We have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight when we discuss silent films. Most silent stars are no longer with us and we have the privilege of examining their careers from beginning to end. Well, today we have a chance to go back in time to the height of the silent era and see what the stars considered to be their best work at the time.
In 1926, Motion Picture Magazine asked some of the biggest stars in the business to list their favorite roles. The best part? Only one of these films is lost and most are available on home video!
Let’s go down the list and see if the stars’ picks have stood the test of time.
John Gilbert chose The Big Parade (1926). He felt that the film spoke to people who had lived through the war years and he grew with his part. The vast majority of his modern fans would agree with his choice, I think.
The Big Parade is available on DVD and Bluray.
Ramon Novarro chose Scaramouche (1923), stating that it was a hit for a reason. I could not agree more, it contains his finest performance by far and showcases everything he could do well. I think it’s significant that he chose this film over Ben-Hur, which was then in theaters and one of the biggest and most expensive films ever made.
John Barrymore chose The Sea Beast (1926), which is a sexier version of Moby Dick. He enjoyed the seafaring scenes and the old school sailing ship used in the film. Personally, I prefer my reimaginings of the White Whale to involve Ricardo Montalban, eighties hair and a nebula but that’s just me. My picks for Barrymore would have to be his zanier offerings, The Beloved Rogue and Tempest. Which movie do you think is his best silent?
The Sea Beast was released as a meh DVD that is now out of print. Scalpers want an arm, leg and assorted organs.
Norma Talmadge chose Smilin’ Through (1922). She felt that it best captured her creative vision and was an artistic success. I am personally rather fond of her performance as a junkie in The Devil’s Needle but this film is probably nicer for mixed company. The story was revived twice, for Norma Shearer in 1932 and Jeanette MacDonald in 1941. (You can read details of the film and enjoy stills and clippings here.)
Smilin’ Through has been released on DVD as a bargain edition. I wouldn’t expect much in the way of quality.
Milton Sills chose The Sea Hawk (1924). Yes! Of course he did! In fact, he even stated that his choice was glaringly obvious. Admittedly, Sills pictures are as rare as hen’s teeth but this picture is of particularly high quality. It has juicy conflict, great epic sea stuff and buckles swashed most skillfully. Sills said it was a man’s part in a man’s picture but most of The Sea Hawk megafans I have met have been women. Sorry, Milton.
The Sea Hawk has been released on DVD by Warner Archive.
Pola Negri chose Carmen (1918), stating that the famous temptress was a pleasure to play with so many layers of complexity. The film was released in the U.S. under the title Gypsy Blood. I liked it but I think she is far better in The Wildcat, Barbed Wire and A Woman of the World.
Mae Murray chose The Merry Widow (1925), stating that she loved beauty and the film was the most beautiful thing she had ever made. Erich von Stroheim certainly coaxed out the finest performance of Murray’s career in this film.
The Merry Widow is available on DVD from Warner Archive.
Leatrice Joy chose Manslaughter (1922), a perfectly wackadoodle picture from Cecil B. DeMille. Joy stated that she liked playing a role that allowed her to jump from comedy to drama and she is the best thing about that very weird picture. I personally adored her in Eve’s Leaves, a saucy comedy about a sailor who kidnaps the man of her dreams.
Manslaughter has been released on DVD by Kino Lorber.
Colleen Moore chose So Big (1924), crediting it with breaking her flapper typecasting. In hindsight, Moore spoke too soon. Alas, it is the only title on this list that is missing and presumed lost. Based on the 1924 novel of the same title by Edna Ferber, the film was directed by Charles Brabin (Mr. Theda Bara) and was universally praised. Please check those attics, cellars and former Soviet archives!
Rudolph Valentino chose The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I tend to prefer his kitsch (The Sheik for the win!) but I know this choice will be seconded by many of his fans. And that tango! Oh my!
Alas, I know of no super high quality releases of this film on DVD or Bluray. Please let me know if you have heard of a nice one! In the meantime, there are cheapie editions aplenty.
Corinne Griffith chose Black Oxen (1923), a rather curious flapper picture with science fiction trappings. It also features Clara Bow in an early flapper role. Griffith stated that she enjoyed the oddball combination mystery, tears and romance. I haven’t seen the complete picture but I must say that I found Griffith most charming in The Garden of Eden.
While there are bargain editions of the incomplete Black Oxen on DVD, the restored version has yet to be released to the general public.
Harold Lloyd chose The Freshman (1925), his collegiate football comedy. Lloyd stated that he felt the film captured the youthful spirit well and that he was able to really sink his teeth into the characterization. Definitely one of his most popular, though nothing matches the following of Safety Last.
What do you think? Of the pictures I have seen, it seems that the stars did quite well for themselves. Quite a few genuine classics are included, along with some films deserving of rediscovery.