By Greg Boone
Hello fellow film lovers,
I am in the process of working my way through film history, watching the biggest box office movies as well as many notable films of each year. It’s really intriguing to see the changes in cinema coinciding with historical and social changes. DVD Netflix was interested in my project and asked me to visit them for a video interview for their 20th anniversary celebration.
DVD Netflix has now asked me to write a series of posts on each decade, which I am quite happy to do, as I find this all quite fascinating.
Any dip of the toes into the 1920s has to include some of the greatest films and stars of all time. This is the decade which started with silent films, where sound was introduced, and where, by the end of the decade, all the studios were rushing to make movies with sound. There was also a lot of experimentation with multiple images, special effects, camera movement and angles, and more. If you’ve watched movies from the 1910s you will easily notice the field quickly becoming more artistic as well as technically proficient in the 1920s. The Hays Code (censorship) had yet to be introduced, so the artists were not restricted by limitations that were enforced beginning in 1934 and would last into the 1960s.
The first thing one must do when exploring movies of bygone eras, is suspend all feelings of racism, sexism, or any “ism!” These were different times and the films, in some cases, reflect those times in ways that can be quite offensive to modern sensibilities. Try to appreciate the art and the fact that we have evolved since then (even though we still have a long way to go)!
You simply must see ANYTHING by Charlie Chaplin. This is a true genius at work. Two of my favorites are The Kid (1921) featuring Jackie Coogan (one of the first child stars ever, who many years later became Uncle Fester on The Addams Family), and The Gold Rush (1925). Chaplin is an unquestioned master of movement and timing and humor.
You can’t go wrong with Buster Keaton either. The first one that comes to mind is The General (1926). And remember, no computer graphics here. This is really him and others on moving trains doing their own stunts.
You’ve likely seen the famous shot of Harold Lloyd dangling from a clock high above a street? That’s from the movie Safety Last! (1923). A great one to get your first exposure to him.
Anything you can find with Laurel and Hardy is worth your while, though these can be hard to find. They did a ton of shorts in the twenties.
The Jazz Singer (1927) is the first talking film to be a big hit and spur the rush to sound. You’ll cringe at the blackface, but this is the first full length sound picture in history. Previously, songs were synced to the soundtrack, but here people were astounded when Al Jolson actually spoke his “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet” and then a little more before launching into “Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye.” He also ad-libbed other conversation in the movie. This is what startled the audiences. Spoken dialogue rather than just songs was stunning. One of the most famous films of all time.
You’ve heard of the famous heart-throb Rudolph Valentino? The Sheik (1921) is the film that made him a sex symbol.
Looking for early Greta Garbo? Flesh and the Devil (1926) is probably her most famous silent film. She was only 21 when she filmed it. Garbo and John Gilbert have some very intense love scenes that push the boundaries of the time. First open mouth kiss, first horizontal love scene, and more. The scene of the kiss in the garden is quite well known. The build up is excruciatingly slow, and the fiddling about with the cigarette is perhaps not as romantic as it used to be, but the payoff is convincing.
We mustn’t leave out Lon Chaney. Master of makeup and disguise. He made SO many good movies. His nickname of “Man of a Thousand Faces” was well earned! My favorites from the twenties are Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and Phantom of the Opera (1925).
The Broadway Melody of 1929 (1929) - MGM’s first all talkie big musical. If you like musicals, this is where the genre took off. It also won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
And finally, I’ll end with my favorite film of the decade:
Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang is amazing! Truly a masterpiece and one of the greatest films of all time. It’s also the first full-length dystopian future science fiction film. Oppressed workers live and work underground while the wealthy live the great life above. See the most restored version you can find – there have been many restorations as new missing sequences are discovered. There is SO much going on in this film that it’s impossible to describe. You can even see the influences on Star Wars (C-3PO) and Blade Runner. There are numerous cutting-edge effects for the time. I’ve seen it many times and never tire of it. And you really can’t go wrong with anything made by Lang for the remainder of his forty year career.
My overall impression of 1920s film is that we witness an absolutely massive change in the art form. It’s really two distinct parts. The silent part and the sound part. Silent films were reaching their maturation. The stories were becoming less slapstick and more adult. There were love scenes and (gasp) nudity, and the best filmmakers had truly mastered their storytelling craft.
Then, almost literally overnight at the end of the decade, sound exploded onto the scene. Viewers could at first watch their favorite songs being sung, and then soon after the actors actually TALKED! Those actors and directors that could quickly learn to work with this completely new medium thrived. Those that couldn’t found that their careers ended all too soon. Many silent stars had poor voices for sound and did not succeed. They also had to learn to tone down their movement, because their emotions could now be expressed via words rather than just actions.
So this is the decade where anything goes, before censorship, before the build-up to the war in Europe. The great depression hit in 1929, but this does not really get reflected in film until the early 1930s.
Hopefully this will give you some enjoyable movie watching time, and lead to a deeper dive into this revolutionary decade of film history. Enjoy your time spent in the Twenties!
Greg Boone spends his days helping the hearing impaired at his practices in Lafayette and San Leandro, while his nights are spent on a many years-long project watching the most notable films in history.