Release Date: November 27th, 1920 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Fred Niblo
Written by: Johnston McCulley, Eugene Miller, Douglas Fairbanks
Based on: The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley
Music by: Mortimer Wilson
Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Marguerite De La Motte, Noah Beery, Robert McKim, Milton Berle (uncredited)
Douglas Fairbanks Pictures, 90 Minutes (1970 cut), 107 Minutes (DVD cut), 97 Minutes (Academy Archive Print)
“We never let business interfere with drinking!” – Undetermined Role
My mother used to love this film a lot and I saw it multiple times, as a kid, because of that. Granted, her favorite Zorro film was the one with Tyrone Power but it was my mum’s love of Zorro movies and swashbuckling in general that made me appreciate these whimsical adventure movies too.
I wanted to go way back and revisit this one, though, as it actually set the stage for what Zorro would evolve into over the years. This generated the tone and style for the franchise from a visual standpoint and with this picture, specifically, you can see how this character and his world inspired the main character and world of the Batman comic book series.
Douglas Fairbanks, working with the original Zorro creator, made a pretty action packed, energetic and jovial motion picture, especially for its time, as this is a silent picture and had to rely more on the physical performances and athleticism of its cast.
This has a good, straightforward story and it created a template that wasn’t just reused in the dozens of Zorro films, serials and television shows that followed but also in other intellectual properties.
The Mark of Zorro is quite fantastic for its era. While it isn’t my favorite version of Zorro, it made it possible for those other versions to exist, as well as so many pulp heroes and stories from Batman, The Shadow, The Phantom and countless others.
Pairs well with: other Zorro pictures and film serials, as well as other Douglas Fairbanks movies.
Release Date: December 15th, 1919
Directed by: Charles Chaplin
Written by: Charles Chaplin
Music by: Charles Chaplin (in 1959 re-release as part of The Chaplin Revue)
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Marion Feducha, Bob Kelly, Jackie Coogan, Tom Wilson, Babe London, Henry Bergman, Loyal Underwood
Charles Chaplin Productions, First National Pictures, 25 Minutes
This wasn’t Charlie Chaplin’s greatest film and truth be told, critics were underwhelmed by it and thought of it as his least impressive.
Still, this was enjoyable if you’re a fan of Chaplin and the silent slapstick comedy style.
The story is about Chaplin, as his Tramp character, taking his family on an excursion. Most of the action takes place on a ferry but there are some other scenes like the beginning, which sees Chaplin having trouble starting his Ford and the finale that involves a traffic cop and some sticky, hot tar.
On the ferry we get gags that feature seasickness, as well as some physical comedy centered around the turbulent boat ride.
In the end, this is still amusing and lighthearted but it lacks that extra oomph that Chaplin’s films typically have. I think the setting detracted from the performance, however. But it’s still entertaining and a pretty quick watch at just twenty-five minutes.
Pairs well with: other Chaplin shorts, as well as the short films of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.
Release Date: January 7th, 1925 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Rupert Julian, Lon Chaney (uncredited), Ernst Laemmle (uncredited), Edward Sedgwick (uncredited)
Written by: all uncredited: Walter Anthony, Elliott J. Clawson, Bernard McConville, Frank M. McCormack, Tom Reed, Raymond L. Schrock, Jasper Spearing, Richard Wallace
Based on: The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
Music by: Gustav Hinrichs
Cast: Lon Chaney, Norman Kerry, Mary Philbin
Universal Pictures, 93 Minutes, 101 Minutes (original cut), 92 Minutes (1995 cut), 107 Minutes (DVD cut), 106 Minutes (Ontario cut), 95 Minutes (1929 re-release)
“If I am the Phantom, it is because man’s hatred has made me so. If I shall be saved, it will be because your love redeems me.” – The Phantom
This is one of the best films under the Universal Monsters banner even if fans of those classic monster movies don’t consider it a part of that oeuvre. However, it was made by Universal and helped kick off the fantastic horror output of the studio.
The Phantom of the Opera would be remade and reimagined a few decades later with Claude Rains and that’s the version most closely associated with Universal’s other monster flicks but without this silent era classic and the stellar performance by Lon Chaney Sr., the studio may have never gotten there.
Plus, this is the superior version of the story and honestly, it’s still the best Phantom of the Opera movie ever made. Again, I have to give credit to Chaney. Without him, this wouldn’t have been nearly the same picture.
Chaney is a master of silent era horror and a lot of that has to do with how he crafted his own monster makeup mixed with his physical performance, as he didn’t have sound and dialogue to rely on. Chaney is able to convey great emotion, even if his face is greatly obscured or disfigured.
Additionally, the tone of this picture is perfect and the world the Phantom lives in feels alive but stuffed with a brooding, haunting atmosphere.
For its time, this is well shot with good cinematography, impressive effects and sets that had to have been a real challenge to craft. The scenes where the water level changes show the level of care that went into producing this movie.
The opulent settings of the opera house and the world above the sewers exists in stark contrast with one another but it makes this such a visual feast that its hard not to be mesmerized by the picture’s imagery.
Overall, this is a damn good motion picture and one of Chaney’s best, if not the best. It’s the strong foundation that the Universal Monsters franchise was built on top of. Honestly, this is the Iron Man of its day.
Pairs well with: other silent horror films, specifically those starring Lon Chaney Sr.
Also known as: Der müde Tod (original German title), The Weary Death (literal English title), Between Worlds, Between Two Worlds, Beyond the Wall (alternative titles)
Release Date: October 6th, 1921 (Berlin premiere)
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang
Cast: Lil Dagover, Walter Janssen, Bernhard Goetzke, Rudolf Klein-Rogge
Decla-Bioscop AG, 97 Minutes, 105 Minutes (extended), 94 Minutes (2016 restoration)
“You dread, awful cactus, you!” – Judge Maedchen
Destiny is a really intriguing motion picture. It’s also the earliest Fritz Lang movie that I’ve seen and that guy is hands down, one of the greatest filmmakers that ever lived, who made masterpieces from the silent era in Germany to his film-noir work in America, a few decades later.
I don’t put this on the same level as his masterpieces like Metropolis, M, Scarlet Street and The Big Heat but it’s still a superb picture for its time and it shows a guy that worked within the very expressive and surreal German Expressionist style but also had a more realistic grittiness than what was the norm.
Destiny is a story about a loving couple. They pickup a hitchhiker who is actually Death. Shortly after that, Death purchases some land nearby and builds a gigantic, ominous wall near the town’s cemetery. When the couple meets him again, in a local tavern, the man disappears. The woman, later sobbing in front of the mysterious wall is confronted by a group of ghosts that walk towards her and then disappear into the wall behind her. Putting two-and-two together, the woman confronts Death, begging for the return of her lover and thus, finds herself on a strange journey where she hopes that her love can conquer Death itself.
If the setup doesn’t sell you on the film, I don’t know what will.
However, the acting is superb and Lil Dagover, this film’s star, shines much brighter in this than she did in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from the previous year.
Additionally, Fritz Lang already showed that he possessed a great eye and an even greater understanding of mise-en-scène. It was his early work in films like this that led to his incredible style being instrumental in the look of the film-noir pictures of the 1940s and 1950s. From the lighting, the use of shadows and having a genuine understanding of contrast and how to properly exploit it on celluloid, Lang was a legitimate master.
Although, I have to give credit to his cinematographers, as well. In this film, he worked with three: Fritz Arno Wagner, Erich Nitzschmann and Hermann Saalfrank.
Wagner should be better known than he is in modern times, as the guy would move on from this movie to work on films like Nosferatu, Lang’s M (one of the best looking films ever made), Spies and well over 100 other visually stunning pictures.
This is a film where everything went right. It pulls you in, looks phenomenal and you feel for these characters. I won’t spoil the ending but it is pretty emotional after going on this journey and seeing this woman risk her own mortality to save the man she loves.
For those strangely complaining that movies don’t have strong female heroes, maybe you should start your search back in 1921.
Pairs well with: other early Fritz Lang films, as well as other silent movies from the German Expressionist era.
Also known as: Orlacs Hände (original German title)
Release Date: September 24th, 1924 (Berlin premiere)
Directed by: Robert Wiene
Written by: Ludwig Nertz (play), Maurice Renard (book)
Music by: Pierre Oser
Cast: Conrad Veidt, Alexandra Sorina, Fritz Kortner, Carmen Cartellieri, Fritz Strassny, Paul Askonas
Pan Films, Berolina Film GmbH, 92 Minutes, 113 Minutes (restored), 105 Minutes (2013 cut)
As big of a fan of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as I am, I actually hadn’t seen any of his other films until now.
I’ve known of this one for quite some time but I never came across it until it started streaming on The Criterion Channel, recently. Being that it was only on there for a limited time, I had to check it out. Plus, it starred the legendary Conrad Veidt and all of his silent films showcase his great talent for acting in that very expressive style.
Like Caligari this film utilizes the visual style of the German Expressionist movement. It features a high contrast chiaroscuro aesthetic while also having a visually surreal quality. Everything feels dark and dreamlike and for Wiene, you can see a more refined style than what he showed just four years earlier with Caligari.
Honestly, this feels like a more mature and plausible film. It’s less fantastical, more gritty and it taps into the psyche a bit deeper, providing a sense of dread and horror that eclipses that more popular and widely known Wiene picture.
The story is about a pianist who loses his hands. So he’s given hands that could’ve possibly belonged to a killer. While he doesn’t get back his ability to play music, weird things start to happen that have the man believing that the hands are taking over his body and causing him to kill. There are some twists to the plot and there’s a big reveal scene at the end but even though this is a very old film, I didn’t find it to be predictable and it had a satisfying ending.
I don’t think that this film could’ve been as good, though, without Conrad Veidt in the starring role. He gives us some of his best work, as you really start to buy into his worst thoughts about himself while feeling for the guy, as he could possibly be an innocent victim, possessed by evil hands.
While I don’t like this as much as Caligari, it feels like it utilized the knowledge Wiene gained while working on that film, as well as his others that predate this one.
Additionally, it also features one of the best Veidt performances I’ve ever seen.
Pairs well with: other silent era horror films, especially those with the German Expressionist style.
Also known as: The Haunted Castle (US), The Devil’s Castle (UK)
Release Date: Winter, 1896
Directed by: Georges Méliès
Cast: Jehanne D’Alcy, Jules-Eugene Legris
Star Film Company, 3 Minutes
Is this the first horror movie ever made? Well, it’s probably the oldest one still in existence.
The film is important in the earliest days of motion picture history for it being what’s considered the earliest form of cinematic horror but even more than that, it’s use of special effects and editing are quite impressive for the time.
The House of the Devil came out when film was still a new, barely unexplored medium and those who were experimenting with it still found themselves inventing the techniques that would go on to expand the art form into the most popular artistic medium on the planet.
Beyond simple horror, this also bleeds into the fantasy and comedy genres. It features pantomimed sketches with a bat, a devil, a couple of cavaliers, a skeleton, spectres and other goodies.
It uses clever editing techniques to show the transformation of magical creatures and other monsters appearing like magic to confront the heroes.
The film is only three minutes, which is pretty normal for pictures from this era but it packs a lot into that short time and it’s a much more entertaining film that what was the norm.
Pairs well with: other very early and experimental films.
Release Date: July 21st, 1922
Directed by: Buster Keaton, Malcolm St. Clair
Written by: Buster Keaton, Malcolm St. Clair
Cast: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Virginia Fox
First National Pictures, 25 Minutes
The IMDb description of this film is, “Buster Keaton shoes horses and repairs cars, with mixed results.”
That pretty much sums the whole thing up.
However, this is Buster Keaton and the gags and physical humor are great, even if this is still pretty early into his career where he was pumping out silent short films left and right.
While I don’t enjoy this one as much as One Week or Cops, it still showcases the man’s great talent and how he could make magic with just about any prop or situation.
This is only 25 minutes but a lot happens and Keaton doesn’t really stop moving, except to fill in a few narrative points between the physical scenes. But even then, he finds a way to put his physical energy to use.
In the end, I’ve never seen a Buster Keaton film I haven’t enjoyed and The Blacksmith is no different.
Pairs well with: other Buster Keaton films of the silent era, as well as the movies of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.
Release Date: July 21st, 1987 (Japan)
Directed by: Hidetoshi Oomori, Hiroyuki Kitakubo, Hiroyuki Kitazume, Katsuhiro Otomo, Koji Morimoto, Mao Lamdo, Takashi Nakamura, Yasuomi Umetsu
Written by: Hiroyuki Kitazume, Katsuhiro Otomo, Mao Lamdo, Takashi Nakamura, Yasuomi Umetsu
Music by: Joe Hisaishi, Isaku Fujita, Masahisa Takeichi
A.P.P.P., Studio 4°C, Diskotek Media, Streamline Pictures, 90 Minutes
Robot Carnival is a pretty neat and interesting picture.
The film is an anime anthology where everything in it has the theme of robots. It also has a steampunk and cyberpunk aesthetic throughout the picture. Another interesting thing about it is that most of the film is actually silent in regards to dialogue.
The biggest thing that made me want to check this out, however, is that it features a story by Katsuhiro Otomo before he worked on the film adaptation of his megahit manga Akira.
Otomo’s contribution to this film is the opening and ending scenes. Both are fairly short but they act as the bookends to all the short stories in-between. These segments also feature a massive city structure on treads, rolling over the countryside. It’s actually pretty damn clear, once seeing this, that the Otomo segments were the inspiration behind the novels and film adaptation of Mortal Engines.
All the other stories are pretty cool and unique. It’s honestly a mixed bag, really, but it is cool seeing all of this as a larger body of work where its segments have a nice variance in art style and narrative structure.
This is a pretty chill and kind of relaxing anime to sit through. Each film is straightforward and just a neat, simple concept that has been realized and presented in all its glory. While everything has its own feel to it, the picture, as a whole, has a pretty consistent vibe.
I wouldn’t categorize this as a classic but I can see why many have held this in pretty high regard. I see it as more of a sampler of what many of these creators were capable of before they went off to make their own, larger features.
Pairs well with: other cyberpunk and steampunk anime of the late ’80s/early ’90s.
Release Date: March 11th, 1922
Directed by: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Written by: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Cast: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts, Edward F. Cline, Steve Murphy
Joseph M. Schenck Productions, 18 Minutes
“I won’t marry you until you become a big business man.” – Mayor’s Daughter
Cops is a Buster Keaton movie I hadn’t seen until now. Like a lot of his pictures, you can actually find a good copy of it on YouTube for free.
Overall, this was energetic and fun but I probably wouldn’t put this near his upper echelon of stuff, even his shorts. I enjoyed One Week a lot more and found it to be pretty damn hilarious from top to bottom.
Cops does have some good gags and sequences but it’s a lot more grounded than Keaton’s best work, which often times gets surreal and over the top (in a good way).
This also feels like a much smaller picture than many of his others, even One Week, which was mostly filmed in a large dirt covered area near train tracks. The only thing in this that felt somewhat grandiose was the finale that saw Keaton running away from what looked like a hundred or more cops.
This was definitely charming in that typical Buster Keaton sort of way but everything, other than the closing minutes, felt pretty subdued and light.
Pairs well with: other Buster Keaton films, as well as Charlie Chaplin’s and Harold Lloyd’s.