Silent movies often featured sweeping romances but today, we’re going to be looking at different kinds of love: friendships and the family dynamic. Tolstoy wrote that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” We’ll be looking at a variety of families to see if this is true for silent films but let’s start with friendships.
Here is a selection of silent films that explore various types and aspects of friendship.
Before he directed All Quiet on the Western Front, Lewis Milestone made a buddy war comedy called Two Arabian Knights (1927). It earned Milestone his first Oscar (the only time that the award was split between drama and comedy) and he deserved it. William Boyd and Louis Wolheim are delightful as a pair of squabbling doughboys who find themselves captured by the Germans. They escape and end up rescuing a princess (Mary Astor) from marrying a cad. There’s romance and adventure, certainly, but what really puts the film over is the charming frenemy behavior from Boyd and Wolheim.
Corporal Kate (1926) is rife with war film clichés but its main characters, manicurists who have volunteered as entertainers during the First World War, have genuine BFF chemistry. Kate (Vera Reynolds and Becky (Julia Faye) sail for France but quickly find that real warzones are nothing like New York City. They are put up in a nasty stable and they complain about it, certainly, but then they roll up their sleeves and get to work. They sweep the floors, move enormous wagon wheels and general put their noses to the grindstone. The whole time, they are believable as a pair of slightly naïve but game young women who are doing their best and they work well as a team. No cattiness or nastiness between them and while Becky is clearly meant to be the more comedic of the two, she is not purely a figure for ridicule.
The oft-filmed The Four Feathers (1929) features friendship of a darker sort when a British officer is accused of cowardice. Richard Arlen plays the hero and his friends are played by Clive Brook, William Powell, Theodore von Eltz. It’s all very stiff upper lip stuff but handled with great flair and is unfortunately overshadowed by the 1939 version, which, in all fairness, is excellent in its own way.
Friendship takes a sadder turn in Kean (1924), which features Ivan Mosjoukine as the legendary Shakespearean performer Edmund Kean and Nicolas Koline as Kean’s only real friend, a theater prompter who serves as a nursemaid to the famous actor. He has his work cut out for him but remains the only loyal figure in Kean’s life as the thespian begins his inevitable downfall.
Speaking of thespians, John Ford’s meandering but delightful comedy Upstream (1927) is set in a boarding house for actors and features a large cast of character actors. When one of their own (Earle Fox) is plucked from obscurity and finds fame on the stage, the other residents are delighted but their excitement turns to irritation when he returns to them with a swelled head. Fox soon learns that he cannot take the boarding house family’s friendship for granted.
Silent films were jam-packed with fantastic character actors of every age and so finding talented performers to play parents, uncles, aunts, siblings, etc. was never a problem. Of course, whether or not these families were happy was a matter of perspective and genre.
The Patsy (1928) is a delightful Marion Davies dramedy about sibling rivalry and parental alienation. Where’s the comedy in that? Well, we know Davies is funny but her mother is played by Marie Dressler. Dressler prefers her other daughter, you see, and poor Davies is always left with the scraps. The “patsy” of the title. (Also, the character is named Patsy, as if all of this was not obvious enough.) The father of the family (Dell Henderson) needs to pluck up the nerve to stand up for poor Davies before permanent damage is done. Again, all of this sounds terribly dramatic on the page but the film itself keeps a light touch. The highlight is Davies’ tour de force impression scene in which she wickedly mimics other Hollywood film stars.
Charlie Chaplin has made many classics but The Kid (1921) has a special place in many hearts. Chaplin plays a tramp, of course, and he finds an abandoned baby. The baby grows into Jackie Coogan, just as adorable as can be, but do-gooders threaten to take the boy away from his adopted father. Chaplin and Coogan act the heck out of the story and the comedians patented blend of laughter and tears has rarely been more touching.
The Captive (1915) is an oddball of a picture, a POW rom-com if you can believe it. Written by Cecil B. DeMille (who also directed) and Jeanie Macpherson, it’s about a young woman in Montenegro (Blanche Sweet) who is given a Turkish POW (House Peters) to work her farm. The film centers on the romance between these erstwhile enemies but one of the sweeter elements in the relationship between Sweet and her character’s kid brother (Gerald Ward). Sweet and Ward are subtle and do not rely on cutesy behavior. Their relationship is warm and affectionate with just a little bit of mischief.
We’re back on a darker topic with Asphalt (1929). Directed by Joe May, it’s about a German policeman (Gustav Fröhlich) who falls in love with a thief (Betty Amann). The main subplot of the picture concerns the policeman’s relationship with his authoritarian father (also a policeman) and his more sensitive and affectionate mother. Everything falls apart in spectacular fashion, of course. After all, this is Weimar cinema.
Speaking of falling apart, it’s time to move onto our last title, The House of Mystery (1923). While labeled as a serial, this Russian émigré production has little in common with the American cliffhanger serials of the time. Ivan Mosjoukine plays a man who is framed for murder by a jealous rival. He breaks jail, determined to prove his innocence and reunite with his beloved wife and daughter. While there is adventure and some impressive action sequences, the picture never forgets the family dynamic at the center of the story and returns to it again and again. There are issues of trust and a few dark turns. Will family love conquer all? Some really first class entertainment to be had here.
What are some of your favorite silent films about friends and family? Be sure to share!
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