The Top Ten of 1925
At the end of the year, as we do every year, we’ll be counting down the Top Ten Films of 2015 according to Flickchart’s global rankings. In the months leading up to that, we’re going to be taking a look-back and seeing what Flickchart users think are the best movies of ten, twenty, thirty years ago and so on.
The Roaring Twenties. The Jazz Age. The Flapper Age. The Prohibition Era. A Return to Normalcy. The 1920s, at least in the US, go by a number of nicknames. Following the end of WWI, America’s economy boomed, and its populace embraced individual freedom, new clothing and style fads, and a consumerist lifestyle. Prohibition prevented the legal sale of alcohol, but it flowed freely at speakeasies throughout the country, and gangsters sprung into prominence in part to handle the import and sale of illicit beverages. To some degree, the idea that every girl was a flapper and every guy a gangster comes from the movies, which loved these stereotypes – and in the 1920s, America loved the movies.
Most of the major studies that dominated Hollywood until the 1960s were formed by the 1920s, and the movie industry was on an all-time high. Americans had money, and they spent it. Hollywood stars had LOTS of money, interest in Hollywood royalty soared, and celebrities didn’t disappoint, throwing lavish and decadent parties at palatial estates. Not everything was all sunshine and roses, though – scandal often plagued Hollywood throughout the decade, Red Scares were already beginning (and Hollywood was considered a hotbed of potential Communist sympathizers), and traditional values were coming under attack from many angles.
In all of these posts up to this point, we’ve compared the Flickchart Top Ten to the box office hits of the year and to the big winners at the Academy Awards – we can’t do the latter this time, since the Oscars didn’t begin until 1928. The box office hits of the year, though, include The Big Parade, Ben-Hur: The Tale of the Christ, The Freshman, and The Gold Rush, which all appear on our Top Ten as well. Notably, neither of the Buster Keaton films on our list show up in box office list, reminding us that though Keaton appeals greatly to modern audiences, Charlie Chaplin and especially Harold Lloyd were much more popular at the time (this is not anomalous to 1925; none of Keaton’s features throughout the 1920s appear on the box office charts, while many of Lloyd’s and Chaplin’s do). We also see the cataclysmic influence of Soviet Cinema in the Flickchart list, as two films from Sergei Eisenstein show up – Eisenstein’s theories and practice of montage would become the foundation of film editing, and many of his techniques are still staples today. You can also see Flickchart users’ love for Universal monsters (one of the few sets of older films that consistently make a dent in the global lists) with Universal’s first foray into the genre, Lon Chaney‘s Phantom of the Opera.
Many film fans, even those who enjoy classic film as a rule, mark a sharp divide between silent and sound, but films from the 1920s, though silent, are hardly primitive. 1925 gives us comedy, epic, action, drama, horror and fantasy – many good options to dip your toes into the silent waters. Many of these films are actually available on YouTube (though you may find better prints on DVD or Blu-ray), and we’ve linked to them when they are.
10. Go West
By 1925, Buster Keaton had already gone west a time or two, notably in the 1922 short The Paleface, but you can never go west too many times. We open on Keaton selling all his meager possessions, as he’s become a persona non grata for an unknown reason, and needs to leave town and make a new start. He heads west on a train, then winds up at a ranch, a “dude” if there ever was one. He puts on the chaps and boots, but most of the comedy is him totally failing to be anything like a cowboy. He winds up making friends with one of the cows, and it’s pretty amazing how sweet a relationship that turns out to be (there’s even a joke where the rancher thinks Buster’s asking for his daughter’s hand, but no, he just wants the cow). One of Keaton’s stock images is of him being chased through a town by a huge crowd – in Cops it’s a crowd of cops, in Seven Chances (see below), it’s a crowd of potential brides, and in Go West, it’s the herd of cows he’s trying to take to market. That makes up the bulk of the third section, and it gets pretty crazy – though mostly because of how intensely frightened everyone in town is of the cows. There’s also a section on a train that foreshadows Keaton’s 1926 masterpiece The General. Overall, the film is sweet and funny, but feels a bit like a greatest hits collection, right down to the meta joke where someone tells him to smile, and he attempts to push up the corners of his mouth with his fingers, then shakes his head in failure. Watch on YouTube – Jandy Hardesty
Everyone knows about the 1959 Charlton Heston Ben-Hur. It’s one of the greatest epics ever, from an era when Hollywood was making a lot of sword-and-sandal epics, it held the record for most Oscar wins for almost forty years, until Titanic tied its eleven statuettes, and its chariot race in particular is iconic and instantly recognizable. Well, did you know that it was a remake, and the 1926 silent version is pretty much just as epic and has just as incredible a chariot race at its climax? I always feel like this film is one of the hidden masterpieces of the silent era – it was the second highest grossing film of the year (behind juggernaut The Big Parade, see below), and yet it’s been almost completely, and unfairly, overshadowed by its sound remake. Nothing against the Heston version, which is also great, but if you want to see a simply exhilarating (and also quite tenderly moving) sword and sandal epic with amazing stunts from the silent era, look no further than this. Ramon Novarro was Hollywood’s major exotic heartthrob after Valentino’s early passing, and this is one of his signature roles. – Jandy Hardesty
8. The Freshman
While most seem to believe the battle of the great silent film stars still rages between Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, The Freshman proves that Harold Lloyd absolutely deserves a place in the conversation. With the heart of The Tramp and the visual gag and daring of Keaton, Lloyd’s sweet, good-natured Harold Lamb story of his first year trying to fit in at college is a wonderfully fun story that set the stage for decades worth of college films. While both Chaplin and Keaton’s characters were often content with where they were in their lives, Lloyd often portrayed characters who longed for something great, to become someone better than who they were – a ideal that made Lloyd and The Freshman quite a hit in the 1920s. The Freshman and Lloyd are iconic of America’s optimism for a better future and an attempt to move up the ladder and the insistence that Lamb can become everything he wants to be makes The Freshman a remarkable and touching film for those who aspire to greatness. Watch on YouTube or HuluPlus – Ross Bonaime
To a great extent Strike is more of the same from Sergei Eisenstein, whom many film students know from The Battleship Potemkin (see below). It’s propaganda for the workers’ revolution, it follows a collective of protagonists instead of highlighting an individual, and it makes extensive use of clever editing techniques. Split-screens, transparent overlays, and even animation — rotating letters on a dialogue card — make Strike visually appealing even if its narrative is both polemical and rather hard to follow. (Perhaps in the interest of narrative as much as subversion, later Soviet directors became more amenable to hanging a story on a relatable individual.) Like Battleship Potemkin, Strike culminates in a dramatic set piece: an explosive street battle that is put down by the Czar’s waterhose-wielding troops. The battle then shifts to a field, where scenes of workers being slaughtered are intercut with footage of a live cow having its throat cut and bleeding to death. That’s an unpleasant thing to watch, but it’s supposed to be. It’s propaganda. Watch on YouTube – David Conrad
In 1925, most films played for only a week, even in big cities, before they were replaced with something else. King Vidor wanted to make a film so good and so popular that it might be held over for two or even three weeks. The Big Parade played in New York City for NINETY-SIX consecutive weeks. That’s almost two years, folks. This was one of the biggest hits of the silent era, and a yardstick for financial success until Gone with the Wind came out fourteen years later. All that was rather shocking for me to learn when I got ready to watch this film, since I’d heard of it as being a good film, but it certainly no longer has the cultural cache it once did. It’s a World War I film, following a rather lazy manufacturer’s son (John Gilbert, who’s apparently more than Garbo‘s arm candy) who ends up joining the army rather than work in his father’s business, and going from boot camp to being stationed in a quiet French village, and finally to the front. One of those films that has something for everyone, from comedy (largely from the two buddies he meets in boot camp) to romance (with a French girl) to the horror of war. Going into it I feared the 2.5 hour runtime, but although the first part felt a little long, once they head to the front, the rest of the film is spectacular. It’s a shame the film isn’t as well-remembered as All Quiet on the Western Front, which has eclipsed it with some similar battle footage. I’d still probably rank All Quiet higher, but I mean, there’s room for more than one great WWI disillusionment film. – Jandy
Larry Semon wrote, directed, and starred in this adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s beloved novel, and he wasn’t shy about straying from it. Indeed, what makes this film so fascinating is how wildly different its original story content is from Baum’s novel. It really just has to be seen to be understood, because any plot summary is going to be baffling. Those seeking anything resembling either Baum’s novel or the iconic 1939 musical film will be bewildered at best and terribly disappointed at worst. Even contemporary audiences rejected the film, costing production company Chadwick Pictures dearly; it went bankrupt before even delivering prints of the film to some theaters. Warner’s DVD and Blu-ray Disc releases of the ‘39 film have included this and other Oz silent films, thus keeping it accessible, and its placement on this Top Ten list is almost certainly owed more to that and it being part of the Oz universe than to its own merits. It’s bizarre as could be, though, and on some level entertaining just for how ludicrous it is. Watch on YouTube – Travis McClain
4. Seven Chances
A common Buster Keaton image is him being chased down the street by a horde, and though Cops may be the most iconic example, Seven Chances‘ is probably the most ludicrous, as Keaton is being chased by hundreds of potential brides. His company is about to go under, but he may get an unexpected windfall from a dead grandfather, whose will promises him seven million dollars if he gets married before he turns 27…which happens to be the next day. After his girlfriend rejects him (she thinks he only wants to marry her because of the money), he has seven chances with women he knows, and then an advertisement brings the rest. The film is more plot-heavy than a lot of Keaton’s films, which doesn’t always work in its favor, but Keaton is always Keaton, and you can’t beat the scope of some of his more elaborate jokes, which pay off with some great visuals. Watch on YouTube – Jandy
Universal founder Carl Laemmle spared no expense when producing this adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s 1911 novel, the rights to which he personally bought after reading the novel in a single night. Laemmle put his money on the screen in the form of one of the most spectacular sets ever constructed: the Paris Opera House. Built to accommodate literally thousands of actors and extras, it was constructed with concrete and steel girders out of necessity. Even when the narrative drops into a lull, the set is so visually captivating that the film remains engaging. Looming even larger than that set is Lon Chaney as The Phantom. His self-designed makeup is as creepy as anything Hollywood has created since. It’s hard to tell which is more unsettling: the scenes in which he appears…or the ones in which he’s unaccounted for because he’s not there. The Phantom of the Opera has been adapted several times since this first production, including a second film from Universal in 1943, but it’s this first version that casts the longest shadow. Watch on YouTube – Travis
2. Battleship Potemkin
Rarely has a film so large in scale paid so much attention to the little things as did Sergei Eisenstein’s silent epic. An obvious work of Socialist propaganda, The Battleship Potemkin has outlived that purpose and stands today as a masterpiece of film regardless of its origins. The working class perspective resonates today as much as it did 90 years ago. We never visit the bridge; that would be too elite. Instead, we go below decks into parts of the ship that many naval films ignore entirely. This is what it takes to operate a battleship, and this is what it takes to prosecute and win a revolution. Eisenstein set out to stir the emotions of viewers. To that end, rather than either downplay or glorify violence, his presentation is unapologetically stark, both in the early scenes aboard the Battleship and the later ones as soldiers march down the Odessa Steps to quell the rebellion with lockstepped efficiency. He would surely be pleased to know that his approach and attention to detail have kept the film just as captivating and compelling as it was when first screened. Watch on YouTube – Travis
Released eleven years after the creation of Charlie Chaplin‘s iconic character The Tramp, The Gold Rush is not only an incredible feat of silent filmmaking and one of the best comedies of all time, but it also is one of the finest films for The Tramp. We see Chaplin’s grandiose ambition that was decades ahead of film, as we can see in moments like having a cabin teeter on the edge of a mountain, or his usage of hundreds of extras and the phenomenal storytelling that would become synonymous with Chaplin’s filmography. As a simple silent comedy, The Gold Rush would’ve been fantastic even without The Tramp, but we get the beauty of what has made this character last for over a century. The Tramp is charming, heartbreaking and always our hero, even as he plans to eat his best friend in the film. Film existed prior to The Tramp, but rarely did it have the amount of heart that Chaplin could imbue in his films prior to The Tramp’s introduction in Kid Auto Races at Venice. With The Gold Rush, Chaplin refines his wonderful character and sets the bar high for silent film and comedies in general, setting a standard that is still near impossible to beat with Chaplin’s combination of heart, comedy and pathos. Watch on YouTube or HuluPlus – Ross