The Best Films of 1926, According to Critics of the Time (And All of Them Survive)

We’re back with another list of top 10 films as published in the Film Daily. This lists were created by asking top critics to vote on the best films of the year, though strange release dates sometimes mean that years don’t always match. First, we took a look at 1922 and then on to 1923then 1924, and 1925. It’s time for 1926!

This list has some overlap with 1925 due to the aforementioned weird release dates. The Big Parade was covered on the 1925 list, so we will skip it here. Also, this list was created by an American publication and so it goes by the USA release dates of foreign films. It was not unusual for a European production to wait years to be seen by the public in America, so many famous titles will not be present.

So, with all the caveats in place, here are the films on the 1926 list! The films were listed in most votes to fewest and I will follow the magazine’s original order.

Variety

Emil Jannings in a powerhouse performance, combined with Karl Freund’s unchained camera helped change the mood and look of movies. I should note that the version widely seen in America was highly censored but the recent restored release includes both the USA cut and the newly-unearthed uncensored version.

Read my review, in which I extensively discuss the differences between the versions.

Released on DVD and Bluray.

Ben-Hur

The mega production years in the making finally saw the light of day at the very end of 1925. Big in every sense of the word, the film featured real ships, real horses, decadent costumes, color sequences, the works. Makes every other version, including the 1959 one, look just a little puny in comparison.

Read my equally epic review here.

Available on DVD as an extra with the 1959 release.

The Big Parade*

We covered this last time, so…

The Black Pirate

Another whopping production, this one filmed in 100% Technicolor, a highly expensive and difficult process at the time. Douglas Fairbanks took all the best elements of pirate tales and combined them into one massive and popular package.

Read my review here.

Available on DVD and Bluray.

Beau Geste

The oft-filmed tale of brothers taking the blame for a crime and leaving to join the Foreign Legion, as one does. This picture was a major milestone in the career of already-popular Ronald Colman.

Not yet released on home media. Here’s hoping…

Stella Dallas

A tale of class conflict and maternal love, this film was a showcase for Belle Bennett, an early success for Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and proof that Ronald Colman was having a very, very good year.

Released on DVD as an extra with the talkie remake.

The Volga Boatman

Cecil B. DeMille’s independent production company finally scored the hit it needed with this absolutely bonkers romance of the Russian Revolution. It made a star of future Hopalong Cassidy William Boyd. It’s nuts and highly recommended.

Read my review here.

Released on DVD.

What Price Glory

This wasn’t the first war comedy or the first buddy comedy but it did help to solidify the “frenemies in war” trope as a box office success. The lip-reading is extremely… blue.

Not yet available on home media.

The Sea Beast

John Barrymore in a Moby Dick adaptation is a pretty good pitch, I must say. Interesting that this made the list over the splashy Vitaphone release Don Juan, which featured Barrymore in the title role and was proof of concept for the pre-recorded synchronized film score.

Available on DVD before but seems to have vanished…

La Boheme

Another splashy and pricey production from MGM, this showcased John Gilbert and Lillian Gish, plus an impressive roster of supporting players. It cost a fortune, it sold tickets, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, what more could you want?

Available on DVD.

This list has some pretty obvious omissions. Son of the Sheik, for example, is now considered a classic. Three Bad Men, The Winning of Barbara Worth, Sparrows… Comedies in general did not fare well on Film Daily lists unless they starred Chaplin or Lloyd, so the absence of Buster Keaton is not entirely surprising in this context. 1926 was just a really strong year.

Universal went all out in publicity for Michael Strogoff.

And, of course, my own beloved Michael Strogoff is nowhere to be seen, despite its splashy 1926 premiere spearheaded by Universal.

Which 1926 films do you think were snubbed? Or did this list hit all your happy places as-is? Either way, drop a comment.

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10 Comments

  1. rmichaelpyle

    How they could leave “Sparrows” off is just amazing to me. But “The General”, “Don Juan”, “Flesh and the Devil” (released in December, so probably considered ’27), “Mare Nostrum”, “Old Ironsides”, and so many others, along with the ones you mentioned. I could just keep going: “Bardelys the Magnificent”, “Nana”, “Mantrap”, “Mother”…

    The fact that they chose “The Sea Beast” over “Don Juan”…Wow

    The critics have been to school, but not the movies.

  2. Mitch Farish

    I’d make a pitch for Murnau’s FAUST, Sjostrom’s THE SCARLET LETTER (the best adaptation, talkie or silent), and MANTRAP, not just for Clara Bow, but for Victor Fleming’s direction and James Wong-Howe’s cinematography.

    1. Overseas Visitor

      Is there a version of Mantrap with good image quality?

      While I’m glad to have seen it and it’s possible that the photography is good, the Grapevine version doesn’t allow to enjoy any photographic beauty.

      I wish I could see The Scarlet Letter. The topic doesn’t sound super interesting, but Sjöström, Hanson and Gish are three good reasons.

      1. Movies Silently

        The 1926 Scarlet Letter is extremely good and worth seeking out, though it has not yet been released on home media. Hanson in particular outdoes himself.

        Mantrap was released in the box set Treasures 5: The West, which is out of print, alas. Beautiful transfer. The entire Treasures series is pretty difficult to track down these days due to very short production runs.

  3. Overseas Visitor

    Quite many films I haven’t seen. Variety was a disappointment for me despite its great visuality (like Metropolis). For example Faust is a better film from Germany, even though it isn’t Murnau’s best. The Canadian is a great one from Hollywood, but I nevertheless prefer 1927 and 1928 over 1926.

    As for Strogoff, I sincerely hope there will one day be a quality release, but meanwhile I’m not planning to spoil a potential masterpiece by searching for some bootleg version.

  4. Jennifer Murphy

    I would have suggested “The Student of Prague,” but it did not reach US shores until February 1929. So it wasn’t in contention.

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