Welcome to a new bi-weekly series where your favorite (and not-so-favorite) Filmsmiths writers will be discussing our favorite films of the last 100 years (give or take). In order to bring a little bit of order to such a monumental task, we’ve decided to tackle these films decade-by-decade, starting with the 1910s and moving chronologically to present-day. Who knows, maybe by the end we’ll have figured out a way to make it into a competition.
Without further ado, here are the Filmsmiths’ Favorites for 1910-1919:
Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) – Patty Williamson
The 1910s were a time when the film industry was just establishing itself as a form of artistic self-expression. Sound was not yet paired with the pictures, and the grammar of film’s storytelling techniques such as editing and camera placement were just being developed. It was a decade of great innovation for the art form. Within that ten-year time frame, editing was improved dramatically, the use of juxtaposition and montage were expanded upon, and films moved from one-reelers with a run time of about 10-12 minutes, to full feature length films with two-hour runtimes (and some longer).
Tillie’s Punctured Romance was not only Charlie Chaplin’s feature length film debut, but it was also the first feature length comedy film ever made. This 1914 silent classic also showcases the comic genius of Mabel Normand and Marie Dressler. Mack Sennett, best known for his Keystone Kops shorts, directs the trio of stars. It’s worth noting this film was the last time Chaplin was directed by anyone other than himself, as he went on to a successful career writing and directing his own material.
Marie Dressler was a well-known stage actress who specialized in comedic acting, but she didn’t have an opportunity to act on film until Tillie’s Punctured Romance. Dressler starts as Tillie Banks, a farm girl who falls for Charlie (played by Chaplin), a big-city scoundrel who seduces her and uses her for her money. Unbeknownst to Tillie, Charlie has a girlfriend, played by Mabel Normand, who is as unscrupulous as he is. Charlie marries Tillie after her millionaire uncle “dies” on a mountain-climbing expedition, leaving the farm girl a fortune. Tillie and Charlie marry and move into the uncle’s mansion, but soon Charlie smuggles in his girlfriend, which results in slap-stick hilarity and a visit from the Keystone Kops. Eventually, Tillie’s uncle is found alive, and he returns to find his mansion in ruins. He wants his niece arrested, but in the chaos, she nearly drowns. In the end, Tillie and Charlie’s girlfriend realize he’s not worth their time, and the two become friends, ditching the two-timer.
Tillie’s Punctured Romance features top notch slapstick comedy, some classic performances by legendary actors, and a quick-paced (for its time) story. It also has historic significance. The full feature can be found online.
Cabiria (1914) – Nick Potter
Many people have given D.W. Griffith’s film Intolerance the title of being the first “epic” film in history, but Martin Scorsese and I both say that’s wrong. Two years before Intolerance saw the release of Giovanni Pastrone’s film Cabiria, the true grandfather of epic film. The film begins with the eruption of Mt. Etna as we follow a little girl named Cabiria and the maid who rescues her via underground tunnel. They are soon attacked by pirates, and the young girl is sold to a high priest who plans to sacrifice her to the great god, Moloch. With the help of two spies, the maid is able to rescue poor Cabiria from the temple (designed to look like Moloch in the above picture), but sacrifices herself to ensure her safety. You’d think that would be the whole plot, but we also take part in the trek through the Alps from Hannibal and his armies, along with the Siege At Syracuse with Archimedes.
It’s clear to see why Cabiria is considered the first epic film, but it’s notoriety goes beyond just the sheer scope of plot. This film is also one of the first films to get creative with camera usage. Most films had a static camera, so all of the movement happened either on screen or as a transition between scenes, but the frame itself was stagnant. While this worked for directors like Georges Melies, who had countless props and set designs ready to moved on camera at a moment’s notice, Pastrone began experimenting with motion. There’s nothing ridiculous, but just a few simple pans and zooms are all you need to start a revolution.
We have Cabiria to thank for so much cinematic innovation in the century that has passed since it was first released. It deserves to be seen and it demands to be remembered.
Shoulder Arms (1918) – Dylan Clauson
Shoulder Arms, premiering in 1918, was a silent film starring Charlie Chaplin as a young soldier in the trenches of WWI. In the film, Chaplin crosses enemy lines into the German trenches where he singlehandedly captures about a dozen soldiers. After infiltrating the German camps disguised as a tree, the young soldier is able to capture the Kaiser and bring an end to the war. He is celebrated with a parade before being awoken by his friends, to discover that it was all a dream.
When you think of the silent film era, it’s hard not to immediately think of Charlie Chaplin who is arguably the most iconic film star of all time. Chaplin wasn’t just a great on-screen performer, but a fantastic director as well and it all started with Shoulder Arms, his feature film directorial debut. Released about a month before the official end of WWI, Shoulder Arms captures trench warfare in a lighthearted and comedic fashion that only Chaplin could pull off. Chaplin’s ‘Doughboy’ is reminiscent of the iconic Little Tramp character as he traipses through German trenches and attempts to cross No Man’s Land wearing possibly the least convincing tree costume ever made, a scene that will leave you in stitches. There’s not much more to say about Shoulder Arms except that it is so easily enjoyable and important for how it took an already highly popular man and launched him to the next level in his career. Silent films can sometimes be difficult to watch, but with a rune-time of only 46 minutes this film is very easily digestible. Shoulder Arms is available to watch free on YouTube.
Where Are My Children? (1916) – Eliza McGowan-Stinski
Dealing with the topics of birth control, eugenics, and abortion, Where Are My Children? revolves around the somewhat complicated and secretive lives of a district attorney, Richard Walton, and his wife, Edith. The film begins with an obscenity case trying a doctor for distributing birth control literature, and a series of flashbacks of situations where children ‘would have been better off not having been born.’ Richard supports eugenics and very much wants children of his own, but is under the impression that his wife is infertile. It is soon revealed that she has received several abortions because of her ‘selfish’ desire to remain childless. Her very up front and somewhat sleazy brother visits, conveniently at the same time as their maid’s daughter, Lillian. Bada-bing, bada-boom, they ‘sin,’ and Lillian gets knocked up. Edith’s brother gets Dr. Malfit’s information from her, the doctor performing abortions illegally, but Lillian’s abortion goes awry and she dies shortly after the procedure. Outraged, Richard takes Dr. Malfit to trial, only to learn that his wife and many of her other social elite friends had received abortions from the very same doctor. The film ends tragically with a flash-forward of their life full of distrust, despair, and the “silent question, ‘where are my children?”
So two things before I get serious: Is it a “silent” question because it’s a silent film, and we literally couldn’t hear Richard answer that… or because it haunted them for the rest of their lives? Also, Dr. Malfit… Mal-fit… mal = malpractice = bad… not fit to practice..? I see you.
Despite the message of the film being rather elitist more than progressive as it was seen at the time, it’s still an important film and deserves to be on this list. Released in 1916, this was the product of Phillips Smalley and Lois Weber. Husband and wife, they were generally credited together, but to my understanding, Lois played the director more so while Phillips played producer. Lois Weber was a silent film actress, producer, writer, and director, and often considered the first female film director in the US, or at least the most important one. Her work was criticized right next to the works of D.W. Griffith (yeah, the racist bastard who made The Birth of A Nation), and Cecil B. DeMille. Not only was she doing it all (writing, directing, etc.), but Weber was also using her films as commentary on tough social issues. Which is basically why I chose this film. It has an interesting and complex dramatic story, but it also gives us a window into relevant social issues and dynamics in the early 1900’s, whilst proving to the world that HELLO WOMEN HAVE ALWAYS BEEN ABLE TO MAKE SOME BOMB ASS FILMS SO WHY ARE THERE SO FEW FEMALE FILMAKERS???
However, some food for thought: the main character was arguably Richard, and overall, the film seemed to take a male perspective on a “women’s” issue…
What are some your favorite films of the 1910s? Let us know in the comments below or on social media, and be on the lookout for our Century of Cinema: 1920-1929 coming up in two weeks.