Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Top 10 Movies of 1927

1. Metropolis
The influence of Fritz Lang's sci-fi epic can still be seen almost a century later in future-dystopia cyberpunk films like Blade Runner and The Matrix. It presents a future where technology outpaces social advances, and soulless machines threaten to overwhelm the human experience.

The irony is that the gee-whiz factor of hot robot babes, impossibly tall building and flying cars overshadows Lang's humanist social allegory. What gets lost is a surprisingly optimistic message that humans can overcome their tendency to react violently against oppression and peaceably reconcile their differences. In the Soviet films of the time, the class struggle would end in glorious revolution; instead, Lang subversively depicts the worker's revolution as benefiting the ruling class by providing a justification for violent retaliation.

2. Sunrise
In his Hollywood debut, F.W. Murnau doesn't abandon the style that he perfected in his German films. His films are more narrative photography than filmed plays. He tells stories through carefully composed shots with elaborate sets and precise lighting. He doesn't bog down his narratives with superfluous details (such as names for his characters) that would hinder his pacing or require more intrusive title cards.

The story is basic: a married man falls for another woman who suggests he murder his wife so they could be together. Despite (or perhaps because of) this simplicity, the plot is extremely tense.

3. The Love of Jeanne Ney
Set during the Russian Civil War, I expected more political intrigue. Instead, the politics are more or less wrapped up early in the first act and it becomes a suspenseful and twisty crime story that's a little bit Mr. Ripley and a little bit Blood Simple.

4. Chang
An exciting adventure story about surviving in an untamed jungle teeming with predators and other dangers - and that's just the making of. This is a DVD to watch with the commentary on as the story behind how the movie was made is more intriguing than the movie itself.

5. The Chess Player
An epic historical drama set in 18th century Poland under the rule of the Russian Empire. A young revolutionary is on the run after a failed coup attempt. His ally, an Austrian inventor who creates automatons, plans to smuggle him to safety inside his chess playing machine. Some stylish montage sequences keep the political storyline engaging, but it's the downright creepy automaton scenes that leave a lasting impression.

6. The General
Adapting a serious Civil War incident into a slapstick comedy is risky, especially considering the cost of sending an actual train off a cliff. Since the plots of many Buster Keaton movies just serve to tie together stunt sequences, this is easily his most ambitious movie. It works, but I wonder if it was all worth it; I still find the cheaper and less cohesive Sherlock Junior to be the most enjoyable of all Keaton's movies.

7. Berlin: Symphony Of A Great City
An inspired montage of images of Berlin edited together to capture the rhythms of the city over the course of a day. An invaluable historical document that permanently captures the mood of the day in the same way a newsreel might capture the events of the day.

8. The Lodger
A family begins to suspect that the quirky man they rent a room to might just be the serial killer that's been evading the police. Hitchcock's first suspense thriller doesn't sustain the tension as relentlessly as his subsequent work, but it has its moments of brilliance.

9. Bed And Sofa
A couple decides to share their small apartment with an old army buddy. The intimate quarters leads to strained relationships. The husband's tolerance of a developing affair between his wife and friend seems surprisingly open-minded, but tensions still mount over little things, particularly who gets to sleep in the bed and who has to sleep on the sofa. The story focuses on individuals which is a departure from typical Soviet film of the time which usually focused on communities. There was probably an allegory to communism in there somewhere, but it was lost on me. The sexual attitudes were remarkably progressive for any film of the time from any country.

10. The Gaucho
Not the typical Douglas Fairbanks movie where he plays the athletic hero who goes on chandelier swinging, sword fighting, horse riding adventures to save the beautiful woman. This time he plays an athletic bandit who goes on chandelier swinging, sword fighting, horse riding adventures to save the beautiful woman - and his soul.

MIA Movies:
These are some significant films that I was unable to see as they are not available on DVD (at least not on GreenCine or NetFlix):

The Jazz Singer
Seventh Heaven
The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg

Had I seen these, this list most probably would have been different.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


London is terrorized by a serial killer that violently murders a pretty young blonde every Tuesday, and leaves a calling card that says simply "The Avenger" at the scene. At the home of one pretty young blonde named Daisy, a mysterious stranger decides to rent a room. As she starts falling for The Lodger, her boyfriend Joe, a cop assigned to the Avenger case, gets jealous. And suspicious.


Audiences who saw The Lodger in 1927 probably didn't know who the director was; although he had directed a film or two before this, Alfred Hitchcock hadn't had a substantial hit until this one. He has said that he considers this his "first true film". Audiences may have recognized the influence of German Expressionism that Hitchcock probably picked up from his two previous German co-productions. His use of light and shadow to convey ideas in lieu of dialogue is decidedly Murnau-esque.

It was Ivor Novello that people paid to see. He was already a successful singer and composer before appearing in movies. He was at the peak of his matinee idol status when he starred in two Hitchcock features in 1927 (this and Downhill). Novello's homosexuality was a something of an open secret, so perhaps Hitchcock was knowingly playing to pop culture with the dialogue:
JOE: Does this lodger of yours mean any harm to Daisy?
MRS. BUNTING: Don't be silly, Joe. He's not that sort.
JOE: Even if he's a bit queer, he's a gentleman.

Audiences in 1927 didn't know who Alfred Hitchcock was, but he's the primary reason we watch this movie today. It's impossible to watch it without being reminded of Hitchcock's subsequent work. It already has many of the elements that are associated with his signature style: mistaken identity, incompetent police, a tormented blonde, and relentless tension that threatens to break into violence at any given moment.

Monday, February 26, 2007


Cyrus inherits his father's department store, and Betty Lou, a perky young salesgirl, falls for her dashing new boss. Monty, Cyrus' foppish friend, is obsessed with finding a girl with "It".

What is "It"? Writer Elinor Glyn, who coined the term, makes a cameo appearance to explain. "It" is "That strange magnetism which attracts both sexes... entirely unself-conscious... full of self-confidence... indifferent to the effect... she is producing and uninfluenced by others." In short, sex appeal. And, as Monty observes, Betty Lou is "positively top-heavy with 'It'".

Betty Lou's and Cyrus' attraction to each other is mutual, but naturally there are a series of misunderstandings that threaten to prevent them from being together. Will the poor but pretty girl will end up with the rich and handsome man? I wouldn't bet against it.


Sexual attitudes were loosening during the 20s, and Clara Bow personified the new attitude: higher hemlines, lower necklines, and more assertive and shameless flirting. But some of the movie's progressive elements are tempered with concessions to more traditional values. Betty Lou brashly comes on to her boss and tricks him into taking her on a date, but when he kisses her after the date, she slaps him. She supports a friend who is an unwed mother, but when she finds out Cyrus believes the baby is hers, she's offended that he would think she was that kind of woman.

The attitude toward the unwed mother seems particularly quaint today. Apparently being unmarried is not only grounds for having your baby taken away by meddling social service workers (didn't I see these same busybodies taking the baby away from a woman who had a bottle of wine in the house in Intolerance?), but it's also newsworthy enough to be published in the newspaper.


Modern workplaces are more sensitive to issues of sexual harassment. Monty scoping out the salesgirls trying to find who has "It" would by condemned today. We also wouldn't find such gender specific wording in our employment ads as: "Female worker wanted... neat appearance"

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The First Best Pictures

January 11, 1927 - Louis B. Mayer hosts a banquet for 3 dozen VIPs from 5 branches of the motion picture industry (producers, directors, actors, writers, technicians) to promote an organization to be called The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. All 36 sign on and become the Academy Founders.

May 4, 1927 - The Academy becomes a legal corporation. 300 eligible industry professionals are invited to a banquet where the Academy's newly elected first president, Douglas Fairbanks, convinces over 200 of them to become new members.

He also announced that the Academy will give awards of merit. These awards were not initially voted on by the Academy members, but determined by a panel of judges. Each member was allowed to vote for a nominee in their own branch. A panel of judges in each branch would count the votes and narrow the nominees down for a central board of judges. This board would have 5 members, one from each branch, and they would decide the winners.

Initially there was two best picture categories: Best Production was awarded to "the most outstanding motion picture considering all elements that contribute to a picture's greatness"; and Artistic Quality of Production was given to "the most artistic, unique and/or original motion picture without reference to cost or magnitude." Because The Jazz Singer was such a sensation, the Awards Committee decided to rule it ineligible for either of the best picture awards and gave it its own special award.

Wings won for Best Production and Sunrise won for Artistic Quality of Production, but there was some controversy. The Central Board of Judges initially decided to award the Artistic Quality of Production award to King Vidor's The Crowd, but Louis B. Mayer, who was there despite not officially being a judge, persuaded them to give the award to F.W. Murnau's Sunrise. One of his arguments was that if they gave the award to a Fox production, it would prove there was no collusion between Mayer, The Academy, and MGM. After arguing until 5:00 am, the Central Board relented.

February 18, 1929 - The winners are announced in the Academy Bulletin.

May 16, 1929 - The banquet is held and the statuettes are handed out. Douglas Fairbanks presented all the awards, and they were all distributed in less than 5 minutes.

This would be the only time that there would be two best picture categories. I think it's interesting to consider what might have happened if they continued to award art movies in a separate category from big productions. It seems inappropriate to compare Good Will Hunting with Titanic, or Lord or the Rings: The Return of the King with Lost in Translation. But I supppose that's what The Independent Spirit Awards are for.

Inexplicably, Wings and The Jazz Singer are not available on DVD (at least not on GreenCine or NetFlix), so I've not been able to see either of them. I did find these clips of Wings on YouTube:

Saturday, February 24, 2007


Jeanne Ney is the daughter of a diplomat in the Crimea, the last stronghold of the White Army in the Russian Civil War. The Love of Jeanne Ney is Andreas, a soldier, and, secretly, a Bolshevik. When the Red Army takes over, and Jeanne's father is shot, Jeanne returns to her family in Paris. Andreas also goes to Paris on a mission to organize a communist revolt.

Once in Paris, Jeanne gets a job working for her uncle's detective agency. A missing diamond and the appearance of Khalibiev, an unscrupulous scam artist who also escaped the Crimea, sets in motion a series of twists and schemes that leaves Andreas wrongfully accused of murder, and Jeanne looking for Khalibiev to clear his name.


Director G.W. Pabst's politics lean decidedly left. This is evidenced by his sympathetic portrayal of the Bolsheviks in the film. This is not surprising considering that he was a founding member of the Dacho, a German film workers organization. What is remarkable is that the production company, UFA, allowed it. In March 1927, the UFA was taken over by Nazi sympathizer Alfred Hugenberg.

Curiously, Pabst would return to Nazi occupied Austria and remain there during the war making three propaganda films for the Nazis. He would later claim that he was pressed into this service. A claim supported by his subsequent anti-Nazi postwar movies.


From a technical standpoint, Pabst was ahead of his time. Most films of the silent era are static medium shots, like a filmed play. Pabst's camera work is very dynamic (panning, dollying, and zooming) with lots of close-ups. I was also impressed by the depth of his shots; action or composition in the foreground, middle ground, and background, and frequent use of mirrors and other reflecting surfaces. This style would become the signature of Orson Welles decades later.

Friday, February 23, 2007

1927 Blog-A-Thon

This is almost perfect for my blog. Apparently there's a blog-a-thon for the films of 1927. I found this on goatdogblog, and it will be March 23-25 when I will be blogging about the movies of 1937. Since I'm blogging about the films of 1927 throughout the month of February, I suppose I could blog about them for one additional weekend in March, too. It's only fair; February is too short a month for such an important year in film history.

Thursday, February 22, 2007


In The Siren of the Tropics, Josephine Baker plays Papitou, a childlike and impulsive Caribbean native. The first half of the film is set in the Antilles where Papitou becomes devoted to Andre, a French engineer. The second half is set in Paris where Papitou sets out to find Andre, and during the course of her adventures, she becomes a celebrated dancer.

The plot is a melodrama of little interest - the movie is a vehicle for Josephine Baker. With the exception of a couple of regrettably overacted dramatic scenes and an ill-fitting comic bit in the middle, Baker shows off her considerable natural appeal in her film debut. She somehow manages to be naive and sophisticated, primitive and modern, playful and sensual all at the same time.


Josephine Baker was a performer at the height of the Harlem Renaissance in the mid-20s. She was an innovative dancer that helped popularize Jazz Dance, particularly the Charleston, the dance most associated with the era. Although black culture and art was flourishing in Harlem, racism was peaking in other parts of the nation. The popularity of the Ku Klux Klan was at its peak in 1927; Alabama had elected a Governor and a Senator who were Klan members.

By this time, Baker had relocated to France where she was a sensation as an erotic dancer.


A black woman dancing half-naked in a banana skirt today would not be considered progressive, but Baker's reputation is untarnished; her brash sexuality comes across as more liberating than degrading. Her involvement with the French Underground resisting Nazi occupation during WWII and her involvement with the American Civil Rights Movement assure that history will always see her as an inspirational figure.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


The most remarkable thing about Jean Epstein's The Three-Sided Mirror is it's non-linear structure. The narrative involves a man's relationship with three different women. Each woman is given a confessional segment where she describes their relationship in flashback effectively creating six distinct storylines which are tied by an arc in which the man dumps each one in sequence and drives off. Instead of being confusing, this outline actually tells a complex story quite succinctly.


Besides his films, Jean Epstein's most enduring legacy is his mentorship of surrealist film maker Luis Bunuel. The two would collaborate on Epstein's most well-known work, the outstanding Fall of the House Usher in 1928.


Although the non-linear timeline was innovative for the time, they are not unusual now; Memento, The Singing Detective, and Pulp Fiction are three examples that come immediately to mind.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Chang is an anthropological documentary with a staged narrative in the style of Nanook of the North. Adventurers Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, last seen documenting the remarkable migration of the Baktyari tribe of Iran herding their goats over mountain passes in Grass, bring their cameras to a remote Lao tribe in the untamed jungles of Siam. Marty Mapes at Movie Habit has this excellent review of both films.


It's not entirely clear to me just how much of this was staged; the cameras always seem to be in the right place to catch some remarkable footage, suspiciously, from a variety of angles. This isn't detrimental. In fact, it's quite impressive - just how would somebody, logistically, stage a herd of wild elephants trampling a village?

The actual killing of exotic animals in this movie gets a bit hard to stomach after awhile, but I don't doubt that hunting for food and protection was a certain necessity for these people.


Merian Cooper considered remaking this movie a few decades later, but civilization had already crept in and permanently altered this culture preventing that possibility and making this film an indispensable record of a now non-existent culture.

Although I'm sure there were plenty of people in 1927 that were offended by the animal cruelty, I think it's fair to say that it is less tolerated today than then. A large part of this is no doubt due to the efforts of the American Humane society that has been monitoring the treatment of animals in movies for over 65 years.

Monday, February 19, 2007


This epic adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin takes many liberties with Harriet Beecher Stowe's influential abolitionist novel.

Relatively kind slaveowner, Arthur Shelby, has financial difficulties, so he decides to sell two of his slaves: The child Harry, and old loyal Tom. Eliza, Harry's mother, takes her son and tries to escape north to Ohio. Tom, separated from his family is sold down the river where he is bought by a benevolent master in New Orleans before being auctioned off to the violent Simon Legree.


The novel was a cultural phenomenon. It was the best selling novel of the nineteenth century, and proved to be a flashpoint of the social divisiveness between the American North and South in the lead up to The Civil War. It spawned spoofs, pro-slavery versions, and "Tom Shows" (various staged versions of the novel). Since there was no official stage version, Tom Shows varied greatly from the novel; some even being pro-slavery. The black characters were usually played broadly, and always by white actors in blackface.

Given that this movie was made 75 years after the book, the fact that they cast an actual black actor as Uncle Tom hardly seems progressive considering they used white actors for many of the other black roles. This was often confusing (the mulatto characters were played by white actors without makeup so it was hard to tell who was "supposed" to be black) and sometimes offensive (a blackfaced Mona Ray's over-the-top buffoonery as Topsy was particularly degrading).

For contrast, see Scar of Shame, a 1927 movie made by a black director with a black cast for a black audience.


As influential as the novel may have been in changing America's attitudes toward slavery, it was a book by a white person for white people. As such, the portrayal of black culture, however well-intentioned, was not well-informed. Some of these characterizations have endured through popular media. The "pickaninny" stereotype of black children and the "mammy" character may not be as common today, but the term "Uncle Tom" to negatively characterize a black person who is eager to please white people is still commonly used.

By The Way: D.W. Griffith was originally announced as the director on this film. What were the producers thinking? The guy adapted The Clansman - he must be good at adaptations!

Sunday, February 18, 2007


This Laurel and Hardy comedy short has two distinct and loosely related halves. In the first half, Stan is a skinny and inept boxer in a match against a much braunier and skilled boxer. In the second half a baker slips on a banana peel and it starts a series of pies-in-the-face that escalates to include an entire city block. It's not clear which fight is considered The Battle Of The Century.


Jack Dempsey was one of the most popular sports figures of the 20s. In September 1927, he faced Gene Tunney in an attempt to regain the World Heavyweight Championship; Dempsey had lost the title to Tunney a year earlier. The fight had garnered a lot of interest, and there were over 100,000 spectators at Soldier Field in Chicago.

The match would end in controversy and would be known as "The Long Count Fight". Tunney out-boxed Dempsey for 6 rounds, but in the 7th, Dempsey knocked Tunney to the mat. A new rule had been implemented prior to the fight that required a fighter who dropped his opponent to move to a neutral corner before the referee would begin counting. Dempsey was apparently unaware of this rule. It took 3 to 7 seconds for the referee to get Dempsey to a neutral corner before he began his count. Tunney got up on the count of 9. He regained his composure and won the remaining rounds and the match.

Laurel and Hardy not only took advantage of boxing's popularity, but specifically spoofed The Long Count incident.


Seriously - Slipping on a banana peel? A pie in the face? This movie must have seemed stale even then (Charlie Chaplin resorted to a pie fight in Behind The Screen 10 years earlier). Today, this 80 year old movie is as fresh as a 90 year old movie.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Person of the Year - Clara Bow

There were archetypical movie stars: America's Sweetheart Mary Pickford, The Great Lover Rudolph Valentino, The Swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks, and others; but Hollywood never had the shameless sex symbol before Clara Bow set the precedent for future Mae Wests and Marilyn Monroes.

Clara Bow was in 6 films in 1927. Besides Wings, the first Best Picture Oscar winner, she was in Get Your Man, Hula, Rough House Rosie, Children of Divorce, and her defining role: It.

"It" simply refers to sex appeal. This euphemistic use of the word was coined by romance writer Elinor Glyn, and the movie adaptation of her novel was a showcase for Clara Bow's perky and flirtatious personality. It was a manufactured phenomenon, perhaps, but it's hard to imagine just any pretty face pulling this off with as much sincerity and charm as Bow.

The Jazz Age was a period of social liberalization, despite (or perhaps because of) Prohibition, and the flapper lifestyle flourished. Flappers were young women of the time who embraced progressive ideals and modernity and were characterized by their short skirts, bobbed hair, and frank sexuality. They hung out at speakeasys, drank, smoked, and danced provocatively. Clara Bow had a significant influence on this culture, particularly her look: her clothes, her hairstyle, and, in particular, the distinctive way she wore her lipstick.

See the The Clara Bow Page for her detailed biography and tons of photos (That's where I got these photos - thanks!)

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


This historical epic, set in partitioned Poland of 1776 is told in two distinct acts. The first is a political intrigue melodrama that follows the uneasy truce between Russian and Polish forces as it devolves into a full scale revolt. The second act finally introduces The Chess Player, a creation of a genius inventor who specializes in making elaborate humanlike machines (automatons). But it's all part of a clever deception to smuggle a fugitive revolutionary to safety. But the plan hits a snag when the Russian Empress, Catherine II, hears about the sensational chess playing automaton, and requests that it be brought to St. Petersburg so she can play it. (see the scene of the match between Catherine II and The Turk)


Historical films often say as much about the era they were made as the era they were set. Good Night and Good Luck, for example, was more than just Senator Joseph McCarthy's dispute with Edward R. Murrow; its message "you can't defeat the enemies of freedom by becoming one" was a warning obviously inspired by current events.

So the question is, why would 1920s France be interested in 1770s Poland? Perhaps because Europe between the world wars was factious and rife with revolutions. so France, being caught between Germany's political unrest and Spain's civil war, could relate to Poland's position amid their neighbor's power struggles.


The Turk, the chess playing machine, did actually exist. It's popularity at the time attests to the universal desire of humans throughout history to understand the nature of cognition. Can a machine be constructed that's self-aware? If so, would it differ from humans only in degree, or does the human machine have a ghost in it?

The documentary Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine (into which several scenes of The Chess Player were edited) explored this territory quite effectively.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


Harold Lloyd plays the scrawny youngest son of the town sheriff. Although he can usually outwit his burly older brothers and the local bully, he doesn't have the toughness to earn his father's respect. When out-of-town con men take off with the townspeople's money, The Kid Brother has the opportunity to show up his brothers, prove himself to his father, and impress the girl. If he can only apprehend the thug, recover the money, and avoid the mischievous monkey.

hehe... funny monkey.


Anyone going to see this film in 1927 knew what to expect. The typical Lloyd everyman has lots of dreams and little else, but with good natured persistence, sharp wits, and a little luck, he manages to endure the barrage of gags and end up on top. And just like the clock tower scene in Safety Last, or the football scene in The Freshman, Lloyd heaps on the gags in the climatic sequence at the end that's worthy of rewinding and rewatching.

But The Kid Brother does distinguish itself from the rest of Lloyds filmography; it has a more cohesive story than most, and that story has a lot of heart. It also has Chicago, the monkey, who steals the show.

The Academy Awards' notorious tendency to reward drama disproportionately over comedy started with the very first Oscars: Although Chicago's performance was far superior, the award for Best Performance by a Monkey went to Bimbo for his role in Chang.


Monkeys are always funny.

Monday, February 12, 2007


A Soviet comedy by Boris Barnet. The Girl With The Hatbox is a rural girl who makes hats for a shop in the city. In order to have a bigger house than they're entitled to, the greedy shopkeepers convince the housing authority that the hat maker rents a room there. The girl decides to help out an unemployed artist she befriends by marrying him so he could live in 'her' room. The shopkeepers become resentful, and pay her with a lottery ticket instead of cash. Predictably, the lottery ticket pays off. Wackiness ensues.


Soviet films of the 20s were controlled by the state and had to conform to communist ideology. So their movies tended to be rousing stories of the common peoples' triumph over their bourgeois oppressors - basically, the films of Sergie Eisenstein. Another Soviet film from 1927, Pudovkin's End Of St. Petersburg about the 1917 revolution exemplified this.

I have no reason to doubt that Boris Barnet's commitment to communist ideals was anything less than enthusiastic, but this movie certainly doesn't have the same revolutionary zeal that can be found in the films of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, or Vertov. This movie is charming, light, and basically apolitical (maybe the bad guys who want more than they're entitled to are allegorically capitalists?).


It's refreshing to see a Soviet film that's not so serious minded, but it's this lightness that causes the film to age so gracelessly. Unapologetic propaganda such as Battleship Potemkin or Triumph of the Will maintains it's relevance as an historic document if nothing else.

Sunday, February 11, 2007


In College, Buster Keaton plays a physically clumsy egghead who tries out for every sport his college offers in an attempt to impress a pretty coed. Naturally, he fails spectacularly at all of them, but in the climatic segment, he needs to use all these skills to rescue the girl.


The General was an ambitious and expensive project, and although it's now recognized as Keaton's masterpiece, it wasn't well-received at the time. So it's understandable that Keaton would fall back on a tried-and-true formula. Unfortunately, Harold Lloyd covered this territory quite successfully two years earlier in The Freshman, and Keaton's version is a little too similar.

Of course, Buster Keaton movies don't have to be as inspired as The General to be enjoyable. The story just needs to provide an excuse for Keaton's marvelous stunt work. By this standard, the movie was a definite success.


Aside from the obvious time capsule elements that can be found in any 80 year old film (fashion, hairstyles, cars, etc.), there's very little difference between this movie and modern nerds-vs.-jocks films. Some stories are timeless like that.

Buster Keaton's appeal lies in the simple fun of watching an athletic performer execute well-timed acrobatic stunts. In this sense, I can't think of any modern performer that better exemplifies his legacy than Jackie Chan.

Just for fun: This YouTube video of scenes from College edited to fit "Eye of the Tiger" made me laugh out loud.

Saturday, February 10, 2007


Walter Ruttman was an architect and a graphic designer before becoming an experimental film pioneer. Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, is an impressionistic montage of images from the city as it quietly wakes up in the morning, has a busy day of work, then lets its hair down at night.


Berlin in the 20s was characterized by its innovative art scene: Bauhaus architecture, Expressionist film, dadaism and new objectivist painting. By 1927, Berlin had become the largest industrial city on the continent, and the intellectual center of Europe. But there was also a political divide; radical ideas on both sides of the spectrum (left wing communists vs. right wing fascists) found adherents here, and the economic depression that started in 1927 would deepen these conflicts.

Ruttman strikes a distinctly different tone in this movie than in the art of his contemporaries. There is a darkness and cynicism in George Grosz' paintings, and the social criticisms of Fritz Lang's films. But Ruttman's film is celebratory and affectionate.

Ruttman's loyalties don't appear to be in question yet. His glorification of the vibrant nightlife of Berlin's cabarets are not in line with the nationalists who tended to look down on Berlin's decadent lifestyle, and he had a cooperative relationship with his more jaded peers (he worked with Fritz Lang as a cinematographer on Metropolis).

This difference in attitudes, however, may explain their divergent paths. Five years later would find Fritz Lang suddenly fleeing the country leaving his wife and possessions behind, while Walter Ruttman would be making propaganda films for the Nazis.


Experimental film existed before this, but this is the earliest example of a feature length montage movie that I can find. It's certainly the most influential having inspired several imitations. Notable examples include Dziga Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera, and more recently Koyaanisqatsi.

Friday, February 9, 2007


Cecil B. DeMille's epic retelling of the Jesus story is a devotional film that's faithful to the source material. It's probably best appreciated by believers, but non-christian movie buffs and film historians will also want to give it a look.

The Criterion Collection has restored the original 2 1/2 hour "roadshow" version, and the Bright Lights Film Journal has an excellent review of this DVD. (thanks to BLFJ for these photos too)


Although it wasn't the first movie about the life of Jesus, it was certainly the biggest at the time. It was promoted, successfully, as an event movie, and ended up becoming the highest grossing movie in history at the time.

The movie had undeniable mass appeal; I haven't found any indication that this movie was controversial in any way. Why would an overtly religious movie be so universally accepted? Was it because religion, specifically Christianity, was so ubiquitous that there was almost nobody to disapprove? Or maybe religion was so separate from public life that non-Christian didn't feel threatened by it? America was, at the time, in the midst of Prohibition (a decidedly religion-based movement), so the former seems a more likely theory than the latter.


When you list the most significant movies of 1927, you'd probably list Metropolis, Sunrise, The General, Berlin, The Lodger, It, Chang, and perhaps a half dozen others before King of Kings. Why did it's stock plummet so steeply? Perhaps it's because the story has been told a dozen times since - with sound and in color.


Eighty years ago, movie buffs probably didn't realize that movies as they had come to know them would never be the same again. Cinema had grown progressively more sophisticated (technologically and otherwise) for thirty years, and there was no reason to suspect that it had peaked in 1927.

While movies obviously didn't peak in 1927, they certainly hit "a" peak. It was the year that the most popular (Metropolis) and the highest rated (Napoleon) films of the silent era (according to IMDb) were released.

Wings and Sunrise were recognized by the first Academy Awards as "Best Picture" winners (The first Oscars had two separate best picture categories; Wings won for "Production", and Sunrise won for "Unique and Artistic Picture")

This was also the year that Buster Keaton made his most popular movie, and Hitchcock released his "first true film".

But even as 1927 marked the peak of the silent era, it was also the beginning of the end for silent film as The Jazz Singer, famously, became the first "talkie".