The Top Ten Films of 1926
In previous posts in our “Best of the 6’s” series, we’ve covered the top ten movies of each year ending in 6 as we work our way up to 2016 and the best films of this year. Thus far, we’ve covered 1966, 1946, 1996, 1986, 1916, 1936, 1976, 1896, 1906, and 1956. Now let’s head back 90 years to 1926, the height of the silent era.
In 1926, the silent era was about to end, but nobody knew that yet. As far as Hollywood was concerned, it was the height of their power, with seemingly unstoppable money rolling in. Stars had never been more glamorous or more exotic. Charlie Chaplin didn’t have a feature out, but it was still a strong year for silent comedy thanks to Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. Greta Garbo was a new sensation, Douglas Fairbanks was testing out swashbuckling in color, and Lillian Gish was bringing heart and soul to the prestige picture.
Internationally, F.W. Murnau was making a final German masterpiece before heading to Hollywood himself, Pudovkin was exploring Russian history through montage, Lotte Reiniger was pioneering feature-length animation, and Teinosuke Kinugasa was making an utterly unique film in Japan that wouldn’t be fully appreciated for generations.
The box office records from 1926 paint a slightly different picture from our Top Ten. Keaton, who has two films on our list, is nowhere to be seen, though Lloyd’s #10 finisher here is firmly near the top of the 1926 records. Meanwhile, not only does the box office top ten include Flesh and the Devil (see below), but Garbo’s other two 1926 films as well. Told you she was a sensation. Gish doesn’t make the box office list with The Scarlet Letter, but with La Boheme instead (for reference, that’s the basis of the musical “Rent”).
Meanwhile, the box office smash of 1926, Aloma of the South Seas is missing for another reason – it’s been lost, like some 80% of all films from the silent era. It was popular enough to more than quadruple the box office take of the #2 film, What Price Glory, but we may never get to see why.
Also in 1926, Warner Bros. began releasing Vitaphone shorts featuring popular vaudeville and musical acts, and included a synchronized soundtrack on their John Barrymore-led hit Don Juan. Gimmick or no, sound was on its way in, and while there were still plenty of great silent films yet to come, there would never be another year of ONLY silent films.
Harold Lloyd isn’t quite as well-known as his contemporary rivals Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but that’s thankfully starting to shift, especially now that Criterion is releasing his films on Blu-ray. This short feature (a hair under an hour long) is a great example of his comedic strengths. Lloyd is a wealthy young man who accidentally funds an inner-city mission, but he becomes a willing benefactor when he sees and falls for the pastor’s lovely daughter (regular Lloyd co-star Jobyna Ralston). Lloyd is plenty charming in sweet love stories, but he excels in crazy chase scenes, and this one crams two of them into its short running time, both nicely tied into the film’s plot: first, he lures a bunch of street hoodlums and thieves to fill up the mission (simultaneously protecting them from a police search when he passes the collection plate to relieve them of their stolen goods). Later he has to keep all his drunken friends on track (and on the bus) and get back to the mission in time for his wedding. Both are hilarious and often death-defying, as the best silent comedians are. – Jandy Hardesty
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There were plenty of actresses in the silent era associated with sin – Theda Bara, Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, Joan Crawford – all of them sex symbols, It girls, women who led men astray or embraced flapper freedom. Lillian Gish was not one of them, and in fact, she was so associated with virginal purity and self-sacrifice that few could see her in the role of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A-wearing adulteress. In fact, MGM head honcho Louis B. Mayer didn’t want to make the picture at all, especially not with Gish, but Gish knew that Hester Prynne was a great role and she fought for the film to be made. She won, and she was right. In a way, of course, Hester IS a self-sacrificial sufferer, bearing the brunt of the shame associated with adultery and protecting her lover and her daughter. Gish’s quiet defiance during her sentencing and her frank joy spending illicit time with her lover are flip sides of a woman ahead of her time – whether we agree with Hester’s actions or not (or with Hawthorne’s depiction of Puritans), Gish makes it impossible not to care about her, and breathes new life into a novel many of us know only through high school required reading. – Jandy
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Soviet montage innovator Vsevelod Pudovkin helmed this adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s proletariat-rallying Mother. The story is rooted in historical fact: the failed Russian Revolution of 1905 and the deaths of Anna Zalomova and her son Piotr at the hands of Tsarist troops. Several Russian directors were at the forefront of editing theory in the mid-1920s, and flashes of Soviet montage grace Mother, such as nature scenes of gathering storms intercut to suggest the galvanization of the masses, and scenes of ice floes breaking while swept rapidly downriver suggesting the irresistible force of the proletariat against the Tsarist forces; however, the vast majority of the film favors handsome close-up and medium-close-up compositions. The film succeeds as it paces its way through a predictable plot thanks to the presence of Vera Baranovskaya in her role as the titular mother. Her face shows weariness and resolution and she embodies every Russian mother, giving the viewer a character around which to rally. If the plot is predictable it can be forgiven, as, for the purposes of this film , the plot should be as familiar as a leftist anthem such as “The Internationale”. Mother joins The End of St. Petersburg and one of 1928’s best, Storm Over Asia, to form a trilogy. – Dan Kocher
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Greta Garbo didn’t want to make Flesh and the Devil – for one thing, coming immediately after The Temptress, it typecast her as the silent version of a femme fatale. More importantly, she wanted to return to Sweden and MGM refused to let her, insisting she do the picture (in later studio-actress conflicts, Garbo would come out ahead, becoming one of the highest-paid women in Hollywood by the late 1920s, and remaining one of the most iconic and elusive stars in film history). Despite that, the film was a major success, sparking a very successful series of pictures pairing Garbo with John Gilbert. The film is a love triangle of sorts: Gilbert is in love with Garbo, who’s married to a count. He kills the count in a duel but is exiled for his trouble. When he returns, he finds his best friend has married Garbo in his absence. Oops. The chemistry between Garbo and Gilbert carries the film, and they were soon embroiled in an off-screen affair as well. – Jandy
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A Page of Madness is madness in and of itself; an insane asylum, murder, and a woman who is constantly dancing. It’s also one of the most interesting and unique silent films I have ever seen. A Page of Madness was a collaboration between director Teinosuke Kingugasa (Gate of Hell) and the Shinkankakuha, a group of avant-garde artists rebelling against the realistic focus of Japanese cinema at the time. It doesn’t look, sound, or feel like a film from 1926. There are no intertitles; the film was meant to be narrated, live, by a Japanese storyteller. This makes following the story a bit difficult, but the imagery is fantastic and the editing is propulsive. The story may not be fully grasped by the end, but the journey is so swift (it is only 60 minutes in length) and beautiful that you’ll have no problem watching it repeatedly to get all the details. Although A Page of Madness is such a strange piece of art, it has a real comfort and relatability to it. Director Kingugasa implemented almost all the cinematic tropes of the time into this film: Soviet montage , expressionist superimpositions, and of course French experimentalism. It all makes the film seem very modern and for any cineaste in 2016, a feeling of being right at home; even amongst this unnerving, sad, and sometimes disturbing film about a janitor working at the insane asylum where his wife is a patient. That’s all the plot I’m going to give because the plot isn’t that important when the images are this evocative and the acting gives a real heart to the film. The acting also has a modern sensibility to it. It’s not the pancaked face mugging, over the top acting of many silent films; it’s intimate and nuanced. While watching it I had a sneaking suspicion that I was watching a film from the 60s made to look like a silent era film. I was certain that A Page of Madness was a huge influence on Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor and the fast-paced editing of Scorsese/Schoonmaker, so I looked into its history, which is just as unique as the film. It was released in Japan to the theaters that specialized in foreign films and was viewed as more of a curiosity. Not long after its release it went missing for over 50 years. Then in 1971 Kingugasa was cleaning out his storehouse and found a print. So no, A Page of Madness was most likely not an influence on Fuller or Scorsese, but had it not been lost I’m sure this strange, wonderful, and uncommon film would have been. – Zach Huffaker
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Seems like every silent comedian has to do a boxing picture at one point or another (sometimes more than once), and this is Buster Keaton‘s feature-length go at the genre. The first half, though, is a different kind of fish-out-of-water story, as the posh and spoiled Alfred Butler (Keaton) is sent into the backwoods by his father to hunt and rough it for a bit. With a valet and a house-sized tent along, “roughing it” is a bit of a stretch, but Alfred does fall for a mountain girl (who is awesome but somehow never gets a name beyond “Mountain Girl”). Her father and brother won’t hear of her marrying a sissy like Alfred, though, so Alfred and his valet plan an elaborate ruse involving similarly-named boxer Alfred “Battling” Butler. By the end, our Alfie is doing the battling himself, to both comic and heroic ends. A bunch of clever gags get interspersed with some that fall flat, but it’s still a highly enjoyable film, and it’s not even Keaton’s best this year (see below). – Jandy
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The Black Pirate is not the place to start with the swashbuckling filmography of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., but once you’ve become a Fairbanks die-hard (and you will, thanks to Robin Hood and The Thief of Bagdad), it’s a fine excuse to continue watching him do his dashing, daring thing. Unlike most feature-length silents, this one is in color (albeit low saturation), and the ragtag clothes of the pirate crew contrast nicely with the ruddy wood of the ship sets. Fairbanks emotes nobly as a victim of piracy who himself becomes a pirate in order to seek revenge from the inside. A high point of the film is when the athletic Fairbanks shimmies along ropes and slides down sails to capture a merchant ship singlehanded. The scene in which he and a pirate leader clash swords on a desert island is creatively staged, too; each man fights with two blades. – David Conrad
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The Adventures of Prince Achmed is not only a delightfully animated fantasy adventure film – it is the oldest surviving animated feature film (it was only predated by a couple of Argentine films which are considered lost). German animator Lotte Reiniger was a pioneer of silhouette animation and created over forty animated films (mostly shorts and many adapted from fairy tales). The animation style is primitive yet captivating – the bold cutouts embody decisive characters who act and move with clarity. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is an imaginative tale inspired by stories from the Arabic collection One Thousand and One Nights. In addition to the titular Prince Achmed, we meet an exciting cast of characters: The African sorcerer, the Caliph, The Caliph’s daughter Dinarsade, and a winged horse which transports Achmed (and us) to exotic lands where we meet even more fantastic characters – the beautiful ruler Pari Banu, a powerful witch, and even Aladdin (of magic lamp fame) along with a host of wild and magical creatures sprinkled throughout the adventure. The film took three years to complete, painstakingly animated by hand using an early predecessor to the multiplane camera. The film features a score composed by Wolfgang Zeller, who worked in close collaboration with the animators. During its initial release, the orchestras (who accompanied the film live in the theaters) were given visual guides to be able to follow along with the film as they played. The film was originally in color, but an original print of the film has not survived. However, it has been fully restored using a black and white print, which was tinted (using surviving fragments of color prints as a guide). As a lifelong fan of animated films, I heartily recommend The Adventures of Prince Achmed – not only for its historical significance, but because it is a wonderful film that should be enjoyed for generations. – Ben Shoemaker
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F. W. Murnau’s Faust: A German Folk Legend is the result of and generator of transitions. In 1926, Germany’s film industry was starting to transition away from the expressionistic style to a more realistic, straightforward, and less emotional style. Murnau, riding high off his biggest critical and financial success The Last Laugh, was about to transition to the U.S. to work inside the Hollywood studio system. These transitions in filmmaking and in the filmmaker had a heavy influence on Faust, both on its technical and artistic sides. Faust had the largest budget of any German film to date. This large budget allowed Murnau to make Faust a technical marvel. The first 15 minutes have really stunning shots of light rays pouring in as Satan and Gabriel make their wager for the soul of Faust. My favorite shot shows a model city with intricate details as Satan enshrouds it with his darkness. Murnau was also able to use two cameras and shoot multiple takes; making sure everything was perfect in each scene. It’s a truly beautiful film. These transitions in German filmmaking and Murnau’s focus on technique had a less successful effect on the artistic side. Faust lacks emotional resonance. The story of Faust is relatable and heartbreaking, but in Murnau’s Faust, there are only a few sequences where we feel for the characters. They aren’t so much living beings as they are one more technical aspect Murnau had to get perfect; they’re fully automated props. Faust: A German Folk Legend is a 1926 blockbuster; a huge budget that you can really see on the screen, but the characters could use a bit more depth. It was just the transition Murnau needed to go from a highly emotional less visual The Last Laugh to nailing both technical and passionate peaks in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (widely considered one of the greatest films of all time). – Zach
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1. The General
The General was my first Buster Keaton film, but while it’s a sweet enough tale of a boy doing just about any darn thing to earn the heart of a girl, what really struck me was the physicality of Keaton’s performance. And the insanity. The exact same script, filmed today, would probably entail copious amounts of CGI, shaking cameras, and a stunt man that would barely pass for the lead actor on close inspection. (Well, we can always do a digital face replacement.) Yet there Keaton is, hopping on and off of the title train, risking life and limb just to make a movie. It makes something like Tom Cruise strapping himself to the outside of an airplane eighty-nine years later for Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, seem almost sane in comparison. And it’s enough to make even a silent film neophyte like myself realize that the greats of the time – Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd – embodied a sense of adventure and a willingness to take risks that have been all but abandoned by Hollywood in the modern era. – Nigel Druitt
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