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.
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.