Thursday, December 07, 2017


                I’m an inveterate list maker. Is it therapy or is it addiction?  Likely a self-perpetuating combination of the two.  Whatever the answer, I keep making them. And they’re not practical ones – to do lists, shopping lists, lists of New Year’s resolutions.  No, they’re pretty much exclusively devoted to movies. Ones I love, ones I’ve collected, ones I’m dying to see. You get the idea. The next several posts will spotlight an especially mammoth list – my 1001 favorite vintage movies. By vintage I choose to mean pre-1960. The films I’ve cited aren’t necessarily the best, the greatest, the most indisputably classic (though these are well represented).  But rather the ones I happen to love watching and rewatching. A movie creates a world of its own. And the worlds represented here are ones where I especially like to linger.
                First time period on display – the pre-30’s,  which is, of course, almost exclusively silent. It’s the era when films were born and where they grew up with prodigious speed. I’ve been a silent movie fan for 40-plus years. And after all this time, I still think D. W.Griffith’s  “Intolerance” from 1916  is – in many ways – untoppable. There’ve been lots of home video editions of it over the years. But it’s the Kevin Brownlow/David Gill  restoration of 1989 from Thames Television that really supplied additional shine to this stunning jewel.  Not just upgrading the image quality but adding a thrilling original score by Carl Davis. Though the two never met (Griffith died when Davis was eleven), Mr. Davis proved to be Griffith’s ideal collaborator. His music brings an already brilliant work of art to full roaring life. The Cohen Group released this version on Blu-Ray in 2013. And that’s definitely the edition to snag.  Epic films don’t come any more epic - or heartfelt.  
                A lot of people identify the silent era primarily with its celebrated comic icons – Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd.  For whatever reasons, I’ve never really responded to them. Chaplin – undoubtedly a creative force behind the camera – generally seemed creepy to me (both in and out of his Little Tramp guise). Lloyd was an expert at complicated – often daring - stunts. Ditto Keaton. And Keaton’s “The General” is a real visual treat. But I’ve never found any of these men particularly funny. No matter how many intellectual  explanations  I’m presented  about why they’re hilarious, they seldom make me laugh or even smile. Yes, there are moments that do work for me.  But only moments. Hence, there are no Lloyds on my list. No Keatons till the talkie era.  Heresy for his fans.  But if I remember correctly, several of those early (and now disparaged) MGM talkies  were actually bigger moneymakers than some of his acknowledged silent classics. Though feature films  are the focus of my list, the charming Chaplin three reeler  “A Dog’s Life”(1918)  almost made it on. The two Chaplin silents that do appear are largely there by reason of the wonderful performances director Chaplin attained from Jackie Coogan and Edna Purviance (two silent era stars I do love). It wasn’t till the thirties that Chaplin made a film so graceful, so overwhelmingly accomplished  that it simply – at least for the movie’s duration - wiped away my qualms about the Little Tramp.  With all that said, there is one silent clown that I do adore – Harry Langdon. For a brief period in the 20’s, he was magical. I don’t know why he works so powerfully for me. With his white mime-like makeup and sad sack demeanor, he might seem less accessible than his more famous counterparts. But I connected to him unexpectedly and immediately. “The Strong Man” is his masterpiece. But there’s also much to love in “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” (which didn’t quite make the cut) and the under-appreciated “Three’s a Crowd” (which did).  His timing, his rhythms –they’re completely unique. Has indecision ever been conveyed with such genius? Observers often describe his persona as baby-like. But oh, what a complex baby!   Simultaneously innocent and devious. Oblivious to how the world works. But so fascinating in the way he negotiates his way through it. At his best, I find him both hilarious and profound.  Langdon was unfortunately diminished by sound. But then there are some who say film itself was diminished by sound.  I’d say the losses for film overall were temporary. Once sound and music found their footing, they proved infinitely enriching.
Hapless Harry Langdon
                The earliest movie on my list is “La Caduta di Troia” (The Fall of Troy) from Giovanni Pastrone.  The Italians virtually created the peplum spectacle. And this was among the very first of them. It’s only about 31 minutes long. But, in 1911, when there were little else but one or two reelers, that was fully enough to qualify it as a feature film. I find it haunting. Of course, I love the subject matter. But seeing it pictured through the prism of 1911 it emerges as  a poignantly intoxicating piece of dual-textured time travel.  There’s an ever so brief - but dazzling - segment involving Paris’ abduction of Helen across the Aegean that’s pure visual poetry.  I gasped when I first saw it. You can watch the whole film here on YouTube.
                The Italians also gave us the passionate Diva films of the early and mid-teens. These movies turned the spotlight on glamorous actresses who helped first define what it meant to be a film star. Burning with the intensity of flares in the night sky, the three biggest names were Lyda Borelli, Pina Menichelli and Francesa Bertini. They were all stage actresses, slightly younger contemporaries of Bernhardt and Duse - and  used grand acting styles to achieve radical levels of screen intimacy. They left audiences sublimely scorched and begging for more. It was hard to leave Francesca Bertini’s “Assunta Spina”(which she co-directed) off my list.  It’s a startling piece of neo-realism decades before Rossellini.  I count myself lucky to have seen Lyda Borelli’s “Fior di Male” on a big screen some years back (as part of a touring Silent Diva festival put together by La Cineteca di Bologna). I’ll never forget Borelli’s combination of modernity and theatrical grandeur.  Most striking of the Diva dramas is Pina Menichelli’s “Tigre Reale”. Neither she nor the film hold anything back.  It’s a flamboyant hallucination from beginning to end.   But to hell with the flu shot! Bring on the fever! You can watch the whole intoxicating thing on YouTube.
Passionate Pina Menichelli
                I love westerns. And William S. Hart – weatherbeaten but commandingly charismatic – is a movie god for me. The embodiment of  what people then perceived as the old west. Attuned by spirit and inclination to the frontier period, Hart often directed his own films. They’re invariably spare and beautiful. And there were several I hated to omit.  But the four included are all fine-tooled works of art.
                When I was a child, I thought all silent actresses were ridiculously over the top. And - granted - there were plenty of muggers. But I’ve enjoyed discovering some of the really sensitive and nuanced work from actresses who perfected their powers of naturalism and understatement in the silent era. Eleanor Boardman is a name you never hear anymore. But watch her work in “The Crowd” and you’ll see artistry at its most humane and timeless.  Doris Kenyon’s another one who underplayed with exquisite precision. She started out on stage in a Victor Herbert operetta, made the transition to screen stardom by the mid-teens,  then acquitted herself ably as a character actress in 30’s talkies. Her last film appearance was in James Whale’s wonderful “The Man in the Iron Mask” in 1939.
                I’m so glad “It” and “The Patsy” exist to capture every bit of the charm and fun Clara Bow and Marion Davies conveyed. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone not warming to these two performances. I came to Garbo late. Resisted her in most of her classics, then  capitulated when I encountered some of her lesser known vehicles (both silent and sound). She’s compelling in “The Temptress”. And the long opening seduction sequence that occupies the first fifteen or twenty minutes of “The Mysterious Lady” is one of the most perfect pieces of film – and film acting - I’ve ever seen. She and co-star Conrad Nagel are simply unimprovable here.
                The Italians and Scandinavians were early pioneers where feature films were concerned but the Germans and Americans soon took over the lead. Eventually the Americans  dominated  and – certainly commercially – they still do. But my silent favorites also include marvelous titles from France, Britain and the U.S.S.R.  There’s no “Sunrise” here. No “Battleship Potemkin”. No “Metropolis”. Acclaimed achievements all.   But they just don’t speak to me in quite the same way as the titles below.
I’ve arranged my list year by year and – within each year – alphabetically. Players and directors are indicated.
So on with the calvalcade.

                                                Part One: The Pre-30s

  1. La Caduta di Troia(’11) Giovanni Pastrone,Luigi Romano Borgnetto
              Giovanni Casaleggio
 2. the Cheat(’15)           Cecil B. DeMille
              Fannie Ward,Sessue Hayakawa,Jack Dean
Fannie Ward's thinking about cheating
 3. Fior di Male(’15)      Carmine Gallone
              Lyda Borelli
 4. the Half-Breed(’16)   Allan Dwan
              Douglas Fairbanks,Jewel Carmen
 5. Intolerance(’16)      D.W. Griffith
              Mae Marsh,Robert Harron,Constance Talmadge,Seena Owen
 6. the Return of Draw Egan(’16)  William S. Hart
              William S. Hart,Margery Wilson,Louise Glaum
 7. Tigre Reale(’16)      Giovanni Pastrone
              Pina Menichelli
 8. a Girl’s Folly(’17)    Maurice Tourneur
              Doris Kenyon,Robert Warwick
 9. the Narrow Trail(’17)  Lambert Hillyer
              William S. Hart,Sylvia Breamer
10. the Silent Man(’17)  Wlliam S. Hart
              William S. Hart,Vola Vale,Robert McKim
11. the Outlaw and His Wife(’18)   Viktor Sjostrom
              Viktor Sjostrom,Edith Erastoff
12. the Delicious Little Devil(’19)    Robert Z. Leonard
              Mae Murray,Rudolph Valentino
13. His Majesty the American(’19)    Joseph Henabery
              Douglas Fairbanks,Marjorie Daw
14. Wagon Tracks(’19)        Lambert Hillyer
              William S. Hart,Jane Novak
15. the Love Expert(’20)      David Kirkland
              Constance Talmadge,John Halliday
16. the Kid(’21)      Charles Chaplin
              Charles Chaplin,Jackie Coogan,Edna Purviance
17. Das Weib des Pharao(’22)   Ernst Lubitsch
              Emil Jannings,Lyda Salmonova,Albert Basserman
18. Robin Hood(’22)      Allan Dwan
              Douglas Fairbanks,Enid Bennett,Alan Hale
19. Souls for Sale(’23)   Rupert  Hughes
              Eleanor Boardman,Lew Cody,Richard Dix
20. a Woman of Paris(’23)   Charles Chaplin
               Edna Purviance,Adolphe Menjou
21 Aelita(’24)         Yakov Protazanov
              Valentina Kuindzhi,Nikolai Tsereteli
22. Her Night of Romance(’24)  Sidney Franklin
              Constance Talmadge,Ronald Colman,Albert Gran
23. the Vanishing American(’25)   George B. Seitz
              Richard Dix,Lois Wilson
24. the Great K&A Train Robbery(’26) Lewis Seiler
              Tom Mix,Dorothy Dwan
25. the Son of the Sheik(’26)   George Fitzmaurice
              Rudolph Valentino,Vilma Banky
26. the Strong Man(’26)    Frank Capra
              Harry Langdon,Priscilla Bonner
27. the Temptress(’26)    Fred Niblo
              Greta Garbo,Antonio Moreno
28. Barbed Wire(’27)     Rowland V. Lee
              Pola Negri,Clive Brook
29. It(’27)            Clarence Badger
              Clara Bow,Antonio Moreno
30. Lodger, The(’27)   Alfred Hitchcock
              Ivor Novello,June
31. Man, Woman and Sin(’27)   Monta Bell
               John Gilbert,Jeanne Eagels
32. Mockery(’27)     Benjamin Christensen
              Lon Chaney,Barbara Bedford,Ricardo Cortez
33. Three’s a Crowd(’27) Harry Langdon
              Harry Langdon
34. Upstream(’27)    John Ford
              Earle Fox,Nancy Nash
34. the Crowd(’28)    King Vidor
              Eleanor Boardman,James Murray
35. La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc(’28)  Carl Dreyer
              Maria Falconetti
36. the Last Command(’28)    Josef von Sternberg
              Emil Jannings,William Powell,Evelyn Brent
37. Lonesome(’28)           Paul Fejos
              Glenn Tryon,Barbara Kent
38. the Mysterious Lady(’28) Fred Niblo
              Greta Garbo,Conrad Nagel
39. Noah’s Ark(’28)    Michael Curtiz
              George O’Brien,Dolores Costello,Noah Berry
40. the Patsy(’28)      King Vidor
              Marion Davies,Marie Dressler
41. Spione(’28)          Fritz Lang
              Willy Fritsch,Rudolf Klein-Rogge,Lien Deyers
42. the Viking(’28)     Roy William Neill
              Donald Crisp,LeRoy Mason,Pauline Stark
43. Applause (’29)     Rouben Mamoulian
              Helen Morgan,Joan Peers
44. Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen(’29) G.W. Pabst
              Louise Brooks,Fritz Rasp
45. Die Buchse der Pandora(’29)         G.W. Pabst
              Louise Brooks,Fritz Kortner,Franz(Francis)Lederer
46. Le Capitaine Fracasse(’29)        Cavalcanti
              Pierre Blanchar,Lien Deyers,Charles Boyer
47. the Flying Fleet(’29)         George Hill
              Ramon Novarro,Anita Page
48. Hallelujah!(’29)     King Vidor
              Daniel L. Haynes,Nina Mae McKinney
49. Laila(’29)       George Schneevoigt
              Mona Martenson,Henry Gleditsch
50. Lucky Star(’29)    Frank Borzage
              Janet Gaynor,Charles Farrell
51. Piccadilly(’29)    E.A. Dupont
              Jameson Thomas,Anna May Wong,Gilda Gray
52. Redskin(’29)     Victor Schertzinger
              Richard Dix.Julie Carter,Jane Novak  

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