The Worst of 2016: Terrible movies, bizarre comments and general things I will be glad to leave behind

Well, we’ve taken a look at my very favorite things of 2016, now it’s time to look at the things that annoyed the almighty heck out of me. The worst movies, performances, etc.

Obviously, this list is limited to films that I reviewed in 2016. Enjoy! Or should I say… enjoy?

Worst Picture

Kill it with fire.

Little Orphant Annie (1918): Hoo boy, this was a twee mess. I know there’s a restoration in the works but, frankly, the problems with this film are baked into the source material, which is also a twee mess. (It’s a poem by James Whitcomb Riley, glurge artiste extraordinaire, whose picture is to be found in the dictionary entry for twee.) Colleen Moore is a doll, of course, but all the cutesiness and baby talk in the intertitles makes one feel not unlike Constant Reader Dorothy Parker: “And it is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up.” Tonstant Weviewer fwowed up too.

The Toll of the Sea (1922): This Technicolor production stars Anna May Wong. Color and Miss Wong? That’s the good news. The bad news is that the narrative conspires against its heroine and tries to force us to sympathize with the caddish American who seduces, impregnates and abandons her. The technical achievements of the picture are impressive but not enough to make up for its ingrained racism and sexism. (Before someone starts squeaking about context, remember that Asian-Americans and other minority groups did go to movies, did object to racism and did make those objections public. The silent era was not a magic la-la land where no one was ever offended by anything. That’s a myth. Sorry.)

The Cossacks (1928): This was a double whammy for me. The Cossacks may be perfectly fine if you are not a fan of Tolstoy or of French silent cinema. I plead guilty to both and so found this picture agonizing. This is Tolstoy for philistines and the best scenes in the picture are lifted wholesale from the French/Russian mega-epic Michael Strogoff. Further, the central love story is abusive and John Gilbert’s character is a psychopath and he isn’t even a fun one. Renee Adoree is Gilbert’s leading lady once again and she is kicked, punched and shoved by her lover throughout the picture. Oh dear. I have heard this picture being defended with “But John Gilbert is in it!” That is a fact. It is also a fact that this film is a steaming pile of garbage. (Seriously, some Gilbert fans cannot accept that he ever made a bad film. It’s weird. The funny thing is that HE did not like The Cossacks.)

Alas, this outfit is one of the few highlights of the picture.

The Lion of the Moguls (1924): I had high hopes for this one. Amazing design, story by its star, Ivan Mosjoukine. Y’all know how I feel about him! But this meandering, self-indulgent film is absolutely painful to watch. I really, really wanted to like it and gave it every chance but my mercy was not rewarded. Let that be a lesson to me.

The Prairie Pirate (1925): Some movies are so bad they’re good. Others are so bad they’re funny. This is a funny one. Harry Carey’s sister is murdered and his only clue is a twisted cigar butt. So what does he do? He becomes a bandit who raids saloons and steals their ashtrays! I am not making this up. That is the plot.

Worst Actor

Allen Holubar’s Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea has to be seen to be believed. (Holubar proved to be an even worse director than he was an actor, as The Heart of Humanity proved.) His embarrassing makeup is bad enough (seriously, he looks like Santa) but he compounds the problem with hammy gesticulations. Truly bizarre.

Dishonorable mention goes to Babe Ruth, who proved in Headin’ Home that as an actor, he is an excellent ball player. John Gilbert’s grinning misogynist in The Cossacks also deserves some derision. For worst supporting actor, I must mention Sidney Olcott for his ridiculous mugging in The Colleen Bawn. Since he was also the director, there was no one to rein him in.

Worst Actress

As I mentioned in my Best of 2016 list, the ladies really pulled out all the stops and so it’s hard to choose a really terrible performance but here goes.

Jane Gail as The Child of Nature in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is absolutely horrendous. She mugs and twitches and randomly launches into weird, awkward dancing. I think she’s supposed to be one with nature or some nonsense like that. She actually looks like she’s been indulging in recreational pharmaceuticals.

(Why isn’t 20,000 Leagues in my worst list if it’s sweeping the worst performance category? The gorgeous underwater photography more than makes up for it!)

Dishonorable mention to Pauline Garon for her simpering turn in Christine of the Big Tops and to Jewel Carmen for just being meh in Flirting with Fate.

Worst Ensemble

The Cossacks features a normally talented cast that is allowed to go completely off the rails. In addition to John Gilbert’s Daffy Duck-esque performance, we get an oddly smirking turn from Nils Asther and a bellowing Ernest Torrence. I wanted to smack them all or at least lock them up until they came down from their sugar highs.

Worst Ripoff

The Cossacks seems to be on a roll. Its much-praised finale is a virtual shot-for-shot ripoff of Michael Strogoff. To add insult to injury, few have heard of the original and so they heap honor on The Cossacks for its bold vision. As you can well imagine, this has me spitting nails.

I go into further detail in my review but here is some of the evidence:

Worst Silent Film Scholarship

NOT a happy partnership.

Mabel Normand directed herself in Mabel at the Wheel and that’s pretty wonderful but, alas, the story of the film has been hijacked by Charlie Chaplin. He claimed Normand was an incompetent director and his rantings have been repeated and repeated by film historians for decades. It seems that no one has ever bothered to check up on the story and see if it holds water. Well, I did and I found Chaplin’s account woefully lacking.

(You can read my whole breakdown of the story here.)

The Oddest Comment Experience

While 99% of all comments are perfectly lovely and/or interesting, that 1% sure outdid itself this year. The comment section for Camille, for example, is pretty overwrought and I highly recommend reading it with a bowl of popcorn nearby.

But the weirdest? That title has to go to a comment that was never published. I mentioned in a review that I do not care for the work of a particular author. This being the internet, a fan of the same writer decided to leave a 3,700 word comment on the subject explaining why I am wrong and the author is a genius. (The review in question was 2,000 words, by the way.) It was divided into 12 parts and neatly labeled (part one, end of part one).

I am a writer and reader of long letters and emails and I enjoy them very much but I think this bonkers comment was just a bit much. Obviously, I did not publish it because it was twice as long as the original review and, frankly, this is a case where it is best to back away slowly and avoid any sudden movements.

Dishonorable Mention: Griffith’s Cheerleaders

I am tickled pink that D.W. Griffith did not direct any pictures released in 1917. The past two years have been… interesting with his more fanatic devotees attempting to gaslight the world. “He wasn’t really racist, he just loved the KKK! He invented everything but nothing bad was his fault! He giggled about starting race riots but only to prove the power of movies!”

Oh yeah, it went over well. (Obviously, I am not talking about people who find Griffith to be a flawed filmmaker with a body of work worthy of study. This is a perfectly reasonable position.)

My reaction when someone tried to excuse the racism of Birth of a Nation with “But there were confederate veterans in the audience!” Honey, there were former slaves in the audience too.

So, I will be enjoying my break and keeping my powder dry for 1919/2019 and Broken Blossoms.

Worst Photoshopping

What’s worse than passing slapstick comedy stills off as dramas to prove that silent movies were all laughable melodramas? Photoshopping a still from a modern film to make it look like a silent movie, of course! Check out this little gem:

The worst? Some people online have labeled it as being from the original Perils of Pauline serial. Sigh.

On the Modern Science Fiction Front

What a year! Rogue One was fun (a solid B, fun adventure, good prequeling, fun uses for A New Hope trimmings, seeing Darth Vader’s castle… but also creepy CGI actors who look like the Edgar suit in Men in Black and a talented but overstuffed cast) but then we got The Sheik in Spaceer, I mean, Passengers. (Seriously, did NO ONE consult a woman about the script? Probably not. Sigh.)

Actual scene from “Passengers”

I skipped Star Trek: Beyond in theaters because Into Darkness was so awful and I decided I wanted JJ Trek to die. Some people say the new one is good but I suspect it may be a First Contact thing. That is, it’s okay but hailed as a masterpiece in comparison to the other turkeys in the series. (TNG films… Yeah…) Beyond has the dubious honor of being the first Trek movie since Nemesis to fail to make back its budget domestically. I hear it also borrows the ending of Mars Attacks and/or Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. Oh dear.

My enthusiasm for Star Trek: Discovery went from this…
To this.

Star Trek: Discovery, the Trek show, is looking more and more like a Pakled fire drill. The small nods to diversity in the still-being-announced cast (which, by the way, are not nearly as bold as Rogue One) are not matched behind the scenes with the vast majority of this “diverse” show’s creative team being white and male. And that doesn’t even touch the obvious chaos behind the scenes with the showrunner quitting and the whole shebang being rescheduled. Also, it’s a prequel, which is something most fans assuredly DID NOT WANT. (What better way to celebrate the 30th anniversary of TNG in 2017 than to completely erase it?) I have a well-honed nose for bad Star Trek (I have had plenty of experience since 1995) and this stinks to high heaven.


  1. Mitch Farish

    As for The Cossacks. Yes, it’s not Tolstoy; it is over the top, and perhaps a goodly portion is a rip-off, but it’s essentially a light weight action picture. If that’s all you’re expecting, you’ll have a good time. If you want a dose of dramatic Russian angst, you’ll hate it. It’s just Hokum, pure and simple (emphasis on the simple).

    As for Griffith, not all of his defenders deny his racism. It is real, but so what. The racism in The Birth of a Nation is what makes it so valuable. as a look at America in 1915, not 1865. In that year America was on the cusp of a Klan rebirth and a backlash against immigration. Some things never change. Yes, Griffith had great faults, some of his direction and his stars’ acting is very cloying, and his editing problematic, but he had few road maps and inspired other directors who went on to great things. If you want to heap scorn on directors, you must admit that DeMille, Von Stroheim, and John Ford had as many vices.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      The Cossacks: So, other than the bad plot, adaptation, overdone everything and lack of originality, it ain’t that bad. 😉

      Griffith: I think I made it clear in the post that viewing Griffith as flawed but worthy of study is a perfectly reasonable position. At the same time, insisting that someone else *must* love Griffith is just a little silly. And if you think that von Stroheim, Ford and DeMille have been getting a free pass on this site, you are clearly not reading very closely. (Not to mention von Sternberg, Tourneur, Ingram and others.) What I object to is the notion that Griffith was a candidate for sainthood and that any silent film viewer is somehow obligated to adore his films. I have NEVER had this sort of behavior from fans of any other silent director. In fact, the header of the section is called “Griffith’s Cheerleaders” I am not sure how much plainer I can make it that this is about the actions of his more rabid fans. (I never once said that all Griffith fans are racist because it is clearly not true.) If you want to heap scorn on an article, you must admit that this is an odd position to take.

      PS, I don’t know if I expected “Russian angst” so much as a “leading man who does not kick and punch the heroine”

  2. Ross

    Modern SciFi this year? “Arrival,”
    Intelligent, a science mostly ignored in feature film: linguistics, high visual impact, leaves you thinking later.

    Best of Christmases to you, your posts and blogs have been gifts, thank you.

    Gotta go, grand kid time approaches!!

  3. Kate

    I was supposed to watch The Cossacks with an acquaintance who bailed on me at the last minute with a lame attempt at a bad cough. I ended up watching the movie alone while drinking my share of the wine, his share, and then a pitcher of sangria I had made to have at brunch the next day. I
    thought the first part of The Cossacks was pretty bad, the middle hilarious, and I don’t remember the last third at all.

  4. ostjudebarbie

    i definitely think griffith is important but as one whose silent film interests are passionate but narrow (aka, i am not a chaplin fan…nothing personal i just don’t like that sort of comedy), i think your view on him is just as important. remember that we are entering an era of silent film scholarship where for the first time there will never be any more new “primary” source material (except maybe like baby peggy and three other people if they give an interview or something) so now we will analyze these things differently.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Yes, I think there is a need to broaden the scope of what is really essential viewing and to comb through and try to correct misconceptions that have sprouted up. You’re right: the last generation of people who saw silent films as adults will be gone in a few years (I believe all the adults who actually made them are already gone) and it will be less about personalities and more about films.

      P.S. I think we have a preview of this with the coverage of early projected cinema, about 1895 to 1905. It’s generally a more scholarly topic.

      1. ostjudebarbie

        a negative observation i do have about griffith (based on partial viewings of birth and intolerance plus some knowledge of his other famous work) is how effing depressing it is…like i get what he was trying to do but oh my god…granted i feel this way a lot with silent melodrama (the crowd, etc)…there’s something about the over-acting plus the music score that just kills me…although for some reason i didn’t feel quite the same way about greed…greed is borderline horror; maybe that’s why :p

      2. Fritzi Kramer

        There is definitely a flavoring of wallowing, particularly in BOAN. He ate up and regurgitated the narrative of the Confederacy as a noble lost cause and you can definitely picture him on his fainting couch with a mint julep.

        As for sad endings in general, I personally judge them on how suitable they are for the material. There is this erroneous belief that happy endings cannot be artistic and that tragedy is just a superior narrative direction. This leads to tragedy and depressing material being tacked on for its own sake, which can be just as artificial as a happy-happy-joy-joy ending. But, for example, I cannot imagine Cyrano de Bergerac with anything but its tragic ending.

  5. Caren's Classic Cinema

    Interesting read as per usual Frtizi. I saw THE COSSACKS too many years ago to remember it but I will definitely pull out my copy to watch with your thoughts in mind. I did re-watch BIRTH OF A NATION a couple of month’s ago and because I am not an historian, found it an appalling and enjoyable watch all at the same time. (The toilet plunger KKK head designs had me with tears rolling down my cheeks.)

    As for new films, I don’t see many any longer but I did see THE PASSENGERS just this past Friday eve as I’m more partial to Sci-Fi then other modern genres. I now rate a new film (usually) by how un-bored I am. Four top actors (although I’ve apparently only seen Chris Pratt in the hilarious STRANGERS WITH CANDY and the rather disappointing ZERO DARK THIRTY) with probably the most cash going to the fabulous special effects. However, my main concerns were: how did Jennifer Lawrence’s character keep her hair that unusual shade of blonde without a salon to assist, if the ship would have run out of food for the other 4,997 passengers, not to mention crew, when they awoke 90 years later and why the ship’s designers felt it was necessary to keep only one useless but charming android up and running when clearly there was no one there to serve drinks to for its first 120 years. At least the female character became a heroine at one point and since it was a fairy tale, I wasn’t bothered by the happily-ever-after ending. In fact, I expected nothing less.

    Happy holidays and much health and happiness in 2017.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Thanks! I hope you also enjoyed the bird smooching in BIRTH. What was it with silent film directors and their compulsion to have their heroines passionately lock lips with birds. Seems terribly unsanitary on so many levels and not at all pleasant for the bird. 😉

      I think the issue with PASSENGERS, at least from what I can tell, is that they didn’t seem to have a handle on either the science or the fiction and relied on the charm of the cast to put it over. Alas, the film’s writer doesn’t really seem to understand what upset people in the first place, which means if he works very hard, he may have an excellent future as a Star Trek showrunner.

      Thanks for the feedback!

  6. Gloria Naldi

    Aw, I hoped you would do Broken Blossoms sooner… just so I could have someone else confirm the awfulness of it. I wanted to like it because it had Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess in it, but I just couldn’t do it.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Yeah, that film is seriously creepy! Everyone goes on about the “delicate beauty” but when you base a film on something called The Chink and the Child, it cannot be expected to go well. Props to Gish & Barthelmess keeping their dignity but Griffith’s bizarre fetish for women being attacked in enclosed spaces is just too much in that film.

      1. Gloria Naldi

        Creepy is just about the only way to describe it. I’m sorry, but delicate beauty? Absolutely not. I was so eeked out by the scene where Barthelmess creeps up around Lillian and watches her sleep, I kind of gave up hope for the film right there. No disrespect to anyone who enjoyed the film, but personally I didn’t care for it.

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