A few years back, I made a list of five silent films that I considered the worst things I had reviewed on this site. Almost four years have passed since that time and my list has changed quite a bit. Now there are eight.
I want to emphasize one thing before we begin: most silent films range from okay to amazing and this list represents outliers. 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.
(As with my “best” lists, I am limiting my selections to films I have already reviewed on the site.)
What is a “bad” movie anyway?
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.
I also take a dim view of rape-as-plot-device, racism, dull pacing and illogical plots. And, please, think long and hard before using the word “context” in any response. For those of you who are confused, let me give you some background. “Context” is sometimes used to give movies a free pass for anything– even when critics, viewers, writers and activists did in fact object to the content when it was first released. Yes, our views change over time but “context” is often used as a bad faith silencing tactic.
Naturally, everyone’s taste is different and not everyone will concur with what is on this list. If one of these is a favorite of yours, you do you but I probably won’t be going to any movie nights at your house.
“I’m surprised that XYZ is/isn’t on the list.”
What a coincidence! So am I!
Don’t be that guy. (I really have had people tell me I was “wrong” about my most and least favorite films, which confuses me no end. I thought I would be the best judge of what I like but apparently not.)
8. The Cossacks (1928)
From its “cute” domestic abuse gags to its complete lack of respect for both Tolstoy and the culture of its title, The Cossacks is a loser in my book and also quite possibly a scam. (Leading man John Gilbert was convinced MGM was siphoning off money from the picture and it certainly looks cheaper than it was alleged to be.)
All this would land The Cossacks in the “meh” camp for me but it also commits the unforgivable sin of ripping off its climax shot-for-shot from Michael Strogoff. Which just happens to be my favorite silent film. And has not yet been released on home video. So, in addition to being outraged at this theft, hearing people praise the brilliant finale of The Cossacks sets my teeth on edge just a tad. While it may not be as technically bad as some of the other titles I will name, it enrages me like no other.
Read my review here with full plagiarism breakdown.
7. The Wizard of Oz (1925)
Is it the worst silent film ever made? No. Is it the worst silent film on Bluray with an orchestra score? Oh yes. Larry Semon’s vision of Oz jettisons the original novel in favor of a Dorothy-as-Lolita storyline with the farmhands counting down the days to her eighteenth birthday. And bonus racism! (I have seen “look at context!” regarding this racist content and, well, you are aware that silent era African-American activists took down a whole studio for similar material, right?)
There are some Oz sequences but why stay in Oz when you can have farm scenes with middle age men fighting over a teenager and a projectile vomiting duck? Riddle me that, smartypants.
6. Less Than Dust (1916)
Around the mid-1910s, Mary Pickford’s studio had the brilliant idea of widening her appeal by having her play characters from as many nations as possible. Less Than Dust featured India and Pickford as an Indian character. It’s just as big a disaster as you might imagine.
The obvious issue aside, the film is so predictable, so dull, so small-scale that there is no way for it to succeed. The stakes are insultingly low, the production looks cheap, the jokes don’t land and Mary Pickford apparently took to the editing room herself in an attempt to save the thing. (I trust Pickford’s taste, so I cannot imagine how horrendously bad the original must have been.) I can imagine films like this influenced her decision to launch United Artists.
5. The Boob (1926)
There are few things more infuriating than an unfunny comedy that nevertheless seems to think it is delivering uproarious gags on the regular. The Boob was so bad that MGM fired director William Wellman. This has sometimes been cited as a bad management decision but I cannot agree. I have seen The Boob.
The central concept of the picture is the erroneous notion that George K. Arthur is funny. What follows is reel after reel of DOA gags and the only element that keeps the audience even slightly engaged is the chance to see a young Joan Crawford. (We see a lot more of Gertrude Olmstead.)
4. Peck’s Bad Boy (1922)
Fresh off his success in The Kid, Jackie Coogan starred in this adaptation of the popular Peck’s Bad Boy character. It’s about a budding sociopath and we are supposed to laugh at his “hilarious” pranks but they are so mean-spirited and harmful that it is impossible to be amused. We’re not talking about whoopee cushions and fake vomit. We’re talking framing his sister’s boyfriend for a federal crime.
Watching this was such an unpleasant slog and its “boys will be boys when they’re causing train wrecks” attitude is baffling even in the context of the time it was made. Absolutely dreadful.
3. The Great Divide (1916)
To be honest, these last three entries were separated by a hair but I decided on the order based on the magnitude of the squick. But we’re talking tiny increments here and any of the three could easily make you lose your lunch.
The Great Divide is one of those “you always kidnap the one you love” pictures but what sets it apart is the eccentric performance of House Peters as the “hero” of the film, its bizarre writing and a dose of rape. Ethel Clayton goes west and is immediately set upon by bandits, including Peters who is inexplicably acting like a kangaroo. He “buys” her from the rest of his gang and she completely accepts this as a legitimate transaction. Not even the scenery and the comedy relief of Mary Moore can save this study in nasty.
2. Surrender (1927)
You know what’s not romantic? Genocide. You know what the hero threatens the heroine’s village with in Surrender? Genocide. This is treated more as an eccentric action by a man in love rather than, you know, evil.
Mary Philbin couldn’t act her way out of a paper sack with a map and a compass but Ivan Mosjoukine seemed to be similarly baffled by the squicky story of a Cossack prince who decides to bed the rabbi’s daughter by threatening to kill everyone in her village, kids included. I have no idea what Carl Laemmle was thinking. I don’t want to know what Carl Laemmle was thinking.
1. Brute Island (1914)
Okay, how much worse can this get? Brute Island worse. Harry Carey wrote, directed and starred in this monstrosity and I still haven’t quite forgiven him. It’s about a college guy who is dumped by the woman he loves and then turns to alcohol. Oh, and also torturing the inhabitants of an island.
Like, literal torture. He has the sads so he flogs a few indigenous people. And worse. Things get even more fun when the woman who broke Harry’s heart is shipwrecked on the island. Lovely. This movie will turn your stomach and I do not recommend seeing it even to find out how bad it is. You will be left feeling ill and in need of a drink yourself.
Happy not to have endured any of these, although I did look at a bit of WIZARD OF OZ and stopped. Larry Semon has anti-comedy powers. He can stop humor and laughter by his mere presence. Interesting — I was just reading about Clarence Brown’s assignment to try and save THE COSSACKS in his new biography.
Oz is a strange one because it does have a few defenders but, c’mon, if I want bizarro Oz I will go with the films L. Frank Baum made. The Cossacks was pretty much doomed from the start. Frances Marion warned them it wouldn’t work and she was absolutely right.
Wizard of Oz is the only one of these I have seen, and it is truly dreadful. I bought it with good money and threw it in the bin as son as I had watched it. What were they thinking of?
It’s an incredibly strange picture and Semon clearly needed to NOT be a producer.
According to legend, if you watch Larry Semon’s The Wizard of Oz while you’re listening to Dark Side of the Moon, you’ll end up hating the Pink Floyd album as well. I, for one, do not want to check the authenticity of that.
As someone who watches a lot of “bad” movies, and someone who seeks out films typically frowned upon, banned, or generally labeled exploitative, I agree with your definition. One thing that I try to consider is the movie’s “heart”, whether a director was trying to tell an interesting story despite the limitations of budget, film, effects, etc. For instance, I find something like Plan 9 from Outer Space inspiring because it was made at all, despite the problems it has.
I think I’m a little more forgiving in plot being illogical, but since a lot of exploitative film is more “artsy” or foreign and often poorly dubbed/subtitled, I try to give it the benefit of the doubt. But…I don’t think we can do that with any of these. Ooph.
Yes, I agree with you. Ed Wood’s films are entertaining because he was so clearly delighted with himself and his cast and crew and his enthusiasm is in every frame. Competent? No. Fun as anything? Oh yes.
The bottom three in particular are just a mystery to me. I cannot imagine what anyone involved was thinking.
I had to make sure that the Wizard of Oz was here. Good work!
I have no problem with anything on this list except #8, which really seems out of place. For me the main criterion for a bad film is dullness, & I have no trouble replacing “The Cossacks” with plenty of candidates: e.g., “The Saphead,” “Cabiria,” “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “Robin Hood,” just to mention tedious films often considered GOOD! There are detailed & mostly positive reviews on the IMDb (7.9 rating) or the Amazon listing for the WB Archive disc if anyone would like to sample a range of responses.
Full disclosure; I’m not a great fan of Tolstoy & haven’t read the book. Even more disturbing: I own the disc & have watched it more than once!
The “ain’t slapping Renee Adoree cute?” and the bald-face plagiarism were more than enough to earn it spot #8 for me.
You perform a public health service for silent movie fans with this column, Fritzi. I saw THE BOOB fairly recently on TCM. I couldn’t believe William Wellman directed it. I’m so fond of his recently released restored BEGGARS OF LIFE and YOU NEVER KNOW WOMEN and many of his sound films (WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD, especially). It’s hard to believe how inept THE BOOB seems. I’ll say this for George K. Arthur–he was better with Georgia Hale in Josef von Sternberg’s THE SALVATION HUNTERS. Reading one of your posts sends me to another of your posts and then to another. The result this time–I just ordered HIS PEOPLE from the NATIONAL CENTER FOR JEWISH FILM. Thanks.
Hurrah! His People is an utter masterpiece and highly recommended.
I am happy to say I have seen only one of these movies, The Wizard of Oz, and part of another, The Boob. I respect your judgement on all of these movies and I like your definition of a bad movie.
I saw The Cossaks when shown by TCM and enjoyed the film very much. In fact, I would like to see it again. Whether a film is bad or not is very much subjective. Even bad films can have a redeeming scene or something memorable for the viewer.
Which is exactly what I stated in my introduction to this list. That being said, do seek out Michael Strogoff.
This was my point in my earlier comment: that I, & apparently quite a few others, find “The Cossacks” ENJOYABLE–unlike, say, “The Wizard of Oz” or “The Saphead.” Surely this fact deserves some recognition. I don’t want to space off the plagiarism charge, & as I haven’t seen “Michael Strogoff” I can’t assess its severity.
But let’s remember that many films use ideas from earlier films: e.g., Hitchcock’s famous shower scene in “Psycho” may have been influenced by a curtain scene in the silent “Ten Commandments.” Shakespeare himself “plagiarized” not only plots but long verbal passages from earlier writers (e..g. from Plutarch in “Antony & Cleopatra”). But I repeat: I’m not qualified to pass judgment on this issue in respect of “The Cossacks” & am willing to accept that the case is particularly egregious.
This rather reminds me of when people want more money for an antique because it has sentimental value: to you, perhaps, but it honestly makes absolutely no difference to me. This list is my list and I am sharing it but whether or not somebody else enjoys these films means absolutely nothing to me in my selection process. Why would it?
There’s a difference between an homage or being influenced by something and lifting a scene shot-for-shot and not improving on it or commenting on it. This was pure plagiarism and, frankly, MGM deserved to have its pants sued off. I do not have to defend this fact, especially since I already posted a side-by-side comparison for the benefit of anyone who has not seen Strogoff. And since the scene in question is the one most praised in The Cossacks… Well, I rest my case. Nobody is going around praising John Gilbert’s “Nicholas Cage in Wicker Man” woman-hitting scenes, that’s for sure.
The references in some of these comments to ‘His People’ (which I’ve seen) and the National Center for Jewish Film reminded me that I’ve been meaning to ask you to do a review of Yiddish silent films. Through Movies Silently, I’ve been expanding my silent movie fandom beyond American and German films, but would like to explore further.
I’ve reviewed East and West with Molly Picon, which is an Austrian Yiddish production, and I hope to cover some Russian Jewish films soon! 😀
I haven’t seen “Peck’s Bad Boy”, but when I was in middle school I did read the book that was the source material for the film. If the film version is as nasty and mean spirits as that book was (the main character placing tar on his father’s upper lip to induce hair growth is an image that lingers to this day), I think I’ll stay away from that one.
Blech. I know exactly what you mean. Those stories were incredibly unpleasant but it’s somehow worse (for me anyway) to see them acted out. It’s like a primer in how toxic boyhoods breed toxic adults.
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