Twelve Silents

Scene from Josef Von Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters

As promised, here are an even dozen great American silent films. Left out are the great comedians—Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd—mostly because people are pretty familiar with them. Below are films that are mostly dramatic, including one drama that Chaplin directed, but did not star in. The films are arranged by year of release:

  • D. W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919), probably my favorite among his films
  • Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), starring Rudolph Valentino
  • Maurice Tourneur’s Lorna Doone (1922), a real diamond in the rough
  • Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris (1923), his tribute to the lovely Edna Purviance
  • Victor Sjöström’s He Who Gets Slapped (1924), starring Lon Chaney Senior, based on a Leonid Andreyev play
  • Josef Von Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters (1925), the director’s first American film
  • Ernst Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925), based on the Oscar Wilde play
  • Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory? (1926), with profanity for proficient lip-readers
  • F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), a real masterpiece
  • Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs (1928), based on a Victor Hugo novel
  • Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928), with Lillian Gish going mad on the prairies of 19th century America
  • Erich Von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly (1928), produced by Joseph P. Kennedy and starring Gloria Swanson

Rudolph Valentino Dancing the Tango in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

I think it is worth the effort to see these films if you’re interested in silent films of the period. If you’re not, they very well might make you interested.

NOTE: The 1920s were pretty racist, so I would advise you to remember that our great-grandparents did not hold the same political views that we do.

Am I Still an Auteurist?

This Is the Magazine That Started It All

The Politique des Auteurs started in France with the writers of Cahiers du Cinema. André Bazin and a young cadre of rising filmmakers and critics felt that the French cinema was becoming too literary and that much was to be learned from the vitality of the American film industry. With almost every issue, they were discovering scores of new film artists such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, and even such downmarket geniuses as Edgar G. Ulmer.

By 1962, the auteurists found an American disciple in Andrew Sarris, film critic for The Village Voice in New York. For the Winter 1962-1963 issue of Film Culture, Sarris created a whole issue dedicated to the auteur theory. As a student at Dartmouth College, I paid to photocopy the entire issue and used it religiously as a guide until Sarris came out a few years later with the greatly expanded American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968.

The Notorious Auteur Issue of 1962-1963

Circles and Squares: In the interim, Pauline Kael published a blistering attack in Film Quarterly called “Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris.” Many of her attacks hit home, and they certainly exposed Sarris’s weaknesses as a film theoretician. I had met Pauline Kael and liked her work, but as a young man I was a budding auteurist.

Now, half a century and thousands of films later, I still see myself as having been influenced by the Cahiers crowd and Sarris, but I think there is a lot more to film than an a priori theory imposed from above. On the plus side, the auteurists opened me to the incredible riches of the American film—but I started liking films by such card-carrying non-auteurs as Felix Feist, Edward L. Cahn, Robert Florey, and Charles Vidor.

I give the credit to the auteur theory for introducing me to the idea that American films can also be great. I started my love of film by watching such foreign productions as Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1948) and Wojciech Has’s The Saragossa Manuscript (1962); but by the late 1960s I was beginning to give Hollywood its due and loosened up considerably.

Favorite Films: The Salvation Hunters (1925)

The Pimp, The Girl, The Child, and The Boy

The first film that director Josef von Sternberg made in the U.S. cost only $5,000 and had only eight characters, none of whom bore anything but descriptive names. We meet the three main characters—The Boy, The Girl, and The Child—at the docks in San Pedro, California, where the center of attraction is a huge dredge sucking up mud from he harbor to deposit into a barge. The Boy (George K. Arthur) makes several attempts to get a job, but to no avail. The Girl (Georgia Hale) hangs around the docks and is hit upon by an oafish character called, simply, the Brute. The Child (Bruce Guerin) is a young boy who is beaten by the Brute until the Boy saves him from his clutches. The three drift together, a kind of centripetal relationship in which they care for and defend one another, but do not have a dime.

When a black cat suddenly jumps out of a closed chest full of harbor mud, the three decide to leave for the city, which presents no improvement. It is full of smoke, telephone wires, and broken-down slums. Here they attract the attention of a pimp (called in the credits simply The Man) who offers them a seedy apartment next to one of his women. He then hangs around trying to figure how how to draw The Girl into the trade.

Georgia Hale as The Girl

Georgia Hale was cast by Charley Chaplin as the leading lady in his next film, The Gold Rush (also 1925). In The Salvation Hunters, she is remarkably beautiful without any make-up whatsoever. When she thinks of hooking for The Man, she uses a burnt-out match the accentuate her eyebrows and borrows a dab of lipstick from her neighbor.

This is the second time I saw The Salvation Hunters. The first time was at UCLA in the period 1968-1972. I was initially so impressed by von Sternberg that I wanted to do my master’s thesis on him. In fact, I visited the director at his house in Westwood around 1969 (the year in which he died)  and asked if he had access to any prints of his films which I could screen. He was actually very kind as a host, though his reputation is as something of an ogre. My friend Joe Adamson, who introduced the film at Cinecon 53 today, told of his answering questions of his painterly vision in film when he had taught at UCLA by saying, simply, “I did it because I am an artiste.” He wrote a book about his career entitled Fun in a Chinese Laundry, in which he takes a couple of hundred pages before mentioning, in a subordinate clause, that he was married.

Josef von Sternberg (1894-1969)

Von Sternberg is best known today for the films he made with his protegeé, Marlene Dietrich. Some of these are among the greatest films ever made. Included among them are:

  • The Blue Angel (1930)
  • Morocco (1930)
  • Dishonored (1931)
  • Shanghai Express (1932)
  • Blonde Venus (1932)
  • The Scarlet Empress (1934), my favorite of his films
  • The Devil Is a Woman (1935)

That said, I think all his films are worth seeing. Even if you may not like them, they will change the way you experience film.

I cannot but think that The Salvation Hunter was something of a flop in 1920s America: It depicted a European sense of allegory and universality (a la Murnau’s Sunrise) and poverty. It is not a film that is presented purely for your entertainment. But it is one of the best films made in that decade, along with several other von Sternberg offerings such as Underworld (1927), The Last Command (1928), and The Docks of New York (1928).

Best American Films By Year, Part Three

Poster for The Wild Bunch (1969)

Poster for The Wild Bunch (1969)

This is the final installment of my series on The Best American Films By Year series, from 1915 to 1980. Why do I stop with 1980? Essentially, I think that by then, most of the great American directors were either not working or had passed on. As in the other postings, I begin with the choice of my friend Lee Sanders, who has seen far more films than I have.

Lee’s list stops at 1977. The choices for 1978-1980 are all my own.

When there is a second choice, it’s my selection when I have either not seen Lee’s choice or have my own preference. My choices are shown in red.

1961 – Two Rode Together (John Ford)
1962 – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford)
1963 – The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock)
1964 – Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock)
1965 – Red Line 7000 (Howard Hawks); Inside Daisy Clover (Robert Mulligan)
1966 – Seven Women (John Ford)
1967 – El Dorado (Howard Hawks)
1968 – The Legend of Lylah Clare (Robert Aldrich)
1969 – Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone); The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah)
1970 – On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (Vincente Minnelli); Patton (Franklin Schaeffner)

1971 – The Grissom Gang (Robert Aldrich); They Might Be Giants (Anthony Harvey)
1972 – Travels With My Aunt (George Cukor); The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola)
1973 – American Graffiti (George Lucas)
1974 – The Tamarind Seed (Blake Edwards); Godfather II (Francis Ford Coppola)
1975 – Night Moves (Arthur Penn); The Man Who Would Be King (John Huston)
1976 – A Matter of Time (Vincente Minnelli); Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese)
1977 – Twilight’s Last Gleaming (Robert Aldrich); 3 Women (Robert Altman)
1978 – Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick)
1979 – Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola)
1980 – Popeye (Robert Altman)

And that’s how the American Cinema ended, not with a bang but a whimper….

Best American Films By Year, Part Two

John Wayne in The Searchers

In this posting, I continue my list of “The Best American Films By Year” covering the period 1915 to 1977. What I am going from is a list produced by my friend Lee Sanders, with whom I am in substantial agreement. When there are two films for a particular year and the second one is in red, the second one is because I disagree with Lee’s choice (which you will find is not too often). Below is the continuation of the list from 1941 to 1960:

1941 – How Green Was My Valley (John Ford)
1942 – The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles); Casablanca (Michael Curtiz) – Lee actually had both films tied; I prefer the second
1943 – Air Force (Howard Hawks)
1944 – Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli)
1945 – They Were Expendable (John Ford)
1946 – My Darling Clementine (John Ford); The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks) – Lee had both films tied, a decision with which I agree.
1947 – Pursued (Raoul Walsh); Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur)
1948 – Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls)
1949 – Caught (Max Ophuls); She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford)
1950 – Rio Grande (John Ford)

1951 – On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray); Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock)
1952 – The Quiet Man (John Ford)
1953 – The Bandwagon (Vincente Minnelli)
1954 – The Sun Shines Bright (John Ford)
1955 – Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray)
1956 – The Searchers (John Ford)
1957 – Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk)
1958 – Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock)
1959 – Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks)
1960 – Home from the Hill (Vincente Minnelli); Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)

When I conclude this list, we will look at American films of the 1960s and 1970s (up to 1977, and I will bring the list up to 1980 with my own choices).



Best American Films By Year, Part One

Lobby Card for Josef Von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (1934)

One day, my friend Lee Sanders and I started chatting about our favorite American films. From a capacious bag full of various literature, Lee whipped out a list of “The Best American Films of the Year,” spanning the years 1915 through 1977.  Now, for the most part, Lee and I see eye-to-eye. Where we don’t, I propose my own alternative. Where two films are listed for a particular year, the first one is Lee’s; the second, mine:

1915 – The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith)
1916 – Intolerance (D. W. Griffith)
1917 – Straight Shooting (John Ford)
1918 – The Whispering Chorus (Cecil B. DeMille); Shoulder Arms (Charles Chaplin)
1919 – Broken Blossoms (D. W. Griffith)
1920 – Way Down East (D. W. Griffith); The Last of the Mohicans (Maurice Tourneur)

1921 – Dream Street (D. W. Griffith); The Kid (Charles Chaplin)
1922 – Robin Hood (Allan Dwan)
1923 – The White Rose  (D. W. Griffith); Our Hospitality (Buster Keaton)
1924 – He Who Gets Slapped (Victor Seastrom)
1925 – Seven Chances (Buster Keaton)
1926 – The General (Buster Keaton)
1927 – Sunrise (F. W. Murnau)
1928 – The Docks of New York (Josef Von Sternberg)
1929 – Lady of the Pavements (D. W. Griffith); The Love Parade (Ernst Lubitsch)

1931 – Dishonored (Josef Von Sternberg)
1932 – Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch)
1933 – Design for Living (Ernst Lubitsch)
1934 – The Scarlet Empress (Josef Von Sternberg)
1935 – Barbary Coast (Howard Hawks); The Devil Is a Woman (Josef Von Sternberg)
1936 – The Road to Glory (Howard Hawks)
1937 – Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey)
1938 – Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks)
1939 – Stagecoach (John Ford)
1940 – His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks)

That’s all for the first installment. My differences with Lee in the above listings relate more to his love of D. W. Griffith’s later melodramas. I will continue in a week or so with the remainder of the list.

Any comments? We old film freaks used to call this activity “trading bubble gum cards.”