Whether we admit it or not, we all view older entertainment through the lens of the modern world in which we live. (People who think they avoid this are, frankly, deluding themselves.) This is why it’s so valuable to read the accounts of viewers who saw these films when they were brand new. And not just critics, everyday people from as many walks of life as possible.
I collect silent era filmmaking correspondence course materials. Their advice ranges from technical to bizarre but one of the most amusing titles in my collection is Motion Picture Directing: The Facts and Theories of the Latest Art by Peter Milne. Milne was a screenwriter, which explains why the book is generally so droll.
One of the most interesting chapters is the one in which Milne lists the best directed films of the past 5 years. The book was published in 1922 so that puts the cutoff around 1917 or so. Let’s take a look at that list and see which films made the cut.
(The list is quite lengthy so I will be cutting it into manageable pieces and publishing it in multiple parts. You will find part two here and part three here. Also, home video versions will be mostly region 1/A. Oh, and if I list a movie as lost and you know where to find it, please toss me a link!)
Charlie Chaplin: “Shoulder Arms” and “The Kid”
Milne starts things off with Chaplin, which may come as a surprise to some. While Chaplin’s comedic chops have almost completely recovered from the brief period of scoffing following his death, his directing is often underappreciated. I think Milne hits this nail squarely on the head.
Shoulder Arms (1918) was a smash hit for Chaplin but its 40+ minute runtime places it in the curious featshort length. The odd length means it doesn’t get the same TLC as his features but it also is too long to be used the same way as a one or two-reel short. Oh well, good stuff anyway.
Availability: Shoulder Arms was released on DVD as part of the Chaplin Revue but it has gone out of print. Here’s hoping Criterion will reissue it as it has done with Chaplin’s features.
The Kid (1921) is just delightful thanks to the brilliant casting of Jackie Coogan and the excellent comedy instincts of Chaplin. He knows exactly when to tear our hearts out!
Availability: The Kid is available on DVD and Bluray from the Criterion Collection with all the expected trimmings.
D.W. Griffith: “Way Down East” and “Orphans of the Storm”
Despite the requisite gushiness Milne displays on the subject of The Birth of a Nation, he has a very clear-eyed take on D.W. Griffith’s wild inconsistency as a director. Bomb, bomb, bomb, blockbuster, bomb, bomb, bomb.
Way Down East (1920) is one of Griffith’s better features, in my opinion, because he returns to his comfort zone of Americana, apple pie and sex. I wouldn’t say that all the rough edges have been smoothed over as the cornpone comedy remains and jars the viewer out of the film every time it shows up.
Availability: A restored version is available on Bluray while the synchronized sound reissue is available on DVD.
Orphans of the Storm (1921) was Griffith’s last film with the Gish sisters and, frankly, I found it to be a crashing bore. However, a great many people love it and so I suppose it deserves its place on this list. Basically, I could never have finished it without Dorothy Gish’s performance and Joseph Schildkraut’s profile. (Rawr!)
Availability: Released on DVD.
William de Mille: “Miss Lulu Bett” and “Midsummer Madness”
William de Mille isn’t discussed much these days unless people want to use him as a cudgel against his younger brother Cecil. (By the way, William hated that. Stop doing it.) The elder de Mille favored quieter subjects and he directed them with great sensitivity. He’s well worth seeking out on his own merit.
Miss Lulu Bett (1920) is one of my all-time favorite silents. It’s a sensitive look at the marriage double standard. (As Joan Rivers put it, “You’re 30 years old and not married, you’re an old maid. A man, he’s 90 years old and not married, he’s a catch!”) There’s a lot of gentle humor and some astonishing performances from Lois Wilson, Milton Sills and that old ham Theodore Roberts.
Availability: Released on DVD but, alas, it is out of print.
Midsummer Madness (1921) has never been released on home media but it does survive in the archives of the Library of Congress. According to the AFI Catalog, it is another Lois Wilson vehicle that tells the tale of a neglected wife and the power of gossip.
Here’s hoping we get to see this one soon!
Rex Ingram: “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and “The Conquering Power”
Rex Ingram’s films are gorgeous but good lord, does he take his sweet time giving us the guided tour. Scaramouche is probably his strongest work and Mare Nostrum has definite appeal but the man needed a ruthless editor.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) is lovely to look at, we get Valentino and his tango and some even spicier elements if we know where to look. However, pacing, pacing, pacing.
Availability: Released on bargain DVD, none particularly good.
The Conquering Power (1921) is lovely to look at, we get Valentino and… Can I make a confession? Over the years, I have tried several times but I have never been able to get through this one. Sorry, Rex.
Availability: Released on DVD by Grapevine.
Fred Niblo: “The Three Musketeers”
Niblo is probably most famous for directing Ben-Hur and The Mark of Zorro but he also did excellent work with his wife and leading lady Enid Bennett.
The Three Musketeers (1921) showed a confident new Fairbanks swaggering about in period dress. Zorro had been an experiment, a test to see if audiences were ready for historical Doug, having only seen modern Doug. They were and Fairbanks asked Niblo back again for this Dumas adaptation. The rest is swashbuckling history.
Availability: Recently released on DVD by Undercrank Productions.
Well, I think that’s enough for one post. We’ll be back next week with more titles on the list but I think Peter Milne is doing pretty well for himself. There are many more interesting titles and I look forward to discussing them with you. Until next time!
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