My Top 10:

  1. The Battleship Potemkin
    The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

    The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

  2. Greed
  3. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
  4. The Birth of a Nation
  5. The Gold Rush
  6. The Phantom of the Opera
  7. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  8. Foolish Wives
  9. The Last Laugh
  10. The General

TSPDT Consensus Top 5 Films:

  • #8 – The Battleship Potemkin
  • #27 – The Gold Rush
  • #30 – The General
  • #51 – Intolerance
  • #64 – Greed

AFI Top 100 Films:

  • The Birth of a Nation – #44 (1998) – not on 2007 list
  • The Gold Rush – #75 (1998) – #58  (2007)
  • The General – #18 (2007) – not on 1998 list
  • Intolerance – #49 (2007) – not on 1998 list

Nighthawk Awards:

  • Best Picture: The Battleship Potemkin
  • Best Director: Sergei Eisenstein (The Battleship Potemkin)
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: Greed (from the novel McTeague)
  • Best Original Screenplay: The Gold Rush
  • Best Actor: Charlie Chaplin (The Gold Rush)
  • Best Actress: Lilian Gish (Broken Blossoms)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Donald Crisp (Broken Blossoms)
  • Best Supporting Actress: Zasu Pitts (Greed)

Ebert Great Movies (in order that he added them):

  • The General
  • The Battleship Potemkin
  • Greed
  • Broken Blossoms
  • The Last Laugh
  • The Birth of a Nation
  • The Phantom of the Opera
  • Faust
  • Safety Last
  • Nanook of the North
  • Cabiria
  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
  • Souls for Sale

1912 is where I begin this project because it was in 1912 that Richard III, the earliest surviving feature length film was released.  1926 is where this post ends because the Academy Awards began in 1927.  So this pretty much covers the pre-Academy era of feature films.

Because these are the pre-Academy years no group existed to decide what was the best film of each year.  So if you’re looking to try to figure out what films to watch from this era, there are several ways to go about it.  First, you can look at TSPDT and their list of the Top 1000 films of all-time.  It’s a good place to start, though it leaves a lot to sort through.  You could try the AFI list which, between the two versions of 400 films in consideration, included 19 different films from this era (aside from the 4 films on the two versions of the top 100 they also nominated Richard III, The Cheat, The Poor Little Rich Girl, Broken Blossoms, Within Our Gates, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Kid, Safety Last, Sherlock Jr., The Thief of Bagdad, The Big Parade, The Freshman, Greed, The Phantom of the Opera and Ben-Hur).  There are 13 films from this era that have been featured on Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list.  You could also try focusing on one director in particular.  Charlie Chaplin began in this era making short films, eventually starting his feature directing career, though his only true classic during this era is The Gold Rush.  D.W. Griffith was the top director of the era and almost his entire career was done before sound ever made it to the screen.  There is Erich von Stroheim, who made far fewer films than Griffith, but each film is worth seeing.  Then there are the foreign directors, the ones who get missed if you stick to AFI, like all of the great silent work of Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau.  While the #1 film on my list (and TSPDT) is Russian, 5 of my top 20 are German films (1 Lang, 3 Murnau and Cabinet).  But really, it’s hard to go wrong.  I’ve seen over 100 feature length films from this era and none of them are bad and only 2 of them are as low as **.5 (Dream Street and The Idol Dancer – two of Griffith’s weakest films).  Films that have managed to survive from this era usually have survived for a reason – either because of their director, their historical value or their quality.

To me, among the actors there are four main names that stick out: Charlie Chaplin, for his amazing ability, Lon Chaney for the way he would disappear into his characters, Emil Jannings, who in the silent era proved that language was irrelevant and Erich von Stroheim, who maintained a dignified air about him even when he was acting the complete cad.  Among the actresses, there was only one; Lilian Gish rises above everyone else in the profession during this era.

Of course, there are highlights of film history all through this era:

  • 1912 – Mack Sennett releases the first Keystone Kops films / Carl Laemmle organizes several independent companies into Universal
  • 1913 – Lon Chaney begins working in Horror films / D.W. Griffith leaves Biograph after over 500 shorts / Cecil B. DeMille rents a barn that will later become Paramount
  • 1914 – Chaplin first appears on-screen as the Tramp / Louella Parsons becomes the first movie columnist
  • 1915 – Film debuts of W.C. Fields and Douglas Fairbanks
  • 1918 – Warner Bros. release its first film  (Four Years in Germany) / first Tarzan film
  • 1919 – Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks and Griffith form United Artists / Oscar Micheaux becomes first African-American director
  • 1920 – Marriage of Fairbanks and Pickford
  • 1921 – Fatty Arbuckle trial
  • 1922 – Will Hays appointed head of MPPDA / release of Nanook of the North
  • 1923 – Introduction of 16mm film by Eastman Kodak / Hollywoodland sign is erected
  • 1924 – Metro, Goldwyn and Mayer form to become MGM
  • 1925 – Soviet Union begins to finance national filmmaking
  • 1926 – Death of Valentino

My Top Film from each calendar year:

  • 1912 – Richard III
  • 1913 – Ingeborg Holm
  • 1914 – The Avenging Conscience
  • 1915 – The Birth of a Nation
  • 1916 – Intolerance
  • 1917 – A Man There Was
  • 1918 – The Spiders Part I: The Golden Lake
  • 1919 – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
  • 1920 – The Golem
  • 1921 – The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
  • 1922 – Foolish Wives (Nosferatu is my #1, but it’s Oscar eligible in 1929)
  • 1923 – The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  • 1924 – The Last Laugh
  • 1925 – Greed
  • 1926 – The Battleship Potemkin

Overlooked film of 1923:

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (dir. Wallace Worsley)


Lon Chaney as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

I had actually planned to write about the 1922 version of Oliver Twist, also starring Lon Chaney.  I had begun with talking about how if you have only seen Chaney in horror films, then your film horizons need to be expanded, how Chaney was one of the greats of the Silent Era, how he was the first great film Fagin but in spite of his acclaim, today it is easier to find a still of Ben Kingsley or Alec Guinness (or even Timothy Spall) when you Google the words “Fagin” and “Chaney.”  But then going through all the lists I came to a realization.  Hunchback is obscenely overlooked.  Ebert hasn’t covered it, it isn’t included in the Top 1000 (or even the doubling the canon extra 1000 films you can find there though the inferior 1939 remake is) and wasn’t among the 400 films by AFI under consideration for either their original list or the 2007 version.  Yet it is an essential Horror film (and made it to #19 on my Top 25 Horror List) and ranks only behind Phantom of the Opera in the Chaney pantheon.  It is an excellent early example of how books could be translated onto film and how the images we see up on the screen stay with us through our voyages in literature.

Have you read the book?  The odds are no.  Victor Hugo is much talked about and much adapted, but seems to be rarely read.  Les Miserables has been memorably translated into many different forms, but at 1463 pages (longer than War and Peace) isn’t read particularly much.  And of course, Hugo didn’t write a novel titled The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  The actual title of the book is Notre-Dame de Paris.  Hugo’s title emphasizes the cathedral’s place as the center of the book.  But films didn’t go for that.  The first film version was titled Esmeralda and this film pretty much set in stone the notion of Quasimodo as the central character and Hunchback as the title (which is what you will usually find on current printings of the book).

The film certainly wanted to focus on Quasimodo and to give Chaney free reign to show his incredible talent (both for acting and for makeup).  The first shot of him, a couple of minutes into the film, captures him high in the frame, up on the balcony of Notre Dame, watching the proceedings of the Festival of Fools.  Then we cut to a somewhat closer shot and get the first hints of his grotesque looks.  Then there is the title card announcing the character and actor.  Then we cut again, this time to a close-up and we get our first real look at the hunchback: curved spine, distorted face, scar for a right eye, wild hair, rough hands covered with thick, dark hair.  It is a brilliant simultaneous slow and quick reveal that prefigures the same kind of theatrical effect we would get from the first look at the Phantom’s face only two years later.

Movie audiences hadn’t really seen anything like this before.  Here was this grotesque monster, leering and mocking the people below him, later stripped to be punished and determined to be grotesque through and through; yet their sympathies were touched.  He is so gifted that he is able to climb down the outside of the cathedral.  He is so devoted that he will go to any lengths to please those whom he feels he serves.  His love is so strong that in the end, death is more pleasurable than the concept of existence without his beloved.  He is so much more preferrable to Phoebus, has so much more honesty, courage and even dignity.  While it was Chaney who had conceived the project, even having say over the cast and director, and thus no question that his monster would be the center, it is his performance rather than any ego that makes him the star.

When Chaney died in 1930, death was already no stranger to Hollywood; yet no death before Chaney had robbed cinema of so much.  Valentino was revered by women everywhere and good films had been made by Ince and Stiller, but it was Chaney who had the most future to offer to film fans.  This film was the beginning of the crowning of Universal Studios as the champion of Horror.  Great Horror films had been made in Germany (Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, The Golem), but nothing like this had been seen in the States.  His Phantom would cement his reputation as the Man of a Thousand Faces and we can only imagine what kind of makeup we would have seen had he been around to perhaps star in Dracula or Frankenstein or The Mummy or The Wolf Man.

But instead he died.  We were denied the chance to see him become a huge Horror star in the sound era.  And he could have done it.  “No dialogue.  We didn’t need dialogue.  We had faces.”  Norma Desmond says that, of course.  And it’s true most of all about Chaney.  He had a great voice as was proved in his one sound film, but he didn’t dialogue.  He had that face, those moves, those natural abilities.  He was always a star, even if people don’t seem to remember the film that truly made him one.