The last two years of the 1920s were transition years, as cinema shifted very quickly into the sound era. Last year we covered 1928, with a Top Ten that was 100% silent. Although sound films were being made that year, the ones that have stood the test of time are all silent, and are among the pinnacle of the silent art form. In 1929, however, our top ten is a mixture of silent and sound films; the technology and storytelling for sound film had improved, sound cartoons started to become popular, and, in one of our blogger's choices, even silent comedians begin turning to sound. There's still amazing artistry in the silents, largely coming from European filmmakers who didn't pick up the sound craze quite as quickly as Hollywood.
What's missing from this postare any examples of films that are mostly silent with some sound sequences. There were many of those, and they're fascinating from a historical perspective, but they come off like awkward hybrids and it's not surprising they don't make a popular list like this. All this is to say that 1929 was a really exciting time in cinema. It saw the death of cinema as we knew it and the birth of something new. Like any birth, it was painful at times, but in the films of 1929 you can begin to see some of the ways this new cinema will grow and flourish, as well as appreciate the absolute mastery of the late silent era.
After Steamboat Willie burst on the scene in 1928 and made an instant icon out of Mickey Mouse, Disney went full-bore with the character, making 13 Mickey cartoons in 1929 and introducing the Silly Symphonies series (see The Skeleton Dance below). This one is kind of an amalgam of the two, as it basically repeats the very successful Skeleton Dance formula, but shoves Mickey into it. It's a dark and stormy night and Mickey runs to a nearby house for shelter, but surprise! It's full of skeletons who force him to play the organ while they dance and then terrorize him throughout the crooked old house as he tries to escape. If you think Disney borrowing from themselves started in the 1960s, think again. A lot of these early sound cartoons recycle fairly similar tropes and gags. Rather than seek narrative or stylistic originality, they focus on incorporating music and popular songs of the time, but there are some clever bits here that aren't merely lifted from The Skeleton Dance. And to be fair, the first reveal of the skeleton in the hood is genuinely creepy. - Jandy Hardesty
Ernst Lubitsch had been making risque, crowd-pleasing comedies for over a decade — he was a dominant figure in our post last month about the top 10 films of 1919 — and he didn't miss a beat when he made his first sound film. In fact, he put sound at the very forefront of The Love Parade. It's a musical, carried by the thickly-accented chanteur Maurice Chevalier, a Gallic Don Juan with an ear-to-ear smile whose winks did for Pre-Code audiences what Elvis Presley's hips did for the early TV generation. Chevalier's charm in this and The Big Pond netted him a Best Actor nomination at the 3rd Academy Awards ceremony (at that time, people were sometimes nominated for multiple roles.) The Love Parade works for many of the same reasons that most Lubitsch movies do: a romantic comedy plot, a stylish European backdrop, and a strong sense of fun. But this time, for the first time, a load of earworms come along for the ride, and you'll be humming songs like "My Love Parade" and "Ooh La La" long after you've forgotten the ins and outs of the plot. - David Conrad
We’ve already looked at Disney’s Haunted House; now let’s look at the original Silly Symphony. The idea of what would become Disney’s prolific Silly Symphony series came from Carl W. Stalling in a conversation with Walt in 1928. Disney was looking to broaden his horizons beyond Mickey Mouse, and Stalling had an idea for stand-alone shorts where the action was animated to match the music instead of the other way around. Stalling went on to compose the music for The Skeleton Dance, it was animated by Disney’s long-time collaborator Ub Iwerks, and the result was five-and-a-half minutes of graveyard shenanigans featuring a danse macabre-esque centerpiece.
Ub Iwerks built his career on characters whose rubbery, physics-free limbs seemed to have no internal structure, so it’s ironic that perhaps his best-known and most iconic work center around a quartet of dancing skeletons. The Skeleton Dance is indeed iconic, and one of the most influential works animation in the history of the medium. Many viewers know the imagery without knowing the origin, since it’s a staple of Halloween and weird cartoon montages on TV and the internet. And its legacy lingers even 90 years later, for without it, would Silly Symphonies have become what they were? And if there had been no Silly Symphonies, would there have been The Old Mill? And if there had been no Old Mill, would there have been a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? Would there have been Walt Disney Animation Studios? If Disney is known by its trademark castle, The Skeleton Dance is a cornerstone. - Tom Kapr
The title says it all. Woman. In. The Moon. You've got to be interested already. If you're not, consider this: Woman in the Moon comes from the minds of Fritz Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou, who wrote the novel on which it is based — they're the same wunderkinds who two years earlier created the seminal science fiction film Metropolis, which every film buff eventually sees. Woman in the Moon is their equally imaginative follow-up to that classic, but it isn't nearly as well-known. Nor is it as famous as what the power couple made next: the talkie thriller M. Both of those films are in the global top 200, compared to this one's position just outside the top 4000, but in many ways Woman in the Moon is the perfect bridge between them. The first half of it is a crime saga, featuring criminal conspiracies and heroic masterminds of the sort Lang loved. The second half pivots to pure science fiction and envisions something so far in the future from 1929's standpoint that it still hasn't happened as of 2019: a female astronaut who reaches the moon, steps onto the lunar surface, and explores an alien world. - David
Blackmail makes the top ten, I’m sure, because it is an Alfred Hitchcock film, and a notable one for its place in history if not for its inherent quality. It was Hitchcock’s first talkie, probably Britain itself’s first talkie, and it was a groundbreaking success. It is somewhat uneven, being that there are stretches that would still qualify as “silent,” punctuated by scenes of spoken dialogue and synced sound. (There is also a fully silent version, which may in fact be the better film.) It can also be unintentionally funny; have you ever seen a car chase where both the pursuers and the pursued stop at a traffic light? In 1929, however, it must have been a thrilling picture, and Hitchcock’s famous talent for suspense still has power these nine decades later. An attempted rape scene featuring Anny Ondra is especially harrowing, foreshadowing one of Hitchcock’s most iconic movie moments that would come a quarter-century later when Grace Kelly faced a similar situation in Dial M for Murder. - Tom
On her confirmation day, young Thymian (Louise Brooks) receives two important things: a diary and a rude awakening. The diary contains a message on the first page telling her to go to a certain place at a certain time. Before getting there, she discovers the body of her father's pretty housekeeper. Running to her father, she bursts in on him with his new maid already in his arms; he has been taking advantage of his young female employees, then discarding them when they become inconvenient. Shockingly (or not, since this is a social problem film and the title tells us the lead character is in for a struggle), Thymian herself is raped that very night by her father's assistant. Instead of marrying him when she turns out to be pregnant, as everyone pressures her to do, she opts for institutionalization. That would be plenty of issues to tackle for most movies, but things actually get worse from there for poor Thymian. Fortunately, Brooks has the gravitas and the range to sell Thymian's downs, downs, and downs — and possibly some ups as well, but no spoilers — while director G.W. Pabst displays the same confident command of narrative and tone that made Pandora's Box an even bigger success for he and Brooks the same year (see below.) - David
The Cocoanuts is the first movie appearance of the Marx Brothers (not counting a lost short), a quartet of smart, musically-sophisticated siblings who honed their act on Broadway before transitioning to the big screen. More multifaceted than the Three Stooges, more trenchant than Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers's brand of comedy is an elixir mixed from Groucho's scheming con-artistry, Chico's working-class hustle, Harpo's silent lunacy, and Zeppo's... well, when Zeppo disappeared after the first few films, nobody really noticed. In their early movies, the Marxes tended to structure their comedy routines around a central romantic plot — something like a young couple trying to make enough money to get married — and The Cocoanuts shows the strengths and weaknesses of that approach. When the brothers aren't on screen, things drag. On the plus side, the Marxes' peculiarities stand out more for being juxtaposed against "normal" characters; none of them has to play straight man. That doesn't mean their humor isn't grounded. Cocoanuts opens with a startlingly relatable satire about wage negotiation, then proceeds to make jokes at the expense of perennial whipping-state Florida. Its Sunshine State resort setting creates opportunities for great bits about real estate swindles and hotel room hijinks alongside more free-floating routines that the Marxes would hone over the ensuing decade of their peak popularity. - David
In another case of an image being more famous than the film it came from, even the uninitiated might at least have come into contact with the scene featuring an eyeball being sliced by a razor. Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s Un chien andalou features several indelible cinematic images: a man looking bemused as ants crawl out of a hole in his hand; lovers dead and half-buried on the beach; the infamous eye slice. It is the grandfather of all dream-logic films. Have you ever found yourself paralyzed in bed, or stepped through the hallway door and found yourself on a beach? Have you run after or away from something only to suddenly feel like you were dragging a dead donkey? The first time I watched this film, I was worried about watching the lady’s eye get sliced. Now when I watch it, it’s the moment immediately preceding that that causes me to wince and turn away — the man tests his freshly-stropped blade on his own thumbnail. I can’t even re-read that sentence without cringing. But that’s the beauty of surrealism, and perhaps of cinema itself: what you get from it depends on what you bring to it. - Tom
Louise Brooks may be one of the quintessential icons of silent cinema, but ironically she had to leave Hollywood and go to Germany to fully cement her status. This film, along with Diary of a Lost Girl, discussed above, has become so closely associated with Brooks and her stardom that it’s sometimes said that director G.W. Pabst “discovered” her. This is blatantly untrue, as she had been a leading actress in the U.S. since 1926 and already had her distinctive and trend-setting bob haircut. Yet there is something special about Pandora’s Box, perhaps in the frankness with which it treats sex (it includes one of the first depictions of a lesbian onscreen). This is not a particularly original story; it starts with Lulu (Brooks) being snubbed by her older lover when he plans to marry someone else, then takes her on a tour through murder and gambling and prostitution and almost every other kind of social ill you can think of. This kind of “everything but the kitchen sink, and why not that as well?” storytelling seems overwhelming now, but was not particularly unusual back then. In addition to this and Diary of a Lost Girl I can name two or three other films from the same era that do substantially the same thing. Pandora’s Box does it with a kind of seriousness that continually threatens to become self-parody, and yet, thanks in large part to Brooks’ grounding presence, it somehow feels worth taking seriously. And thanks to strong composition and lighting, certain moments become at least fleetingly transcendent. - Jandy
From a modern perspective, 1929 seems too early to be pondering the role of movies in the fabric of our culture, and if you were an American you would probably be correct. But in film's founding cultures, in Germany and France and especially Russia, the medium had already reached maturity, and it was clear to the intellectual classes that it was time to treat it not only as a new permanent player in the cultural landscape but as the subject (and object) of legitimate philosophical discourse. That's how Man with the Movie Camera can come across to modern film-school audiences: as an art film that explores the relationship between the lens and the world; a snapshot of one era's understanding of how technique renders meaning. The sophistication with which it hits these beats is indeed remarkable for any film at any time. Yet the film has a stickiness and accessibility beyond its genre because, simultaneously with being an art film, it also manages to faithfully and emotionally capture Soviet urban life at a crucial and complicated social time. It was a period of massive complexification of infrastructure, of political ideologies driving economic and industrial ideologies, and of cross-pollination with whatever those maniacs in the West were doing. The reason this film is so good and continues to be so highly ranked is because it is several films at once, finely orchestrated by an early master of the form. You can watch it through a number of different subjective lenses and still have a profound, timeless experience. - Doug van Hollen
Ranked 17075 times by 928 users
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Here are a couple of extra recommendations from further down the 1929 chart.
Jandy - Why Be Good
The Top Ten above has two Louise Brooks films, which the iconic flapper made in Germany rather than her native America, but her similarly-coiffed rival Colleen Moore misses out, and that's a shame. Despite rocking a distinctive jazz-age bob, Moore has a girl-next-door sweetness that sets her apart from the more dangerous Brooks, and she plays on that persona here as a young girl who goes out and plays the flapper every night. Why be good, if bad girls have all the fun? But she's not really a bad girl, and this contradiction follows her through the film. When she wants to get married, her beau's father refuses because of her wild past. Where the film goes from cliched to awesome is in her heated takedown of her potential father-in-law's double standards and her boyfriend's willingness to go along with them. I was lucky enough to see this at TCM Fest a few years ago, and the entire room stood up and cheered. A great moment in a film unjustly overlooked by history.
Ranked 232 times by 16 users
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0 users have it in their Top 20
Doug - Unaccustomed As We Are
Some recognition should be made of 1929 being the year that Laurel and Hardy broke into the talkies. Starting from its very title, Unaccustomed As We Are hangs a lampshade on the fact that the boys are playing with a brand new toy chest, but as always their genius is in their audacity and their lack of any hint of tentativeness about anything. They immediately and fully utilize the audio track to land jokes that would simply have been impossible otherwise: the extended "Mrs. Kennedy" exchange (too onerous for title cards), the wife's shouted insults from the kitchen (which relies on the ability not to cut away from the boys listening), the awkward spaghetti dinner while the cuckolded wife next door loudly beats the shit out of her husband, and let's not forget the first ever L&H bit reliant on music from a Victrola. Sure, any vaudevillian would also have grokked these moments, but how many would also have understood where to place the left edge of the frame, or when a reaction shot would help the joke's rhythm versus kill it? This film marks a key evolution in the legendary duo's prowess, and as such, the evolution of the art form overall.
Ranked 341 times by 37 users
Wins 53% of its matchups
0 users have it in their Top 20
What's on your 1929 chart? Let us know in the comments!
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.