As the 2010s come to an end, we are seeing all kinds of lists being published. The best music, the best books and, of course, the best films of the decade. Well, two can play that game, so let’s have some fun and celebrate the wildly innovative cinema of the 1910s!
(And for all of the “technically it’s not a new decade until 2021” people… Nobody cares. Really, honestly. Let us have fun.)
Personally, I think we need some distance before we embark on any “Best of” rankings and a century seems about right. Obviously, there are many lost films and many others still in archives but we shall do the best that we can.
Here’s how this works: For every year of the 1910s, I will pick my favorite movie and tell you why it is my choice. I hope you will also chime in with your favorites because 1910s cinema tends to be overlooked compared to the Roaring Twenties.
It was a decade of change. Movies went feature-length, the American industry moved west, the War helped America corner a lot of the cinematic market, the revolution in Russia sent their filmmakers fleeing to France, Germany became a cinematic powerhouse, the Johnson brothers and Oscar Micheaux began making movies… It was an exciting decade full of potential.
So, here we go!
(Update: Had to revise because I am sick again and transposed some dates. Sorry to annoy you with more illness updates. Believe me, I am just as tired of this as you are.)
1910: A Trip to Mars
Anti-gravity powder and strange giants populate this strange and wondrous trip to the red planet. This Edison production features cutting edge special effects and a pretty original take on sci-fi.
1911: Little Nemo
Early animation is fascinating in general and few artists had the skill and talent of Winsor McCay. He’s more famous for his dinosaur (Gertie is her name-o) but this hand-colored fantasy is wonderful in its own right and shows the imaginative direction of film during this period.
1912: The Railway of Death
This was difficult because 1912 was a strong year but this film won me over with its frenetic pace and thoroughly French take on the American western. Jean Durand has basically created a live-action Coyote vs. Roadrunner with real ammunition.
Lois Weber’s home invasion picture is indeed suspenseful but it is also wildly innovative with everything from camera angles to editing. It’s hard to believe that this was made in 1913 and you will be forgiven for double and triple checking the date.
1914: The Wishing Ring
Luscious cinematography and charismatic leads make this sweet and whimsical romantic comedy a real must-see. This film is just so enjoyable and I relished every minute of it. It’s a cinematic pick-me-up.
Cecil B. DeMille and Geraldine Farrar proved to be a potent box office combination and Farrar’s success as the infamous cigarette maker shows that stage stars (opera in her case) could indeed make the jump to the movies if they used their heads and regulated their performances accordingly. Farrar is irresistible.
1916: Hell’s Hinges
William S. Hart’s apocalyptic western has to be seen to be believed. 1910s westerns in general had the kind of grit and darkness that wouldn’t be seen again for half a century. They were revisionist before there was anything to revise and this picture is a pristine example.
My favorite of Louis Feuillade’s crime serials, this one features a caped crusader with a secret hideout and poodles to do his bidding. It’s all as anarchic and zany as you would expect from a French serial but it also has a solid emotional center. Delightful.
1918: Stella Maris
Mary Pickford gives the performance of her career in this Dickensian drama of abuse, hatred, revenge and redemption. Pickford tackled two roles in the film, the lovely Stella and the homely Unity. This is Hollywood star power at its best.
It’s brassy, it’s sassy, it’s Ernst Lubistch imagining a union between German titles and new American money. It’s brisk and breezy and hilarious and I have yet to meet anyone who was not utterly charmed by it.
I hope you enjoyed my list! Be sure to share yours because I would love to see it. (Don’t worry about gaps, it just means you are in for a fun journey of exploration.)
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For me, the highlights of the 1910s were the Ernst Lubitsch German films I only recently delved into (with inspiration from Movies Silently): ‘I Don’t Want to Be a Man,’ ‘The Doll,’ and ‘The Oyster Princess,’ all with darling Ossi, and also ‘Meyer from Berlin’ and ‘Madame DuBarry.’
Is not “Out of the Deep” from 1912, per your initial review? And from DeMille in 1915, I’ll take “The Cheat.”
This is a good reminder that I should see Carmen.
Your choices for 1914, 1916, and 1918 are very good films, but I see 1919 as the year when great movies boomed. There would be so many excellent alternatives for that year, yours certainly one of them.
I’m not a fan of short films of any era, but Ingeborg Holm is good one from 1913.
Yes, 1919 was a really strong year, as were 1915 and 1916.
Here’s my list,but I reserve my right to cite more than one for a year if I can’t decide!
1910: Ramona, The Unchanging Sea, Frankenstein
1911: The Inferno
1912: The Musketeers of Pig Alley
1913: The House of Darkness, The Battle of Elderbush Gultch
1914: The Avenging Conscience, The Wishing Ring
1915: The Birth of a Nation
1916: Hell’s Hinges
1917: Chaplin rules! Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant
1918: Mickey, Stella Maris
1919: Broken Blossoms
I’m only a newbie to silent film, I’ve hardly seen any film from 1919, my focus has largely been on animation film and comedy, so I present my top 10 of the 1910s (1910-1918 would be more apt) based on the watching of 253 films in all modesty:
10. The Outlaw and His Wife (Victor Sjöström shows the power of the landscape in cinema, 1918)
9. The Rounders (Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle shine as comic duo, 1914)
8. Le placier est tenace (Émile Cohl, 1910: the most Tex Averyan comedy before Tex Avery came along)
7. Teddy at the Throttle (Gloria Swanson shows off in a very silly comedy, 1917)
6. The New Janitor (Charlie Chaplin really comes to his own at Keystone, 1914)
5. One A.M. (Mutual, 1916: Charlie Chaplin’s finest film comedywise, even if ‘Easy Street’ and ‘The Immigrant’ are more compelling, and my favorite Chaplin routine (the alarm clock scene)can be found in ‘The Pawnshop’)
4. The Cameraman’s Revenge (Wladyslaw Starevich, 1914: not only a stunning tour de force of stop-motion film, but also a remarkably mature comedy, coming from Czarist Russia)
3. Stella Maris (Mary Pickford in a stunning double role, 1918)
2. Gertie the Dinosaur (Winsor McCay, 1914: The birth of character animation)
1. The Sinking of the Lusitania (Winsor McCay, 1918: this is a propaganda film, but McCay shows the power of animation to depict events that haven’t been recorded. McCay’s command of animation wouldn’t be topped until the efforts of the Walt Disney studio in the late 1930s)
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