Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Year in Review: 1927

In place of my regular top ten lists, which faithful readers will know I pretty much stopped a few months ago, I am going to replace them with these years in review. This way, I can highlight great films from every year in history as far back as the Oscars go. I start today with 1927, but will start to jump around throughout history. Tuesday - Friday or this week and next, I will post one list - each representing a different decade from the 1920s to the 2000s (one day, I will have to post 2) . After that, there will be no set plan. I will reveal my top ten list, as well as noting films that I missed that could have factored in (I never claimed to have seen everything), plus a look at the Oscar winners for that year. I start with 1927, as it is the first year under consideration.

The further back in cinema history you go, the harder it can be to find some movies on DVD. One of the acknowledged masterpieces on Silent cinema, Abel Gance’s Napoleon remained unfindable by me on DVD, so I couldn’t include it. I also couldn’t find Seventh Heaven, even though it won Oscars for Director and Actress! (This doesn’t even mention that one of the two films that Emil Jannings won the first ever Best Actor Oscar for is now lost to history entirely – the other one will be considered when we get to 1928). So, we have to make do with what we got – and considering that the top three films on this list are among the greatest silent movies ever, I will not complain.

The Top 10
10. College (James W. Horne & Buster Keaton)
College is not one of Buster Keaton’s masterpieces. He made many in the silent era, and although College is a highly enjoyable movie – hilarious pretty much from start to end – it just doesn’t quite rank with his very best work. No matter – it is still a hell of a lot of fun. Keaton plays his typical working class, stone faced character – this time he is at college and is trying to impress and beautiful rich girl – not knowing that she loves him for who he is. The story is fairly typical, but the gags are hilarious. The highlight of the film is Keaton working as a waiter in a busy restaurant. Yes, Keaton does ware blackface in the movie – but he doesn’t do it to mock African Americans, but because the only way he can get a job is to be black (ironic, isn’t it). So no, College does not rank among the best films of Keaton’s career – but it is hilarious nonetheless.

9. The Girl with the Hatbox (Boris Barnett)
Boris Barnett is one of those mostly forgotten Russian filmmakers of the silent era. He doesn’t get the attention of an Eisenstein, and although there is a reason for that (Barnett was not as good as Eisenstein); he made some films that deserve to be remembered. This comedic gem stars Anna Stein as a young woman who makes hats for a living. She falls for a poor college student, and when her employer gives her a lottery ticket he thinks is a loser – but isn’t – things get complicated. The film is well directed by Barnett, and Stein is a gem in the lead role. It surprises me that so soon after the Revolution, a film like this – that openly mocks the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union – would be allowed. The result though is a lightweight comic gem.

8. The Kid Brother (Ted Wilde)
Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin are the comedic silent stars that are still remembered today – but it worth remembering, that at the time, Harold Lloyd was as big as either of them. While The Kid Brother is not as good as the best Lloyd film (Safety Last), it is still hilarious. Lloyd plays the youngest son of the manly Sheriff in Hickoryville. His two older brothers are as strong as their father, and all of them mock meek and weak Harold. That is until Harold proves that being smart is more important than being strong. The Kid Brother, like many silent comedies, is short on plot, but long on laughs. For people who don’t know who Harold Lloyd is, they should check this one out.

7. Wings (William A. Wellman)
The first Best Picture Winner at the Oscars ever, is also the only silent film to take home the prize. While Wings may not rank as one of the greatest silent films ever, it is hard to deny that it is a great movie. Two friends – one rich, one not – are in love with the same girl from their small hometown, but go off to fly fighter planes in WWI. The aerial scenes are truly breathtaking – exciting as anything in Top Gun all those decades later. The story may get bogged down at times when it tries to work in movie star Clara Bow as the love interest, but she is so beautiful and spunky, you hardly care. William Wellman is one of the few silent directors who went onto have a long career in the “talkies”, and while Wings is not the best film of his career, it is one of his greatest achievements.

6. The Unknown (Tod Browning)
Tod Browning is undoubtedly best remembered for the Bela Legosi version of Dracula, and the twisted carnival movie Freaks – a movie that shares some similarities with this silent film. Lon Chaney plays Alonzo, an apparently armless knife thrower who uses his feet. He murders by strangling him – and because no one thinks he has arms, he is not even a suspect. Things go horribly awry however late in the movie, leading to a gruesome climax. The Unknown has the same creepy atmosphere as his more famous films, and the “man of a thousand faces” Chaney delivers another one of his marvelously spooky performances. A film ripe for rediscovery.

5. October (Sergei Eisenstein)
Commissioned by the Soviet government to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Sergei Eisenstein’s October is one of the most daring silent films ever made. It essentially dramatizes the “10 Days That Shook the World”, but as with everything Eisenstein did, he made the film his own way. The Government was not happy with Eisenstein’s experiment in formalism, claiming the film was “unintelligible to the masses”, and forcing him to remove all traces of Trotsky. Viewed all these years later however, October emerges not as the propaganda film the Soviets envisioned, but a daring film with fascinating construction. His use of “intellectual montage” was brilliant – particularly in the sequence that compares Jesus to Buddha and then other ancient religions, this insulting all of them. The film is not quite the film that The Battleship Potemkin was, or that some of Eisenstein’s sound films were – but it is still one of the best films Eisenstein ever made.

4. The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock)
Although The Lodger was the third film that Alfred Hitchcock directed, he referred to it as the “first true Hitchcock film” whenever he spoke about it. It introduced many of Hitch’s favorite themes – the wrong man accused of a crime and having to gone on the run from a self righteous society, as well as the link between sex and death. Hitchcock was obviously inspired by German filmmakers like FW Murnau and Fritz Lang, whose influence can be seen in the claustrophobic lighting, and the strange camera angles throughout the film. Hitchcock baths the film in fog, obscuring our view as the man who is accused of being Jack the Ripper has to prove himself innocent. I would have preferred if Hitchcock had been able to keep the original ending of the film – that left it ambigious as to whether or not the Lodger was truly guilty. But still, as it stands The Lodger is one of the key early films in Hitchcock’s career.

3. Sunrise (FW Murnau)
In my mind, Sunrise is the best film that famed German director F.W. Murnau ever made – besting even masterworks like Faust, The Last Laugh and Nosferatu. It is a deceptively simple story – a Woman from the City, comes to a small town and seduces The Man, away from The Wife. He plans on killing his wife, but in the film’s most famous sequence, he cannot go through with it, and slowly the couple rediscovers their love for each other. Sunrise is a simple film – it essentially only has the three characters in it (although when they get to the city, they are surrounded by people). The style of the film though is what is most important – Murnau’s masterful tracking shots influenced filmmakers for generations, as did his use of forced perspective. This is a remarkably visual film – using only a few title cards, and telling most its story through images alone. Sunrise is one of the greatest silent films ever made – and one of the reasons why Murnau is still revered by filmmakers and critics today.

2. Metropolis (Fritz Lang)
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is the most influential science fiction film ever made, and perhaps the best film of Lang’s career. The film is set in a futuristic dystopia where people are separated into two classes – the planners and management who live in huge skyscrapers and the workers who live and toil underground. The film follows the wealthy Freder as he goes underground and sees the horrible conditions the workers slave under – where there is a constant threat of death. From there, the movie spirals outwards weaving a complex plot together all leading to a thrilling climax. The film is a marvel of production design and cinematography – not to mention of storytelling, and is Lang’s epic masterpiece. The film has been shown in many versions over the years – but just last month a version that is half an hour longer than any other in known existence was shown to the public for the first time. I cannot wait to go back and watch Lang’s masterpiece all over again.

1. The General (Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman)
Sunrise and Metropolis are clearly the most influential films of this year – two epic masterpieces that inspired filmmakers for decades to try and top them. But if I’m being honest – and there is little point in doing these lists if I’m not – then I have to say that Buster Keaton’s The General is far and away by favorite film of the year. Keaton is at his best – both as an actor and director in this movie, about a train conductor who wants to leave his job and join the army when the Civil War breaks out – but his job is too important for him to be allowed to quit. With everyone in town thinking he is coward, including his fiancĂ©, he sulks. Later, his now former fiancĂ© is kidnapped while riding on his train, and Keaton goes on a mad race to try and get her back. What follows are some of the most amazing stunts ever performed on screen – and yes, Keaton is really doing them all. Keaton’s film is one of the best silent comedies ever made – exciting, funny and touching. This is probably the best film Keaton ever made – and considering how many great films on his resume, that is saying something.

Just Missed the Top 10: The Jazz Singer. (Alan Crosland - I actually don’t much like this film, but its historical significance cannot be denied), The King of Kings (Cecil B. DeMille).

Notable Films Missed: Seventh Heaven (Frank Borzage), Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Scoedsack), The Way of All Flesh (Victor Flemming), Two Arabian Knights (Lewis Milestone), Napoleon (Abel Gance), Berlin: Sympathy of a Great City (Water Ruttmann), The Italian Straw Hat (Rene Clair)

Note: Oscar Winners/Nominees The Racket, The Last Command, Street Angel and The Crowd are all considered in the 1928 list, or will be noted there that I have not seen them there, whatever the case maybe.

Oscar Winner – Best Picture: Wings/Sunrise
This, the first year of the Academy awards, was the only year where two different films won a Best Picture Oscar. Wings won Best Picture – Production, and is the only one of the two that is recognized as a “true” best picture winner, but Sunrise won the Best Picture – Unique and Artistic Film award. Obviously, I think Sunrise is the best of these two films, although I do wish the Academy had recognized the genius of The General (although to be fair, I’m not sure it was eligible). Oddly, although this award covered part of 1927 and part of 1928, both of the films that won were 1927 films – flying in the face of the current logic of releasing films late in the year so that the Academy will remember them.

Oscar Winner – Best Director: Frank Borzage, Seventh Heaven/Lewis Milestone, Two Arabian Knights
Again, for the only time in Academy history, they gave out two best director awards – one from drama (Borzage) and one for comedy (Milestone). Since I didn’t see either, I cannot comment on them, although I here Seventh Heaven is excellent. Still, you have to wonder if either of these winners can compare with Lang, Murnau or Hitchcock (not to mention King Vidor who made The Crowd – which we’ll get to whenever I do 1928).

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Emil Jannings, The Way of All Flesh/The Last Command
Again, for the only time in Academy history, actors were given awards for more than one film. Emil Jannings, who would later be drummed out of Hollywood for Nazi sympathies (he has a “cameo” appearance in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds) – won for two movies – 1927’s The Way of All Flesh, which is now a “lost” film, and 1928’s The Last Command, which will get into when I do 1928 at a later date. The best performance this year though was clearly Buster Keaton’s in The General.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Janet Gaynor, Seventh Heaven/Sunrise/Street Angel
Canadian Janet Gaynor won an Oscar for three films – 1927’s Seventh Heaven and Sunrise and 1928’s Street Angel. I cannot comment on Seventh Heaven, or Street Angel, but I will say her performance in Sunrise is marvelous, and certainly deserved to win this award.

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