Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Breaking the Silence: Pre-1930 Silent Movies


Since few months ago, I started keeping track of movies I have seen from '1001 movies' list. Just for the sake of convenience I arranged my page according to decades. What I realized because of this arrangement was there was only 1 pre-1930 movie I had seen. Moreover, if we don't count any Chaplin or Laurel & Hardy movies, I had never seen a silent movie before. While looking out for them, I found quite a few of them available on Netflix Instant, some others were available to watch legally online courtesy Internet Archives. Now, I had everything I needed to watch them, a reason, a resource and time. All I needed was one final push and I knew I will get onto it. But as usual they just sat their in my queues waiting to be seen for well over a month. Finally, Tyler became the catalyst to start this thing when while doing his Liebster Award post, he tagged me and asked 'What is your favorite pre-1930 movie?' as one of the questions. I didn't have one as I have only seen 1. But that did the trick and over the last month I went on a binge and saw 7 pre-1930 silent movies. Believe me when I tell you this has to be the single most biggest learning experience for me, as far as movies are concerned and hence I had to record it in some way. Here is that record in order of personal preference.  

Metropolis(1927): I saw the restored version of this which clocks in at about 150 minutes. Initially when I read the synopsis of this movie, knowing that it was made in 1927 and its a silent movie, I was little skeptical about how good it will be or rather how will it be brought on screen. Add to it the fact that it runs for almost two and half hours and I got a reason to put it further back in my queue. But then I got couple of references assuring the quality of this movie and I finally gave it a try on the last day of last month. I don't think I use this term too often but I was, by every sense of this word, "blown away" by this movie. This movie is a product of astonishing vision brought to life on grandest of scales possible to man then. I am not really surprised but rather sad to know that it nearly bankrupted the studio after failing to make a profit. For a movie made in 1927(I think I will used this term in almost every movie here but it really is true), this movie is not only a technical masterpiece but is also a lesson in great storytelling. Besides there are so many themes this movie explores that stay true even after more than 85 years. The way whole story unfolds on multiple fronts which entangles various characters to each other and leads to its eventual ending is riveting stuff. And with the all the history behind countless cuts and prints it has gone through, it also gives a whole new meaning to the concept of 'Directors Cut' and many more versions that have become fashionable in Hollywood now-a-days. I can only imagine how much this movie must have influenced cinema over the years. People usually talk about Breathless(1960) or 2001: The Space Odessey(1968) as the movies that influenced the generations of movies after them. I do not have anything against them however, if someone asks me, from today onwards I will always answer it as Metropolis.

Sunrise: Song of Two Humans(1927): I know many people who consider this as the Best Silent movie made Ever. Though I have to disagree with that, I certainly understand why people might call it that. Even I thought it to be very simple but delightful story of regular couple going through a difficult time in their relationship. In contrast to Metropolis, everything is very mundane and simple now but even then director Murnau, who makes another appearance a little down the list,  kept me interested from very start to finish. I will rather compare it with Bicycle Thieves(1948) as both movies have simplicity as their biggest asset and their biggest success is they use it to invoke so many emotions in you. I laughed when they laughed, I cried when they did and I became concerned when they got in any trouble. Getting into it, knowing that it is a story of a couple where a husband falls under the spells of a seductress from the city and tries to get rid of his wife but falters at the last moment and then spends all the remaining time convincing her of his change of heart, 'And They lived Happily Ever After' story was all I hoped for but this was so much more where the real highlights were Janet Gaynor, the Wife and first ever Oscar winner for Best Actress and that crisp Black and White cinematography giving it another Oscar as well. This was first of the whole lot that I got to and it certainly set the mood right for others to come.

The General(1926): My first ever Buster Keaton. I have practically been brought up on Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy and even though Buster Keaton is usually compared with Chaplin for obvious reasons, I hadn't even heard of him until couple of months ago. So, when I decided to dip my toes in silent movies, I wanted at least one of it to be Buster Keaton and I went for The General because to my knowledge this is his highest rated movie and the one with the most past to it. I certainly know why now. There were multiple moments where I laughed out loud but what impressed me more is even though it is a slapstick comedy, it had a great structure which worked perfectly with descent story. Definitely the biggest highlights was Buster Keaton with his stone face and great automotive chase which goes on for almost half the running time of the film. Add to it the fact that he used to do all his stunts on his own which even though are done at a little slower pace are still very physical and quite dangerous and most certainly effective. I am not really surprised to know that Jackie Chan(for the record, I have immense respect for this man solely based on his dedication to do all his stunts himself) took a lot of inspiration from him, in his stunts, in his comedy. However another highlight for me was a delightful soundtrack as well. Hopefully some of his other movies will be just as good. 

Nosferatu(1922): I have never seen or read any versions of Dracula but from what I know in bits and pieces, I kept on thinking this two are very similar stories. It turns out that I was right and Murnau was even dragged into the court by Stoker's wife. Despite this, if you have read my previous post you would know that I still think that this is a largely successful movie. Roger Ebert in his review said that "It doesn't really scare you but it haunts you". Yes, it did not scare me and yes, it did indeed haunt me. He goes on to say that "It shows not that vampires can jump out of shadows but that evil can grow there, nourished on death." and again I have to concur. Watching this movie 90 years after its release, it is very easy to disregard this as an inferior product and believe me, even I can certainly find 100 faults in it but what we are forgetting is the legacy of this movie which has given us so many movies with similar themes. However there is only one thing that makes me really sad and that is today we have gone from this to Twilight. Twilight fans, think like this - if it wasn't for Nosferatu, you might never had Twilight.

The Phantom of the Opera(1925): You know what, I can just copy - paste everything i said above here and it will be almost true here as well. The Phantom of the Opera probably isn't as good as previous one but the Phantom in it is nothing short of work of a Genius. It is almost sure to make you cringe in that now famous revealing scene. I certainly have never seen anything as hideous as him and I really mean it as a compliment of the highest order. It isn't as haunting or even as influential but believe me when I say that for a horror movie, being inferior to Nosferatu is not a bad thing at all. In few departments it even fairs better like in my opinion, this one has a better storyline and succeeds in holding your attention even when the Phantom is not on screen. Nosferatu suffers a little with its vampire off the screen.

Battleship Potemkin(1925): Being a propaganda movie about 1905 mutiny when the crew of battleship Potemkin rebelled against the officers of Tsarist regime, this one has a distinct feel of documentary rather than a movie. Even though I appreciate the effort put into making it, unfortunately it didn't really work well for me. I usually try and consider the time an surroundings in which a movie is made. Maybe it is my lack of much background here but I don't have much to discount here. Most of the scenes are actually good but looked way too long and the worst part is not with real reason behind it, even the famous Odessa Step sequence. 

Sherlock Jr.(1925): Second Buster Keaton of the month but with quite the polar opposite results for me. All the reasons why I loved The General are exactly why I didn't really care much for Sherlock Jr. It lacks any real format to it, almost all the comedy in it is too coincidental and even a little lazy.

I still have few more silents in queue but I would love to have your recommendations as where do I go next from here. That's what comments are for.

13 comments:

  1. Nice post. I've not seen a huge amount of silent films either to be honest. For some truly historical ones though, try watching Birth of a Nation or Intolerance. Not the easiest to watch, admittedly.

    The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is also a bit of a classic too, which I very much recommend.

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    1. I have heard that about both Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. I haven't looked for Intolerance yet, I will definitely check that out. And The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is in my Netflix queue. So, I will see that soon as well.

      Thanks for the comment and for stopping by.

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  2. Good post and totally agree: We all need to some more silent movies. What some people don't realize is that there are actually a ton of great silents. We just need patience.

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    1. You are absolutely right Gregory. Thanks !

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  3. Lovely post. Since seeing Hugo and the story of and the story og Georges Meleis, I was interested in seeing more silent films. Still haven't started. This post will be a great reference to me.

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    1. Glad I could help. To tell you the truth, that is how I got into this as well. Hope you enjoy your endeavor whenever you start one.

      Thanks for the comment asrap.

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  4. I've seen Sunrise, Nosferatu, and Sherlock Jnr :) I haven't seen any Chaplin movies yet :( I've seen another Buster Keaton film (College) and I've seen Man With A Movie Camera and Strike (I think there's a couple of others in there). Most of the silent films I've seen have been at uni for my courses - I should try and watch more at home!

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    1. Ooohhh, and I've seen a D.W Griffiths film... The Lone Dale Operator.

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    2. Ruth, are you telling me that you haven't seen City Lights or Modern Times or The Kid or The Dictator ? Dude, some of the best one's right there. I cal also recommend Metropolis.
      I am on the lookout for Man with movie camera and from the looks of it, Strike looks like another Propaganda movie.
      I am yet to see anything Griffith did as well. Should cover something in the next batch. :)

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  5. Wow, lovely post, and very informative, too! I haven't seen any of them, but I will definitely bookmark it and check it out later! Great job!

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    1. Thanks Diana. Glad I could help. :)

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  6. Excellent post! This is a great selection of silent films to start with. I still need to see Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera, and Sherlock Jr., but the other 4 films are definitely essential viewings. Metropolis, The General, and, to a lesser extent, Sunrise are three of my favorites.

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    1. Well, given that I have seen less than 10 silent in all, this isn't definitive but I will have to replace The General with City lights to have my top three. Thanks Josh !!

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