100 Favorite Films To Recommend Part 1: The 1920s
Thanks to one of those “incredibly unforeseen circumstances” I always allude to in my electoral analysis pieces, a vast majority of us (though in all honesty we all should be) are stuck at home with nowhere to go as we ride out a historic event of the likes not seen in a century. We’re all in dire need of some entertainment and whether it be reading those books that have been sitting on the shelf collecting dust, binging those television shows your friends kept bothering you about finally watching, playing those video games you can’t seem to get past the first boss in, or finally getting some of those chores you’ve been intentionally putting off done in the house, we’re all doing our part in not getting cabin fever.
There’s also the option of movies and while there’s some video on demand releases alongside original streaming services’ content out there to replace the pause we’ve seen at our local theaters, there’s perhaps no better time to have no more excuses to catch some classic cinema. As someone who seeks classic films out and whose all-time favorite films tend to be older than my own parents, I have seen my share of them. In fact it just so happens that a few weeks back after my wife had asked me a question about the oldest films I’ve ever seen, I realized that I’ve seen at least one film from each year since 1920 (And a few films from scattered years before that). So why not recommend my favorite film from each year from 1920 to modern day?
In this series I don’t just want to spend a little time going off about why each film strikes me as my favorite of the year (There will be a few times where I confess it’s the only film I’ve seen from that year), but also give you the reader a list of movies you may want to give a watch yourself to expand your library of films experienced. We’ll be kicking things off with a decade that wasn’t the first for cinema, but was instrumental in its growth as a part of the American past time — the roaring twenties, the silent era of film. Now I fully confess knowing that watching sixty to ninety (sometimes longer) minutes of film with no sound save for maybe a score playing in the background can have its turn-offs, but I think you’ll find that if a story is told well enough on screen even that inconvenience can be overcome so that you can experience a few moments of escape from the real world.
So without further adieu, my favorite films from each year in the 1920s. Featuring a sleepwalking killer, an orphan who ends up saving his savior, a vampire that infringed on copyrights, a biblical epic, an epic poem, stock motion dinosaurs, a battle between the forces of heaven and hell, a best picture winner almost lost to time, a clown pining for his adopted daughter, and the first true musical. Nine of these ten films are silent, one has sound, and two of them won Oscars for Best Picture. Stars featured include silent era icons like Charlie Chaplin, Lon Cheney, and Clara Bow.
1920: “The Cabinet Of Dr Calagari”; AKA: “Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari”
This isn’t the first horror film, but it is probably the first real horror classic, and according to many film historians could be considered the peak of German expressionism back in an era where German cinema was right up there, if not even ahead of, Hollywood’s grasp of the medium of film. A film about a mad hypnotist who uses a sleepwalking patient of his to commit crimes and murder, this movie has some of the most amazing set pieces ever produced in the history of cinema anywhere in the world. Even 100 years later, Calagari’s set designs are an art to itself and make this silent film not just a creepy story to watch unfold but an experience of how visual styles can become just as much a character in a film as the personalities. The film is just over an hour long and a quick watch, and while there’s great re-mastered quality versions for sale on home media, it is an easy free find on YouTube if you’re looking to save money.
1921: “The Kid”
This isn’t silent era icon Charlie Chaplin’s first film, but it is his first full-length directorial effort. The film wasn’t just a massive box office success in its day, but considered by many a film historian to be, if not one of, then perhaps the greatest film of the entire silent era. This is one of the first films to attempt the tricky combination of comedy and drama, and it pulls it off effortlessly. The film follows an orphan child who ends up getting rescued and raised by Chaplin’s famous tramp character, with circumstances that lead the orphan boy to saving the tramp in the end. The film is just over an hour long and there’s plenty of good home media choices out there for you to see this one, and is also an easy free find on YouTube.
1922: “Nosferatu: A Symphony Of Horror”; AKA: “Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie Des Grauens”
The most amazing thing about Nosferatu isn’t a badly veiled attempt to adapt Stroker’s infamous classic, Dracula, but that this movie which has become a must see horror classic in the last century should’ve and could’ve been lost to time and memory. With the Stroker estate refusing to give over the rights to his novel to the newly founded would-be horror film studio, Prana Film, a decision was made to basically adapt the story except to change around character names to attempt to escape copyright infringement suits. The film was pretty well received upon release but the studio’s shadiness caught up to it when the Stroker estate went ahead with lawsuits anyways. The studio ended up bankrupt after this first and only film of theirs and there was even a judge’s order to destroy the film’s copies. And yet somehow Nosferatu survived and eventually became arguably the oldest classic vampire film of cinema. The movie itself is a fascinating watch thanks in large parts to the visual effects for the time including the design of the main antagonist in Count Orlok which still sends chills up audiences’ spines nearly 100 years later. This movie is a little over ninety minutes long and is available on various home media, and yes, is an easy free find on YouTube.
1923: “The Ten Commandments”
An epic for the time of over two hours length, Ten Commandments is the first of two versions of the classic Exodus tale as adapted to the screen by the legendary director Cecil B DeMille (More on the second later in this series). Unlike the more famous re-make, this one is actually divided into two parts as we travel back in time to witness the Exodus story, and then return to then modern day 1920s to watch a drama unfold in how the commandments play a part in two brothers’ lives. For its time the film was a visual effects spectacular and its parting of the red sea scene was an amazing feat. It also incorporated some early technicolor schemes that wowed audiences. Some set pieces were actually just recently discovered by archaeologists. The film tends to come with it’s 1956 counterpart’s major home media releases, but can easily be found on YouTube for free if you’d like.
1924: “Dante’s Inferno”
Like Ten Commandments from the year prior, this adaptation of Dante’s epic poem about a trip through hell is also accompanied with a modern story about how it affects the life of a greedy businessman who seems destined for the destination Dante is touring. The film also uses red tints for the hell scenes, and for its time it really is impressive to watch the set designs and backgrounds they were able to accomplish with this film. Unfortunately, the film has a chunk missing from what is availabile today, but thankfully there’s enough left for a coherent story to be still seen by us modern day folk. But of all the films on this list, this is the one which so clearly needs some sort of updated restoration. Dante’s Inferno is available for free on YouTube and I’m not aware of any good availability on home media past some television archive versions of the film.
1925: “The Lost World”
An adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic novel, Lost World is probably the oldest giant monster classic film that us kaiju genre fans consider a must see. Willis O’Brien, who would go on to take part in the design of King Kong himself eight years later, was involved in the stop motion animation that brought the dinosaurs to life in this film, the undoubtedly best way to show these sort of creatures on screen at the time. The film is a fun watch for any lover of creature features and of stop motion techniques. Unfortunately, various versions of the film exist as it has been cut into various prints ranging from over 100 minutes in length to just over an hour. Home media of restored versions exist but you can find this one on YouTube for free if you desire.
1926: “Faust: A German Folktale”; AKA: “Faust: Eine Deutsche Volkssage”
The last German expressionist film on this list, Faust is a tale of a bet between a demon and an angel that will decide the fate of the world, in some ways a sorta retelling of the Book of Job. The main protagonist who has to endure this test of his faith is Faust, a lowly alchemist. As the film progresses you are treated to great imagery and because the film is a non-American pre-code piece, it has elements of things that you usually don’t expect from films this old. The film was supposedly around, or close to, two hours in length, but a chunk of it has been lost to time. Thankfully a coherent story can still be told through its current 100-plus minute restoration and is available on home media and on for free on YouTube. Humorously, a French version exists in which many outtakes filled with errors somehow were put into the film.
1927: “Wings” (Won The Oscar For Best Picture)
The first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (then known as Outstanding Picture), Wings is a telling of a love triangle set in the background of World War I, with the girl our two main protagonists are pining for being played by the iconic silent era star Clara Bow. The film’s stunts and aerial and battle sequences are amazing feats for the time and watching it for the first time I could see why the Academy chose it as the best film of the 1927-1928 season they were recognizing. Also, there’s a particular tracking shot that even almost 100 years later remains a sight to behold on how you can use the camera to tell a great story. Amazingly, the film was actually lost to time for decades – that’s right, the first film to win Best Picture was somehow one of the many lost films of the silent era. But in a great turn of events a print was rediscovered in 1992 in French archives and later restored. The film can be found on home media, and if you search well enough free versions exist on the internet.
1928: “Laugh, Clown, Laugh”
Silent-era horror icon Lon Cheney, known as the man of a thousand faces, stars in this tragic tale of a clown who raises an abandoned child that he ends up falling for when she grows into womanhood — only for him to end up in a triangle with a wealthy suitor. Yes, that sounds creepy, and would probably not be a tale proper for today’s modern audiences. But in its defense the film stands out as one of Cheney’s best performances, playing a figure much differently than the horror counterparts he became legendary for. The film is unfortunately missing a chunk from the modern restoration, including a longer pieced-together climax. Laugh, Clown, Laugh is available on home media (usually as part of Lon Cheney collections) and some versions do exist for free on the internet if you know how to search for it.
1929: The Broadway Melody (Won The Oscar For Best Picture)
The only sound film in this list, Broadway Melody was the second film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture for the 1928-1929 season they were recognizing. This film is argued by many to be the first true musical of cinema, regarding sisters attempting to become Broadway stars. For its time, the movie was seen as an amazing feat of what sound could do for cinema and how musical performances could become part of the film experience. Watching it now, you can see how given its contemporary status why the Academy awarded it as a Best Picture winner. However, the film’s reputation and legacy has taken a hit as time has gone by, and it is actually the least well-reviewed films by modern critics of the 92 films that have won Best Picture. Granted, it hasn’t aged too well given what a standard musical it seems like now, but I still have a fondness for it because of the paths it paved for the presence of music in film. This film is an easy find on home media.
And that caps off all my favorite films from each year from the 1920s. I hope that I’ve given you some new favorites to discover among these and look forward to any replies of others’ favorites from the 1920s. Next up: the era that established Hollywood’s newfound era of sound – the 1930s.