In these days of special effects, green screen, 3-D, and so much more, it is easy to forget the roots of Cinema. They were soundless, save for piano accompaniment, and in black and white. Yet they had magic, mastery, and innovation, all of which can still be as fresh today, as when they captivated audiences in the early 20th Century. Take a trip back in time, and feel free to gasp with wonder.
Pandora’s Box. The marvellous Louise Brooks stars in this 1929 German film. She left America to become a star in Europe, and her trademark severe bobbed hair, and incredible beauty, were well-received by European audiences. The story is somewhat scandalous, given the time, and concerns prostitution, sugar-daddies, and very loose morals. Brooks plays Lulu, a captivating dancer, beguiling rich men with her looks. They will do almost anything to win her favours, and she will do what is asked of her, in return. Eventually, she must pay for her wild life, and disaster threatens. But she escapes, avoids being trafficked to Egypt, and becomes a woman of the streets, at a time when a killer is stalking these girls at night. As you can imagine, it does not end well for the vivacious Lulu. The film crams in so much, yet gets away with it, mainly thanks to the star. It is just impossible not to be bewitched by Louise Brooks. She plays her role with style, yet with a mixture of vivacity and vulnerability, that at times can sweep you away. You will not be ale to take your eyes off her. Here is a clip, featuring the wonderful Miss Brooks.
Nosferatu. Again from Germany, this 1922 film is the definitive vampire chiller. There has never been a more terrifying incarnation of the Dracula legend than this portrayal by Max Shrek. Unusually for the period, it also included location filming, in Baltic cities. This is not the suave, irresistible vampire that the ladies cannot resist. No, Shrek’s villain is hideous; hands like claws, eyes as black as coal, and pointed ears. Even after 91 years, he has the power to make you feel genuinely scared. Shrek plays the vampire part of Count Orlok, and he has the familiar creepy castle, as well as a following trail of rats. A young couple are caught up in his circle, and it is the wife who eventually contributes to his demise. Fantastic stuff, far better than anything that came after. Here is the whole film (relatively poor quality,unfortunately), see what you think.
Intolerance. This epic was made in America in 1916, by one of the greatest directors of the silent age, D.W. Griffith. It is actually four films interwoven, depicting attitudes of intolerance through the ages. For its time, this cinematic style, of fades into and out of different time periods, was a little ambitious, and it shows. However, the scale is to be marvelled at, and the often difficult, and occasionally impenetrable storyline demands some effort from the viewer. Ancient Judea, Babylon, 16th century Paris, and contemporary America, make for a strange mix of settings for each story. No expense is spared, and one of the greatest stars of the silent screen, Lilian Gish, takes a leading role. The spectacular representation of the fall of Babylon, is worth the viewing alone. Here is the slightly edited version of the entire film.
October: Ten days that shook the world. The Russian director, Sergei Eisenstein, was one of the great masters of the epic film. This 1928 work tells the story of the early days of the Russian revolution, and the triumph of the Bolsheviks, over the Provisional Government in Petrograd, in 1917. The film has a documentary style, and great use of camera angles, close ups, and crowd scenes. It is also famous for the addition of experimental montages, and pivotal, telling scenes, with the camera lingering on small parts of the action. This film includes the famous ‘storming of the Winter Palace’, and is one for true film buffs, and those interested in the subject. The addition of sound and colour to later films has still never produced anything better than this striking work. Here is a excerpt.
The General. Perhaps one of Buster Keaton’s better known films, made in 1926, and very much a complete work. This story is set during the American Civil war, and Keaton is the engineer on a train called ‘The General’, working for the Confederates. As he is not in the army, his true love, Annabel, believes him to be a coward. When the train is captured by Union soldiers, who also kidnap Annabel, Keaton’s character Johnnie Gray, gets the chance to show that he is as brave as the next man, by saving his beloved train, and the girl he adores. There are some great sight gags, a fair deal of slapstick, and some very impressive stunts. Buster Keaton steals the film, alongside the grand old train. Better than Chaplin, with a proper story, and not a custard pie in sight. This is what film was made for; timeless, and truly accessible to anyone, anywhere. The whole film follows, only 80 minutes long.
If you consider silent films to be little more than curios, or museum pieces, then you may never have seen one, let alone those on my list. I would urge you to give it a try, choose something that appeals, and travel back to the early days of the cinema that you love.