Once movies hit the mainstream as popular and respectable middle class entertainment, it was inevitable that someone would start rounding them up into “Best of” lists. Photoplay magazine launched its own award, the Photoplay Medal of Honor, and asked readers to vote via mail-in ballot.
Since we’re celebrating the films of 1920 this month, I thought it would be nice to provide you with a handy viewing list of what Photoplay’s editors thought were the best the movies had to offer. It was an American publication and so the selections were based on what was released in the USA. Also, release dates were a bit fluid back in the silent era so some films may be listed with different years attached to them in reference materials.
These films were not formal nominees but suggested titles that Photoplay published alongside the ballot. While readers were encouraged to write in whatever they liked, this list surely had some influence and so we are going to study it a but.
For easy reference, I have divided the list into three sections: on home media, surviving but not yet available to the public, and missing and presumed lost. All films are listed in alphabetical order.
But first, let’s start with the eventual winner. Two million ballots were cast but only one film could win.
The Photoplay Medal of Honor went to: Humoresque!
Pathos was big and so the choice of Humoresque is perfectly in keeping with the taste of the era. It was given a full melodramatic remake in 1946 with Joan Crawford in the lead but this version leans deeply into American Jewish culture. An early hit for Frank Borzage, who had pivoted from acting to directing, and an example of the continued success of screenwriter Frances Marion.
They’re here, they survive, we can see them any time we want.
Behind the Door is a lean, mean, nasty piece of work with a justly famous finale that still shocks with its brutality. I won’t give the game away entirely but the hero is a taxidermist and his wife was murdered by his enemy. You do the math.
Dinty follows the adventures of the young son of an Irish immigrant as he tries to support his mother (Colleen Moore) and also bust a Tong smuggling ring, as one does.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is, well, you know. It was actually one of two adaptations released in 1920 but the Barrymore version is renowned for its innovative makeup and Barrymore’s enthusiastic performance.
Eyes of Youth was a vehicle for star Clara Kimball Young but most people know it today as an early showcase for Rudolph Valentino, who played a ruthless gigolo.
The Garage was a two-reel comedy from Arbuckle and Keaton and is one of the rare shorts on this list.
Heart o’ the Hills was a rural drama starring Mary Pickford and a young John Gilbert.
The Idol Dancer… I think my only response to this nomination is “lol, no.” While Clarine Seymour is an appealing star and Richard Barthelmess tries his best, the film is absolutely ridiculous and sloppily made to boot.
The Love Flower… Double lol here. You’re pulling my chain, Photoplay magazine. I mean, as an example of accidental hilarity, this is a masterpiece. But best of 1920?
The Mollycoddle was the second-last of Douglas Fairbanks’ modern adventure-comedies. He next film was The Mark of Zorro and after one more modern picture, he dedicated the rest of his silent career to the costumed swashbuckler. Ironically, Zorro didn’t make the cut on this shortlist.
Passion is an interesting one. It is technically the American release of Madame du Barry, the Ernst Lubitsch epic, but it was extensively cut and re-titled for the American audience and can almost be considered its own film. Both versions survive.
You can get the American release here and the original German cut here.
Pollyanna was another Mary Pickford vehicle and an adaptation of the popular story.
Available on an out-of-print DVD.
Something to Think About was written around leading man Elliott Dexter’s recovery from a stroke. Cecil B. DeMille directed and Gloria Swanson was the leading lady.
Suds is another Mary Pickford film, this one about a laundress who falls for a wealthy customer. Pickford was on fire in 1920, wasn’t she?
The Toll Gate was a return to form for William S. Hart. He had been experimenting with settings and pathos but this one was a dark tale of bloody revenge. Vengeful Hart is the best Hart and this is one of his finest pictures.
Trumpet Island was a late release from the once-dominant Vitagraph film company. An abridgement intended for home viewing survives.
Available for digital purchase.
Way Down East was another return to form with D.W. Griffith abandoning the South Seas in favor of ice floes.
Why Change Your Wife? was a saucy bedroom farce from Cecil B. DeMille and it is an utter delight from beginning to end. The costumes, particularly the lingerie and swimwear, are worth the price of admission by themselves.
Those are the films available for viewing. For your convenience, I will now list the unreleased and lost movies. Here’s hoping more of them are released to the public or found!
They survive and may be screened at festivals but there’s no home media release. Still, they exist so here’s hoping!
(I’ve had this issue come up before, so I should note that I do not link to online videos unless the channel is operated by an archive or a reputable collector. I don’t need to have my site flagged as an aggregator for pirated content. While a film may be in the public domain, music and some aspects of a restoration may not be and I don’t have time to vet every link. This isn’t personal, it’s simple self-preservation.)
- The Copperhead
- A Cumberland Romance
- The Dancin’ Fool
- Dollars and the Woman
- Huckleberry Finn
- In Search of a Sinner
- Jes’ Call Me Jim
- Madame X
- The Overland Red
- Over the Hill to the Poorhouse
- The River’s End
- The Scoffer
- Scratch My Back
- The Virgin of Stamboul
Check your attics and local Soviet archives.
- The Branding Iron
- The Devil’s Pass Key
- The Gay Old Dog
- Great Redeemer
- Luck of the Irish
- Man Who Lost Himself
- On With the Dance
- The Prince Chap
- Remodelling Her Husband
- The Right of Way
- Thirteenth Commandment
- 39 East
- Treasure Island
- The Wonder Man
- The World and His Wife
So, what do you think? Of the surviving films of 1920, which one deserved the medal in your opinion?
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THE TOLL GATE. I”m a fan of the dark side. But that begs the question, why isn’t THE PENALTY on the list too ?
Yes, I think Photoplay missed a bunch of really strong contenders even if we don’t count the European stuff that had not yet been imported. But I’m sure you know how bonkers their film reviews could be, so…
I’ve seen most of them, and while none are among my super favorites, I’ve enjoyed them all, particularly ‘Suds’ and ‘Why Change Your Wife?’ And yes, ‘The Idol Dancer,’ too – mainly because it was fun seeing my adored Richard Barthelmess all drunk and messy for a change. That GIF of him just sends me!
They did miss a bunch of proper classics.
Very curious that “The Last of the Mohicans” isn’t included. It’s one of the most beautiful of all classic silents ever made in America; plus, overall it’s simply a great movie! And my favorite film of Lon Chaney, Sr., “Penalty”, isn’t even mentioned. Chaney might have been up for an Academy Award that year for Best Actor if they’d existed.
The Photoplay team was pretty arbitrary and petty in their selections and reviews. Actually, I think that puts them pretty close to the modern Academy voters, now that I think about it. 😉
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