The Top Ten Movies of 1927
“Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothing yet!”
Moving pictures were envisioned by Thomas Edison in the 1880s as a visual to accompany recordings on his already-successful phonograph, but he was unable to figure out a reliable method to keep sound and picture in sync. Others experimented throughout the silent era, but it wouldn’t be until 1927 that talking pictures took the world by storm, changing the movies forever. Though we associate talkies with The Jazz Singer (possibly because of the prominent name-check it gets in Singin’ in the Rain), the Vitaphone system (bought by Warner Bros. in 1926) had actually been used to produce synchronized sound shorts and even feature films with synchronized music and sound effects for over a year. But The Jazz Singer proved the commercial viability of the system, and that people were hungry for more talkative movies.
However, things didn’t change immediately, and the first few years of the talkies would be fraught with technical difficulties and excesses. The films of 1927 that would stand the test of time are all silents, though some (like Wings) used recorded sound effects and music. Even The Jazz Singer itself, which was part sound and mostly silent, doesn’t make the Flickchart Top Ten. Looking at this list of films, it’s pretty easy to see why — despite the advent of sound, 1927 in many ways represents the absolute apex of silent cinema, with ambitious and iconic films from F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Abel Gance, William A. Wellman, and Josef von Sternberg presenting very strong arguments for the artistic superiority of silent film, while silent comedians continued to show they had no need of sound to get a joke across.
Horror comedy is a genre that’s never really gone out of style, from Evil Dead II to Shaun of the Dead to Cabin in the Woods, but did you know it goes all the way back to the silent era? The granddaddy of “old dark house” films (the genre was hugely popular on stage and screen in the 1920s and ’30s), The Cat and the Canary plays pretty equally for laughs and chills, putting a large extended family in a creepy old house twenty years after a rich relative died and left a will not to be opened for, well, twenty years. Now the sweet ingenue will inherit all — but only if she’s sane. Cue everyone else trying to prove or drive her insane. Creepy arms steal out of walls to snatch the unsuspecting, a terrifying housekeeper glowers menacingly, but plenty more goes straight for laughs, and it’s a winning combination that would be often imitated but seldom executed as charmingly. – Jandy Hardesty
Globally ranked #4281
Ranked 1760 times by 120 users
Wins 47% of its matchups
It seems like a reprehensible act of millennial bullshittery to attempt to compliment a ninety-year-old film by saying that it “feels modern.” Modern things are not automatically better, and von Sternberg was not trying to impress us, the worst imaginable audience in the history of media. But that is the feeling that Underworld gives you, that its artistic sensibilities are not relics of some other era but have achieved some kind of timelessness through care of craft and purity of story. A huge part of this sense is that the acting is astonishingly good for the era. Clive Brook’s character Rolls Royce leverages a Keaton-like stoned-facedness into a cool and sexy sense of power without becoming unsympathetic. And our gun moll “Feathers” played by Evelyn Brent says volumes, libraries-full, with just her flinty eyes and a cocked hip. Unlike a lot of silent films which mimic theatrical acting and staging, this film lets the lens come in to get the drama instead of the actors trying to “send it out.”
And, best of all, there’s a wonderful surprise: the camera moves. Flat static shots are almost an assumed baseline for 20s silents, so when suddenly the camera is “rocked back” by a POV punch, or when it chases cats around an alley, or follows a drifting feather, it feels like air gets let back into the frame in way that a “modern” viewer is not expecting. Despite the Criterion version’s terrible score, Underworld is an ur-lexicon of crime cinema: hard men with soft hearts, soft women with hard edges, and AMAZING double-breasted suits. – Doug Van Hollen
Globally ranked #3832
Ranked 1391 times by 102 users
Wins 56% of its matchups
Though Harold Lloyd is now a distant third behind Chaplin and Keaton in terms of silent comedian household names, in the 1920s, he was quite possibly the most popular of them all. The Kid Brother doesn’t hold up quite as well as some of his other features, it does capture the essence of his persona’s appeal. Part comedy, but just as much romance and adventure, with Harold the weakling youngest son of a burly sheriff. When his father and brothers (also burly) are away, he plays at being sheriff and of course is mistaken as such and shenanigans begin. In good time our plucky hero proves himself and wins the girl (Lloyd’s frequent costar Jobyna Ralston). I don’t know that I’d START here with Lloyd, but its solid showing among 1927 films is a reminder that his filmography is much deeper than is often assumed. – Jandy
Globally ranked #3695
Ranked 1803 times by 134 users
Wins 44% of its matchups
Buster Keaton is known as the Great Stone Face because of his seemingly impassive expression in the face of mounting obstacles; Keaton could do more with one barely-altered glance than most comedians or dramatic actors can do with an entire monologue. He’s also possibly the greatest physical comedian in the history of film. That is something College doesn’t quite take full advantage of; but it is still evident in such standouts as the soda fountain scene and the track-and-field tryouts. (Watching the notably toned Keaton fake athletic ineptitude is akin to listening to Aretha Franklin pretending to be tone-deaf.) College is the 7th highest ranked film of 1927 on Flickchart, but it is also the first on this list to fall outside the top 5% of all ranked movies. And though I love Keaton dearly, it’s not difficult to see why this one isn’t as beloved as some of his other work. In terms of Keaton’s filmography, College is sandwiched between The General of 1926 and Steamboat Bill Jr. of 1928—two of the greatest films of all time. It also draws understandable comparisons to Harold Lloyd’s almost identically themed and much more highly ranked and highly regarded The Freshman of 1925.
And then of course there is the cringy “Wanted: Colored Waiters” scene. (I guess there used to be a market?) Keaton’s character spends a portion of the film trying to hold a job to help him pay for college (see also: soda fountain); and, yes, that means he spends this entire scene in blackface, which fools not only the oblivious white customers but also the black kitchen staff; worse yet, Keaton at one point adopts what one assumes is supposed to be a “black man” gait, which unfortunately is only just this side of an orangutan impression. On the other hand, this scene also features one of Keaton’s greatest stunts ever on film, when he gets hit in the head with a door, falls backward, does a reverse somersault, and returns to his feet—without dropping or spilling the bowl in his hand. And, the scene as a whole is still less cringy than the depiction of the Chinese in The Cameraman, so there’s that. College is, for the most part, an enjoyable if silly hour plus change, if you can get past the objectionable content. – Tom Kapr
Globally ranked #3295
Ranked 3615 times by 245 users
Wins 45% of its matchups
6. The Lodger
If everybody who watches The Lodger didn’t go in knowing it was a silent Hitchcock, they could be forgiven for wondering whether it was a forgotten treasure of German Expressionism. The Lodger, subtitled A Story of the London Fog, is a macabre tale of murders and lovers, with a continental feel to its creaky boarding houses, narrow alleys, and brightly-lit cabarets. (I say “creaky,” but being a silent, the creaks are inaudible — unless, like me, you’re fortunate enough to see the film with a newly-written score that features instrumental sound effects.) Despite a noticable artistic debt to the likes of Lang and Murnau, The Lodger is also recognizably Hitchcock‘s work. From the prominent use of idealized blondes and a plot driven by suspicion and doubt to an ending that prioritizes emotional release over logic, the strengths and the arguable weaknesses of the Master of Suspense are so apparent in The Lodger that it is often described as the first characteristically Hitchcockian film. Criterion plans to release a restored version on Blu-ray this year, so look for The Lodger to rise up the charts as people check it off their Hitchcock and silent cinema lists. – David Conrad
Globally ranked #2317
Ranked 6597 times by 420 users
Wins 39% of its matchups
5. The Unknown
With Tod Browning directing and one of the main characters having no arms, we must resist the temptation to consider The Unknown as a kind of proto-Freaks. And indeed many of the same themes and lessons run through both about the intensity of love and fear, and about how what we consider as “the fringes of society” are every bit as dramatic and human as the rest of the world. But The Unknown’s passions run much hotter; Lon Chaney radiates crazy-malice like a bad smell, and Joan Crawford absolutely explodes with sexuality. The storytelling is characteristically raw for the period, but this gives the film wonderfully basic palette of hard-edged emotions. It’s an upsetting film and Browning knows it, and loves it. – Doug
Globally ranked #1670
Ranked 3150 times by 223 users
Wins 57% of its matchups
In the first portion of Abel Gance’s epic silent biopic of the French conqueror, a boy Napoleon leads his young compatriots in a snowball fight. This sequence itself perfectly captures the mentality, the thrill, and the mendacity of Bonaparte. This notably long film was originally intended as part of a 30 hour project; as its first movement, this is practically Napoleon agitprop. And yet the film still holds sway because it brilliantly predicts cinematic techniques that would not be revived until the French New Wave thirty years later. Its most famous feature is a striking triptych technique that allows for wide mobility onscreen, as affecting in its innovation as in the images it captures. – Alex Lovendahl
Globally ranked #1435
Ranked 2455 times by 561 users
Wins 55% of its matchups
It’s easy for a review of Wings to turn into a list of trivia. First film to win a Best Picture Oscar. Last silent film to do so until The Artist in 2012. Directed by William A. Wellman, actual World War I combat pilot. Story written by John Monk Saunders, actual WWI pilot. Starring Richard Arlen, actual WWI pilot. One of Gary Cooper‘s first pictures, and one that helped him break into movie stardom. One of the most important films ever made, with one of the most storied productions. Affairs. Studio politicking. One pilot died, another broke his neck.
But the actual experience of watching the film, at least for me, was something special. While the average Johnny Q. Filmgoer of today might thumb his nose at the silent era, he might find himself surprised and maybe even titillated by some of the films of the 20s and early 30s. Though I had seen quite a few films of the era already, my first viewing of Wings is what really shocked me into reading up on the Hays Code (precursor to the MPAA rating system) and Pre-Code Hollywood. I was so used to what to expect from “classic Hollywood” (of the 30s, 40s, and 50s) that Wings caught me off-guard. This film is violent, sometimes lewd, shows naked dudes in the showers, and in one particularly memorable moment two officers burst into a room and — surprise! — here’s a topless Clara Bow.
Wings has a sort of fractured personality, shifting wildly in tone from the over-the-top broad comedy of drunken partying in Paris, to the clumsy sentiment of Cooper’s ace pilot’s untimely but dramatically convenient demise, to the still somewhat shocking violence of pilots being convulsed from bullet hits and spitting up blood. Which means that sometimes it seems outdated and silly — but the rest of the time it thrills and awes. That climax is still gut-wrenching. Those aerial dogfight scenes are still surprising and spectacular. So is Clara Bow. – Tom Kapr
Globally ranked #1374
Ranked 8457 times by 561 users
Wins 41% of its matchups
Despite finding nearly all of its lost footage, we still will never know what the full version of Fritz Lang’s masterpiece looked like unless you saw it on its opening night in Berlin. Yet when the restored version made its debut a few years back, it was the first time Metropolis felt complete. Even if it was still missing about five minutes, very few cared, because for the first time all the pieces fell into place and the world of Metropolis felt real. From The Thin Man’s Big Brother-like spying on Freder, to the fake Maria tempting all the workers below, to Freder being the one to bring the hands and the brain together (as this is the heart the movie hints at from the beginning), you can’t help but be drawn in. Expensive at the time of its release, the money spent is all on the screen. Moreover, the music (played live on opening night) fits every scene even better than may have been intended.
Lang would never make a movie as great. With the rise of the Nazis (and his wife’s support of them), Lang would flee Germany for America, and while some of his American output is impressive, he would never again make a film with as much ambition or creativity as this one. He might have hated Metropolis, a fairy tale at its core, but the film was his last attempt at true German Expressionism, and it remains a crowning achievement. – Nicholas Vargo
Globally ranked #139
Ranked 6753 times by 87128 users
Wins 50% of its matchups
“This song of the man and his wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere at any time…” F.W. Murnau was a supreme master at getting you to feel. William Fox was aware of that when he signed Murnau to a contract to make whatever he wanted. What he wasn’t aware of was how artistic the end result would be. That’s probably why Sunrise goes above and beyond to bring you a wide range of emotions with pure minimalism. The one and only Oscar winner for Best Unique and Artistic Motion Picture starts out so dark (the plan for a man to kill his wife thanks to the temptation from a woman from the city) that you might suspect it will be like all of Murnau’s previous, macabre works. Then the film takes a surprising but truthful turn into the realm of redemption. In a lesser film, the redemption would feel hackneyed, but Sunrise earns the right to it. This is largely thanks to Janet Gaynor and George O’Brian, who bring sympathy to a wife and husband in reconciliation. The scenes at a photo studio and carnival work despite the wild things that happen because we want to see the married couple do more than reconcile; we want to see them fall in love again. Like any great love story, in order to get to the light, there has to be darkness, and the climax makes clear that just because you found your love again doesn’t mean that you don’t have to fight to keep it.
The movie has stood the test of time partly because the themes of the story are universal but also because the techniques still feel new and innovative. Hugo Riesenfeld’s haunting Movietone score matches up with the technical innovation to give you a sense of dread, hope, and pathos. It even has dialogue buried in one of its city scenes, when irate drivers yell at the couple; this beats The Jazz Singer’s dialogue introduction by two weeks. At age 90, Sunrise continues to influence, and it feels as fresh and current as it was the day it was released. – Nicholas
Globally ranked #50
Ranked 28005 times by 1188 users
Wins 62% of its matchups
The Top Ten above is the result of thousands of rankings by thousands of Flickchart users, but we bloggers have some favorites that didn’t make the global Top Ten.
Jandy – My Best Girl
Charles “Buddy” Rogers had a good year in 1927 with Wings, but among his other films that year was this delightful little romantic comedy with America’s Sweetheart herself, Mary Pickford. The story is an admittedly cliched bit of fluff about a department store owner’s son taking a lower-level job at the store incognito to prove himself and falling for one of the shopgirls — you’ve seen it a dozen times, especially if you like silent films. But the details are so strong, like introducing Pickford’s character by seeing only her feet for several minutes as she struggles with a bunch of pots and pans and eventually her own petticoat. This sort of creativity for gentle visual comedy was lost for a while when talkies came in. Beyond that, Pickford and Rogers have wonderful chemistry, and in fact, after Pickford’s celebrated marriage to Douglas Fairbanks ended in the mid-1930s, she would marry Rogers.
Globally ranked #7632
Ranked 213 times by 38 users
Wins 51% of its matchups
David – Berlin: Symphony of a Great City
Walter Ruttman’s non-narrative visual poem in praise of a metropolis opens with an already longstanding symbol of modernity: a train. It races through German farmland, past signs giving the distance to Berlin, until pulling into the capitol city’s station. If there are people on the train, we don’t see them, and there might as well be no people in the city, either; we see Berliners, but less for who they are than for what they do. They are languid walkers dwarfed by wide avenues and canyons of buildings, or commuters in jostling crowds waiting for trains. They queue for the machines that take them to their workplaces, and at those workplaces they operate the machines that give purpose to the city. The human figures who receive the most direct, personalized attention from Ruttman and his team of cinematographers (including the accomplished Karl Freund) are mannequins in store windows who sport the latest in 1920s women’s fashion. A great city, then, is great not because of its residents but because of its engineering and its economic power: its trains, factories, streetlights, smokestacks, and structures of brick and stone and glass.
Ruttman was likely attempting to demonstrate how far Germany had advanced since its defeat in first World War, but it is also possible to extrapolate from the film a then-current German tendency toward brutalizing utilitarianism that would find its worst expression a decade later in the Berlin of Nazi architect and industrialist Albert Speer. Mitigating against this dark reading of the movie is a recreational final act and an occasional animal motif that is both whimsical and a commentary on the inhumanity of the workaday routine. Yet possibly supporting it is the fact that Ruttman later worked with Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl and eventually died while serving as a war photographer. Nevertheless, the flowing, sometimes dizzying pace and trance-inducing mechanistic imagery of Symphony of a Great City, which influenced later arthouse documentaries like Koyaanisqatsi, makes it a crucial artistic milestone as well as an important historical chronicle of Weimar Berlin.
Globally ranked #4602
Ranked 1032 times by 87 users
Wins 49% of its matchups