Express Yourself (with Intertitle Cards): Silent Films/Ranked
By: H. Jackson
I’ve only recently discovered my admiration for the silent film and, living in England, I’m rather restricted on what I have easy access to. Regardless, I aim to allow my love for the form to flourish as much as possible. Upon seeing Murnau’s Sunrise late last year, I was floored by the magic that silent film offers – the necessity of visual expression, and the heightened potential for emotional response that such an approach brings, is sorely lacking in so much sound cinema.
I’ll keep a ranking of those I’ve seen here, and also post short comments on those I watch.
THE CROWD King Vidor, 1928
Nothing short of a masterpiece. A frequently depressing tour-de-force, examining the horrors and frustrations of living in a big city – just one of many in the crowd, just a disposable part in the city’s machinery. Even those with the most talent and ambition are drawn into the giant skyscrapers, and spat back out when they fall on hard times. The major achievement of this film is the way it makes one see the world through our hero’s eyes – to the extent that, after being chucked out of the family home, we too see the sweet escape offered by the frantically spinning wheels of a moving train. A tragic film.
FRAU IM MOND Fritz Lang, 1929
An extraordinary science-fiction epic. This is the sort of sci-fi which really works for me – unlike something such as Kubrick’s 2001, Woman in the Moon isn’t about mankind, it’s about men. These people don’t mindlessly drift around space, they’re compelled to travel – not for the typical reason of man’s adventurous spirit either, they’re made to by the forces of capitalism. They’re characters who are vulnerable (and, as with Spies, Lang has an incredible ability to make one feel the frustrations of a helpless character), who love each other and who betray each other. They’re human, unlike the dull units of Kubrick’s film. It feels very similar in quality to Lang’s previous film, Spies, and shares the same star, but I have to give the edge to Woman in the Moon for it’s incredible production design. Flawless.
SPIES Fritz Lang, 1928
The perfect James Bond picture, over thirty years before Dr. No hit screens. Or perhaps it’s more correct to define the James Bond pictures as failed homages to this fantastically imaginative spy picture from Fritz Lang. I’ve never loved a Lang movie before – I’ve enjoyed them ( Rancho Notorious ), I’ve admired them ( Metropolis ), but Spies is the first one I’ve genuinely loved. It carries itself in such a way that things like exploding fruit actually work, rather being cringeworthy as they were in the Roger Moore Bond pictures.
A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR Anthony Asquith, 1929
A quote on the cover of the British Film Institutes’s release of this film asserts that it ‘out-Hitchcocks Hitchcock’, and I can certainly see where they’re coming from. A Cottage on Dartmoor feels more like a classic Hitchcock film than Hitch’s own silent outings (at least the two that I’ve seen at this point in time) – the jealous obsession of our hero isn’t far from that of Scottie Ferguson in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, although James Stewart’s haunting performance is perhaps not so characterised by a crazed bloodlust. And it’s a picture filled with suspenseful moments that would leave some of the best scenes in Hitchcock’s oeuvre looking slack in comparison – most notably the scene where our protagonist shaves the man who has taken the heart of his loved one, after a lengthy session of excessively sharpening his blade. Great film.
GIRL SHY Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor, 1924
It’s like Seven Chances, but with more heart. Personally, I find Lloyd to be a character that is far more easy to relate to than the personae of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.
SAFETY LAST! Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor, 1923
Classic. Maybe I’d describe Safety Last! as entertaining, rather than hilarious (although there certainly are plenty of laughs to be had) – but it sure is extraordinarily entertaining. Lloyd was one hell of a comedic talent. He’s probably a superior – albeit less charming – performer than Charlie Chaplin. And my lord, the building of tension in this movie is perfectly executed – not just during the finale either (the scene in his boss’ office is top-notch).
SEVEN CHANCES Buster Keaton, 1925
Perhaps not as forward thinking as Sherlock Jr., or as ambitious as his historical comedy Our Hospitality, but this film succeeds for the same reason the previously mentioned pair do – it’s the quality of comedy within any premise, not to mention the charm of Keaton’s storytelling in general, that makes his best films succeed. A lengthy chase sequence towards the end of the film could easily grow stale under a lesser director, but Keaton keeps it fresh with constant twists and turns along the way.
THE NAVIGATOR Buster Keaton & Donald Crisp, 1924
Typically terrific and charming comedy from Buster Keaton, this time with a nautical twist. It perhaps also holds the distinction of being, thus far, Keaton’s most successful picture in the romance department – his relationship with his fiancée-to-be is genuinely sweet, and develops nicely, albeit subtly, throughout the film. A number of really nice comic pieces here as well, especially the scene where both Buster and his lady search for each other on the boat, missing each other constantly. As with the final chase sequence in Seven Chances, it’s a concept that could grow tiresome under another director – but not Buster!
THREE AGES Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline, 1923
A very funny portrait of courtship, male competition, and status obsession through the ages. While thoroughly enjoying Three Ages, I’m also aware of it’s faults. Despite wonderful costumes and set design through all three periods, the film does little to disguise the fact that it is simply the same story told three times over, a necessity to provide commercial security – I know Three Ages is a riff on Giffith’s Intolerance (which I have yet to watch), but I would sincerely hope that Intolerance offers three compelling stories, rather than one compelling story told three times. Overall though, Three Ages is a showcase of Keaton’s impressive talent as a screen comedian and a comedy writer. You can’t help but adore the gag construction and flawless execution found here.
GO WEST Buster Keaton, 1925
A fairly amusing little film, and it still sparkles momentarily with the Buster Keaton charm, but the material just isn’t of the same calibre as with other efforts. Perhaps the problem is that Keaton confines himself to one topic – often it works (certainly in The Navigator, where the jokes are confined to seafaring fare), but it has to occasionally misfire. Go West isn’t by any means a terrible film, but it is easily the weakest and slightest of the Keaton works I’ve seen so far.
Feature length silents that I currently own, but have not seen:
The River (Borzage)
Master of the House (Dreyer)
Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)
The Farmer’s Wife (Hitchcock)
The Saphead (Blaché/Smith)
Steamboat Bill Jr. (Keaton/Reisner)
A Sailor-Made Man (Newmeyer, 1921)
Grandma’s Boy (Newmeyer, 1922)
Dr. Jack (Newmeyer, 1922)
Why Worry? (Newmeyer/Taylor, 1923)
Hot Water (Newmeyer/Taylor, 1924)
The Freshman (Newmeyer/Taylor, 1925)
For Heaven’s Sake (Taylor, 1926)
The Kid Brother (Wilde/Howe, 1927)
Speedy (Wilde, 1928)
Welcome Danger (Bruckman, 1929)
Diary of a Lost Girl (Pabst)
I’d be very grateful for any suggestions for further viewing.
03Josef von Sternberg
07Josef von Sternberg
12William A. Wellman
17Fred C. Newmeyer
18Fred C. Newmeyer
20Ray C. Smallwood
23John G. Blystone
26James W. Horne
31Carl Theodor Dreyer