany, 1945-1948) – The Criterion Collection DVD

If this had been a Blu-ray release, it would have unquestionably been number one on my list. But since good transfers of Roberto Rossellini’s monumental World War II trilogy have never truly existed on home video in any format, I can only be grateful to Criterion for the hard work that must have gone into restoring these films and presenting them on standard DVD in the impressive shape in which they appear here. (Paisan in particular seems to have been rescued from oblivion.) The movies themselves are definitive neo-realism, using a mix of professional and non-professional actors, location shooting with studio sets, and relaying ambiguous, loosely constructed narratives concerning the Italian resistance to the German occupation (Rome Open City) and the aftermath of the war in both Italy (Paisan) and Germany (Germany Year Zero). But it’s the copious supplemental material, including feature-length documentaries, interviews with Rossellini and an enlightening “visual essay” by Tag Gallagher, that pushes this to the front ranks of Criterion’s most important releases ever.

1. City Girl (F.W. Murnau, USA, 1930) – Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray

F.W. Murnau’s romantic masterpiece, without which Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven would be unthinkable, finally gets the treatment it deserves from the good folks at Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label. The story is the flip-side of Sunrise, where the good-hearted title character from Chicago moves with her new husband to a Minnesota farm only to find her existence made a living hell by her live-in father-in-law. This contains some of the most visually ecstatic and transcendental moments in all of cinema, such as the swooping, swooning camera movement that follows Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan as they run through a wheat field before collapsing to the ground in newlywed bliss. The image quality of this Blu-ray is so clean and so pristine that it sets the bar impossibly high for all future HD transfers of silent-era films.

Runners Up (alphabetical order):

11. 3 Silent Classics by Joseph Von Sternberg (Von Sternberg, Criterion DVD)
12. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, Kino Blu-ray)
13. Bigger Than Life (Ray, Criterion Blu-ray)
14. Black Narcissus (Powell/Pressburger, Criterion Blu-ray)
15. Breathless (Godard, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
16. Close-Up (Kiarostami Criterion Blur-ray)
17. Cronos (Del Toro, Criterion Blu-ray)
18. Days of Heaven (Malick, Criterion Blu-ray)
19. Early Summer / What Did the Lady Forget? (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
20. The Exorcist (Friedkin, Warner Brothers Blu-ray)
21. Fallen Angels (Wong, Kino Blu-ray)
22. Fantomas (Feuillade, Kino DVD)
23. French Can Can (Renoir, Gaumont Blu-ray)
24. Gaumont Treasures 1897 – 1913 (Feuillade/Guy/Perret, Kino DVD)
25. Happy Together (Wong, Kino Blu-ray)
26. The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, Summit Blu-ray)
27. The Leopard (Visconti, Criterion Blu-ray)
28. Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films By Pedro Costa (Costa, Criterion DVD)
29. Lola Montes (Ophuls, Criterion Blu-ray)
30. M (Lang, Criterion Blu-ray)
31. Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
32. Modern Times (Chaplin, Criterion Blu-ray)
33. Mulholland Drive (Lynch, Studio Canal Blu-ray)
34. Night of the Hunter (Laughton, Criterion Blu-ray)
35. Peeping Tom (Powell, Optimum Blu-ray)
36. Profound Desires of the Gods (Imamura, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
37. Red Desert (Antonioni, Criterion Blu-ray)
38. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, Criterion Blu-ray)
39. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, Criterion Blu-ray)
40. Sherlock Jr. / The Three Ages (Keaton, Kino Blu-ray)
41. Shutter Island (Scorsese, Paramount Blu-ray)
42. Stagecoach (Ford, Criterion Blu-ray)
43. Steamboat Bill Jr. (Keaton, Kino Blu-ray)
44. The Thin Red Line (Malick, Criterion Blu-ray)
45. Tokyo Story / Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (Ozu BFI Blu-ray)
46. Une Femme Mariee (Godard, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
47. Vengeance is Mine (Imamura, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
48. Vengeance Trilogy (Park, Palisades Tartan Blu-ray)
49. Vivre sa Vie (Godard, Criterion Blu-ray)
50. The Young Girls of Rochefort (Demy, Arte Video Blu-ray)


Top 25 Films of the 1920s

25. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, Russia, 1925)

The film that launched a worldwide revolution . . . in terms of editing! The most famous of all silent Russian movies is Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece about a failed revolution that took place twenty years earlier. The crew of the battleship Potemkin rebels against unfair living conditions (including being told to eat maggot-infested meat), which causes them to mutiny and kill their commanding officers. When the ship docks in the port city of Odessa, the revolutionary fervor spreads to their comrades on land until the White Russian army is called in to crush the rebellion. The ensuing massacre is justifiably one of the most famous scenes in film history, a frenetic, rapidly edited montage that purposefully breaks the rules of classical editing in order to convey an overwhelming impression of violence and chaos. Whenever you see a shot of a baby carriage rolling down a flight of stairs in a T.V. show or movie, this is what’s being referenced.

24. Safety Last! (Newmeyer/Taylor, USA, 1923)

As far as silent comedians go, Harold Lloyd was second only to Charlie Chaplin in terms of popularity. Safety Last! is his most famous film and one that anyone who cares about comedy movies should see. Lloyd plays his famous, can-do “Glasses Character” as a country bumpkin who arrives in the big city and gets a job in a department store. He concocts a publicity stunt to bring in more customers, which involves him scaling the exterior of the high-rise building where he works. This leads to a jaw-droppingly funny and amazingly acrobatic climax featuring one of the most iconic images in all of cinema: Lloyd suspended from the hands of a giant clock face near the top of the building.

23. The Thief of Bagdad (Walsh, USA, 1924)

The greatest of the 1920s swashbucklers, Raoul Walsh’s adventure epic stars Douglas Fairbanks as a thief who falls hopelessly in love with the daughter of the Caliph of Baghdad. In order to win her hand, the thief endeavors to best her other suitors by bringing back the rarest treasure before “the seventh moon.” This allows Walsh, one of the most astute directors of action ever, to execute the narrative as a series of exciting, self-contained set pieces, the elaborate special effects of which still impress and charm today.

22. Variety (Dupont, Germany, 1925)

One of the major masterpieces of the entire silent era that, for reasons unknown to me, has only ever been released on VHS in the United States. This tragic, darkly ironic crime tale concerns a love triangle between trapeze artists that ends in betrayal and murder. Emil Jannings is at his best as the cuckolded husband but it’s Karl Freund’s brilliant cinematography that really makes Variety fly.

21. The House of Mystery (Volkoff, France, 1923)

House

20. A Page of Madness (Kinugasa, Japan, 1926)

Director Teinosuke Kinugasa was a member of a group of avant-garde Japanese artists known as Shinkankaku-ha (“the school of new perceptions”) and this experimental film, written in collaboration with future Nobel Prize winning author Yasunari Kawabata, is a good representation of their rebellion against realistic representation. Apparently not influenced by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which Kinugasa claimed not to have seen at the time), this nonetheless tells a similarly mind-bending story of subjectivity set within an insane asylum. Silent Japanese films have had an even smaller survival rate than their American and European counterparts, which makes a startling, non-commercial work of cinematic poetry like this all the more valuable.

19. 3 Bad Men (Ford, USA, 1926)

John Ford’s first masterpiece is an epic western about a cowgirl (the splendid Olive Borden) who recruits the title trio to help her avenge the death of her father as well as find her a suitable husband. These twin plots unfurl, as happens so often in Ford, against the backdrop of a real life historical event – in this case the Dakota Land Rush of the 1870s. The climactic land rush sequence is presented as an exhilarating, fast-paced montage that rivals the best montage scenes coming out of the Soviet Union during the same period.

18. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, Germany, 1920)

This is the definitive German Expressionist film, in which all of the elements of director Robert Wiene’s mise-en-scene (lighting, set design, costume design, the movement of figures within the frame) have been deliberately distorted and exaggerated for expressive purposes. The end result, a view of the world through the eyes of a madman, single-handedly inaugurated the Expressionist movement, which dominated German cinema screens for most of the rest of the decade.

17. The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (Ingram, USA, 1921)

In 1968′s The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris listed director Rex Ingram as a “subject for further research” based solely on this masterpiece – an epic World War I/family drama that builds on the innovations of Griffith in its incredible painterly images and dynamic cutting, but which adds a more naturalistic acting style to the mix. Rudolph Valentino, in his first starring role, plays a rich ne’er-do-well who enlists in the French Army to impress the woman with whom he’s having an affair. But, once on the battlefield, he finds himself face to face with his German cousin . . . Sadly, Ingram is still a subject for further research; his movies, including this one, remain virtually impossible to see. Needless to say, this should be viewed at all costs whenever the opportunity arises.

16. The Unknown (Browning, USA, 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.

15. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, France, 1928)

14. Hindle Wakes (Elvey, UK, 1927)

hindle

My favorite silent British film of all is Maurice Elvey’s 1927 adaptation of Stanley Houghton’s play about mill employee Fanny Hawthorn (Estelle Brody) and her leisure-time adventures during “Wakes Week,” a traditional week-long holiday for factory workers and students in Lancashire. This is the most shockingly progressive silent movie I’ve ever seen in terms of how it portrays gender relations: Fanny has a tryst with the mill owner’s son who is engaged to be married to another, more respectable woman. The film’s sympathetic — and casual — treatment of a woman engaged in a pre-marital sexual relationship, and the way it attacks the hypocrisy of how society views the behavior of single men and women, makes the tone feel strikingly modern. (This is perhaps best exemplified by a sublime ending suggesting that the resilient heroine will survive and endure.) But the progressiveness of the film’s content is also impressively matched by its innovative form: a scene taking place at an amusement park that uses extended point-of-view shots of characters on rides is as cinematically breathtaking as any similar scenes in more well-known silent masterpieces like Sunrise, Lonesome and Coeur Fidele.

13. Isn’t Life Wonderful (Griffith, USA, 1924)

Polish refugees struggle to survive in post-World War I Berlin in D.W. Griffith’s final masterpiece, a deeply moving family drama shot almost entirely on location in Germany. Among the narrative strands is an exeedingly poignant subplot involving the courtship between Paul (Neil Hamilton), a war veteran whose lungs have been damaged by mustard gas and Inga, an orphan played by Carol Dempster (Griffith’s real-life love interest). A prototype of Neorealism, it is frankly astonishing that Griffith could extend such sympathy to the plight of a people who had been a much vilified enemy of the United States only a few years previously.

12. Lonesome (Fejos, USA, 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.

11. Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Lang, Germany, 1922)

The first in a cycle of Fritz Lang films about a diabolical criminal mastermind and master of disguise who crashes the stock market and swindles countless innocents out of their money seemingly for no reason other than the sheer fun of it. Indebted to the mystery serials of Louis Feuillade, this four-hour movie (split into two parts of equal length) remains a fast-paced, rip-roaring entertainment from start to finish.

10. Lucky Star (Borzage, USA, 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.

9. The Docks of New York (Von Sternberg, USA, 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.

8. The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom, Sweden, 1921)

My favorite Swedish movie ever is this silent classic by Victor Sjostrom that masterfully combines melodrama with gothic horror overtones and proved a major influence on both Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick (the latter of whom clearly took his climax for The Shining from here). The irresistible premise is that the last sinner to die on New Year’s Eve must drive the “phantom carriage” that collects the souls of the dead for the next calendar year. A masterpiece of moody atmospherics with special effects that still impress today. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray, featuring an intense experimental score by the band KTL, is a wonder.

7. The Crowd (Vidor, USA, 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.”

6. Pandora’s Box (Pabst, Germany, 1929)

A lot of German stars have tried their luck in Hollywood. In the late 1920s American actress Louise Brooks did the opposite, moving to Germany and teaming up with director G.W. Pabst for a trio of memorable films. Pandora’s Box is their masterpiece, a realistically told, naturalistically acted story of a woman forced into prostitution who meets her fate at the hands of Jack the Ripper. Although her career went into decline immediately after she returned to Hollywood, Brooks was rediscovered in the 1950s and today has become one of the most iconic visages (and bobbed haircuts) of the silent cinema.

5. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov, Russia, 1929)

Dziga Vertov’s radical experimental/documentary hybrid shows “a day in the life” of Moscow circa 1929 although the film had been shot over a period of several years in multiple cities including Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. The strobe-effect editing is mind-blowing even by today’s standards (the average shot length is less than three seconds) and the film is so densely packed with ideas that even after dozens of viewings, it still has secrets to reveal. But this is more than a “city symphony” film; it’s also one of the greatest movies ever made about the act of filmmaking, showcasing the talents of not only Vertov but his brother Mikhail Kaufman (the cinematographer who also frequently appears on screen as the title character), and his wife Yveta Svilova (the editor and the film’s true hero). The result is a film that playfully calls attention to the filmmaking process and its almost magical ability to record and transform reality.

4. Our Hospitality (Keaton/Blystone, USA, 1923)

Buster Keaton hit his stride as writer/director/star with his second feature, a riotously funny version of the Hatfield/McCoy feud. Not as well known today as The General, this is for my money Keaton’s funniest film and the one with the most impressive physical stunts (the climactic waterfall rescue has never been equalled). Our Hospitality remains the most modern of all silent comedies due in part to Keaton’s hilariously blank facial expressions as actor as well as his beautifully engineered physical gags as director, which he always profitably captures in immaculately composed long shots. One of the best places to start exploring silent movies period.

3. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau, USA, 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.

2. Coeur Fidele (Epstein, France, 1923)

1. Greed (Von Stroheim, USA, 1924)

Erich von Stroheim’s nine hour adaptation of Frank Norris’ classic American novel McTeague was brutally cut down to its present two hour and twenty minute running time by MGM executives, who also unconscionably destroyed all of the excised footage. Remarkably, the remaining shadow of Stroheim’s original vision (an excoriating indictment of the destructive power of money about a dentist, his wife and best friend who find their lives torn apart by greed) is still a deathless masterpiece. The powerhouse performances and shot-on-location Death Valley climax are unforgettable.


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