While awareness of silent cinema is on the rise thanks to the internet, misinformation is spread as well. There are still people who think silent films were all weird melodramas and Keystone Cops with not much in between.
We’ve talked before about silent movies that are good for newcomers but today I want to hear about the silent movie that you use to give people an absolute shock. “They made movies like THAT back then?”
The header image is from The Godless Girl, which (as the title suggests) is about a rather assertive atheist. Then there’s always The Mystery of the Leaping Fish.
Or what about the bold social films of Lois Weber, who tackled topics ranging from birth control to underpaid educators? Or the race films of Oscar Micheaux? And then we have torn-from-the-headlines films like the comedy Nick Winter and the Theft of the Mona Lisa.
There are no wrong answers, of course, I just want to hear about silent movies that veer off in unexpected directions.
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Beyond the Door
Always a good choice
I’m always amazed at the fact that Benjamin Christensen somehow got away with making Haxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages back then! The film is what happens if you spliced in a documentary about witchcraft, an exploitation piece and a contemporary melodrama into The Passion of Joan of Arc. Even that description fails to describe how weird and unsettling the whole experience is! It was also way ahead of its time as it was unsurprisingly banned in some countries for its usage of nudity, torture, and anti-Catholic beliefs. I imagine if someone tried to play it on primetime television, people would still be up in arms about such “wickedness” going on and corporate sponsors would be repulsed by the film’s non-advertiser friendliness. If you haven’t seen Haxan, watch it and be amazed at its existence. Make sure to watch the silent version, not the Burroughs-narrated version though.
Without a doubt, Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Kurutta ippêji (A Page of Madness, 1926). I couldn’t believe what I was seeing when I first watched this film, which was produced the same year my mother was born.
Here’s my IMDb review from 2012:
The best silent movie you’ve never seen…
…until, of course, you’ve seen it, at which point it instantly vaults to the first rank of silents along with Greed, The Crowd, Man With a Movie Camera, Nosferatu, and so forth. I don’t want to give away too much–a great deal of pleasure will be derived from a ‘cold’ viewing of A Page of Madness–but let’s just say it’s one of the most radical films of the 1920s. So far ahead of its time that it remains revelatory and utterly contemporary eighty years on, it anticipates much of twentieth century avant garde and experimental cinema whilst also managing to tell a story that is completely captivating. Director Teinosuke Kinugasa is best known for his 1953 drama Gate of Hell, but his lengthy hundred-film plus resume extends back to the early ’30s and surely harbors some other gems. Presumably and sadly, most of them are probably lost–if I’m wrong, someone please point me towards more!
Favorite silent shockers? Well, several do come to mind immediately. In random order: The Penalty, Behind the Door, Within Our Gates, The Phantom Carriage, and A Page of Madness.
‘A Corner in Wheat’ … horrible way to die.
For me it would be The Mystery of Leaping Fish. It seems that people (who are often ignorant of the history of pharmaceuticals in this country) are often shocked by it. “They had drug references in movies back then?!”
Well, less shocked than amazed. “Different from the others“ with Conrad Veidt. Unfortunately we‘ll never get to see the whole film.
It may not be shocking, but “The life and death of 9413 a Hollywood extra” definitely made me say. “They made movies like THAT back then?”
It wasn’t shocking for me, but my mother was certainly shocked when I showed her Modern Times and we got to the nose powder scene. She couldn’t believe there was such a blatant drug reference and that it was played for laughs.
Suffice it to say, I have yet to show her Easy Street 🤣
Behind the Door or The Unknown.
I’m always shocked with how flippantly films from back then deal with suicide. It’s just a comedy device like in Buster Keaton’s Hard Luck where the whole movie is just him trying to kill himself. I was watching a Felix the Cat short a few days ago in which he tries to hang himself and they actually show him putting a rope around his neck and throwing it over a tree (which ended up being a bear…long story). Yikes!
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