Blog-A-Day III: The Ten Best Movies Of The 1920s, Part One
When I started this blog-a-day mission, I promised posts about everything from politics to pop culture—and so far I’ve been doing nothing but talk about politics. So today, movies!
(Yes, yes, Chapelboro is an Orange County-centric site, and this has nothing to do with Orange County. This will not keep me up at night.)
I’ve been a movie buff for years now—so much so that I’m almost, almost to the point where I’ve seen everything I’ll ever want to see. I’ve checked off 94 of the AFI’s top 100, I’ve hit nearly all the top-grossing blockbusters, and I’ve seen every Best Picture back to the 80s (with the exception of The English Patient, but I’m kinda fine with that).
And I’m also an anal-retentive completist with a lot of time on his hands. So one day I sat down, compiled a list of all the movies I still wanted to see, and started knocking them off, chronologically, one by one.
That was a little more than a year ago.
Now I’m almost all the way through the 50s and 60s, still working my way up to the present day…but in the meantime I think I’m done with the first half of the twentieth century. (Which is just as well, because good Lord those were some depressing years.)
And so, we commence:
Aaron’s Fairly Definitive, Thoroughly Subjective, Admittedly Heavily US- And British-centric List Of The Top 10 Movies Of Each Decade!
I’m not going to do it all in one post, so we’ll go decade by decade…and I still haven’t finished the entire list, so the more recent years will have to wait. Hopefully by the end of the month I can get through the 1960s.
But we begin with:
The 1910s And 1920s, Lumped Together Because Frankly It’s Pretty Slim Pickings.
<Exeunt trumpets, grumbling at having been called upon again so soon.>
10. The Passion of Joan of Arc. It’s true I am a film buff, but I’m not going to hang onto a movie just for the role it played in film history. If a movie doesn’t hold up, it doesn’t hold up, and I set it aside and move on. And let’s be honest, the movie industry has progressed so far beyond where it was in the 1910s and 20s—not just in terms of technology, but also in terms of how to tell a story and how to move a viewer. So call me a plebe if you must, but there really aren’t many movies from this period that I can say I like all that much.
I say this because when I think of “Passion”—Joan of Arc’s trial and execution, depicted as a traditional Christian passion play—the first word that comes to mind is “ponderous.” Still, it’s worth it for Renée Maria Falconetti’s performance as Joan. Some call it the greatest performance in film history. I wouldn’t go that far—she gets by with about three different facial expressions—but she does embody a sense of ecstatic sadness that nobody else can match.
“As a UNC fan, I can’t help but feel happy, but…those poor NC State boys…”
9. Birth of a Nation. Sadly, yes. (I did say it was slim pickings.) It’s utterly ruined by the virulent racism, but “Birth of a Nation” does have one thing going for it—the battle scenes in the first act actually still hold up, almost a hundred years later. There have been better depictions of war since then, of course, but I don’t think this was surpassed for 30, maybe even 40 years. (“Paths of Glory” and “Bridge on the River Kwai” did it, but those both came out in 1957.)
The battle sequence is important, because–and this really surprised me–I think D.W. Griffith was actually trying to make an antiwar movie here. “Birth of a Nation” really, really wants to be a film about the horrors of war and the lasting scars it leaves. It wants to be “Apocalypse Now.” But “Apocalypse Now” works because it draws its inspiration from a book (and a worldview) that recognizes the white-man’s-burden argument for the racist fallacy it is*…whereas “Birth of a Nation” draws its inspiration from a book (and a worldview) that embraces the racist fallacy and takes it to a whole other level. (Griffith’s ‘antiwar’ argument here also takes a particularly nasty and all-too-familiar form: “Gee, it’s a shame we had to fight that awful war, because wasn’t life just grand before?” Tell that to Solomon Northrup.)
Incidentally, I was browsing through Nice Price Books one day—back when it was still open—and I was shocked to come across a copy of “The Clansman,” the novel on which “Birth of a Nation” was based. I almost bought it just to get it out of the store, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Never did see it in the shop again. Jarring to know that those books are still floating around out there…
8. The Jazz Singer. Because you can’t escape racism in 1920s Hollywood. Despite its reputation, “Jazz Singer” isn’t an especially racist movie by 1920s standards, though of course that says more about the 1920s than it does about “The Jazz Singer.” Comedies invariably used black folk as comic relief by depicting them as simple, childlike, easily deceived, and easily spooked—none of that in “Jazz Singer,” at least—and Al Jolson certainly wasn’t the only star to sing and dance in blackface. (Fred Astaire did it in “Swing Time,” and for some reason he gets more of a pass.)
“Jazz Singer” makes my list because of the affecting scenes between Jolson and his mother, played by Eugenie Besserer. When they’re together, the ecstatic melancholy on their faces rivals Falconetti’s.
7. The General. Now we get to the good stuff. Buster Keaton’s masterpiece, “The General” cuts to the essence of every Keaton movie: the stone-faced hero calmly muddling forward in the midst of utter chaotic absurdity. Sometimes he’s oblivious to the chaos, sometimes he’s aware of it, sometimes he even creates it; always, though, he marches on, and against all odds he makes it through. It’s Hollywood’s answer to Albert Camus. You should see at least one Keaton movie, and if you only see one, it should be this one.
(But you should also see this 50-second scene from “Steamboat Bill Jr.”)
Fascinating thing about “The General”: it’s set in the Civil War, and Keaton plays a Confederate soldier. Why a frickin’ Confederate soldier? All part of Hollywood’s long fascination with the romantic lost-cause mythos of the Confederacy: beginning with “Birth of a Nation,” the vast majority of movies set during the Civil War feature Confederates as the heroes. Odd, that. “Gone With The Wind” is the most famous example, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a Western, say, where the hero is a former Union soldier. (There are a few, but not many. More often the hero is a former Confederate—or you have an ex-Union and an ex-Confederate joining forces against some common enemy. Or you have “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly,” where the heroes are mostly neutral—but boy, does The Bad ever relish running a Union prison camp!) With very rare exceptions—the John Wayne movie “The Horse Soldiers” is one—it’s not until “Glory” that you have a Hollywood movie unabashedly depicting the Union as the good guys. And that movie came out in 1989!
Apparently it’s not always the victors who write the history.
So we beat on, locomotives against the current, borne back ceaselessly into enemy territory.
6. The Kid, and
Chaplin’s movies are pretty damn depressing when you think about it. A weak, insignificant, downtrodden, impoverished, and nameless little man tries desperately to make his way in a harsh world where powerful forces—financial, legal, physical, and natural—are invariably massed against him. He almost always fails, but he soldiers on, smiling, to the next confrontation, and the next, and the next. What makes it work? It works because it’s funny…but more than that, it works because it’s optimistic about the human condition. There are comedies today (think “Identity Thief,” most recently, or maybe “Meet the Parents”) that feature insignificant men trying to muddle through in a world that’s out to get them—but they’re often pessimistic, nasty, mean-spirited. Should the hero keep smiling through it, it’s depicted ironically—the hero’s just laughably naïve. But Chaplin’s smile is genuine—and it’s earned, because it’s a response to a world that’s ultimately good, wrong as it may currently be. (Chaplin as Rousseau, perhaps? I’m just spitballing here.)
But Chaplin never downplays the wrongness of the world either. Heartwarming and inspirational as they were, his movies were also cries of protest against concentrated power—be it political, social, or economic. (The McCarthyist witch-hunters went after him in the 50s for a reason.) It’s such a thin tightrope to walk—to make a funny, optimistic movie that cries out against a world gone wrong—but Chaplin does it, every time. “Modern Times” is his masterpiece, but “The Kid” and “The Gold Rush” come close. You should see at least five Chaplin movies, and if you only see five, these should be two of them.
* I’m talking about “Heart of Darkness,” but to be honest I’m not sure I’m right about this. Does “Heart of Darkness” actually recognize the white-man’s-burden argument as a racist fallacy, or does it only argue that it corrupts? Regardless, “Apocalypse Now” does both: in the film, at least, the white-man’s-burden argument is exposed as both a corrupting influence and a racist fallacy. “Birth of a Nation” does neither, and there’s the rub.