We've already explored 1899 and 1909 in this year's edition of our Decades series, and this month it's time to head back to see what filmmakers were up to exactly 100 years ago.
In 1919 World War I had just ended in defeat for Germany, but the new Weimar Republic was already making surprisingly great cinema thanks to the efforts of Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, and others. It was the film industry of Weimar Germany that produced what may be the world's first pro-gay film, Anders als die Andern, or Different From the Others. Across the Rhine, filmmaker Abel Gance turned out an ambitious epic about the French experience in the recent war. Hollywood would have its say on the war in the years to come, but for the moment American screens still belonged to the likes of Charlie Chaplin and a comedic upstart named Harold Lloyd. Meanwhile, D.W. Griffith pulled back from the epic extremes of the mid-1910s to offer a pair of small, intimate stories of love and loss. The cinema of the 1919 was robust and varied, pointing the way to a glorious 1920s.
Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd are considered the Big Three silent comedians, but let’s be honest — as far as enduring popularity goes, it’s really a Chaplin and Keaton race with Lloyd a distant third. Yet the more I see of Lloyd, the more convinced I am he deserves to be right up there with the other two. This short is more narratively and comedically tight than most of what Chaplin was doing in the teens (there are exceptions), and though Lloyd doesn’t have Keaton’s sardonic modern absurdity, his earnest eagerness is utterly winning. Here he is a poor would-be writer who gives his last few dollars to his neighbor (a poor would-be actress) so she can pay her rent before being evicted, but that means he has to play chase with his landlady and her heavy to avoid getting kicked out himself. That's the first of two or three highly inventive, extended chase sequences in the film; both Keaton and Lloyd excelled at chases filled with both gags and thrills, but Lloyd has the advantage on Keaton here. At first I was prepared to dismiss the climactic cop chase sequence as having nothing on Keaton’s Cops, but then I realized this predates it by three years. Bumping Into Broadway never loses momentum, and it does what silent comedies do best: turning sight gags into extended sequences that develop and morph simple jokes into works of art, while also telling a sweet romantic story. - Jandy Hardesty
D.W. Griffith is known for innovation in cinema language, Victorian-era values and sentimentality, and racism. The latter two can make it difficult to know how to approach his films, which are relatively foundational in American cinema (even if he didn’t invent every technique he uses, he did popularize new forms of cinema that finally freed us from the tyranny of the trick film.) By 1919 he had already made the infamous Birth of a Nation and the extremely ambitious Intolerance, but his two films on this list are more character-driven than epic. And good news about this one — it isn’t racist! (We’ll get to Broken Blossoms later.) It does, on the other hand, represent the epitome of Griffith’s sentimentalism. Lillian Gish is Susie, a plain but true girl who loves William, an oblivious youth. They’re high school sweethearts, but when he returns from college he takes up with a girl from a more glamorous set. There could be a solid, if cliched, romantic comedy here, but it's too highly sentimentalized, and often condescending too. It's the opposite of subtle, but Lillian Gish is always worth watching even when the film doesn’t do her justice. - Jandy
Modern viewers may assume that Different From the Others was an obscurity and an oddity even at the time of its release. A film that's sympathetic to homosexuals can't have been mainstream a century ago, right? How could it get past the censors? In fact, Different From the Others was one of over a hundred films on the subject of sexual liberation that came out in the first two years of Germany's Weimar Republic, which initially did not have censorship rules for cinema. The movie was promoted by one of Europe's leading physicians, who advocated for greater understanding of the diversity of human sexuality and appears in the film to explain his non-binary concept of gender. Different From the Others wasn't just a message movie, though — it was a stylish and entertaining story, too. It deals with love, blackmail, and the complications of family expectations in an evolving society. There was a substantial and enthusiastic audience in postwar Germany for this kind of movie, as evidenced by the ensuing backlash. Shortly after Different was released, the Weimar government did crack down on "deviant" sexual content in films, and later the Nazi government set out to destroy all remaining copies of Different From the Others and other "decadent" films from the era — sadly, fewer than fifty minutes of Different survive today. It is some consolation that the movie's star, Conrad Veidt, would go on to play a big-screen Nazi bad guy in perhaps the most famous and beloved film of all time, Casablanca. - David Conrad
Ernst Lubitsch excelled at lush satires that entertain the senses even as they mock the absurdities of society. In his later Hollywood period he often put his caricatures of rich and poor, powerful and powerless in European settings, but in this entry from his youthful career in Weimar Germany he made his characters American. The titular "princess" is the pampered daughter of an oyster baron, and she cajoles her father into finding a prince for her to marry — it's what all the other rich American daughters are doing. There is an available prince, but he's impoverished and living in a pitiful studio apartment with his manservant. A comedy of errors ensues, motivated by the observation that by 1919 American business tycoons were generally wealthier, albeit far less formal, than European aristocrats who had just suffered their latest crippling blow in the Great War and the Wilsonian democratic peace that followed. The spectacle of a new kind of royalty smashing vases and mirrors in her father's palatial estate is amusing, and watching servants bustle around and break into the foxtrot at her command is visually impressive despite uncomfortable racial divisions evident in her household staff. Although it is an early work, The Oyster Princess ranks highly in Lubitsch's filmography for its madcap sensibility and startlingly frank sexual innuendo, hallmarks of the best Weimar-era entertainment. - David
It’s a given that pretty much any year between 1914 and 1920 is going to have one or more Charlie Chaplin shorts in Flickchart’s Top Ten. His enduring popularity ensures it, even if the quality of his short films sometimes doesn’t justify it. This is the token Chaplin film for 1919, and while it has its moments — notably a surprise dream sequence that both indulges and undercuts Chaplin’s signature pathos — it’s a mixed bag. The film is long for a short, over a half hour, and it feels like a bunch of gag ideas left over from other films: a can’t-get-out-of-bed sequence, a cows-run-amok sequence, a dancing-with-fairies-while-unconscious sequence, a romance sequence (this is the most sustained section), a mopping-the-floor-while-customers-are-in-the-way sequence. None of it really fits together, and only the romance section has any kind of narrative flow to it. Chaplin is working up to feature-length material here, but he doesn’t quite have the structure in place yet. - Jandy
Fritz Lang turned down an offer to direct The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in order to helm what was supposed to be a 4-movie franchise about a worldwide criminal organization called The Spiders and a globetrotting playboy adventurer who foils their dastardly plans. Only two of the Spiders films got made, and they don't have a fraction of Caligari's fame, but we're lucky to have them just the same. Audiences in all eras love escapism, but for German filmgoers in 1919 adventure films were a way to forget about the difficulties of life in defeated, post-World War I Germany. Spiders, accordingly, offered them excitement, romance, and grandiose, imaginative visions of faraway cultures and peoples. In Part I the hero, a man named Kay Hoog, takes a hot air balloon to a lost island and rescues an Incan priestess from a human sacrifice. Kay's foil, a female supervillain named Lio Sha who heads The Spiders, is hot on his heels searching for buried treasure and a mysterious "diamond ship." The names, locations, and plot points are bizarre, fantastical, and from a modern perspective frequently problematic, but they all enhance the atmosphere of exoticism that Lang aims for. Part I ends on a cliffhanger, so just like German audiences in 1919, you'll have to come back for the sequel to find out how the adventure ends. - David
Many of the best silent storytellers found inspiration, understandably, in the most dramatic event of their lifetimes: World War I. Abel Gance, who is remembered for impossibly huge epics like his 5-hours-long-but-still-unfinished Napoleon, completed a sweeping take on the Great War practically before the guns had cooled. In J'Accuse! he sets up a multigenerational story of a French town on the eve of war, a love triangle that unfolds through letters to and from the trenches, and an examination of war crimes between enemies as well as friends. Gance approaches each storyline in a spirit of compassion and with a commitment to justice, and both impulses feel like rebellions against the nihilism of the war. His preternatural gift for the visual dimension of cinema make J'Accuse! a frequently jaw-dropping experience: scattered liberally throughout are some of the best superimposition effects of the silent era, and a split-screen sequence near the end is a thrilling assault on the boundary between reality and imagination. Both are certainly at play in J'Accuse!, which uses actual battlefield footage in addition to convincing recreations. Gance would remake the movie for the sound era in 1938, but it is the 1919 original that has rightly become a touchstone. - David
Erich von Stroheim's directorial debut is an entry in the surprisingly popular mountain-climbing-romance genre of silent film; other examples of the trope mashup include Abel Gance's La roue and Arnold Fanck's The Holy Mountain. Von Stroheim cultivated a certain image of himself in Hollywood on, behind, and away from the camera — an image of suave, old-world nobility paired with a military bearing suggesting physical prowess. He would periodically play some version of this persona in his own films, but rather than fill the role of hero, he tended to cast himself as an agent of chaos and a threat to conventional morality. Blind Husbands from 1919 and its thematic sequel Foolish Wives from 1922 are the prime examples. Of the two, Blind Husbands has a special power not because of its predictable story of infidelity, but because of its Alpine setting. The film is dedicated to a mountaineer who died in the Dolomites and served as the basis for one of the supporting characters, and von Stroheim's on-location shooting captures a sense of high stakes at high altitude. - David
When most people think about comedy stars of the Silent Era, they don't usually name Ossi Oswalda. When they do, she's still often compared to someone more familiar; she has been labelled the German Mary Pickford. Yet The Doll (or Die Puppe) proves that she was a wonderful and unique talent worthy of wider remembrance.
Based on a story of the same name written by E.T.A. Hoffman in the early 19th century and directed by Ernst Lubitsch (who regularly worked with Oswalda, including in The Oyster Princess) The Doll tells the story of Lancelot (Hermann Thimig) who is pressured by his uncle to wed so he can continue the family line and claim his inheritance. When Lancelot hides away in a monastery, the monks convince him to go to a toymaker who makes life-size dolls, which he can use to fool his uncle into thinking he's gotten married. The hijinks start when the dollmaker’s daughter (Oswalda), on whom the doll was based, takes the doll's place. While the rest of the cast play their roles well, it is Oswalda with her impeccable timing in shifts between her human persona (a face-pulling joker) and the doll (stoic and mechanical) that makes the movie a tour de force. Lubitsch himself believed The Doll and The Oyster Princess (see above) were the best comedies he directed in his German years before he made the move to Hollywood. - Wayne Little
Let’s talk about Griffith and racism. It’s always the elephant in the room, especially for his films that feature ethnic minorities. The racist inherent in Birth of a Nation in inescapable, from its valorization of the KKK to its portrayal of black leaders as uneducated, uncouth thugs. Broken Blossoms was made four years after Birth of a Nation, and its main character is Cheng Huan, a Chinese immigrant in London. Anyone watching today knows to proceed with caution, and indeed there are definitely issues here; the movie's subtitle is "The Yellow Man and the Girl," and "the yellow man" is played by white actor Richard Barthelmess. Beyond the language and casting, there's also racial condescension in the story. That said, it was made at a time when there was a lot of anti-Chinese sentiment in the US, so an American film in which a protagonist is a peaceful and upright Chinese character went somewhat against the grain. The film centers on Cheng Huan’s friendship with Lucy (Lillian Gish), the abused daughter of boxer Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp). Like True Heart Susie (see above), this film leans heavily on Griffith’s sentimental side, but the reason this one works is that its sentimentality is earned through some truly horrifying moments. A scene in which Gish is locked in a closet remains remarkable even 100 years later. - Jandy
Jandy is especially drawn to classic, off-beat, and foreign film, but loves a good blockbuster action sequence, too. You can find her on Flickchart as faithx5. She also writes at The Frame, and co-hosts the occasional podcast Not at Odds at Row Three.