Piccadilly (1929). 109 minutes. Directed by E. A. Dupont. Starring Gilda Gray (as Mabel Greenfield), Anna May Wong (as Shosho), Jameson Thomas (as Valentine Wilmot), King Hou Chang (as Jim), Hannah Jones (as Bessie), Cyril Ritchard (as Victor Smiles), and Charles Laughton (as nightclub diner).
Piccadilly is an impressive silent film. From its dazzling camera work, to its invigorating jazz-era atmosphere, to its use of stunning lead actress Anna May Wong, the movie infuses its scenes with beauty and a keen artistic sensibility. Piccadilly provides Wong—a Chinese American actress who left the United States for more meaningful parts in Europe—with a role of substance, and her work as the nightclub dancer Shosho overshadows the performances of her colleagues, including dancer Gilda Gray, who was at one point a well-known Ziegfeld girl. In the end, the movie, while perhaps less clichéd than Wong’s American projects, still relies on stereotypes to get its points across and concludes Shosho’s narrative in what feels … Read the rest
The Sheik (1921). 80 minutes. Directed by George Melford. Starring Rudolph Valentino (as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan), Agnes Ayres (as Lady Diana Mayo), Ruth Miller (as Zilah), George Waggner (as Yousaef), Frank Butler (as Sir Aubrey Mayo), Lucien Littlefield (as Gaston), Adolphe Menjou (as Raoul de Saint Hubert), and Walter Long (as Omair).
The Sheik has to be one of the strangest expressions of romance and sexuality that I have seen in a long time. It tells the story of an Arab sheik who abducts an English gentlewoman exploring the deserts of North Africa and holds her captive. At times we see that he hopes she will develop feelings for him, but at others he is intent on having his way with her whether she desires it or not. Regardless of his unsavory intentions, she does fall in love with him, but the movie’s celebration of both him and their relationship is difficult to admire. Overall, The Sheik is an … Read the rest
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). 69 minutes. Directed by Charles Reisner. Starring Buster Keaton (as William Canfield, Jr.), Ernest Torrence (as William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield, Sr.), Marion Byron (as Kitty King), Tom McGuire (as J. J. King), and Tom Lewis (as Tom Carter).
Buster Keaton’s late silent film Steamboat Bill, Jr. was inspired by the 1911 song “Steamboat Bill” and in turn inspired Disney’s well-known 1928 animated short “Steamboat Willie” (the first cartoon to feature fully synchronized sound). In other words, it grew out of a timely reference and inspired a cartoon that may now strike us as antique. But watching Steamboat Bill, Jr. recently, I was struck by how timeless it is. The movie is not considered to be Keaton’s masterpiece—that honor falls to The General (1926)—but it still features outstanding riverbank stunts and an impressive hurricane sequence, complete with the famous shot of a building facade falling over Keaton’s head. However, part of what makes this movie and so … Read the rest
Modern Times (1936). 87 minutes. Starring Charlie Chaplin (as the Little Tramp), Paulette Goddard (as Ellen Peterson), Henry Bergman (as café proprietor), Stanley “Tiny” Sandford (as Big Bill), Chester Conklin (as mechanic), and Al Ernest Garcia (as president of Electro Steel Corp.). Written, directed, and scored by Charlie Chaplin.
Modern Times is very special: unusually clever, unusually bittersweet for a comedy, and unusually and deliberately archaic. I say “archaic” because although it is from the sound era, Modern Times is largely silent, just like its predecessor City Lights (1931), also directed by and starring Charlie Chaplin and also made during the age of sound. Chaplin’s rejection of the talkies was multifaceted, and in resisting sound, he primarily sought to preserve his silent-era persona—the character known as the Little Tramp, who he did not believe could survive in a sound film. Modern Times, however, resists more than merely the demise of the Little Tramp at the hand of the new … Read the rest
The Lodger (1927). 91 minutes. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Ivor Novello (as Jonathan Drew/the lodger), Marie Ault (as the landlady), Arthur Chesney (as her husband), June Tripp (as Daisy Bunting), and Malcolm Keen (as Joe Chandler).
Alfred Hitchcock’s silent thriller The Lodger is one of the earliest movies to express some of the director’s deepest preoccupations: the pursuit of an innocent man who is confused with a killer, the intersection of sex and murder, the experience of people who suspect someone in their circle of being a criminal, and the suffocating nature of crowds. As such, The Lodger is a rich repository of trademark Hitchcock elements, including his first cameo, and the director himself called it the first true Hitchcock film. At the same time, and paradoxically, the movie bears the marks of some of the other great European filmmakers of its time, such as F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. The Lodger is best understood as a transitional … Read the rest
The Kingdom of the Fairies (1903). 17 minutes. Directed by Georges Méliès. Starring Georges Méliès and Bleuette Bernon.
Together with A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Impossible Voyage (1904), The Kingdom of the Fairies is one of Georges Méliès’s most impressive silent short films. The story is of the variety that Méliès loved, involving an epic journey, fierce magical creatures, and a grand final spectacle with a parade. The plot, which is fairly simple, is enhanced by the beautiful and inventive visuals that Méliès incorporates throughout the film, and the movie as a whole functions as a kind of catalogue of the various special effects that Méliès was fond of using. Its elaborate sets and complex techniques are fascinating, and overall the film is one of Méliès’s best.
The movie begins in a royal palace with a prince and princess, whose betrothal ceremony we witness. An evil male witch materializes in the middle of the court, menaces the … Read the rest
The Gold Rush (1925). 95 minutes. Directed by Charlie Chaplin. Starring Charlie Chaplin (as the Little Tramp/Lone Prospector), Georgia Hale (as Georgia), Mack Swain (as Big Jim McKay), Tom Murray (as Black Larsen), Malcolm Waite (as Jack Cameron), and Henry Bergman (as Hank Curtis).
The Gold Rush is the silent film Charlie Chaplin hoped he would be remembered for. Set in the Yukon during the late nineteenth century, the movie features well-known Chaplin comedy routines such as the protagonist boiling and eating his own shoe, a tabletop dance with two bread rolls on the ends of forks, and a cabin that slides back and forth over the edge of a mountain cliff. But one of the movie’s most impressive accomplishments is the way that it develops Chaplin’s Little Tramp into a deeply moving, remarkably touching character, something that The Gold Rush was criticized for during its own time but that today makes it seem soulful.
The plot revolves around three … Read the rest
The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926). 65 minutes. Written and directed by Lotte Reiniger. Cinematography by Carl Koch. Based on The Arabian Nights.
Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the earliest surviving feature-length animated film. Based on The Arabian Nights and brought to life with silhouettes, its story is both refined and complex. Prince Achmed’s noble characters travel around the world, undertake fantastic quests, and perform heroic deeds in plotlines that interconnect and move fluidly across geography and time. Its art direction is also sublime. Although Reiniger’s use of silhouettes was not to become the norm in mainstream European and American animated films, her exquisite work hints at the possibilities inherent in animation before cel art became prominent. The movie is a shining example of the beauty, sophistication, and inventiveness typical of the late silent period.
When the story begins, a nameless African magician visits the court of the Caliph and presents him with a magic horse … Read the rest
Un Chien Andalou (1929). 21 minutes. Directed by Luis Buñuel. Starring Simone Mareuil (as young girl), Pierre Batcheft (as young man and second young man), Luis Buñuel (as man in prologue), Salvador Dalí (as seminarian and man on beach), Robert Hommet (as third young man), Fano Messan (as androgynous young woman), and Jaime Miraveilles (as seminarian). Written by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí.
Un Chien Andalou is a silent short written by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí that has developed a reputation among cineastes as required viewing. This surealist experiment, called “the most famous short film ever made” by Roger Ebert, was intended to shock audiences; Buñuel famously later said that he kept stones in his pocket at the premiere in case he needed to defend himself against enraged viewers. I would hesitate to say that it horrified the public, but it was a sensation and unnerved many of those who saw it. When viewing it recently, I had … Read the rest
The Last Laugh (1924). 91 minutes. Directed by F. W. Murnau. Starring Emil Jannings (as hotel doorman), Maly Delschaft (as his niece), Max Hiller (as her bridegroom), Emilie Kurz (as bridegroom’s aunt), Hans Unterkircher (as hotel manager), Olaf Storm (as young guest), Hermann Vallentin (as guest with pot belly), Georg John (as night watchman), and Emmy Wyda (as thin neighbor). Cinematography by Karl Freund.
The plot of The Last Laugh can be encapsulated in a simple sentence: an anonymous hotel doorman is demoted. Despite its simple premise, however, this silent movie is an astonishingly profound depiction of human misery. Relying on camera movement and gesture to convey meaning throughout, and using only one title card during its 91-minute running time, The Last Laugh relies more than most films on visual elements to tell its story. It is essential viewing for anyone who cares about early movies.
An enthusiastic hotel doorman is observed drinking on the job one day by the … Read the rest