Travelling Through Time: The Best Films of the 1920s

Movies may not have had sound 100 years ago, but the silent era of film saw a thriving period of public engagement in the Arts all across the world. Stage theatre still played a major part, but the 1920s saw a ramping up of ‘moving pictures’, and it was not just unique to Hollywood and the US. Trailblazing had indeed been noticeable in the epic Hollywood pictures of the late 1910s and into the 1920s, many of them experiments in scale and scope, but periods of film innovation were also underway in Germany, France, Japan, Denmark and the Soviet Union. Screen entertainment took hold in this decade, a period between the two World Wars, and a sense of tentative, artistic freedom prevailed, but it was on the cusp of the Hays Code censorship in Hollywood, as well as the suppression of social voices by totalitarian regimes such as The Third Reich and Communist Russia.

I often wonder what cinema meant to my grandparents growing up, their formative years being during a turbulent period of Irish history – the War of Independence followed by a Civil War and subsequent formalisation of the island’s partition between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. It appears that cinemas were very popular in Dublin at the time, and the buildings that housed them were spared during the fighting of the period that resulted in many civic buildings being destroyed. In fact, all major towns and cities of Ireland had picture-houses that showed nightly, sometimes twice daily, movies from home and abroad – newsreels about current events were common but so too were classic entertainment features. For example, a December 1920 newspaper advert for The Pavilion in Sligo town (close to where each of my four grandparents grew up) have the following 1919 films listed: Vagabond Luck, Jane Goes A-Wooing, Queen of Hearts, Sunken Rocks and Here Comes the Bride. It is likely that trips to the cinema were not a common past-time for those who lived in rural Ireland due to the economic hardships of those times and the lack of developed transport, but there is no doubt that the ‘wonders of the screen’ were starting to influence people, and word was getting around about celebrity actors such as Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Lillian Gish, Asta Nielsen and Rudolph Valentino.

The history of cinema is in many ways dictated by a revisionist lens, particularly those who recount the Hollywood story as being the central focus of cinema in the world. Of course, that is not the case. Whereas the likes of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin’s genius is rightly and consistently raised as a landmark in how film developed the way it did after the 1920s, specifically in comedies and action thrillers, there are so many other influences from this early period of cinema that shaped the future for film. For example, German expressionism of the time sent waves around the world with many of its cinematic pioneers lured away to Hollywood during or after the 1920s; the benshi films from Japan (silent films with live narrators) were major influences on the later masterpieces to come out of that country; and Soviet filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein developed filming and editing techniques that played a major role in how later ‘talkies’ would be presented in mainstream films.

The recent Sight and Sound critics’ poll of the Greatest Films of All Time has recently been updated, and it currently has six 1920s films included in the 100-long list:

  • The General (1926, Buster Keaton) (95)
  • Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang) (67)
  • Sherlock Jr. (1924, Buster Keaton) (54)
  • The Passion of Jeanne d’Arc (1927, Carl Theodore Dreyer) (21)
  • Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927, F.W. Murnau) (11)
  • Man with a Movie Camera (1927, Dziga Vertov) (9)

Not too bad for a decade that started over a hundred years ago! I don’t disagree with any of these films being chosen – I have written in the past about the brilliance of The General and Sherlock Jr., while Metropolis and Man with a Movie Camera are two of my favourite films of all time. But to accompany this list, I would like to share my thoughts on a further five films from the 1920s that I think are deserving of the highest of praise.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, Robert Weine)

Technically made in the 1910s, but unleashed on the world in 1920, Robert Weine’s extraordinary visual masterpiece still has the power to haunt and perplex audiences. Its audacious premise (a framed story from the point of view of a demented man) unfolds in a fantasy world filled with terror and hysteria. The writers Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz conceived the story after witnessing a hypnotist’s show in Berlin. Through the characters of Dr. Caligari and his somnambulist Cesare, they incorporate a sub-text of military authoritarianism on passive populations, which they experienced in Germany during World War I (little were they to know that this was to be revisited to even more devasting effect in the 1930s).

Audiences fainted when the film came out, and this is little wonder considering how very different this feature was to anything else that had been shown before. There are many hints of violence throughout the film, with murders galore, and it has a sinister twist ending that has become a staple of horror films ever since. But it is the style that has really endured. The set designs of warped, askew and asymmetrical shapes and patterns are unforgettable, standing as they do as a metaphor for the twisted proceedings unfurling before us. Caligari has a magnificent story, and it is told with such confidence and freshness, marking it as the first true horror film up until that point.

Within Our Gates (1920, Oscar Micheaux)

Thankfully a long-lost copy of this marvellous and historically significant film was rediscovered in Spain in the 1970s and eventually restored to what it had originally intended to be by the director Oscar Micheaux. The initially released version was heavily edited by the censors in 1920, due to a concern that it was ‘too provocative’. The so-called ‘provocative’ content revolved around the truth-telling that Micheaux, one of the first African Americans to work prolifically in film, sought to achieve. Just like his debut film before it (The Homesteader – an adaptation of his own novel), Within our Gates stemmed from a place of anger and activism. It was a comment on the racial tensions in the US at the time – the years of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan – and it offered an analysis of the social upheaval that was occurring in the country after World War I (many say it was Micheaux’s riposte to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation). Instead of a film being offered through the usual lens of white Americans, this was a rare visual insight from an African American at the time.

The main character is an intelligent young southern woman, and her story is offered to us in a series of vignettes where she visits unspecified northern cities, first to meet her fiancé, then to seek help from her cousin to fund a school for under-privileged children back home. Her horrific past is also brought to light in a section that deals with, among many other things, racial hatred and sexual violence. Indeed, it is provocative, but this is an incredible historical document. In Micheaux, here was a trailblazer trying to right a version of history continuously hijacked by white nationalists (it’s still happening today!). He continued to write and make films for the next twenty years, none more powerful than Within Our Gates, and this helped to establish a reawakening of the thriving African American culture that grew ever more prevalent in the US into the twentieth century.

October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1927, Grigori Aleksandrov and Sergei Eisenstein)

Sergei Eisenstein may be better known for his earlier masterpieces, Strike and The Battleship Potemkim (both 1925), or his later epics Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible: Part 1 (1944) and Part 2 (1958), but the Soviet extraordinaire, alongside Grigori Aleksandrov, were commissioned to manufacture a tenth anniversary homage to the Bolshevik Revolution led by Vladimir Lenin, which as we know majorly shaped the future of the Soviet Union, and in many people’s eyes, this is the stand-out film in Eisenstein’s impressive oeuvre.

The retelling of Red October (yes, that’s where the submarine name comes from!) is captured in a breathtaking silent film of momentous scale and vivid imagery. Eisenstein masterfully combines a realistic, documentary feel with his trademark visual metaphors (so-called ‘intellectual montage’). It crackles along at a blistering pace, and seeks at every instance to capture the significance of what is presented to us. Unsurprisingly, the initial version of the film was disapproved of by Josef Stalin – recently established as leader of the Soviet Union in 1924 – and was heavily edited, but it still stands as a masterpiece of early experimental cinema.

Blackmail (1929, Alfred Hitchcock)

There are many phases of Hitchcock’s career that is worth delving into as a film critic, but despite many evolutions in his styles and techniques over the six decades that he made movies in, one thing that remains constant in the 65 films he directed is his ability to affect his audience. When one watches his earlier silent films such as The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927) or The Farmer’s Wife (1928), you understand that his skills had always been embedded in aspects of fear and suspense. When sound films first reached audiences in early 1927, many filmmakers and actors found themselves out of work unable to breach the transition out of silent cinema. For Hitchcock it was seamless. With Blackmail in 1929, he created the first successful sound feature to come out of Great Britain. But watching it, you understand that it started out as a silent film, because both aspects are evident in the finished product. And I think that adds to its success.

It also contains all the hallmarks of later Hitchcockian renown: a blonde damsel in distress, some blunderous authority figures, a famous landmark in the pivotal final scenes, and edgy, witty dialogue throughout. The plot revolves around a young woman’s plight after killing a man in self-defence after he tries to rape her. The build-up to this shocking moment is reminiscent of many of his later features such as Shadow of a Doubt and Spellbound, while the denouement with its weaving of intricate details together to somewhat placate the tortured audience also harks forward to the likes of Rope, Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest.

Pandora’s Box (1929, G.W. Pabst)

There is much to admire in Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, mainly for that sense of being so far ahead of its time. A silent film made in Weimar Germany (as in, before The Third Reich), it was dismissed upon its release by many as being a sacrilegious divergence on the source material (two stage plays by Frank Wedekind). Indeed, the film was possibly too hot to handle for 1920s audiences. Among other things, the film deals with sexual repression, murder, prostitution, and has some fourth wall breaking moments as well as a lesbian subplot involving the lead character (played by Louise Brooks). In Brooks, the film had a star that simultaneously transcended the times and rose above it.

Not surprisingly, Brooks was and continues to be a hugely influential feminist icon (Liza Minnelli’s character in Caberet is styled on her), even though it may be said that this did not come to pass until many years after this film. But her performance here (notably an American actress in a German production set throughout Europe) is encaptivating and memorable not least for ‘that’ hairstyle (now eternally known as a ‘Lulu Bob’). The general liberal attitudes portrayed by her character – she is clearly bisexual – is also so brilliantly rich and vibrant. Not that it is all red roses for her character, with the famously dour and tragic ending (in the restored version that is), but as one person puts it: ‘She’s trying to play her way out of a losing hand, and has to go all-in.’ And this general vibe in Pandora’s Box, in addition to some truly atmospheric and sinister location settings, is what makes it a stand-out film from the decade. They rarely made films like this for a long time afterwards. It is a gem.

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