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This is one of those projects that I just can’t ignore or at least attempt and hopefully you can all appreciate the movies that have come and gone in each decade and admire the evolution of cinema from it’s first legitimate swell of films to what it has become today. For this week I am focusing on The Films of the 1920’s where Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were the names of the “Silent Era” of film we know it as today. Now, there was plenty of other genre pieces taking shape in the 20’s and the expansion of film was starting to take shape as we know it.
1. Metropolis (1927)
Through science fiction and imagination do we get one of the definitive stories on class systems by influential German director Fritz Lang. His story takes on a journey into a utopia that lives above and the mistreated workers and poverty stricken people below it. The main character discovers the horrors of the people that live below what he believes to be a beautiful existence and chooses to help them rebel against the poor treatment of the people below.
It’s a fascinating and influential story that can see itself in countless films after it. You think about some of the biggest science fiction films out there such as The Hunger Games or District 9 and anything similar and you will see Fritz Lang’s work in full effect. The visuals are spectacular to this day for a film that holds up well with its topics and visual splendor. Sure it’s a silent film, but talkies weren’t what they are now way back in 1927. Treat yourself and also check out the anime film of the same name loosely based off of this film, you won’t be disappointed.
2. Nosferatu (1922)
Thanks to a small appearance in Spongebob (I’m so serious), Nosferatu regained a weird level of cult fame post Spongebob, but lest we forget how significant and iconic this vampire film is. This is on par with the iconic Frankenstein’s monster with the blocked head. With his grizzled teeth and pale skin with a bald head, all dressed in black, Nosferatu aka Count Orlok is frightening and the silence makes it all the more terrifying.
It’s one of the classic Dracula stories without using the word Dracula (I don’t think), but it presents all the tropes and origin elements of the Dracula from Transylvania that we know today. The vampire coming out of the coffin and the eerie castle all originates visually from this film.
3. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Jumping into the horror genre yet again, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one the most definitive works of German cinema and the German Expressionist era of filmmaking of the time. It deals with the duality of human nature while presenting some of the first usages of camera shadows and turned angles to help add to the stories fright and atmosphere. The techniques used are what made most influential critics call it the first real horror film and also became a founding fathers of modern horror and assisted the creation of the noir genre.
It’s a mind bending film that will make you realize how valuable the German filmmaking community was in the early 20’s beyond the Chaplin films as well as other silent movie icons of their time.
4. The Gold Rush (1925)
In the first Charlie Chaplin film I completed and watched, I was stunned that the world hasn’t praised Chaplin even more then they already have. The Tramp (Chaplin’s iconic character) is set in a time where prospectors and mountain men are in search for riches. Only difference between them and him is everything and being trapped in a cabin during a blizzard, the Little Tramp falls for a barmaid and may or may not strike it rich in the process.
It’s classic silent era comedy that only Chaplin was able to deliver. His humorously, yet iconic, on screen persona adds to the comedy that quickly ensues and forwardly moves a picture that captures the fun of the movies when they were in their genesis of being. It’s a charming film that will make you just keep watching until the credits roll on.
5. Safety Last! (1923)
With all the stunts and insane work before the time of CGI and safety regulations, actors were going the whole mile to make their craft as realistic and thematic as possible. In this silent film classic about a man who moves to the big city in hopes of supporting his lovely girlfriend only to discover that the city is a tough place to make it all. His desperation leads him to working for a store clerk who can bring in more customers.
What makes this the film of it’s time is not the story, but in fact the iconic clock tower stunt that you see above. Harold Lloyd famously scaled a real building and clock tower for a stunt that is relevant to the plotline of the story and the character’s mishaps as he tries to make money and fulfill promises he made. I’ll tell what, this scene all the way through is still nerve racking to watch because you know it’s real.
6. The Kid (1921)
In Chaplin’s first ever feature length movie, he brings his iconic figure to the big screen with a compassion and affection for a little orphan boy he finds on the streets. The Tramp is enthralled with the child, but is left emotionally baron when the orphanage takes the Kid away from him.
It is a masterpiece in film based storytelling through drama and comedy without falling too deeply into either. Like iron when it’s hot, Chaplin strikes us with what we needed to feel at each scene. It also adds to the impressive nature of singular film makers at the time when you look at how Chaplin, starred, directed, produced, and composed music for the film all on his own.
7. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
We know the story and we’ve heard the modern songs and versions with stars we know and love, but the Phantom of the Opera is about as classic a tale as you can get. The story of a hopeful opera singer becomes a skew when she gains an admirer who attempts to help her fulfill her dreams. The only issue, he is horribly disfigured and lives under the opera house, and takes the lovely woman as her prisoner in hopes of love and affection.
This is far more frightening than the all too romantic telling we think of and it was one of the first classic horror films of its time along with others on this list. It’s a staple in the terrifying nature of film in the 20’s while also presenting questions the idea of love and obsession and how it can present itself.
8. The Jazz Singer (1927)
I don’t even like this movie to be entirely honest, but damn it for being important in the artform that I know and love. The Jazz Singer is the first ever film with syncronized sound to get the characters to be recorded and talk on screen. In other words, it’s the first ever film with talking in it and it makes sense to have made a film centered around music.
Unfortunately, the reasons for me not liking it beyond the slightly pretentious and boring storyline is the fact that this is perhaps the biggest reason black face came to prominence at all. Al Jolson, the star of the film, is a Jewish jazz singer who ambitiously tries to fulfill his musical dreams, but on the way he is knocked down and lifted back up by a collection of characters in between. Otherwise, the clear representation of the times couldn’t be any clearer once you see Jolson cover himself in black make-up and painting on exaggerated large lips onto his skin.
9. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
The Victor Hugo classic has had many reincarnations over the years with it being a timeless story or acceptance and figuring who is the monster and who is the man. Disney showed us that later on in the 90’s to full effect with song and color, but it was in 1923 that the world first saw The Hunchback of Notre Dame come to life with the tragic story of a disfigured, deaf, and half blind man trapped in a bell tower by a villainous Don Claudio.
Quasimodo befriends a gypsy named Esmeralda who looks past his disfigurement to show him what love truly is, but this isn’t the Disney film. This reincarnation of the story follows the book much more specifically which only adds to the tragic nature of Quasi. It’s a more tragic tale which will leave you on a low note more than you’re used too from other versions you know.
10. The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
Considered one of the best silent films of all time and it being one of Douglas Fairbanks’ greatest works, The Thief of Baghdad tells the story that we think of as being Aladdin where a thief falls in love with the Caliph of Bagdad’s daughter. With magnificent acrobatics and colorful choreography for the characters, the film feels like magic today which speaks volumes for it’s advances back in 1924.
It’s an Arabian Nights tale come to life in one of the best ways to date. It has all the makings of one of your favorite Disney as I eluded to before with Aladdin (1992). It has a swashbuckling style to it with monsters and magic galore making it one of the most exciting films of it’s time.
I hope you all enjoyed this list and want more because next week will be me hitting on the best films of the 1930’s which brings the “talkies” into full effect and a staple of cinema from then on out.