Journeys in Darkness and Light

The Best of 2017: Silent Movies


With apologies to my friend Movies Silently, I must confess that silent movies are still quite a blindspot for me. I’m almost never disappointed when I watch silent films, but I think it’s getting myself in the right frame of mind to watch them that keeps me from watching more often. Just know that it’s something I’m still working on… So here are the silent films I most enjoyed in 2017:

A Trip to the Moon (1902) Georges Méliès
Flicker Alley Blu-ray (0:15)

When Flicker Alley announced months ago that its Blu-ray release of A Trip to the Moon (1902) was going out of print and that they were offering it at a discount, I jumped on it fast. (The discount has since expired, but you can still get the Blu-ray.)

Anyone who loves and appreciates film already knows what an important place A Trip to the Moon holds in cinematic history, so I’m not going to belabor the point here. The work is only 15 minutes long, but it is amazing for what it does, how it does it and how it continues to influence films over 100 years later. For modern audiences watching the film who may not “get it” or may dismiss it as a charming relic from ancient history, I urge them to watch the documentary also included on the Blu-ray, The Extraordinary Voyage (2011) which not only explores the life of Georges Méliès, creator of A Trip to the Moon, but also details the process and importance of film restoration better than any other documentary I’ve seen. If you love movies, this is a must-own, not only for yourself, but also to show others.

Napoléon (1927) Abel Gance
BFI Blu-ray (Region B) (5:32)

I’m not even going to try to expound on this landmark film. The first 15 minutes alone will knock you into the middle of next week and it just gets more impressive as you watch for over five more hours, a stretch of time that feels more like 15 minutes. I honestly wouldn’t know where to start talking about this monumental masterwork. Maybe after I’ve seen it again I’ll be able to give this a full review. I’ll just say that you simply must see it.

Currently the film is available only through a release from BFI, a Region B release that requires a region-free Blu-ray player. There are rumors that a U.S. release is coming, but some of those same rumors claim that the film may look and will certainly sound different (with a different soundtrack). Silent film historian Kevin Brownlow should be given an award (or several) for spending the last 50 years of his life piecing together and restoring the film. See it and you’ll understand why. Buying this Blu-ray is reason enough to own a region-free Blu-ray player. Seriously.

Man with a Movie Camera (1929) Dziga Vertov
FilmStruck (1:08)

Narrative feature? Documentary? Experiment? Just how do you describe Man with a Movie Camera? The film contains no professional actors and there probably wasn’t a real “script” in the way we normally think of scripts. The film instead captures various images from urban life in the Soviet cities of Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa. We see people working, playing, and most interestingly, confronting various types of machinery, both simple and industrial. Yet this is no quaint look back at a simpler time. Vertov uses a variety of (then) avant-garde styles and techniques such as slow motion, fast motion, double exposure, jump cuts, Dutch angles, split screen, and more. (The version I saw on FilmStruck features original music composed and performed by The Alloy Orchestra. If you get a chance, see this version.)

The film is important for showing audiences then (and reminding us now) of where film can go, a reminder that rules and limits are made to be broken, even shattered. All the techniques in the film have become rather commonplace and seeing the film with 21st century eyes dilutes its power somewhat, but seeing it for the first time in 1929 (or even 1939, 1949, etc.) must have been a mind-blower. Even now, close to 90 years later, it’s still a mind-blower.

Flesh and the Devil (1926) Clarence Brown
DVD – library (1:53)

Wonderful silent film about two boyhood friends (Lars Hanson and John Gilbert) who fall for the same woman (Greta Garbo). Extraordinary on many levels, the film is beautifully photographed by William H. Daniels and seems so much more modern than its 1926 time period suggests. Direction, acting, everything is superb, and of course there’s Garbo. Flesh and the Devil, along with Queen Christina (1933), was part of our Greta Garbo Double Feature at the Severna Park Library recently.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925) Rupert Julian
DVD – library (1:41)

Quite possibly the greatest version of the story with a show-stealing performance by the masterful Lon Chaney, Sr. in the title role. I’m embarrassed to say that this is the first time I’ve seen the film, part of my Blindspot series from last year that I’m just now getting around to watching.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927) Alfred Hitchcock
Filmstruck (1:31)

Although I consider myself a big fan, this is the first silent film I’ve seen from Alfred Hitchcock (which probably disqualifies me as a “big fan”). Based on the Marie Belloc Lowndes novel The Lodger and the play Who Is He?, The Lodger is really a Jack the Ripper story that stands as an early example of several emerging Hitchcock themes, primarily that of the innocent man accused. It’s great fun to watch the interesting camera angles and lighting, clearly influenced by German filmmakers. A good one, recently released on Blu-ray from Criterion.

The Blot (1921) Lois Weber
Milestone DVD (1:31)

It’s a shame that (1) so few people watch silent films and (2) that fewer still know of the legacy of Lois Weber, one of most important American directors who was also an actress, screenwriter, producer and much more. The Blot is possibly her most seen film, a social drama about Amelia, a young librarian (Claire Windsor, right) whose father (Philip Hubbard) is a college professor struggling to make ends meet. Amelia catches the attention of a spoiled rich college student in her father’s class, a boy named Phil West (a young Louis Calhern, left), as well as an equally poor young preacher. The wealthy immigrant family next door looks down upon Amelia and her family and Weber provides some potent social commentary while delivering an expertly produced narrative, one that clearly shows her talent and influence.

Sherlock Jr. (1924) Buster Keaton, William Goodrich (Roscoe Arbuckle, uncredited)
Kino Lorber, The Buster Keaton Collection Blu-ray (0:45)

This undisputed classic finds Keaton as a movie projectionist who falls asleep on the job while showing a detective movie, projecting himself into the film as a master detective. A wonderful film. Watch more Keaton.

That’s it for the best silents of 2017. Recommendations are welcome!