A Century of Cinema: 1920-1929

Welcome back to our 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. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the previous list: A Century of Cinema: 1910-1919.

Without further ado, here are the Filmsmiths’ Favorites for 1920-1929:

 

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) – Nick Potter

Cabiria

When it comes to cinema of the 1920’s there was always one film that I knew I’d need to take. I avoided it briefly, feeling like it was too easy, and because I didn’t want to be obvious and choose a film that happens to be on the Sight & Sound list of the greatest films of all time, but it also is my favorite. There is something so beautiful and subtle about F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise that sticks with you long after the film is finished. On paper, it’s just a simple story about a man struggling with temptation. Stagnating in his marriage, he lusts after a young woman to the point of planning his wife’s murder. He realizes he can’t go through with it, and they reconcile after seeing a wedding in town. It was the 20’s, things moved pretty quickly.
A normal movie ends right there at the wedding with the juxtaposition between the new happy couple and the old couple learning to be happy again, but not Sunrise. The newly revitalized couple continues to be tested but manage to survive even a massive storm that capsizes their ship. Sunrise is more than just a morality tale about temptation and human flaws; it’s a beautifully constructed fairy tale about reigniting a romantic spark, even if the circumstances are notably less than ideal as time has passed. As of the most recent 2012 poll, Murnau’s masterpiece ranks #5 on the aforementioned Sight & Sound list. It won Best Actress for Janet Gaynor and Best Cinematography at the first ever Academy Awards, in addition to the retired Best Unique & Artistic Picture (which used to be equivalent to the Best Picture win for Wings but is now seen as secondary).
“Timeless” is word that shouldn’t be thrown around too lightly, but when it comes to sheer emotional power of filmmaking and storytelling, the heart of Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans hasn’t aged one bit in it’s 90 years of existence.

 

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927) – Eliza McGowan-Stinski

The Lodger

Raise your hand if you know who Alfred Hitchcock is. Hand raised? Good. You’d be a friggin lunatic not to! A “psycho”, if you will.

Bad jokes aside, Hitchcock began his filmmaking career in the early 20’s, and is typically credited with making 53 feature length films. FIFTY-THREE. Holy Moly. The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog was produced in 1927, becoming his third feature film. If we’re being completely honest the first thing that drew me into the film was the score, and also the fact that I love Hitchcock’s mind-games! Okay, and I hate to admit this, but it’s kind of Jack-the-Ripper-esque and I am obsessed with everything about those bloody pages in Victorian England history… so that as well!

It just so happens that The Lodger was loosely based on Jack the Ripper. It’s a story about a young woman seeing a man that her family is fond of, a mysterious man who lodges at the families house. The mysterious man falling for the young woman and “stealing” her (because this is the 20’s after all) from the other man, who just so happens to the be the detective on the case of “the Avenger,” (aka friendly neighborhood serial killer), aaaaaaaand SPOILER ALERT the mysterious man being accused of the murders is really just trying to avenge the death of his sister at the hands of The Avenger.

It’s got comedy, drama, suspense, plot twists, and more! And it’s all yours for the price of a computer, internet connection, YouTube tab, and functioning fingers and/or nose for typing (type a comment below with your nose for a thumbs up from yours truly).

While parts of The Lodger seem pretty archaic, like all films from the era, other parts of it are just so clever and ahead of its time. I think what makes it the most special for me is seeing how Hitchcock weaved a story so suspenseful from the early days, and seeing where the magical formula began, so to speak.

 

Metropolis (1927) – Patty Williamson

Metropolis

A discussion of favorite films of the 1920s isn’t complete without recognizing Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi epic Metropolis. Shot over several months, using hundreds of extras, this example of German expressionism is often cited as one of the pivotal films produced during the culturally rich era of the Weimar Republic. Characterized by an attempt to convey characters’ inner emotions visually, expressionism focused on conveying atmosphere and mood more than a realistic storyline.

Metropolis is a complex Marxist-inspired tale of two social classes; the elite ruling class and the workers who live underground, toiling to keep the city’s machines in operation. Set in 2026, Brigitte Helm plays the dual role of Maria and Hel, an evil robot-version of Maria. The silent film focuses on the realization of a city planner’s son that the workers living below ground are working in a hellish, dangerous environment. He teams up with Maria, believing she will be the one who will be able to bring the two parts of the city together. Instead, Maria is kidnapped and her likeness is stolen by bad guy Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who creates the evil bot that tries to destroy the underworld. Luckily, the real Maria escapes her oppressor and saves the day with the help of Freder (Alfred Abel).

The story is complex and informed by the political instability of the time. Fritz Lang believed his job was to photograph thoughts and render them visually, allowing audiences to experience the emotions on the screen within their own souls. In 1933, Lang was offered the position of the head of the German Cinema Institute by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, which he declined. In fact, Lang had long been secretly planning his escape from Germany and fled to Paris that same year. In 1934 he came to the United States and began directing films for MGM.

With its intricate plot, impressive set design, and futuristic vision, Metropolis remains an important step forward in cinematic history. It’s stark camera angles, somewhat overly zealous acting, and juxtaposition of light and dark make it a textbook version of silent, German Expressionism on film.

 

Gold Rush (1925) – Dylan Clauson

Gold Rush

The 1920s brought us some truly iconic films, many of which had an impact still felt today. Some of these films have already been discussed in this article, while others include 1927’s The Jazz Singer, essentially our introduction to sound, The Man Who Laughs (1928) who reportedly was the inspiration for the DC Comics character The Joker, and of course Salvador Dali’s disturbing masterpiece Un Chien Andalou (1929). My choice for 1920s may not have shaped the history of film the way some of the others did, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyable movie than Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 hit The Gold Rush.

This silent comedy follows Chaplin’s iconic Tramp as he heads north to claim his share of the Klondike Gold Rush. Thanks to a harsh blizzard, the would-be prospector is trapped in a small cabin with a seasoned prospector (Mack Swain) and a criminal (Tom Murray). Throw in leading lady Georgia Hale as the love interest and you’ve got yourself a Chaplin classic.

The Gold Rush may not be one of the greatest films ever, but it does contain some of the most funny and memorable individual scenes of the era. From fighting with a dog for food (pictured above), to the resultant meal of his own leather shoe, and the now iconic “bread dance” that has been replicated by Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr., and of course Grandpa Simpson, among countless others.

Chaplin has made some of the best comedies of all time, both with and without his Tramp character. The fact that Chaplin himself stated that The Gold Rush is the film he wants to be remembered for? Well that should be reason enough to watch it.

Honorable mentions for the 1920s, in no particular order:

  • Un Chien Andalou (1929), Director: Luis Bunuel
  • The General (1926), Director: Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton
  • Nanook of the North (1922), Director: Robert J. Flaherty
  • Nosferatu (1922), Director: F.W. Murnau
  • Sherlock Jr. (1924), Director: Buster Keaton
  • Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Director: Dziga Vertov

What are some your favorite films of the 1920s? Let us know in the comments below or on social media, and be on the lookout for our Century of Cinema: 1930-1939 coming up in two weeks.

Dylan Clauson

A good, good beard boy that studied broadcasting and film at Central Michigan University, where I learned how to pretend that I know what I'm talking about.

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