In the United States, the 1920’s saw a major rise in the quality of films as well as in attendance in the box office and acceptance as an art form. Film length also increased on average. The short film barrage from the previous decade was replaced with fewer and more purposeful films, on average. There was also a large boom in the production companies and thus a boom in stardom among filmmakers. More filmmakers from around the world headed to the US in the 20’s and many of them became famous.
The end of the 20’s had some major changes in film and in the United States in general. The innovation of talking films, talkies, began with The Jazz Singer in 1927. The overnight sensation of syncing dialogue and soundtracks took off and silent films almost instantly stopped being produced. Many seasoned silent film stars resisted the change, but the sound era was upon them. Charlie Chaplin poignantly noted that the silent movies had learned their craft just about the time they went out of business.1
Increased Box Office Sales
In the 1910’s there were less than a dozen films that broke $1M at the box office and only three of those surpassed $3.3M, Birth of a Nation ($10M), Mickey ($8M), and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ($8M). In the 1920’s there were five to ten films grossing more than $1M each year with at, least 14 over $3.3M, The Big Parade ($18-22M), The Singing Fool ($12M), Ben-Hur ($10.7M), The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse ($9.2M), Something to Think About ($9.2), The Jazz Singer ($7.6M), The Covered Wagon ($7.6M), The Kid ($5.4M), The Gold Rush ($5.4M), Gold Diggers of Broadway ($5.2M) Way Down East ($4.5M), The Ten Commandments ($4.2M), Wings ($3.6M), and Blake of Scotland Yard ($3.5M).
The length of films increased on average as well. The average length of top ten box office films from 1913 – 1919 was 75 minutes (including the outliers: Birth of a Nation and Intolerance). With those outliers removed, the average would be 67 minutes. The following decade, 1920 – 1929, the average film was 97 minutes.2
Longer movies tended to mean bigger budgets and longer film times. Many of the filmmakers that were used to making a film a month in the 1910s found themselves making a movie or two a year in the 20s. This also led to movies with plots that had more character development. A ninety minute movie that was strictly gags and prat falls would not survive, but throw in a love story and some character arcs and you are good to go!
Talking pictures, “talkies”, were a work in progress from the early 1900’s. However, it was difficult to record, distribute, sync, and play audio back at an appropriate volume. It would not be until the 20’s that “talkies” would begin to gain traction. The major player in making that happen was Lee De Forest, who patented optical sound on film technology. This would replace the attempted model of playback via records or cylinder phonographs.
The technologic developments would begin in short films, as most experiments did, with films like: From Far Seville, starring Conchita Piquer. The technology made it possible to capture her signing and other stage audio with a perfect syncronization.
The next big milestone was the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927. The Jazz Singer starred Al Jolson and only the singing sequences were synced up to pre-recorded audio. The rest of the film was structured like a standard silent film. The success of The Jazz Singer was significant and the silent era was ended, just about, overnight. It would take a few more years for sound capable cinemas to overtake silent film cinemas. By that time most film studios had stopped making silent films.
There were those that fought the transition to talkies, like Charlie Chaplin, and those that embraced it, like: Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Regardless, sound films were here to stay and it allowed film to take off to the next level. The dynamic within films changed with the ability to incorporate dialogue and sound effects. For comedians this meant more room for nuance and jokes without having to rely on exaggerated pantomime and for dramatic actors it meant that their acting could flourish without the distraction and limited aspects of intertitles.
The first full length sound, “talkie”, film was Lights of New York. It was released a year after The Jazz Singer and by the same studio, Warner Brothers.
Creation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences
Another major milestone in the film industry was the creation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences on May 4, 1927. It was not created to hand out awards, but to function as an alternative to unions. It was established by Louis B. Mayer and 35 other filmmakers of the time. The founding members were comprised of five main branches: Actors, Directors, Producers, Writers, Technicians, plus some lawyers.
It would not be until May 16, 1929 that the first Academy Awards would take place. The inaugural class of award winners would become: Wings for Best Picture, Frank Borzage and Lewis Milestone won Best Director awards, Janet Gaynor won Best Actress, and Emil Jannings won Best Actor. The ceremony has transformed significantly over the last century with categories changing, restrictions on attendance, and how it is broadcast.
What does the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences do? Over time, the Academy has predominantly been known for its annual film award ceremonies and less about its other activities. According to Britannica.com,
“The academy’s other activities include supporting research and education for the improvement of film technology, preserving and documenting the history of motion pictures, publishing such reference materials as the Annual Index to Motion Picture Credits, encouraging film-study programs, sponsoring vocational scholarships, fostering cooperation among the creative members of the industry, and propagating prestige for the Hollywood film industry.”3
Booming Business & Stars
The previous decade was comprised of early film making giants getting their start or ramping up from the turn of the century. These were companies like: Universal Studios (founded in 1912), Famous Players-Lasky (founded in 1912) would later become Paramount Pictures in the 1920s, Metro Pictures (formed 1915) would merge with Goldwyn Pictures (formed 1916) and Louis B. Mayer Pictures (formed 1918) to form Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer in 1924. The new owner of MGM was Marcus Loew of Loews Inc. He partnered with Louis B. Meyer and created one of the largest film companies in history. There was also Fox Film Corporation (formed in 1915) and Cohn-Brandt-Cohn, later Columbia Pictures, (formed in 1919).
The 1920’s saw the birth of other filmmaking giants like: Warner Bros. (formed in 1923), Disney Brothers Studio, later The Walt Disney Company, (formed in 1923) and RKO (formed 1928). All of these companies would become major players in the film production and film distribution business for decades to come.
There were movie stars in the 1910’s in actors like: Charlie Chaplin, Douglass Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Roscoe Arbuckle, Cecil B. DeMille, and Mabel Normand, to name a few. A decade primarily driven by short films and where the comedies reigned supreme, with some outliers like D.W. Griffith’s, The Birth of a Nation. These stars would become rich and powerful in the industry and even lead to the formation of United Artists by four of the filmmakers listed above: Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith.
Douglass Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Cecil B. DeMille would continue to be stars through most of the 20’s. Fairbanks and Pickford were married in 1920 and saw the decline of their film careers by the end of the 20’s. Chaplin would go on to make some of his most memorable and influential films during the 1920’s and 1930’s with films like, The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), and The Great Dictator (1940). He was also one of the few successful silent stars to continue to make mostly silent films after the transition to talkies. Cecil B. Demille would continue to make films into the late 50’s, leaving a legacy of filmmaking behind him.
The 1920’s saw the rise of a new class of actors, directors, producers, and other filmmakers that would join these ranks. Members of this next class would include: Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Lon Chaney, John Barrymore, Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino, Marion Davies, Norma Talmadge, Alice Terry, Jobyna Ralston, Janet Gaynor, and John Gilbert, to name a few. Laurel and Hardy were also getting their start, as a duo, in the mid-late 1920’s. Both of them had solo careers before working together, but nothing like their success as a team. They would not become superstars though until the 1930’s.
The 1920’s Comedians
The comedic giants of the decade were, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. Each of them had their own brand of physical comedy, stunts, and gags. The biggest differences between them were in how they told their stories and the types of characters that would define their legacy.
Charlie Chaplin focused on representing the down-trodden. He was always the underdog due to his financial status. This and his position in society would frame his characters perspective and problems. It would also be the foundation for his ingenuity and how he would solve his problems. Chaplin’s stories would also typically intertwine a more sympathetic and dramatic narrative, where as Keaton and Lloyd would typically have more up beat subject matter.
The master of comedic dramas. Chaplin was already a star going into the 1920’s, but his fame continued to grow in the early 1920’s. In 1918, Chaplin began working for First National, which let him run his own studio and team. This marked the start of Chaplin being able to produce his own films. This gave him total control and marked the beginning of his dramatic comedies. He had incorporated elements of sadness or melancholy before in his films, but this was characterized more by his role in society and less on how the plot affected his characters arc.
The Kid & The Dramatic Comedy
The dramatic aspects of his films did not ramped up until The Kid, released in 1921. The Kid began filming a few weeks after the death of his first born son and marks the introduction of the dramedy in film. The death of his son did not inspire the film, as it was written and set to start filming before he was born. However, there is no way it could not have impacted his performance.
Chaplin would finish out the decade with only five other films following The Kid,. Those films were, Idle Class, Pay Day, The Pilgrim, The Gold Rush and The Circus. His style of filmmaking created stories and characters that were incredibly sympathetic and films that were well rounded for a wide audience.
Buster Keaton on the other hand would typically design his characters less around their financial or social place in society and more on cultural contrast. His characters would have someone from Boston coming down south or someone from New York head out west. His characters would be clumsy and accident prone and always trying to get the girl. His biggest asset would always be his determination. No one was going to try harder than Keaton’s characters would when trying to get the girl.
Keaton began filmmaking with Roscoe Arbuckle in 1917, making The Butcher Boy. From that point on, Keaton learned a lot about filmmaking from Arbuckle. By 1920 Keaton was working with Metro Pictures. In that same year, Keaton released The Saphead, marking his first leading role. Keaton would not write or direct this film, however, this quickly changed.
The start to Keaton’s famous filmmaking run began in 1923, with the film Three Ages. Keaton would then go on to make classic films like: Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr., The Navigator, Seven Chances, Go West, Battling Butler, The General, College, and Steamboat Bill Jr. His complete control over his films and their, mostly successful, box office responses, makes Keaton one of the most successful auteurs and potentially the most successful silent film actor.
Just about all of Keaton’s films during this time period were romantic comedies. His ability to weave his brand of physical comedy in with his narratives are legendary. The biggest downside to his films are his propensity for racist attitudes towards African Americans as well as infusing the lost cause ideology in some of his films, e.g. The General.
Keaton would run into some missteps with his films that would cause the budgets to skyrocket. His friend, relative, and producer Joe Schenck, began to limit Keaton’s control of the filmmaking starting in 1927 on the film College. That change would mark the beginning of the end for Keaton. By 1928, Keaton would sign a deal with MGM that would further cement his role as an actor.
For five years Keaton would make films for MGM, primarily the rom-com style films that he had been making for over a decade. His deteriorating marriage, lack of control, death of his friend Roscoe Arbuckle, and other factors likely contributed to a drinking problem and his decline. In 1933, MGM let him go.
Lloyd’s film career started in a similar fashion to that of Keaton and Chaplin, in that he found his way in to comedy while along side Roscoe Arbuckle. However, he did not seek out to become a comedic actor. His dream was to become a dramatic actor and spent his early years in theater. That is not how it worked out though and Lloyd would become the poster boy for the 1920’s optimistic go-getter.
One major difference in the production of Lloyd’s films were that he was mostly credited as an actor. He was not credited as the auteur in the same way as Chaplin or Keaton, yet his success and involvement in the productions are unquestionable. Throughout the 1910’s and 1920’s, Lloyd would be in more films than Chaplin and Keaton combined. Harold was in 201 films in this period, whereas, Chaplin would be in 79, and Keaton would be in 53.
The biggest stylistic change in the tempo and feel of Lloyd’s films were that they would frequently feature a thrilling sequence of some kind. For example, his character might find themselves on top of a steel frame of a building under construction while blindfolded. His films also became more interlaced with dramatic themes, making his films more in line with Charlie Chaplin’s than Buster Keaton.
Harold Lloyd’s 1922 film, Grandma’s Boy is commonly compared to Charlie Chaplin’s 1923 film, The Kid. Lloyd’s character in Grandma’s Boy has a deeper story and arc over the course of the film than in his previous films. This gives his character a more sympathetic eye to the viewer and ultimitaly makes the film more memorable and impactful. The same is true for Chaplin’s film The Kid, although Chaplin took this to the next level by including a child actor and writing the story to surround their separation.
Lloyd made over two dozen films in the 20’s and even successfully transitioned to sound films in the 30’s. His character did not transition well through the great depression and his career declined into the 1930’s.
Lloyd was a huge success in the 1920’s and became one of the most successful actors of that period. His wealth allowed him to build the famed Greenacres in Beverly Hills, comprised of a 44-room mansion, golf course, outbuildings, and 900-foot canoe run on 15 acres.3 The Estate would later be sold in 1975, four years after Lloyd’s death.
The 1920’s Dramatic Actors
There was more than just comedy in the 1920’s and many actors reached stardom without having prat falls or stunts. Some of the major players in this field were: Douglass Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, Tom Mix, Norma Talmadge, Lon Chaney, Rudolph Valentiono, John Gilbert, John Barrymore, Mary Pickford, and Greta Garbo. An honorable mention to Snitz Edwards as well. Edwards did not star in films, but was an outstanding sideman to actors like: Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Lionel Barrymore, Lon Chaney, and Buster Keaton.
Mary Pickford had major success towards the end of the 1910’s and into the 1920’s. She cofounded United Artists, ran her own productions from start to finish, and was a major player in both the film industry and in the World War I war effort. In terms of her film making, she had success with films under United Artist in the early 1920’s, but failed to transition to sound films. Her film career began to decline into the 1930’s. She would continue to be a significant figure though in the film industry and specifically within United Artists.
Rudolph Valentino, born Rodolfo Pietro Filiberto Raffaello Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla, was the original “latin lover”. His role in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse transitioned him from small roles to a super star. He would go on to star in romantic films and become the heartthrob of silent films. His most noteworthy films being, The Sheik, Blood and Sand, The Eagle, and The Son of the Sheik.
His career skyrocketed quickly in the early 1920’s and came to a sudden stop in 1926 when he died unexpectedly while recovering from surgery related to a perforated peptic ulcer, known now as “Valentino’s syndrome”.
Colman started his acting career in 1907 in theatre in England. After World War I, he continued acting with great success. It would not be until the 1920’s that he would move to America. He starred in Henry King’s The White Sister with Lillian Gish in 1923 and had instant success. Colman had success throughout the 1920’s as a romantic lead and would continue to be successful into the talkie era of filmmaking. His voice was well suited for entertainment and it led to great success, academy awards, and being a part of the inaugural class of the walk of fame in Hollywood.
Douglas Fairbanks Sr.
Douglas Fairbanks thrived in the 1920’s silent era. He was part of the establishment of United Artists in 1919 with Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and future wife Mary Pickford. Fairbanks capitalized on his athleticism through films like, Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers, The Mark of Zorro, Thief of Bagdad. Solidifying himself as one of the forerunners of swashbucklers in early film and helping cementing United Artists early success.
Much like his wife, Mary Pickford, Fairbanks struggled to transition to sound films. Apparently this was due to a combination of his declining health due to smoking and his interest for filmmaking in the sound era.
Tom Mix starred in over 270 western films in a career that spanned 1909 – 1935. He is known as the “king of cowboys” and was the biggest western star of the silent era.
His stardom did not transfer over to the talkie era an d his film career would end in 1935 with The Miracle Rider. Mix died on October 12, 1940 in a car accident in Arizona that resulted in an aluminum suitcase full of money and jewels hitting him in the head and breaking his neck. He died at the age of 60.
Norma Talmadge got her start modeling for illustrated song slides in the early 1900s and quickly pivoted to films by 1909 with a contract with Vitagraph. By 1915 she would be a part of hundreds of films.
Her career really took off when she met and married future film producer giant, Joseph Schenck. She would become an icon in the early 1920s and star in popular films like: Smilin Through, Secrets, The Lady, and Kiki, to name a few. Norma was not able to successfully transition to the age of talkies and retired from film in the 30’s.
Lillian Gish was an early film acting pioneer along side her sister Dorothy. Lillian skyrocketed to stardom through D.W. Griffith’s films, The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, and Way Down East. She worked almost exclusively with D.W. Griffith until 1923 when she worked with director Henry King to make The White Sister with Ronald Colman as her love interest. She finished out her contract with MGM in the late 1920’s making films with King Vidor, La Bohème, Fred Niblo, Ben-Hur & The Enemy, and Viktor Sjöström, The Scarlet Letter & The Wind.
Gish took a break from film acting after The Wind and went back to theater. She did not make a comeback to film for many years and never was as big as she was in the 1910’s and early 1920’s. Her standing legacy is as the First Lady of American Cinema.
John Gilbert started in theater working in stock companies in the pacific northwest. In 1915, Gilbert found himself entering the film industry when his employing stock company went out of business. He worked with several different studios for his first 6 years in the industry, labelled as a “juvenile actor”.
He did not get his big break until 1921, when he joined Fox Film Corporation. They marketed him as a romantic lead and transitioned him out of the juvenile class of actors. He made 21 films with Fox, including: Shame, Arabian Love, Monte Cristo, Cameo Kirby, The Wolf Man, and others.
The peak of his career would be when he moved to MGM in 1925. With MGM he would star in his biggest film, The Big Parade, and meet, star with, and fall in love with Greta Garbo.
Like many of the other silent stars, John Gilbert was not able to make the transition to talkies. It appears that this was due to a combination of unsuccessful films and the depression of those failures leading him to drink. He was brought in by Greta Garbo to costar in her film Queen Christina, which brought him success. However, his declining health due to alcoholism would lead to his early death in 1935 at the age of 38.
Before Sunset Boulevard (1950), Gloria Swanson was a massive silent film star. She got her start working as an extra in 1914 and was on of the most bankable stars by the early 1920’s. Most of her work during this period was with Essanay studios and along side her future husband, Wallace Beery.
Swanson went on to work with Cecil B Demille and Famous Players-Lasky (Paramount Pictures). She would go on to make six pictures with Cecil B. DeMille.
Gloria turned down a one million per year contract with Famous Players-Lasky, in order to work with United Artists in 1925. United Artists would allow her the creative outlet to make some of her most memorable films of her career, Sadie Thompson (1928) and The Trespasser (1929).
John Barrymore, known as “The Great Profile”, born John Sidney Blyth, was part of a theatrical family. His parents were established stage actors and his siblings, Lionel and Ethel, would become acting giants of their own right.
John got his start in theater, like his parents, but made the transition to film in 1912 working with Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Film Company, later Famous Players-Lasky and then Paramount.
A couple of Barrymore’s famous films of this era was: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Sherlock Holmes, The Sea Beast, and Don Juan. John Barrymore was successful in the transition to talkies and made films into the early 1940s.
Grreata Garbo, born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson in Stockholm Sweden, was brought to the United States by Louis B. Mayer alongside Mauritz Stiller in 1925. She was only in five films before Mayer discovered her and only the lead in one of them, Gösta Berlings saga (The Saga of Gosta Berlin).
She had immediate success with her initial films, Torrent, The Temptress, and Flesh and the Devil. She began a romantic fling with her costar, John Gilbert, from Flesh and the Devil. Their relationship would translate to chemistry on film and success on their subsequent films.
Their relationship would wane with stories of her accepting his proposals and then getting cold feet. Rumor has it that she was bisexual and would have various love interests throughout her life. She would never marry though and never have kids.
Her stardom continue to grow in the 1920’s, but the studio was concerned about her transition to talkies. When she came to the United States, she could not speak English. By the end of the 1920’s, she could speak English, but the concern was that her accent would not translate well. The reluctance from the studio, MGM, can be seen in the fact that her last three “silent films” were actually sound pictures with no dialogue. These films are Wild Orchids, The Single Standard, and The Kiss.
When she made the transition to talkies in 1930 she was immediately greeted with major success and skyrocketed in fame. She would become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.
Lon Chaney, born Leonidas Frank Chaney, was known as “the man of a thousand faces” due to his incredible character acting ability and makeup techniques. He played many small parts in films from 1914 – 1919 with Universal Studios. He would not get his big break until his role in The Miracle Man. Some of his major films to come out in the 1920’s were, The Penalty, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, He Who Get’s Slapped, The Phantom of the Opera, The Unholy Three, The Unknown, & London After Midnight, to name a few.
He worked with many film greats, like: Victor Sjöström, William S. Hart, Erick Von Stroheim, Tod Browning, Joan Crawford, and others. His influence on future actors, makeup design, and character acting in general was tremendous.
Unfortunately, Lon Chaney died young, at the age of 47, to pneumonia in 1930. He was not able to make a transition to talkies, outside of the sound remake of Unholy Three where he voiced five characters. I wonder what kind of characters and films would have come out of Lon Chaney in the world of sound film.
Oscar Micheaux was an author and director of both silent and sound pictures. He is noted as one of, if not the, first African-American filmmaker and had great success. His first film, The Homesteader, is a lost film based on his own book by the same name. His second film, Within Our Gates, was able to survive and is easily accessible today.
Micheaux had push back from film producers around the creation of his first film adaptation and decided to start his own company, Micheaux Film & Book Company. This film company would be behind the release of most of his films spanning from 1919 – the 1940s. He would go on to make at least 43 films and write seven books throughout his lifetime.
By 1920, Lois Weber was already an established and respected filmmaker. Not only was she one of the first female directors, next to Alice Guy Blanche, but the first to own her own movie studio and production company, Lois Weber Productions. She was an innovate filmmaker that pioneered creative techniques, like the split screen as seen in Suspense.
Her career began to decline in the early 1920’s as her films began to fail at the box office. She would go in and out of the industry throughout the rest of the 1920’s, coming in as a script doctor to edit screenplays like The Phantom of the Opera and Cynara for Universal Studios.
David Wark Griffith never had the success he saw with his 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation. D.W. Griffith did have some success in the early 1920’s with Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm. However, that would be the end of his success.
The rest of the 1920’s would be full of disappointment and failure for Griffith. He would get kicked out of United Artists, a company that he started with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin. His final film would be The Struggle in 1931, his second sound film.
Erich von Stroheim
The Austrian born, Erich von Stroheim was an important early director of films that pushed boundaries and set themselves apart from other contemporary films with their extravagance and attention to detail. His most noteworthy films, as a director, were Foolish Wives and Greed. His movies became progressively more extravagant and expensive in the early 1920’s. His films also had a sexual element that played in his favor by expanding the art form and audience in the United States, but also to his detriment when the studio began to censor his work to avoid comparisons to the Roscoe Arbuckle Scandal.
Foolish Wives (1922)
Foolish Wives had an insane budget of over $1M dollars, making it the most expensive film of the time. It also consisted of almost an entire year of filming and a death mid stream of a main actor, Rudolph Christians, that resulted in the filming to be cut short. Foolish Wives was also produced by the young Irving Thalberg, who would be forced to make the decision to cut things short.
Stroheim wrote and directed Greed based on the novel McTeague: A Story of San Francisco. The story follows McTeague (Gibson Gowland), his wife Trina (ZaSu Pitts), and her cousin and former love interest, Marcus (Jean Hersholt). Trina ends up falling for Mac instead of Marcus, at the same time she discovers she has won $5000 from the lottery. The ensuing downward spiral of their lives leads to death. Stroheim painstakingly crafted an environment of full emersion for his film crew and actors. Everything was filmed on location, instead of on a film set, and his actors lived on location. This was also the case for the finale of the film that was filmed in Death Valley.
The theme’s in Greed are, obviously, greed and jealousy. Stroheim is able to illicit visceral emotions through several sequences in the film. There is the scene where Trina rolls around in bed on top of her $5000 in gold lottery winnings. Gold that has caused a rift in her marriage that ultimately leads to her death. After McTeague kills Trina, he makes his way to Death Valley. Marcus is hot on his trail and the two meet in a duel at the climax of the movie. McTeague ends up killing Marcus, but not before Marcus can handcuff themselves together. The now handcuffed McTeague, realizes his fate as he stares at the empty water jug and blood splattered gold in the middle of the desert.
The vision and execution of this level of realism and authenticity was unique in this era. Stroheim even had the gold seen throughout the film colored in by hand, a process called the Handschiegl color process. Stroheim’s efforts in Greed would set the stage for contemporary filmmakers, like King Vidor and Jean Renoir, as well as filmmakers to come, like Alfred Hitchcock and Guillermo del Toro. The immersive nature and psychological experimentation within Greed was groundbreaking and it was a shame the full version did not survive.
Originally, Stroheim intended the film to be over nine hours long and had cut a version this way. MGM quickly cut the film down several times until it was released at under two hours long with a poor reception. The entire uncut version was lost after the merger of MGM and only partially reconstructed versions exist today.
Erich von Stroheim also had success as an actor. His knack for playing the villain led him down the road of the character actor. He would act in films in the 1910’s and 1920’s, outside of his own, but he thrived in France when he starred in films like, La Grande Illusion and in the 1950’s as the supporting actor in Sunset Boulevard.
Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, F.W. Murnau, began his life under the German Empire and career in Weimar era Germany. He fought for the German Empire during World War I and went on to cement himself as a pioneer of the German Expressionist film movement through his 1922 film, Nosferatu. His other major films of this period are The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann) (1924) and Faust (1926).
Murnau immigrated to the US in 1926 and made Sunrise: A Song for Two Humans, a critically acclaimed film to this day. Through Sunrise, Murnau brought the edgy German expressionist style to the US. Incorporating the stylistic atmosphere of films like Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the overwhelmingly busy sequences like those found in Metropolis, and a romantic drama storyline that could attract a wide audience.
Murnau only made a handful of films in the US before an auto accident in Santa Barbara in 1931 killed him at the age of 42. The final films he made were, 4 Devils (1928), a lost film about a tight walking circus team, City Girl (1930), about a rural farmer’s son that falls in love with a city girl and brings her back to his farm, and Tabu (1931), the tragic story of a couple in Bora Bora that falls in love against tribe traditions. His death came just one week before the film’s premiere.
Victor Sjöström (Viktor Seastrom in US)
Victor Sjöström was an established director and actor in Sweden with films like, The Outlaw and his Wife, Sons of Ingmar, Karin Daughter of Ingmar, and The Phantom Carriage. He migrated to the US in 1923 under the pseudonym Viktor Seastrom. Victor came up in the industry with Mauritz Stiller, who also moved to the US in the 1920’s with future star Greta Garbo.
Victor Sjöström made a major impact with his US films. His films often focused on the psychological turmoil of the protagonist. His major US films were, He Who Gets Slapped, The Scarlet Letter (1926), The Divine Woman (1928), and The Wind (1928). Victor worked with many notable actors of the era, including: Lon Chaney, John Gilbert, Norma Shearer, Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, and Greta Garbo.
The Texas born descendant of Davy Crocket, King Vidor, began his journey in photography and as a projectionist. In 1914 he started a film company, Hotex, with his friend Edward Sedgwick, the director of many of Buster Keaton’s later MGM films.
King Vidor’s career spanned many decades, but he hit the ground running with major successes in the late silent era. His major films of this time were the acclaimed World War I film, The Big Parade, La Bohème, and The Crowd. Vidor had a knack for crafting captivating films that set him up for decades of success.
The Big Parade (1925)
The Big Parade had critical and commercial success in 1925. The film had a star studded team with King Vidor and Irving Thalberg at the helm and John Gilbert as the romantic lead. The film became the second most profitable silent film of the era, second to The Birth of a Nation. The film mixed a romance and war drama, with some comedic sequences as well.
One of the most memorable scenes was when James (Gilbert) chases after a wounded enemy soldier after the death of his two friends. When he catches up to the soldier he prepares to bayonet him and finds himself unable to do it. Instead they share a cigarette together as the soldier dies of his earlier wounds. Showing a more humanistic approach instead of having James kill the soldier in an act of glory or revenge.
The Crowd (1928)
King Vidor examines the isolation nested within the fast paced New York social structure. He combined elements of German Expressionist filmmaking with the rat race mentality found in America. His unique camera work and use of unknown actors, gave the film a personal and immersive tone. It was not is biggest success at the box office, but a critically acclaimed film.
Animated short film series
Felix the Cat (1919–1936)
Felix the cat was an early pioneer of the animated film. It was created by Otto Messmer and Pat Sullivan in 1919 with several short films. The character and series grew over the years incorporating elements of pop culture and growing in popularity.
A rough transition to sound mixed with the release of Steamboat Willie led to the discontinuation of Felix the Cat in 1935. It would not be until the 1950’s that the series would be revived.
Koko the Clown (1918–1963)
Koko the Clown was created in 1918 by Max and Dave Fleischer. They created a unique cartoon with the utilization of their invention, the Rotoscope. This allowed them to create very dynamic and complicated movements in an animated world.
Aesop’s Film Fables (1921–1934)
Aesop’s Film Fables, later renamed to Aesops Sound Fables was created by cartoonist Paul Terry and loosely based on Aesop’s Fables from antiquity.
The cartoon would run with success thjroughout the 1920’s. It would inspire Walt Disney to create, and ultimately overshadow Terry’s project with, Steamboat Willie.
Steamboat Willie Walt Disney Studios
After seeing The Jazz Singer, Walt Disney waited until he could fully synchronize his animation to sound before releasing Steamboat Willie. It was worth the wait and the test runs of Mickey, as Steamboat Willie was an overnight success that has obviously led to a century of animated filmmaking.
Other Noteworthy Films
Nanook of the North (1922)
Robert J. Flaherty’s film about “Nanook” and the Inuk people is one of the earliest examples of what we consider a Documentary. His attempt to capture a day in the life of Nanook and his people was well intentioned, but criticized for being in authentic. Flaherty staged many of the shots and asked Allakariallak, changed to “Nanook” to make it more appealing to an audience, to hunt without technology to show how it used to be done. The wives depicted in he film are also Allakariallak’s, but Flaherty’s.
The spirit of what Nanook represents is what it is remembered for and regardless of the staging, it still influenced future filmmakers. Without knowing the flawed backstory, the film is a documentary about how other cultures can survive in extreme climates and exposed people to cultures they likely had never seen or considered before. At the same time, depicting them the way that Flaherty did was not authentic and thus was at the expense of the real Inuk people.
The Toll of the Sea (1922)
The Toll of the Sea was released on November 26, 1922. The film was one of the first Technicolor films, second to The Gulf Between (1917). The Toll of the Sea was not the first color film, but was the first done with natural color process to the film that did not require special projectors. The story is an adaptation of Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. The film is set in China and stars Anna May Wong and Kenneth Harlan.
Flesh and the Devil (1927)
Greta Garbo had immediate success in her American film debut, The Torrent, however it was her third film, Flesh and the Devil, that began her Hollywood stardom. The romantic affair between Felicitas (Garbo) and Leo (Gilbert) was emphasized by the actors real life love affair behind the scenes. Their Hollywood romance would become high profile, although they never got married. They would still go on to make films together well into the 1930’s.
Flesh and the Devil was based on The Undying Past by German author Hermann Sudermann. A love triangle is formed between two childhood friends, Leo (Gilbert) and Ulrich (Hanson), and the beautiful countess Felicitas (Garbo). The local pastor compares Felicitas to the Devil taking the form of a woman to tear the two friends apart. Through years of deceit and misfortune the brothers end up dueling to the death in a blizzard for her love. Felicitas attempts to stop the duel, but falls through thin ice on her way to the dueling location. As she dies the spell is broken in the men and they reconcile their relationship.
The Man Who Laughs (1928)
Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs examines the misfortune of Gwynplaine, played by Conrad Veidt. Gwynplaine is the son of Lord Clancharlie, also played by Veidt, who is orphaned after King James II kills his father by way of Iron Maiden. King James II also had Gwynplaine maimed by a Comprachico surgeon, who cuts a permanent grin into his face .
A young Gwynplaine is able to escape the Comprachico in a snow storm and stumbles upon an infant, Dea, in the arms of her cold dead mother. Gwynplaine finds Ursus’ camp who takes the young children in and discovers Gwynplaine’s deformity as well as discovers that Dea is blind. Time goes on and the three of them have grown together and started a traveling show, with Gwynplaine, as the man who laughs.
Along the way we see Gwynplaine struggle with the constant ridicule and lack of empathy given towards him, by all except Dea. Behind his ever present smile we see the sorrow and struggle portrayed through Gwynplaine’s eyes. The tale ends with Gwynplaine discovering and rejecting his heritage, embracing his deformity, and running away with Dea and Ursus.
Conrad Veidt does an excellent job playing someone with a permanent smile that can still express the full spectrum of emotion through only his eyes. Even though the film is labelled as a horror, it does not appear to be one. In reality the film is a drama that happens to focus on someone that is visually unsettling. There are no real tones of horror, outside of the German Expressionist tones and themes created by Director Paul Leni and production designer Charles D. Hall.
The role was originally supposed to go to Lon Chaney and through various circumstances, the role ended up going to Veidt. It was still suited for Veidt, as he was already a fixture of German Expressionism with is role as Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It would be interesting to see how Chaney would have tackled this role. Chaney tends to bring an edge that would have potentially painted Gwynplaine as less sympathetic and more villainous.
Another interesting influence the film had on the world was its inspiration for the Marvel villain, Joker. Although Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson disagreed as to their respective roles in the 1940 creation of the Joker, they agreed that his exaggerated smile was influenced by a photograph of Veidt from the film.5
Docks of New York (1928)
Josef Von Sternberg’s Docks of New York, follows a ship stoker named Bill Roberts, played by George Bancroft. When his ship docks in New York, he goes on shore for his one night off. The stubborn and macho Bill Roberts quickly finds himself saving a young woman, Mae, from drowning right off the docks. He helps revive her and brings her to safety with the support of Lou, a matriarch of the waterfront and wife to Bill’s superior officer, Andy.
Mae, played by Betty Compson, recovers from being in the cold water and we discover that she is a depressed young prostitute that has lost the will to live. She and Bill hit it off and begin a night of drinking that leads to them getting married in the saloon.
Their budding relationship is juxtaposed to Lou and Andy’s relationship. Lou and Andy represent what is to come for the “young” lovers. I say young because George Bancroft was 46 and Betty Compson was 31 when Docks of New York was made. Andy and Bill’s work takes them from port to port without a set schedule, resulting in them not having a place they call home. This lifestyle has withered Lou and Andy’s relationship to a state of loathing, regret, and heartache.
Docks of New York takes place over the course of one night and one day and the scenes are captivating in many different ways. There are artistic elements that are present in Harold Rosson’s cinematography, who would go on to be the cinematographer for The Wizard of Oz. The mise en scène (the arrangement of scenery and stage properties) throughout the film, and specifically in the bar, creates a genuine feel for the setting and a realism that does not always come across in films of this time. The way that bar partrons move the scenery around to prepare for a wedding feels as though we are watching a little bit of behind the scenes, but really the director is just not cutting the scene and letting things unfold on camera.
This also lends itself well to the dynamic use of the camera. The way that Sternberg set the stage with the crowded bar full of tables, chairs, and patrons, created a rich and lively setting. The busy bar scene is actually full and yet the camera is able to navigate its way through the crowd. The tracking shots through the bar create three dimensional depth that makes the film feel more natural as well as highlights the “community”. It is a busy scene full of people that don’t always get along, yet are all walking a similar path.
1 – Sarris, Andrew. The Films of Josef Von Sternberg. The Museum of Modern Art, 1966. pg 19.
2 – Based on the film length of films in the top ten of box office totals.
3 – https://www.britannica.com/topic/Academy-of-Motion-Picture-Arts-and-Sciences
4 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Lloyd_Estate
5 – https://www.biography.com/news/the-joker-origin-evolution