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 short cartoon “Steamboat Willie” (the first Disney short to feature both synchronized sound and the character Mickey Mouse). 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 … 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
The Great Train Robbery (1903). 12 minutes. Directed by Edwin S. Porter. Starring Alfred C. Abadie (as sheriff), Broncho Billy Anderson (as bandit, shot passenger, and dancer), Justus D. Barnes (as bandit who fires at camera), Walter Cameron (as sheriff), Donald Gallaher (as little boy), Frank Hanaway (as bandit), Adam Charles Hayman (as bandit), John Manus Dougherty, Sr. (as bandit), Marie Murray (as dancer), and Mary Snow (as little girl). Written and produced by Edwin S. Porter.
The silent short The Great Train Robbery is considered to be a landmark in early film. It is the first Western (although it was not shot in the American West), the first action film, and one of the first narrative films. It features legendary Western actor Broncho Billy Anderson, who would go on to found Essanay Studios near Fremont, California. It also contains one of the most iconic final images in all of film: in the last frames, a bandit (played by … Read the rest
A Trip to the Moon (1902). 16 minutes. Directed by Georges Méliès. Starring Georges Méliès (as Professor Barbenfouillis); Bleuette Bernon (as Phoebe); François Lallement (as officer of the marines); Henri Delanney (as captain of the rocket); Jule-Eugène Legris (as parade leader); Victor André, Delpierre, Farjaux, Kelm, and Brunnet (as astronomers); Ballet of the Théâtre du Châtelet (as stars and cannon attendants); and the acrobats of the Folies Bergère (as Selenites). Written and produced by Georges Méliès.
A Trip to the Moon is without a doubt one of the most iconic movies ever made. Fritz Kramer has argued that the film’s moon, which is styled as a human face, is so famous that it “is instantly recognizable even to people who have never seen a single silent film.” The movie is based on the Jules Verne novels From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Around the Moon (1870), as well as H. G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon … Read the rest