We’ve covered the best of the best, here’s the worst of the worst. These are the silent films that are just plain painful to watch, the films that we all pray newcomers won’t see.
Before we get started, I want to make clear that these films are the outliers. The overall movie quality during the silent era was pretty high, especially at the larger studios.
I try not to dwell on the negative when it comes to the silent era. After all, silent films are regularly snickered at and they need all the allies they can get. That being said, it would be naive to behave as though every silent film is a masterpiece. Even the best and brightest had a few misfires. By acknowledging these terrible movies, we can draw a strong contrast between them and the wonderful films that were much, much more common during the silent era. Also, I consider this to be a public service as it will warn people off these films. If morbid curiosity takes over, at least viewers will know what they are in for.
My basic criteria is that these are the movies that I wish had been lost. These are the movies that make me do this:
(As with my “best” list, I am limiting my selections to films I have already reviewed on the site.)
Each one of these films will likely require judicious use of brain bleach. I recommend sloth pictures and videos. However, kittens, piglets, alpacas and sleeping puppies also do the trick.
As a preemptive strike, here is a video of a talking porcupine.
My “badness” philosophy:
In general, I am far more lenient on lower budget or smaller independent films than I am with large studio offerings. The fact is, some smaller movies are bad because money was tight. No cash for retakes, competent supporting players, costumes, etc. Yes, the movie is still terrible but it’s far less annoying than big budget films that still manage to blow it.
Mike Nelson of MST3K fame once wrote that he considered The Phantom Menace to be the worst film ever made. Perhaps Space Mutiny or Cave Dwellers were technically less competent (though far more entertaining) but Menace had both money and a producer/director with full creative control. The squandering of resources was its biggest crime. I agree with this philosophy.
I also take a dim view of rape-as-plot-device, racism, dull pacing and illogical plots. And if someone starts squeaking about “context” I shall be forced to throw popcorn at their head. (For those of you who are confused, I have been dealing with this issue since the site launched. Let me give you some background. “Context” is sometimes used to give movies a free pass for anything– even when contemporary critics, viewers, writers and activists did in fact object to the content. “Context” employed in this way generally means looking at things through the viewpoint of a upper-middle class WASP man with tacky taste circa 1900-1930, ignoring the voices of anyone outside that description. Yes, our views change over time but “context” is often used to stifle legitimate concerns about content. So, no “context” in the comments, please.)
Naturally, not everyone will concur with what is on this list. If one of these is a favorite of yours, I do apologize but I probably won’t be going to any movie nights at your house.
On to the list! (Remember, I prefer to be addressed as “madam” in all missives of rebuke.)
5. The Little American (1917)
Cecil B. DeMille and Mary Pickford were never going to work as a creative team. They both were control freaks with very different ideas of what the public wanted. Both were brilliant but their styles were simply too different. They almost make it work but not quite. (For the record, I love them both, just not together.)
If these creative issues were the biggest problems with The Little American, it would not be on this list. No, the film illustrates graphically everything that was horrible about WWI propaganda pictures. Leering portrayals of violence against women! Cartoonish villainy! Unintentionally hilarious jingoism! Did we mention that women get hurt? Isn’t it awful? Let’s show some more! Again! Get the point? Let’s show even more!
In all fairness, DeMille did lose friends on the Lusitania but his bloodthirsty response was outside the realm of good taste, even by his peculiar standards. To make matters worse, the propaganda angle fizzles and we are obliged to watch Mary Pickford end up with a contrite German soldier who did not actually assault anyone but not for lack of trying.
4. The Love Flower (1920)
Carol Dempster sometimes gets blamed for director D.W. Griffith’s artistic decline, which is rather unfair as he enjoyed enormous creative control and she was just a starstruck teenager.
Athletic and full of pep, Carol Dempster was made for action movies. If The Love Flower had contained more swimming scenes and more leaping around rocks, it would have been a success. Instead, Griffith brings everything to a screeching halt with weird and inappropriate close-ups, a stupid plot and a some racial stereotypes because, you know, Griffith. Dempster plays a girl on the run with her murdering papa. When the cops close in, she decides the best method is to continue the family tradition and murder the investigating officer.
At this point, Dempster goes full Wile E. Coyote. I’m not kidding. She drops boulders and sets booby traps. I wouldn’t be surprised to see an Acme catalog in her cottage. She also falls into the Griffith heroine trap of spinning and twirling and shrieking with delight every time she sees a bunny. As women do. This is all treated as highly dramatic and serious.
If this sounds amusing, let me assure you that it is so slow and dull that there is little hope for unintentional amusement.
3. The Wizard of Oz (1925)
This movie could be used to teach classes on how not to make a movie adaptation. The painfully unfunny Larry Semon stars as the Scarecrow in this bizarre film. Oz is turned into a Ruritanian kingdom with a succession struggle. Dorothy is now a red hot babe who is about to turn eighteen. Semon and Oliver Hardy (as the Tin Man) are waiting in the wings for her to be legal. Semon attempts to bribe her with lollipops. Oh good lord.
There is also a new character, an African-American. Named Snowball. Who steals watermelons. And the actor playing him is billed as G. Howe Black. (I can’t even.)
And good news for all of you who saw the 1939 version and thought, “It’s okay but it needs more projectile vomit, preferably from a duck.” Yes! The 1925 version has a duck that does just that.
Plus, we get to enjoy the dull pacing and decidedly unmagical land of Oz! Yay!
2. Surrender (1927)
Curse you, Universal! (Shakes fist.) This movie makes me soooooooo angry! Pant, pant, pant. Ok. Calming down.
Carl Laemmle had two obsessions in the mid-twenties. The first was importing Ivan Mosjoukine, the insanely talented Russian actor who was knocking ’em dead in France with his versatile performances. The second was adapting the play Lea Lyon to the screen. It’s a cheery little tale of war, rape and honor killings. (Don’t you be getting any ideas, cable TV screenwriters.)
Laemmle’s two fixations converged in 1927 and the result was Surrender. Mosjoukine is a Cossack who spends the film trying to blackmail the rabbi’s daughter into sleeping with him. By threatening genocide. Like, literal genocide. Yes, he is our hero. But it’s okay because it totally works and she falls for him.
What’s even worse than the script is what Hollywood did to Ivan Mosjoukine. I never would have thought it possible but he gives a terrible performance. Just awful. Whether it was being paired with Mary Philbin, the talent black hole, or whether it was the terrible story, I don’t know. (Let me make this clear: I have never seen him give a bad or even mediocre performance in any of his work in Russia, France or Germany.) To add insult to injury, this was the only Mosjoukine movie available on home media in the U.S. for a while. I mean, one of the most talented, charismatic, witty, charming and intelligent actors ever to grace the screen (yeah, I like him) and THIS is what Universal gives him? A pox on their house!
I felt like I needed a shower after this one.
Surrender would have taken the prize for “worst ever” if it weren’t for…
1. Brute Island (1914)
Is your brain bleach at the ready? Okay, here we go. Brute Island is a repulsive movie on every level. It is racist, sexist, classist and just plain sleazy. It’s a chore to get through and leaves you feeling ill.
Harry Carey (writer, director, star) plays a college sap who gets dumped by his girl. So he flees civilization and lands on a small island, where he sets up an empire for himself. He tortures and murders the native people, trades alcohol for women and forces the rest of the populace to dive for pearls. This is all treated as a perfectly reasonable response to being disappointed in love. Couldn’t he just, like, form a band or something?
Worst of all, the film ends with our hero just deciding that being a despot is boring and off he goes back to the “civilized” world, suffering zero consequences for his actions. Charming. I repeat, his behavior is consistently presented as being the fault of the woman who dumped him. Again, charming.
When I read the title of this post, I just knew that Mary Philbin would make an appearance. “The talent black hole” indeed.
I feel bad because she was by all accounts a sweet person. But good heavens! She was so bad she would drag everyone else down with her.
I saw The Wizard of Oz a few years ago, and couldn’t agree with you more about its low rating. I believe this was a pet project of Larry Semon, which makes its failure rather sad in many ways – but I can’t help thinking that he should have done a much better job of it than he did. It looks cheap, the casting is positively bizarre and …. oh, is there a plot in there somewhere? I couldn’t make out what on earth was going on and, when you consider this is one of the great works of children’s literature, he effectively had a fantastic story already there for him but he totally messed up. There was one moment in the film that I did actually like, though. Do you remember the scene where a glamorous woman appears out of a basket? It turned out she was a he! Frederick Ko Vert was a female impersonator and, just from that brief moment, a very good one. It’s the only bit of the whole shambles that left me wanting more!
Yeah, poor Larry wanted the rights so badly and then he… turned it into a Larry Semon movie. I can’t believe how expensive it was (it had a massive budget for an indie film at the time) because, like you, I think it looks incredibly cheap. L. Frank Baum was a dedicated feminist (thus the powerful women of the original) and it just makes me sick that Dorothy is reduced to a Lolita character. I know Larry Semon has some modern fans but I am definitely not in the club. At least the dancing scene made some sort of sense in the story. (Here is a dancer! Behold!) Unlike, say, the “let’s attempt to club farm animals to death” scene. (Though I did wonder how the ten-foot headdress fit in the basket. I guess Oz really is a wizard!)
Semon’s Oz monstrosity ties with The Phantom Menace for me as the worst film ever. Considering both are boring, flat, spoil a beloved franchise, and feature minstrel show antics, I think they are equals.
At first I though Birth of a Nation would top the list before I recalled that you’re only covering films you have reviewed. “Importance” aside, that movie is disgusting, probably worse or just as bad as Brute Island, though I’ll make sure to avoid that one after your review.
Will you do a bottom talkies list?
Yes, “Birth” is more evil than bad in my book. Thomas Dixon stated quite plainly that he hoped the film would turn Northern audiences against African-Americans en masse– and accounts of the period show that he succeeded. I remember seeing an interview with an African-American man who saw the film as a boy. The pain in his eyes was heartrending and his anger was still fresh decades later. THAT’S context.
I probably won’t do a bottom talkie list post but I will give you my list here:
5. The Vikings (1958)
4. Krull (1983)
3. Benji (1974)
2. Batman Forever (1995)
1. The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)
Where is this interview? It needs to be shown to those who claim nobody was offended or hurt (or killed) by Birth back in the day.
You think Batman Forever is worse than Batman and Robin? I mean, I think both are awful, but more revulsion seems to go toward the latter.
I believe I saw it in “D.W. Griffith: Father of Film” from Kevin Brownlow and David Gill. “Hollywood” was great but it didn’t have many non-white voices. This documentary is a lot more balanced in that regard. It’s been a while since I saw it. I can’t stand discussing Griffith for too long. It makes me upset and makes me hate Lillian Gish. (Love her acting but what a buffoon in matters of race.)
I saw Batman Forever in the theater because I looooooooved Batman Returns and wanted more. I was too young to drive. So were my friends. There was no escape. I managed to avoid Batman & Robin and I intend to continue doing so. It may very well be worse but I don’t want to find out. 😉
I no longer think I’m churlish to say: Larry Semon was a waste of space.
You won’t get any argument from me. 😉
In his priceless book “The Silent Clowns,” Walter Kerr makes the very same point that you do, that Larry Semon paid through the nose for the rights to “The Wizard of Oz” and then turned it into a Larry Semon movie. I tried to watch it years ago and couldn’t even get to the Oliver Hardy part. Grand critique of your least-favorites!
Glad you enjoyed! Yes, Semon really missed the boat on this one. (Though Kerr was wrong on one count: the film did not bankrupt its studio and actually did fair business. It’s budget was just too high to make any kind of large profit.)
Love your “context” paragraph. I may cite you in my ongoing discussion of “The Birth of a Nation” sometime. The phrase that makes my hair stand on end is “but it was different then! That was OK with everyone.” No, not everyone, just the ones who had the power to silence everyone else.
Thank you so much! Yes, there is an enormous difference between “didn’t offend some people” and “didn’t offend anyone.” It’s like when people use “context” to defend Gone with the Wind. You know what else came out in 1939? Billie Holiday’s recording of Strange Fruit. That’s context, kids.
I love thumbing through the early trade journals because they always have sections on which films were being targeted for censorship due to racism. For example, an Irish-American league in Oregon successfully petitioned for a Paramount film to be cut because it portrayed the Irish in general as dishonest drunkards. Japanese-American groups had similar success. African-American and Jewish groups met with mixed success on this front but the main point is that they did try to have their voices heard.
(And I am really annoyed that such a useful word is being so sorely abused. Actual context IS important, not this weird bizarro world definition that seems to be so popular.)
Oh Please, not The Vikings ! I love that movie : the ships ( both the sleek viking ones and that clumsy tub Janet Leigh is captured from), Odin’s test for unfaithful wives, Kirk Douglas running on the oars – and falling in the drink, Tony Curtis’s costume ( leather hotpants and Ugg boots ) – what’s not to love ?
Pretty much everything, to be honest. Hated the coincidences and the rapey attitude.
I personally find “The Love Flower” a fascinating film. It’s a strange mishmash of mawkish Victorian sentimentality and would-be modernity, with some egregiously dubious morals, comical overacting, pointless indulgence and beautiful tropical scenery with ace cinematography. Griffith tries hard to iconize Carol Dempster as the ultimate woman child of his dreams, but he does neither her nor himself any favors. It’s not a good or classic film, mind you, but a fascinating one. I haven’t seen any of the others. IMO, as bad as “The Love Flower” is, “Dream Street” by Griffith is about 10 times worse, at least the 40 or so minutes I saw of it before throwing in the towel.
The Love Flower perfectly encapsulates my “wasted opportunity” theory. It’s the closest Griffith ever got to figuring out a way to market Carol Dempster and he still manages to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.
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