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Recently Watched Silents

147 posts in this topic

Behind the Door (1919) - Bleak melodrama from producer Thomas Ince and director Irvin Willat. Hobart Bosworth stars as Captain Krug, a retired sea captain living in a small Maine town where he's opened a taxidermy shop. Alice Morse (Jane Novak) is the daughter of local banker Matthew (JP Lockney). Alice and Krug are in love, but her father wants her to marry his shady business partner Mark (Otto Hoffman). All of their romantic troubles fall by the wayside when the US enters WW1 and Krug re-enlists as a ship's captain. Also featuring James Gordon, Richard Wayne, and Wallace Beery.

 

The first half of this fairly corny and conventional, but when things move out to sea, the story gets dark and darker. The final 10 minutes are genuinely unnerving, and must have had some effect on audiences of the day. Hobart, a major actor in his time, is stagey and broad. Beery is truly loathsome as a German submarine captain. The restoration of this looked good, although a small sequence was patched together with still photographs.   7/10

 

Source: FilmStruck

 

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Master of the House (1925) - Danish domestic drama from writer-director Carl Theodor Dreyer. Viktor (Johannes Meyer) is a petty tyrant in his home, constantly complaining about his wife Ida's (Astrid Holm) perceived shortcomings and failures. It gets so unbearable that Ida works herself into exhaustion and illness. Cantankerous old housemaid Mads (Mathilde Nielsen) decides to have Ida go and recuperate at her mother's house, while she will stay and take care of the home, as well as make life a living hell for Viktor until he realizes how good he has it with Ida. Also featuring Karin Nellemose, Petrine Sonne, and Clara Schonfeld.

 

Dreyer accomplishes the very difficult feat of making a movie that starts out as a grim, depressing, even infuriating drama of verbal abuse and spousal neglect, and turning it into a gentle, heartwarming comedy by the end. The performances by the three leads, as well as the elder daughter, are all good. The filming techniques, using the sort of cameo-style framing popular in the 1910's, seem a bit dated even by 1925 standards, and the story's origin as a play are evident from the limited settings. But patient viewers will be rewarded with a satisfying movie experience.   7/10

 

Source: FilmStruck

 

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Whirlpool of Fate (1925) - aka La fille de l'eau, this is an early effort from director Jean Renoir. The story follows young Gudule (Catherine Hessling), the daughter of a canal boat captain. She lives on board ship with her father and her slovenly, brutish uncle. When the father dies, Gudule flees the advances of her uncle, and her odyssey to find a new home takes her from a pair of wandering Gypsies to a caring family of some note and wealth. But as her uncle reappears, her new home may be destroyed, too. Also featuring Charlotte Clasis, Pierre Champagne, Maurice Touze, Georges Terof, Harold Levingston, and Madame Fockenberghe.

 

This was only Renoir's second feature, following 1924's Backbiters, and he's still learning his craft. Some bits of this seem amateurish, while others, like a lengthy dream sequence, seem innovative and experimental. Hessling, Renoir's wife at the time and his frequent star, reminded me of Mary Pickford, and there are a number of admiring close-ups of her face.    7/10

 

Source: FilmStruck

 

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Bardelys the Magnificent (1926) - Very enjoyable romance/comedy/action movie from director King Vidor. John Gilbert has one of his best roles as Bardelys, a nobleman in 17th century France. He has a reputation with the ladies that is legendary, and so rival nobleman Chatellerault (Roy D'Arcy) challenges Bardelys to a wager: the Lothario must seduce the chaste Roxalanne de Lavedan (Eleanor Boardman) or lose his lands and holdings. Bardelys accepts, and under the guise of a fugitive in a rebellion brewing against King Louis XIII (Arthur Lubin), he finagles his way into the Lavedan household. But as he starts to actually fall in love with the beautiful and pure Roxalanne, Bardelys begins to regret not only the wager, but his entire way of life. Also featuring Lionel Belmore, George K. Arthur, Theodore von Eltz, and Karl Dane. Both Lou Costello and John Wayne are reportedly among the many background players.

 

Gilbert is sensational in a role that seems a bit like a parody of the previous year's Don Juan starring John Barrymore. Gilbert is funny, handsome, energetic and all together a true movie star. Boardman is also lovely, and finally makes an impression after seeing her in a few films. The cast of capable character actors in support is also top-notch. Vidor shoots many scenes in an interesting manner, like having spears thrust directly at the camera lens, or shooting a curtain-swinging Gilbert from the top down, giving a vertiginous effect. Two stand-out sequences include a lengthy romantic boat ride through a passage of hanging vines, and a swashbuckling set-piece near the end that rivals anything Fairbanks was doing. This movie was thought lost for a long time, and this restoration looks great for the most part, but some bits in the second act had to be "reconstructed" using stills and extra title cards. Recommended.   8/10

 

Source: FilmStruck

 

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Nana (1926) - More early Jean Renoir, based on the novel by Emile Zola. Nana (Catherine Hessling) is a gold-digging stage actress with an almost supernatural allure for the opposite sex. She uses and discards a succession of rich suitors, but her emotional carelessness leads to tragedy. Also featuring Werner Krauss, Jean Angelo, Pierre Champagne, Pierre Lestringuez, and Claude-Autant Lara.

 

Hessling turns in a performance both laughable and oddly hypnotic, absurd but high camp. It's broad and affected more than most in silent movies, and it seems as if it was intentionally done, highly stylistic rather than realistic. Her hold over her suitors therefore becomes unnatural, and one wonders why these men go through what they do for her, of all people, as she exhibits neither charm nor good looks, talent nor wit. Renoir was still struggling a bit, too, as some scenes are interestingly staged, while others are flat and plainly artificial. At one point, the cameraman's fingers are visible as he shut the lens aperture. This was an expensive flop at the time, and stalled Renoir's career a bit. I can see why.   5/10

 

Source: FilmStruck

 

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Chicago (1927) - Original film version of the Maurine Dallas Watkins play, which was based on a true-crime story. Phyllis Haver stars as Roxie Hart, a bottle-blonde dim-bulb jazz baby with a heart of coal. She's doted on by her good-guy chump of a husband, Amos (Victor Varconi). When Roxie shoots and kills her illicit lover (Eugene Pallette!), her court case becomes a media sensation, drawing the attention of high-priced criminal attorney William Flynn (Robert Edeson). Also featuring Virginia Bradford, Warner Richmond, and May Robson as the prison matron.

 

I haven't yet seen the 1942 version with Ginger Rogers, so I only have the musical to compare it to. The storyline is a bit different, as there's more of a focus on Amos the husband, who, while still a sucker for Roxie, is also presented more as a traditional movie hero. He's also the weakest part of this version, but Haver is terrific as Roxie, as is Edeson as an older but no less greedy Flynn. The biggest difference one will notice with the later musical is the complete absence of the Velma Kelly character, although there is still a female rogue's gallery scene in the prison. This was directed by Frank Urson, who I am unfamiliar with, and was produced by Cecil B. DeMille. I found this version to be a wonderfully acerbic dark comedy dripping in cynicism, and a great satire of the media, celebrity, the weaknesses in our legal system, and loose morals. Recommended.   8/10

 

Source: FilmStruck

 

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The Little Match Girl (1928) - Short film from director Jean Renoir stars his wife and frequent collaborator Catherine Hessling as the title character, a young girl who is thrust out on a snowy night by her parent and told to sell as many matchboxes as possible. Ill-dressed for the weather and finding no customers, she begins to dream of giant toys and floating Christmas trees as the cold grows ever stronger... Also featuring Eric Barclay, Jean Storm, and Manuel Raaby.

 

Running a scant 33 minutes, this still manages to throw in a lot of primitive but artistically effective special effects and camera set-ups, from miniatures to rear-projection, double exposures to shooting through fogged glass. It's generally interesting to look at, but there's no effort at narrative or character, just visual trickery and experimentation.   7/10

 

Source: FilmStruck

 

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I've watched everything I had in my stacks from the silent era, which I identify as 1897-1928. That beginning year is a bit arbitrary, and is meant to denote whenever the motion picture art form began in earnest. By 1929, more and more films were being released with sound, either music, sound effects, dialogue, or all three. Now, that being said, I will be watching more silent movies in the future, as there were silent films still being released though at least the mid 1930s in countries around the world. 

 

As I finish watching each year from 1929-2017, I'll rewatch my choices for the top ten films from each year. For this period, though, I'm going to a watch my Top 20 favorites from the silent era, combining films from various years (from 1916 to 1928, to be exact). Instead of year order, I'll be watching them in ascending order of preference, #20 up to #1. There are three caveats, though:

 

#1 - I could not obtain quality copies of two of my choices, 1923's Hunchback of Notre Dame or 1923's La Roue. I have replaced those two with runner-ups, which will appear in the #20 and #19 positions.

 

#2 - Often the choice for Best Picture at the Oscars will appear among my choices for Top Ten of each year. But in cases where it doesn't, I will still be rewatching them before I begin my Top Films countdown. This is to rewatch and reassess them, as well as to watch recently acquired copies of said films.

 

#3 - My list was compiled and assembled before I began this latest film watching exercise, and so it does not include any recently seen movies that I would now put on my favorites list. There have been two, 1926's Flesh and the Devil and 1927's Napoleon, that would now rank in my top ten choices.

 

So, now that I've explained what I'll be doing/watching next, I'll be back later with a review.

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Wings (1927) - The first movie to win the Best Picture Oscar was this terrific WW1 aviation epic from Paramount Pictures and director William Wellman. Charles "Buddy" Rogers stars as Jack Powell, a small town guy who quickly joins up for the Air Corps when the US enters World War One. He's joined by David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), the town rich kid. Both Jack and David are in love with Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), although Sylvia only feels the same about David. Top-billed Clara Bow is Mary Preston, Jack's girl-next-door who is secretly in love with him, so much so that she joins the ambulance corps in order to get sent overseas, too. Jack and David become close friends in the crucible of war, but life is often short for a fighter pilot. Also featuring Gary Cooper, Henry B. Walthall, El Brendell, Hedda Hopper, George Irving, and Roscoe Karns.

 

The aerial photography is truly incredible, and is the real highlight, although the ground warfare scenes are huge in scope and well-choreographed. The performances are all very good. Rogers and Arlen have a real bromance, and both exude star power. Cooper made quite a splash in an early, very small role. Bow is fun, but her scenes almost seem to be from a different movie. The version I watched had a new 5.1 surround score, plus sound effects by Ben Burtt, and rather than distract, these additions add to the film. The movie also won an Oscar for Best Engineering Effects, a precursor to the special effects award. While this doesn't quite rise to the epic heights of The Big Parade, this is very good, and makes a good companion piece with that film in their depiction of "the Great War". Recommended.   8/10

 

Source: Paramount DVD. The sole bonus feature is a good, 36-minute making-of documentary.

 

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#20 Favorite Movie of the Silent Era

 

The Kid (1921) - First feature-length film from director-star Charlie Chaplin. He plays the Tramp, who stumbles upon an abandoned baby, which he reluctantly raises. Five years later, he and the boy (Jackie Coogan) live a hard-scrabble life, but they have each other. When the child welfare department decides to take the boy, the Tramp takes him on the run, but some things are not meant to be. Also featuring Edna Purviance, Carl Miller, Lita Grey, and Jackie Coogan Sr.

 

Chaplin's patented mix of slapstick humor, honest humanity, and shameless sentimentality are put on fine display here. The running time is slight (the version I watched was 53 minutes), but it seems just about right. The story is simple, the characters are basic and no more than necessary to tell the tale. Coogan was easily one of the best child actors in the history of film, extremely adorable without being precious, and immensely talented. Chaplin would continue to grow artistically, but this is the bridge from his early, Mack Sennett-era silliness and his later, multi-dimensional masterworks. 8/10

 

Source: Criterion DVD, featuring a wealth of extras, including audio commentary by Chaplin expert Charles Maland; vintage video interviews with Jackie Coogan and Lita Grey, and audio interviews with cinematographer Rollie Totheroh and distributor Mo Rothman; a "video essay" on Jackie Coogan's childhood stardom; a short program about the proper cranking speed for silent films; deleted scenes; a vintage newsreel about Chaplin; and Nice & Friendly, a Chaplin/Coogan short. There's also a print essay in the DVD insert.

 

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#19 Favorite Movie of the Silent Era

 

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) - Buster Keaton's last film where he had some creative control over it, although he was saddled with director Charles Reisner. Keaton plays William Canfield Jr., the effete and educated son of hard-bitten paddleboat captain "Steamboat Bill" Canfield (Ernest Torrence). Bill Senior's boat has seen better days, and local big shot J.J. King (Tom McGuire) wants him out of competition with his own, new boat. Bill Junior's arrival is not warmly received by his grumpy old man, but King's daughter Kitty (Marion Byron) takes a shine to him. Also featuring Tom Lewis.

 

It was a toss-up for me between this film and Sherlock, Jr. (1924), but I decided on Steamboat Bill Jr. due to the tremendous finale, featuring what is perhaps Keaton's best-remembered visual gag (the housefront falling over him, with him passing safely through the window). But that's not the only part to recommend this movie, as there are numerous laughs and impressive stunts throughout the film. The plot may be paper thin, but they usually are in Keaton's films. This was very expensive, and proved to be a major flop, ending Keaton's creative control and signaling the beginning of the end of his career. However, it has gone on to critical and audience acclaim, and I regard it as Keaton's second best feature. 8/10

 

Source: Kino DVD, with options for alternate musical scores, as well as an introduction by the head of Lobster Films, who oversaw the latest restoration of the film.

 

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#18 Favorite Movie of the Silent Era

 

The Phantom Carriage (1921) - Swedish director Victor Sjostrom's supernatural morality play is made all the more effective with eerie special effects and a haunting score. Sjostrom also stars as David Holm, an abusive, drunken, lazy slob who has made life hell for those around him, particularly his poor wife (Hilda Borgstrom) and his two small children. After regaling some fellow drunks in a cemetery on New Year's Eve with the legend that the last person to die each year much act as the Grim Reaper for the following year, David passes out on a grave. He's soon awakened by the title conveyance, which is driven by David's friend Georges (Tore Svennberg), who was the last to die the previous year. Georges tells David that he has died, and must become the next driver of the phantom carriage. Georges then takes David on a journey through his past and present to examine the mistakes that he had made, especially his treatment of a saintly Salvation Army sister (Astrid Holm). Also featuring Concordia Selander, Lisa Lundholm, Einar Axelsson, and Nils Arehn.

 

The version I watched this time had a new, experimental electronic score from KTL which really heightened the mood of the film. Sjostrom's imagery is very interesting, and the ghostly effects are still compelling. The moral lesson of being a better person is simple enough, and the film really challenges you to care about David, who seems to make every bad decision possible. While this is often labeled as a horror film, it won't appeal to many horror fans, as the horrors here are of a spiritual nature, and there's no suspense to speak of. Still, it's cinematic influence has inspired countless fright films since.  8/10

 

Source: Criterion DVD, with a lot of extras, including: commentary by historian Casper Tybjerg; a vintage interview with director Ingmar Bergman; a new short exploring the connections and influences between Sjostrom's films and Bergman's; a written essay in the DVD insert; and a short bit of film showing the 1919 construction of the Rasunda movie studios in Sweden, with on-site visits by Sjostrom and Mauritz Stiller.

 

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#17 Favorite Movie of the Silent Era

 

Safety Last! (1923) - Iconic comedy from Harold Lloyd and directors Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor. Lloyd plays a smalltown boy who goes to the big city to make his fortune so he can marry his sweetheart (Mildred Davis). He gets a job in a department store, but his prospects look dim, so he lies to his girl and tells her that he's the store manager. When she comes for a visit, things get complicated. Also featuring Bill Strother, Noah Young, Westcott Clarke, and Helen Gilmore.

 

This is the movie with the classic scene of Lloyd climbing a high-rise and dangling from the clock. That sequence is amazing, but there are countless other laughs and great moments spread throughout the brief 73 minute running time. One extended gag with Lloyd desperately trying to get to work on time is a personal favorite. Lloyd brings his usual characterization, a decent guy with quick wits and reflexes who tries to succeed in a world seemingly out to get him. I would also recommend Lloyd's The Freshman (1925), The Kid Brother (1927), and Speedy (1928).   8/10

 

Source: Criterion DVD, a magnificent 2-disc edition featuring an overabundance of extras. The first disc features the film with multiple music scores and audio commentary by critic Leonard Maltin and film historian Richard Correll; an introduction from Lloyd's granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd; and three Lloyd comedy shorts - Take a Chance (1918), Young Mr. Jazz (1919), and His Royal Slyness (1920), each with audio commentary from Correll and critic John Bengtson. The second disc features the feature-length documentary Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius (1989), narrated by Lindsay Anderson; another documentary that details the film's L.A. locations then and now; and an interview with new score composer Carl Davis. There's also a print essay included with the insert. 

 

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#16 Favorite Movie of the Silent Era

 

The Phantom of the Opera (1925) - Horror classic from Universal Pictures, based on the book by Gaston Leroux. The Paris Opera House is preparing a new staging of Faust when a series of strange occurrences begin, which the more superstitious among the cast and crew blame on the Phantom, a ghost who said to haunt the place. However, the Phantom is real, a scarred former musician and composer named Erik (Lon Chaney), and he wants to make the understudy Christine (Mary Philbin) the star of the show. Christine's boyfriend, the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry), doesn't appreciate the Phantom's unwanted attentions, and seeks to stop the depraved soul from taking Christine away. Also featuring John St. Polis, Snitz Edwards, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Gibson Gowland, Virginia Pearson, and Carla Laemmle.

 

The first horror classic from Universal, this is the scariest version of the oft-filmed story. It may seem strange to make a story about the music world into a silent film, but it works. Chaney created his finest makeup work here, in my opinion, one that still sends chills up spines. He also manages to convey his character's emotions through it, which is no small task. Philbin is also fine as Christine. There are many versions of this silent around, with running times anywhere from 80 to 107 minutes, as well as some strictly in B & W, some that add the original tinting, and some that feature the early technicolor masquerade ball sequence, which remains a visual highlight.  8/10

 

Source: Kino DVD, a two-disc edition that offers various versions and edits, as well as audio commentary by historian Jon C. Mirsalis, an interview with composer Gabriel Thibedeau, and 2 1925 Paris travelogue shorts.

 

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#15 Favorite Movie of the Silent Era

 

The Gold Rush (1925) - Charlie Chaplin's classic comedy about the Alaskan gold rush. Chaplin plays The Lone Prospector, who has traveled to the frigid north to hopefully strike it rich. He bumps into both Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), who has just found a huge gold deposit, and Black Larsen (Tom Murray), a wanted criminal who is hiding out in the snowy countryside. While Larsen plots to get at Big Jim's gold, the Prospector and Big Jim make nice. When the Prospector goes to a nearby boom town, he meets saloon girl George (Georgia Hale), with whom he becomes smitten. 

 

Several of Chaplin's greatest bits are included here, including the eating of a shoe, the "dancing rolls", and the teetering cabin on a cliff sequence, a landmark in set design and choreography. Although I still feel that Chaplin's best work later, this is still an essential film in the genre of silent comedy. This was re-released in 1942 with a new score, added sound effects, and with some parts edited out, and strangely this version earned 2 Oscar nominations, for Best Sound, and Best Score, Musical or Comedy.  8/10

 

Source: Criterion DVD, another excellent two-disc edition: Disc one includes both the 1925 and 1942 versions of the film, with commentary by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance. Disc two includes a documentary on the film's production, another documentary on the film's special effects, and a third documentary on the use of music in Chaplin's films. The insert also includes a written essay.

 

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#14 Favorite Movie of the Silent Era

 

Intolerance (1916) - The oldest film on my top 20 favorites list is this proto-epic from D.W. Griffith. Four storylines are followed. The first is set in the modern world, where The Dear One (Mae Marsh) and her beloved The Boy (Bobby Harron) are struggling to survive. He loses his job due to union striking after a pay cut mandated so that the company boss can fund his sister's charity work. That same charity takes away the Dear One's child, citing neglect, as the Boy is sent to jail after resorting to crime.

 

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The second story follows the later life of Jesus (Howard Gaye) leading up to his crucifixion.

 

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The third story details the events of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572 where Huguenot protestants were killed under orders of the Catholic royalty.

 

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The fourth story is set in ancient Babylon, and deals with a religious struggle between different sects that leads to their conquest by the Persians.

 

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The cast includes Constance Talmadge in 2 roles, Miriam Cooper, Sam De Grasse, Margery Wilson, Eugene Pallette, Josephine Crowell, W.E. Lawrence, Elmer Clifton, Alfred Paget, Seena Owen, Tully Marshall, Elmo Lincoln, George Siegmann, Carl Stockdale, Lillian Langdon, Bessie Love, and Lillian Gish as "the Eternal Motherhood".

 

Griffith's masterpiece is a marvel of narrative and structural complexity for the time, and the Babylon scenes are truly awe-inspiring in their scope and ambition. The story, in which instances of "intolerance" are illustrated throughout the ages, is a bit muddled and more than a little pretentious, but the visualization is second-to-none. It's been put forth that Griffith made this as a sort of apologia for the racial insensitivity of his previous mega-hit The Birth of a Nation, but Griffith scholars disagree, and say that Griffith was never ashamed by the racist nature of his last movie, and that the intolerance that he was speaking out against was that which had been directed at him over that film (shades of our current political climate). Regardless, this ended up being the most expensive film ever made up to that point, and was a major flop at the box office, from which Griffith never really recovered. The film now stands as a colossal achievement, and a precursor to historical epics to come. There are various versions in circulation, and the version I watched ran 197 minutes.   8/10

 

Source: Kino DVD.

 

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Great thread, I wish I had more time to get involved in it. Regarding Intolerance, I once remember reading a short interview that Morris Ankrum gave, saying he had a bit part in it. I can't remember where I saw the article, so I am trying to find it. It's possible, since Ankrum was a student at USC at the time, and may have done it as a lark.

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#13 Favorite Movie of the Silent Era

 

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922) - German crime drama epic that introduced the cinema's first super-villain, from director Fritz Lang, adapted by Thea von Harbou from the book by Norbert Jacques. Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) runs a criminal empire with tentacles in many areas: he manipulates events to predict the stock market, causing panics that he can profit from; he runs clandestine gambling casinos, and uses his powers of hypnosis and mind-control to cheat and win; and he oversees a highly lucrative counterfeiting operation. He operates under a variety of disguises and personas, with only a small inner circle even aware of his existence. His machinations eventually come to the notice of state prosecutor von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke) who sets about to bring the arch-fiend to justice. Also featuring Aud Egede-Nissen, Gertrude Welcker, Alfred Abel, Paul Richter, Georg John, and Robert Forster-Larrinaga.

 

This four and a half hour colossus is split into two parts, and while it is long, it doesn't overstay its welcome. The first 20 minutes, detailing Mabuse's intricate method of causing mayhem at the stock exchange, is extremely well done. Klein-Rogge is magnificent in the title role, transformed into multiple characterizations as the elusive Mabuse obscures his movements through masquerades. Director Lang also employs a number of novel cinematic tricks to convey Mabuse's power, such as his hypnotic suggestions appearing as glowing words that torment his targets. While the film is clearly an indictment on Weimar-era German dissipation and decadence, the character of Mabuse is a bit thornier: Lang claims that he's meant to represent the type of amoral power-**** that was given rise in the period, and which would lead to Hitler's ascension; others have pointed out the anti-Semitic nature of Mabuse, as he seems to fit many of the anti-Jew conspiracies of the day. Whatever the case, Lang's film is a masterpiece of early cinematic crime fiction, and one whose inspiration continues to this day.   8/10

 

Source: Kino DVD, with the film split across two discs due to length, and also featuring a short making-of documentary.

 

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Great thread, I wish I had more time to get involved in it. Regarding Intolerance, I once remember reading a short interview that Morris Ankrum gave, saying he had a bit part in it. I can't remember where I saw the article, so I am trying to find it. It's possible, since Ankrum was a student at USC at the time, and may have done it as a lark.

 

Yeah, I was reading that there were a number of pre-fame people who played bit roles or were extras, including King Vidor, Frank Borzage, Donald Crisp, Tod Browning, and Erich von Stroheim, the last two of which, along with Woody Van Dyke, also served as assistant editors.

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#12 Favorite Movie of the Silent Era

 

Faust (1926) - German fantasy/horror/morality play from director F.W. Murnau, and based on the play by Goethe. Emil Jannings has the role of his life as Mephisto aka the Devil, who tempts elderly alchemist Faust (Gosta Ekman) with youth in exchange for his soul. Faust agrees, so that he can pursue the love of the beautiful Gretchen (Camilla Horn), but as with all deals with the Devil, things go poorly. Also featuring Frida Richard, William Dieterle, Yvette Guilbert, Eric Barclay, Hanna Ralph, and Werner Fuetterer.

 

Murnau uses all manner of special effects and camera trickery to create an artificial yet compelling stylized storybook-world. Many of the images here are among the greatest of the time, if not in all cinema. Jannings is hilarious, mugging and posing to tremendous effect. Both Ekman and Horn are sincere and engaging, while it's interesting to see future Hollywood director Dieterle back in his acting days, no doubt gaining inspiration for his later effort The Devil & Daniel Webster.   9/10

 

Source: Kino DVD, and a surprisingly awful print.

 

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#11 Favorite Movie of the Silent Era

 

Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922) - Swedish-Danish co-production from director Benjamin Christensen. The movie is a blend of documentary and narrative, describing the various forms of witchcraft, devil-worship and other dark supernatural activites. Their depiction in art through the centuries, as well as re-enactments of witch trials, witches' Sabbaths, and even convent hysteria are shown. The cast includes Maren Pedersen, Clara Pontoppidan, Elith Pio, Oscar Stribolt, Tota Treje, John Andersen, and Christensen himself as the Devil.

 

There's a sly, winking wit running through the proceedings, and while the film is filled with bizarre, horrifying, and even profane imagery, there's a sense that none of it is being taken too seriously. Most of the demonic forms are designed to resemble those from old paintings or wood-cuts. The version I watched was the original Swedish version running 105 minutes, but there's a shorter, 76 minute version entitled "Witchcraft Through the Ages" featuring narration by William S. Burroughs that was released in 1968. This has proven to be highly influential on the horror genre, and it still contains some shocking moments.   9/10

 

Source: Criterion DVD, featuring both versions of the movie, as well as commentary by historian Casper Tybjerg, and a circa-1941 introduction to the film from Christensen.

 

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#10 Favorite Movie of the Silent Era

 

Battleship Potemkin (1925) - Soviet propaganda masterpiece from Sergei Eisenstein. The movie depicts a sailors mutiny on board the titular Russian vessel in the Black Sea. After shipboard conditions deteriorate, the sailors overthrow the ship's officers (and a clergyman), setting sail for Odessa for provisions. They are greeted as heroes by the people, but a contingent of Cossack soldiers begins to massacre the celebration. The cast includes Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barskiy, Grigoriy Aleksandrov, and Ivan Bobrov.

 

More than any other film on this list, Potemkin is included for its style rather than its substance. The story of the mutiny is thin, and there is little to no character development. The strength of this movie lies in its technique, specifically the editing, although shot framing is also innovative and compelling. The rapid-cut montage editing makes this the closest to a modern film of any of its era, aesthetically speaking. Quickly cutting from a closeup on a sailor's face to a shot of his clenched fist, then quickly to a closeup of a scared officer's face, then the feet of the sailor as he charges forward, and finally a medium shot of the two colliding, creates a visceral charge unlike anything else in movies at the time. The justly famous "Odessa steps" sequence, wherein panicked townsfolk scramble down a huge set of stairs as soldiers march toward them, firing their rifles into the crowd, is still an exhilarating bit of filmmaking. One prestigious European film society named this the greatest film ever made, period. I wouldn't go that far, but it still maintains its power to affect an audience near a hundred years later.   9/10

 

Source: Kino DVD, a 2-disc set featuring the movie with either English or Russian intertitles, as well as a making-of documentary.

 

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#9 Favorite Movie of the Silent Era

 

Sunrise (1927) - F.W. Murnau's American film debut was this stylized romantic drama for Fox. George O'Brien is The Man, a country farmer married to The Wife (Janet Gaynor). Their life seemed idyllic, but The Man grew bored and began an affair with The Woman From the City (Margaret Livingston), who convinces The Man to murder his wife so that they can be together. When The Man is rowing The Wife across the lake for a visit to The City, he begins to make his move, but his conscience won't allow him to follow through. This begins a journey for The Man and The Wife in the City, where they learn to love each other again. Also featuring Bodil Rosing, J. Farrell MacDonald, Ralph Sipperly, and Jane Winton.

 

Murnau and crew once again create an artificial yet compelling storybook world of cinematic wonderment. The camerawork is deceptively complicated and innovative, while the forced perspective sets and miniature work is still visually pleasing. The story is archetypal, and the last act is moving in its emotional weight. At the first Oscars this won an award only from that year, Best Picture - Unique and Artistic Production, as well as winning for Best Cinematography and Best Actress (Gaynor, one of 3 films cited). It also garnered a nomination for Best Art Direction.   9/10

 

Source: Fox Blu Ray/DVD, featuring two versions of the film: one the original version with Fox Movietone score and sound effects, the other the exported fully silent version. There's also audio commentary and some outtakes.

 

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#8 Favorite Movie of the Silent Era

 

Die Nibelungen (1924) - Director Fritz Lang's 288 minute fantasy epic, adapted by Thea von Harbou from the poem. The film is split into two parts.

 

Siegfried - The first section tells the tale of the great hero Siegfried (Paul Richter) who, after forging a mighty sword, slays a dragon and bathes in its blood, granting him virtual invincibility. He later encounters a race of treasure-hoarding dwarfs before heading to the kingdom of the Burgundians in hopes of marrying the beautiful Princess Kriemhild (Margarete Schon). The marriage will only be consented to if Siegfried will first help Kriemhild's brother, King Gunther (Theodor Loos) win the hand of Brunhild (Hanna Ralph), the fierce Queen of Iceland.

 

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Kriemhild's Revenge[spoilerS] After Siegfried is slain via the treachery of King Gunther at the end of part one, his now-widow Kriemhild swears vengeance against her own family and people. She accepts the marriage proposal of the brutish King Etzel of the Huns (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) and bears him a son in exchange for Etzel's promise to enact Kriemhild's plan for revenge.

 

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The effects here are often primitive, and perhaps even laughable to most modern audiences, but I like them nonetheless. The first half features all of the fantasy elements, and they are intriguing in their early film incarnations. The two female leads, Schon as Kriemhild and Ralph as Brunhild, aren't exactly beauties by modern standards, and they both often resemble men in drag, but that adds to the visual uniqueness of the production. The second half more closely resembles a costume war epic, with many sword battles and the like. Schon is intense and much more interesting as the vengeful Kriemhild, while Klein-Rogge, in heavy makeup, is a strange Hun. This is quite an intimidating undertaking with its 5-hour running time, although those with the patience to watch it will be rewarded.   9/10

 

Source: Kino DVD, on two discs, each devoted to one half of the film. There are also behind-the-scenes photos.

 

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#7 Favorite Movie of the Silent Era

 

The Last Laugh (1924) - F.W. Murnau's haunting look at old age and obsolescence stars Emil Jannings as an elderly doorman at a fancy hotel. His abilities have been on the wane as his age has forced him to slow down, but he still takes great pride in his position and his fancy uniform. His entire existence is shattered when he gets fired, and he begins a slow descent into madness. Also featuring Maly Delschaft, Max Hiller, Emilie Kurz, and Hans Unterkircher. 

 

Murnau is playing with broad strokes here, not even bothering to name his main character beyond his position. The director's publicized disdain for intertitles is once again on display as less than a dozen appear in the entire film. The visual aesthetic is remarkable, though, with wonderful interplay between shadow and light creating mood and atmosphere. The use of stylized sets adds an ethereal ambiance, and there are several noteworthy effects used. Some have viewed the ending as tacked on and disingenuous, negating everything that came before. I disagree, although if the film had left it out it would have made for a truly devastating experience. As it is, the resolution can be taken as wishful thinking on the part of the main character, or a positive ending to a downbeat story, which would have been welcome in Germany at the time.   9/10

 

Source: Kino DVD, a two-disc set containing two versions of the movie, one the restored original German, the other the export version with a different score.

 

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