The Best Directed Silent Films, According to a 1922 Filmmaker – Part 2

Last week, we starting going down a 1922 list of films compiled by screenwriter Peter Milne for his book on motion picture directing. Let’s continue our examination of that list. As you may recall, Milne picked some fairly famous fare to start things out. Well, things are about to get more obscure. I’m excited!

(Milne’s list is quite lengthy, which is why I cut it into manageable pieces and published it in multiple parts. 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!)

Henry Kolker: “Disraeli”

Henry Kolker’s career as a director did not last long past the publication of this list; his last credit was in 1924. However, he enjoyed a long career as an actor, working steadily until his death in 1947.

It seems that biopics must always be included on these best-of lists. In this 1921 picture, venerable ham George Arliss plays the famous prime minister, a signature role for him. He would reprise the role in a 1929 talkie remake.

Availability: Not currently on DVD but the film does survive in European archives.

Tom Forman: “City of Silent Men”

Thomas Meighan at the height of his fame.

Tom Forman is not a household name these days and is probably most remembered in silent film circles for directing Lon Chaney in Shadows. His suicide at the age of thirty-three was yet another tragedy of the silent era. I should note that in his book Moving Pictures: Memories of a Hollywood Prince, Budd Schulberg claims that Forman killed himself when he was not okayed for sound movies. This is ridiculous as Forman died in 1926, a full year before the talkie revolution kicked off.

The City of Silent Men has a plot rather similar to I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang: Thomas Meighan escapes Sing Sing, lives an honest life and falls for Lois Wilson. However, his past catches up with him and he is threatened with a return trip to the pen. Meighan excelled at these kinds of roles and Wilson had some wicked acting chops of her own.

Availability: Alas, missing and presumed lost. Check your attics!

Frank Borzage: “Humoresque”

Frank Borzage’s reputation was secured by a flurry of tear-jerkers during the late-silent and early-talkie eras. However, Borzage’s propensity for lachrymose entertainments is on display in this 1920 melodrama.

By “racial traits and characteristics” the author means that the characters of the story are Jewish. Oh dear, that is a rather unfortunate way of phrasing it, is it not?

Availability: Released on DVD by Alpha, a bargain outfit. So buyer beware and all that.

John Robertson: “Sentimental Tommy”

John Robertson’s career boasts such highlights as the John Barrymore version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the silent version of The Enchanted Cottage and Mary Pickford’s 1922 remake of Tess of the Storm Country. If I had to pick one signature, it would be the creating and maintaining of atmosphere and a sense of place in his films.

Sentimental Tommy sounds like a real cornball but we are assured from all corners that it pulls off its story with finesse. We’ll never know for certain as the film is considered lost but given Robertson’s success with the similarly sappy The Enchanted Cottage, we can assume that the tales are true and Sentimental Tommy is a lost masterpiece. (Alfred Hitchcock listed it as one of his top ten films.)

Availability: Lost, more’s the pity.

George Fitzmaurice: “Peter Ibbetson”

George Fitzmaurice was a master of the glowing silent romance, as evidenced by his direction of Son of the Sheik and Lilac Time. He worked steadily and for the biggest studios until his death in 1940.

Alas, the Wallace Reid vehicle Peter Ibbetson (often listed under its alternate title, Forever) sounds like a dreary slog. It smacks of tragedy for the sake of tragedy but I suppose we shall never know as the film is missing and presumed lost.

Availability: Gone forever?

Marshall Neilan: “Stella Maris”

Marshall Neilan was an innovative and imaginative director who had mastered onscreen cuteness but generally managed to avoid falling into the twee trap. Alas, his brilliance was later dulled by alcoholism and his propensity for picking fights and antisemitism damaged his Hollywood reputation beyond repair. A shame because he was truly a unique talent.

I couldn’t agree more! This film is positively brilliant and Pickford has never been better. (You can read my full review here.) It’s a dark, Dickensian dive into the brutal side of human nature but Pickford and Neilan are able to prevent things from getting too depressing. Excellent stuff!

Availability: Released on DVD.

Al Green and Jack Pickford: “Little Lord Fauntleroy”

I was tempted to just put down Al Green’s name but we must be honest, mustn’t we? Green would continue directing until the late 1950s and guided several stars to Academy Award nominations and wins. Jack Pickford’s credit is generally agreed to be part of big sister Mary’s campaign to prop up her sad sack sibling, who could barely be bothered to show up for the job. He abandoned all pretenses of directing after this picture and returned to acting. Yay. (There is an effort underway to rehabilitate Jack Pickford but it won’t work here. I’ve seen his performances and, frankly, the man had anti-charisma.)

I can’t claim to be as excited about this film as Milne was. Little Lord Fauntleroy was part of Mary Pickford’s effort to please her rural fans (who loved her child parts) while still appealing to a more artistic crowd by playing grownups. In this case, she plays a mother and son. The special effects are stunning but the film never really escapes its treacly source material.

Availability: Released on DVD.

Joe May: “The Indian Tomb”

Joe May is pretty obscure compared to his German contemporaries. Maybe his name isn’t Teutonic enough? In any case, he directed a pair of my absolute faves: The Indian Tomb, of course, and Asphalt. May wasn’t as flashy as Murnau or Lang and he wasn’t as sassy as Lubitsch but he could make some classy productions with fine performances and solid entertainment value.

I love this movie. It was the second German silent film I ever saw (after The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and it completely absorbed me. The pace is… German but it’s such a beautiful, well-acted picture that the stateliness works rather well. And the performance from Conrad Veidt is just stunning. Love it! (Read my review here. And, yes, I do discuss Fritz Lang’s remake with a brely-dressed Debra Paget.)

Availability: Released on DVD but, alas, out of print. Used copies are going for hundreds of dollars. Sheesh!

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That’s all for today! Join me next week for the third and final installment!

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2 Replies to “The Best Directed Silent Films, According to a 1922 Filmmaker – Part 2”

  1. Some really interesting picks by Mr. Milne. Several of them certainly deserve to be better known today — Robertson, Fitzmaurice, Neilan and May all did fine work. What is weird about Robertson’s career is that he directed so many major stars (females in particular), yet his own name has been virtually forgotten.

    1. Yes, looking over Robertson’s filmography, I was rather impressed with the scope and there were several titles that I forgot he had directed. Milne really did put a lot of thought into his selections.

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