Screenwriter Peter Milne (whose credits include Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1935) compiled a list of the best-directed silent films back in 1922. It’s an opportunity to step back in time and into the mind of an industry professional judging these films when they were new.
This is the third and final entry in the series. Part one featured many films that are still acclaimed by critics, while part two headed into more obscure territory. We’ll be wrapping things up with a mix of famous and forgotten.
(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 King: “Tol’able David”
One of the biggest success stories in this series, King continued directing until 1962. King worked in just about every genre you can think of but his real talent was capturing the spirit of Americana without descending into treacle or jingoism.
Tol’able David really is wonderful. Richard Barthelmess and the underrated Gladys Hulette charm and delight as rural lovers. The film is best known today as the movie interrupted by the Tingler but it has plenty to offer on its own, including love, drama and one of the nastiest fistfights ever to be shown on the screen.. (Read my review here.)
Availability: Released on DVD. I recommend the Flicker Alley version.
Penrhyn Stanlaws: “The Law and the Woman”
A popular illustrator, Stanlaws tried his hand at directing in the early 1920s. His films look like attractive bit of fluff but, alas, I have not been able to view any of them.
If the AFI catalog description is to be believed, intense melodrama doesn’t even begin to describe it. Betty Compson and Cleo Ridgely are the women of the title (shouldn’t it be The Law and the Women?), society beauties who end up involved in scandal and… murder.
Availability: Missing and presumed lost.
Sidney Olcott: “Scratch My Back”
I’m not the biggest fan of Olcott. I made the mistake of reviewing four of his films in a row sometime back (don’t ask) and his poor pacing, he-man woman-hating and cornball sensibilities soon grew tiresome. He also claimed to have telepathic powers and that everyone he ever worked with wanted his body. Sure, Sidney. Sure.
The title is literal, as you can see from the poster. It’s a society dramedy about the stage, blackmail and the scratching of itchy back-flesh. Um, okay. I’m not sure about this but will reserve judgement until I see the thing.
Availability: Never released on home video and seldom screened (if at all), it does survive in the MGM archive.
Harry Millarde: “Over the Hill to the Poorhouse”
Harry Millarde is another name with whom I am unfamiliar. His career as director ended in the 1920s and I can’t find any genuine classics to his name, though he did direct Joan Crawford in The Taxi Dancer.
This does indeed sound like a tear-jerker: an elderly mother is abandoned by five of her six children and forced into the poorhouse. It’s up to the black sheep of the family to save her from poverty. I would rather like to see this one, it sounds like my cup of soggy tea, though I am not sure if the story can be sustained over eleven reels. The film was remade in 1931 with Mae Marsh as the aged mother. She was thirty-seven. I hate Hollywood sometimes.
Availability: Survives intact in France but is not on home video.
Cecil B. DeMille: “Forbidden Fruit”
You kids know that I love me some DeMille and his silent stuff is his best stuff.
I have to disagree with Milne here. While Forbidden Fruit has fun moments (the Cinderella-in-see-through-dresses sequence, for example), it’s not as good as DeMille’s own The Golden Chance, from which it derives its plot. For my money, Why Change Your Wife is still the lavish DeMille modern picture to beat. (Read my review of Forbidden Fruit here.)
Availability: Survives in assorted archives but has never had official home video release. (Shows up on eBay now and again, though.)
Ernst Lubitsch: “Passion” and “The Loves of Pharaoh”
Lubitsch’s German films came in two flavors: sassy little comedies and big ol’ epics. Everyone in Hollywood was focused on the latter when they should have been paying attention to the former. Once Lubitsch came to America, he quickly showed himself to be the master of the rom-com and didn’t lose an ounce of sass, Hays code notwithstanding.
Milne chooses two big Lubitsch pictures. I’m not sure what was being imported and what he had access to but Milne doesn’t seem to be familiar with Lubitsch’s lighter, more delightful work. I’ll take The Oyster Princess, The Doll, I Don’t Want to Be a Man and The Wildcat over any Lubitsch epic any day of the week!
Availability: A very nice restored version of Passion (under its original title, Madame duBarry) is available for region 2 audiences. The American cut is also available. The Loves of Pharaoh was recently restored but is still missing about 10 minutes of footage. It was released on DVD/Bluray in Germany.
Marshall Neilan: “Dinty”
Milne placed Neilan further up on his list with Stella Maris but here he is again. Neilan was, by all accounts, a charmer whose alcoholism and tendency to pick fights ruined his career as a director. A shame as no one did whimsy better.
It’s all one big Irish melodrama about a paperboy who saved a judge’s daughter from the Tong. The plot doesn’t sound like much but Colleen Moore rather liked it. It’s one of her pre-flapper roles and she plays the title character’s mother.
Availability: A complete print survives in the Netherlands but it has never been released on home video.
Clarence Badger: “Doubling for Romeo”
Badger is most famous today for directing Clara Bow’s signature film, IT. He certainly took to the roaring twenties with enthusiasm, directing a trio of gender-bending comedies for Bebe Daniels (Miss Brewster’s Millions, Senorita and She’s a Sheik) as well as Raymond Griffith’s delightful Civil War comedy Hands Up! A forgotten king of comedy directing.
Will Rogers stars in a popular comedy subject: how do ordinary men live up to the passionate romancers of the movies? This picture features an elaborate dream sequence with Rogers’ cowpoke dreaming himself in the role of Romeo.
Availability: Prints survive in Belgium and the USA, though the American print is missing a reel or reels.
Laurence Trimble: “The Silent Call”
Trimble had a varied career but not much seemed to have stuck in the memories of filmgoers. He directed Flora Finch and John Bunny in the 1910s, switched gears to direct Florence Turner’s version of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd and spent the last part of his career directing canine star pictures.
Alas, Strongheart is all but forgotten, overshadowed by that OTHER German Shepherd movie star, Rin Tin Tin. This picture sounds like it’s par for the movie dog course. Milne describes it as a novelty but genius dog pictures would soon take over the screen.
Availability: Missing and presumed lost.
George Loane Tucker: “The Miracle Man”
George Loane Tucker was at home in the criminal underworld. One of his early hits, Traffic in Souls, was about the white slave trade and hit a nerve with the paranoid populace in 1913. He passed away in 1921 at the height of his career.
“Just because,” indeed. The Miracle Man was Lon Chaney’s breakout film, the story of a gang of hucksters who change for the better thanks to clean country living.
Availability: One of the most sought after and desired lost silent films. Only fragments survive. Check those attics!
All done! I hope you enjoyed this little tour of the movies circa 1922. Let’s watch the movies that are available, look for the ones that aren’t and never stop looking for the ones that are lost.
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