Wind, The (1928)

“Day in, day out, whistlin’ and howlin’ — makes folks go crazy, especially women!”

Synopsis:
A young Virginian woman (Lillian Gish) comes to live with her cousin (Edward Earle) and his family in wind-swept Texas; but Earle’s wife (Dorothy Cummings) quickly becomes jealous of Gish’s presence, and demands that she find another place to live. Rather than accepting an offer to be the mistress of a married man (Montagu Love), Gish agrees to marry an uncouth but earnest cowboy (Lars Hanson), who is distressed to learn that his new wife doesn’t love him; meanwhile, Gish’s mental stability becomes increasingly volatile, especially when Love re-enters her life.

Genres:

Review:
Peary doesn’t review Victor Sjostrom’s final American silent film in his GFTFF, but he discusses it extensively in his Alternate Oscars book, where he not only gives Lillian Gish the “Best Actress” award, but names the film itself “Best Movie of the Year”. Sjostrom, screenwriter Frances Marion, Gish, and Hanson had previously worked together on a successful cinematic adaptation of The Scarlet Letter (1926); they collaborated again for this film (based on a novel by Dorothy Scarborough), which afforded Gish another opportunity to perform in an “ahead-of-its-time feminist drama about a woman without money or opportunities who tries to survive in a man’s world”. (Interestingly, Gish isn’t the film’s only female protagonist in such a position; though we may dislike Cumming’s character for “her cold treatment of Gish”, we understand that despite being a “bitter woman she is no villain”, given that “she dearly loves her husband and without him, in this harsh world, she has no life, no options”.)

Peary accurately notes that “The Wind is beautifully acted by Gish and the talented, handsome Hanson”, whose portrayal here in a tricky role possesses a surprising amount of subtlety and emotional nuance. Gish, of course, can’t be equalled: as Peary notes, she’s “dynamic in a role that lets her run the gamut of emotions”, and “well aware… it is through her incredible eyes that we perceive the changes her character goes through”; he argues it’s likely that “no one was more aware of the camera than this shrewd actress”. Meanwhile, the film itself is “exquisitely photographed (by John Arnold), with much emphasis on motion”, and Sjostrom creating a “tremendous sense of claustrophobia with repeated shots of the sand swirling towards windows and penetrating everything”. (To that end, one can’t help wondering what area of Texas actually has sandy wind storms that are this insistent and this devastating; would people really choose to live in such a place, given any other option?)

The Wind (like all of Sjostrom’s work) is filled with many memorable, psychologically complex images — not just Gish’s “fantasized image of a white horse charging through the skies”, but her very breakdown itself, represented with increasingly expressionistic flair as the elements around her (the incessant sand storms, lecherous Love’s creepy return) eventually destroy every bit of resistance she possesses. Without saying more about the film’s controversial denouement (changed at the insistence of the producers), I will note that the ending manages to satisfy on multiple levels: Gish’s ultimate fate (while perhaps “a little hokey”) is the only one we would have wished for this most put-upon of feminist heroines.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lillian Gish as Letty
  • Lars Hanson as Lige
  • Dorothy Cumming as Cora
  • Many powerful, memorable images


Must See?
Yes, for Gish’s knock-out performance, and as a provocative silent melodrama by a master director. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Nanook of the North (1922)

“The mysterious Barren Lands — desolate, boulder-strewn, wind-swept — illimitable spaces which top the world.”

Synopsis:
An Inuit hunter (Allakariallak) struggles to help his two wives (Nyla and Cunayou) and two children survive in the harsh Arctic Circle.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary begins his review of Nanook of the North — “probably the most famous of all documentaries” — by noting that its director, Robert Flaherty (a “mining-explorer-turned-filmmaker”), made the picture “to show audiences around the world why he admired the Eskimo people”, who (in Flaherty’s own words) “had taken care of [him] on different expeditions over a ten year period”. Peary argues that while “visually the picture is still fascinating”, the “human drama seems a little lacking”; he complains that “you never really learn what these people are like, just what they do to survive”. He also notes that “critics have always complained that Flaherty had his subjects create scenes specifically for the camera”, with some of them “com[ing] across as phony”.

I’m much less concerned than Peary about either of these two issues. Watching how a group of humans manage to survive in seemingly unlivable conditions is sufficient “drama” for my tastes; and while it’s true that many of the scenes were commissioned specifically for the film, as Roger Ebert puts it so bluntly in his “Great Movies” review, “If you stage a walrus hunt, it still involves hunting a walrus, and the walrus hasn’t seen the script.” What does concern me a bit are two other points: first, that Nanook and his “family” aren’t really a family (apparently Flaherty talked openly about this fact, but it’s not mentioned at any point during the film itself, which feels deceptive); and second, that the survival techniques used by Nanook were already becoming antiquated at the time Flaherty shot his footage. In both cases, simply providing a written disclaimer at the beginning of the film would have been enough to satisfy my needs.

Regardless, Nanook… remains a movie all film fanatics should see — not only for its incredible pseudo-ethnographic footage of a bygone era, but for its undeniable (if controversial) place in documentary filmmaking history.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine pseudo-ethnographic footage of early-20th-century Inuit life


  • Many fascinating scenes of Arctic survival and ingenuity



Must See?
Yes, as a classic of the documentary genre.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Gold Rush, The (1925)

“Far into the icy north, deep into the silent nowhere, came an undaunted lonely prospector.”

Synopsis:
A tramp (Charlie Chaplin) seeking gold in the Klondike befriends a beefy prospector (Mack Swain), battles an evil criminal (Tom Murray), and falls in love with a beautiful dancehall girl (Georgia Hale).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to Chaplin’s second feature-length film as his “first masterpiece”, noting that it’s a “simple film, dealing with basic human needs: love, friendship, hunger, money, pride”, and calling it “all wonderful”. He spends the bulks of his review highlighting various scenes — some (those involving Chaplin and Hale) “sentimental and sweet”, others (such as “when Hale discovers proof of [Chaplin’s] love for her”, or “Chaplin fantasizes about being the perfect host to Hale and her friends”) “poignant”, and many (all involving “Chaplin and male characters”) “classic comedy sequences”. Indeed, The Gold Rush is one of those enduringly “classic” films filled with so many iconic images that even non-film fanatics will surely recognize them from somewhere: “the starving Chaplin cooking his shoe for him and Swain, and twirling the laces around his fork as if they were spaghetti; Swain chasing Chaplin around a cabin because he imagines his friend’s a chicken”; Chaplin doing the “dance of the dinner rolls”.

However, I’ll admit to finding this film more successful as a comedy than as a romance; Chaplin’s longing for Hale is, for the most part, simply painful to watch. While Buster Keaton’s repeated pursuit of a beautiful woman in each of his films is inevitably accompanied by frenzied attempts to demonstrate his worth (which ultimately pan out), Chaplin’s stance as “the ultimate outsider” makes us feel he can only win the girl through luck and patience. Therefore, The Gold Rush is a film I’ll return to simply for its laugh-out-loud, expertly crafted comedic sequences — not for its central tale of unrequited longing.

As Peary notes, “Chaplin serves as a narrator in his revised 1942 version”, which is the one I watched before writing this review; however, it seems to be widely reviled as the lesser-choice, with purists preferring his original silent version (accompanied by inter-titles). For what it’s worth, I believe Chaplin’s narration is unnecessary, but found it fascinating to see the creative way in which he attempted to help later audiences find connection with his earliest work — and for that reason alone, I think film fanatics should check out the narrated version.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many classic, highly memorable sequences




  • Fine camerawork

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance as one of Chaplin’s most famous early films — and for some truly iconic comedic sequences.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Kid, The (1921)

“Please love and care for this orphan child.”

Synopsis:
A tramp (Charlie Chaplin) adopts an infant left in a car by an unwed mother (Edna Purviance), and soon grows to love him like a son. When the child (Jackie Coogan) is eventually taken away by social workers, Chaplin does everything possible to get him back.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that Charlie Chaplin’s “first feature film” was also “his most autobiographical work, one in which he dared relive, through five-year-old Jackie Coogan, memories of a destitute childhood, his need for a mother, and the fear of being sent to an orphanage”. For the first time, Chaplin was able to craft “characters from [whom] humor develops naturally rather than do[ing] some quick slapstick immediately to hook an audience; show that he was an actor who could do comedy and not just a clown; and establish a story (part drama, part comedy) that he… needn’t dominate”. Peary further points out that this “moving film has remarkable interplay between Chaplin and Coogan, who loved each other off screen as well”, and notes that it has not only “tear-jerking scenes” but “great comic moments” as well — though he argues that the “interestingly filmed dream sequence” would “work better if it came earlier, so as not to break momentum”.

Peary’s review just about sums up the essence of this historically pivotal film, which paved the way for Chaplin’s future successes, and left us with some truly indelible images — most notably that of Coogan (a marvelous child actor) sobbing for his “father” while being taken away by supposedly well-meaning authority figures. To that end, the storyline is undeniably melodramatic — starting with an unwed mother who must give up her child, and ending with an unrealistically coincidental denouement. But Chaplin handles the material so well — carefully weaving moments of genuine humor into a situation rife with heartache — that we’re willing to forgive the film’s more manipulative elements. My favorite moments: Chaplin rigging an ad hoc milk bottle for the squalling infant (I can only imagine how many hours of footage perfectionist Chaplin must have shot to get the resulting sequence!); Chaplin sneaking Coogan into his bed at a shelter; Chaplin’s pockets being picked by a sleeping neighbor.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jackie Coogan as the Kid
  • Many memorable moments




Must See?
Yes, both for its historical value and as an effectively heartwarming tale.

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College (1927)

“Anyone prefers an athlete to a weak-knee’d, teachers’ pet.”

Synopsis:
A nerdy high school graduate (Buster Keaton) follows his dream girl (Anne Cornwall) to college, where he attempts to impress her by trying out a variety of sports — but his clumsiness foils him time and again.

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Review:
As noted by Chris Edwards in his “Silent Volume” blog, College is partially undone by its very premise: how can one of the most athletically toned, physically agile actors of all time successfully convince us that he’s no good at sports? Well, the same dilemma held true to a certain extent in Keaton’s Battling Butler (1926), but it’s much more prominent here, given that nearly the entire film is spent showing his character failing time and again at each sport he attempts. Naturally, none of this takes away from the intrinsic joy of watching Keaton perform: he’s the most skillful and precise klutz you’ll ever see (and to be fair, some of what he fails at is simply understanding the rules of the game). At any rate, College‘s storyline — directly inspired by the success of Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925) — ultimately feels more like a series of gags than a well-rounded storyline; however, its finale — when Keaton’s character (in classic form) suddenly shows his mettle in a crisis — is truly inspired. Watch for an infamous final shot (which I’ll admit I don’t fully “get”; what, exactly, was Keaton’s point, other than to shock? or to simply imply “The End”?).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The soda jerk sequence
  • Many impressive physical stunts
  • The inspired finale

Must See?
No, though naturally (like all of Keaton’s films) it’s recommended. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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This Gun For Hire (1942)

“I’m my own police.”

Synopsis:
When a hitman (Alan Ladd) is double-crossed by his employer (Laird Cregar), he vows revenge, and soon crosses paths with a beautiful singer (Veronica Lake) working as a spy to learn about shady wartime deals being brokered by Cregar’s crooked boss (Tully Marshall).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, “Alan Ladd became an instant star” in this “exciting, compact adaptation of Graham Greene’s popular pulp novel,” portraying “lethal hired killer Philip Raven”. Peary argues that “in a trench coat with its collar turned up, a hat pulled down to his eyes, a gun in his hand, and a deep voice, he is the coolest gunman to hit the scene since James Cagney in The Public Enemy” — and certainly one of the most oddly sympathetic. Interestingly, as Peary notes, “we can’t help “root[ing] for Ladd on his mission of revenge”, in large part “because we realize that his past was so miserable that he never had a chance to be decent”, but also because “he was exploited by Cregar, because Lake sympathizes with him, and because we sense that he isn’t long for this world”.

However, it’s difficult to contemplate Ladd’s fine performance in isolation, given the importance of his relationship with “beautiful, buxom blonde Lake”, who in this film “found her ideal screen partner”. Peary notes that “with those dreamy eyes, a peek-a-boo hairstyle, and a husky voice to match Ladd’s”, they “are an electrifying screen couple” — a statement made all the more complex given that Lake is happily engaged to a policeman (Robert Preston) who’s on Raven’s trail. Naturally, loyalties quickly become conflicted, and it’s fascinating to watch as Lake and Ladd — who are clearly smitten with each other on some level — carefully negotiate their positions. Indeed, whenever they’re on-screen, we’re glued; the rest of the “taut” storyline, while competent and finely directed, feels mostly like icing.

Interestingly, in his review, Peary refers to This Gun For Hire as “one of the few forties crime dramas that weren’t really noir films” — yet it certainly possesses many noir elements (including atmospheric cinematography and a sense of deeply pervasive cynicism), and it’s generally considered by others to be part of this genre. Perhaps Peary’s opinion is due to the occasional shifts in tone throughout the film — most notably when Lake performs a couple of unusual musical ditties (by Jacques Press and Frank Loesser); meanwhile, Cregar’s performance as Raven’s most direct nemesis lacks a requisite sense of menace — he’s a bit too much of a blubbering coward to be fully convincing in the role. However, all told, I would most certainly classify this one stylistically as noir.

Two of my favorite moments: Lake unexpectedly pecks Ladd on the cheek; Lake leaves a steady trail of evidence behind her while being held hostage by Ladd.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Alan Ladd as Raven
  • Veronica Lake as Ellen Graham
  • Fine chemistry between Ladd and Lake
  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for Ladd’s magnetic debut performance — and his palpable on-screen chemistry with Lake.

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Faust (1926)

“All things in heaven and earth are wonderful! But the greatest wonder is man’s freedom to choose between good and evil.”

Synopsis:
In medieval Germany, the demon Mephistopheles (Emil Jannings) bets an archangel (Weiner Fuetterer) that he can corrupt the soul of a well-meaning alchemist (Goesta Ekmann). After experiencing a trial day of omnipotence and youth, Faust (Ekmann) accepts Jannings’ pact in order to romance the “most beautiful woman in the world” (Hanna Ralph); when he eventually falls in love with a chaste young maiden (Camilla Horn), however, Mephistopheles plots their downfall.

Genres:

Review:
Loosely based upon the first part of Goethe’s play of the same name, F.W. Murnau’s Faust remains one of his most visually evocative films, with consistently atmospheric cinematography by DP Carl Hoffman, effectively stylized sets, and fine special effects. From its stunning opening sequences — wherein an archangel and Mephistopheles use Faust as a pawn in a wager against one another, and Mephistopheles unleashes a plague upon Faust’s village — we are immediately invested in Faust’s sticky existential dilemma. Dr. Faust (nicely played in both old age and youth by Goesta Ekmann) initially accepts Mephistopheles’ proposal in desperate hopes of finding a way to heal his plague-ridden neighbors — but the fearful townsfolk immediately discern that Faust is in league with the devil, and want nothing to do with his ill-gotten cures. From thence, Faust’s foolhardy decision to accept Mephistopheles’ offer of further omnipotence and youth is much less easy to swallow; at this point, we understand that, despite his originally noble intentions, Faust has squarely dug his own grave.

The film’s middle scenes — as Faust explores a life of hedonism, then becomes smitten by a fair maiden, while Mephistopheles himself flirts with the maiden’s mother (Frida Richard) — are often noted as its least compelling, perhaps in part because the imagery is no longer quite so consistently stunning; by the film’s final tragic act, however, the momentum and visual interest have picked up once again. Interestingly, it’s Mephistopheles himself (played with impish glee by Jannings) who emerges as the film’s most memorable character. We’re reminded time and again that Faust’s entire journey is predicated upon Mephistopheles’ whims: once Mephistopheles decides that Faust has made a mistake in falling for Gretchen (Horn), he quickly sets the wheels in motion to “help” Faust see the error of his ways. By the end of Faust’s bitterly tragic saga, we come to believe that any type of consort with the devil is truly a compromised bargain: there is no room for goodness or humility once one has crossed over to the Other Side.

Note: Interestingly, in his “Greatest Films” review, Roger Ebert points out that Faust is ranked by IMDb users as one of the top horror films of all time (even placing it above Murnau’s more widely recognized, Dracula-themed Nosferatu); however, I’m not quite sure I would label it within that genre myself, as it’s less a horror film than a morality/folk tale.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Carl Hoffman’s stunning cinematography


  • Excellent early special effects
  • Countless memorable images

  • Fine expressionistic sets

Must See?
Yes, as an acknowledged silent classic by a master filmmaker. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

“This floating palace should put an end to that thing Steamboat Bill is running.”

Synopsis:
The long-lost son (Buster Keaton) of a steamboat operator (Ernest Torrence) attempts to bond with his father while illicitly romancing the daughter (Marion Byron) of Torrence’s competitor (Tom McGuire).

Genres:

Review:
Buster Keaton’s final film for United Artists is widely considered one of his best — in large part because of its truly stunning climax, in which a cyclone rips through town, affording not only Keaton’s character but Keaton himself multiple opportunities to narrowly escape death as buildings literally collapse just inches around him; as noted in Chris Dashiell’s CineScene Review, the entire cyclone sequence is “perhaps the high point of Keaton’s career as a designer of amazing stunts and visual effects.” However, I’ll admit that I don’t personally find this film to be one of Keaton’s most consistently amusing outings. Other than a clever early sequence in which Keaton’s disappointed father attempts to buy him a new, “manlier” hat, the film’s comedic energy (for me, at any rate) doesn’t really kick into gear until about halfway through, once Keaton is finally allowed to show his mettle by attempting to sneak his wrongly imprisoned father out of jail. From thence, he’s the typically inventive and daring Keaton we know and adore, battling storms, rescuing his loved ones from harm’s way, and performing death-defying physical stunts.

My favorite line (as a handful of smuggled tools fall out of a loaf of bread Keaton is trying to hand over to his father in jail): “That must have happened when the dough fell in the tool chest.”

Note: In his Alternate Oscars, despite conceding that SBJ “isn’t a pivotal Keaton film”, Peary nonetheless names Keaton Best Actor of the Year for his performance here, noting that “one can see why many consider him the most lovable of the silent stars and every bit as sexy as the silent screen’s romantic athlete, Douglas Fairbanks”. Amen to that!

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Keaton’s attempt to sneak his father out of jail
  • The stunning cyclone sequence

Must See?
Yes, for its breathtaking technical bravado. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book. Available for free viewing on www.archive.org.

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Three Ages (1923)

“If you let your mind wander back through History you will find that the only thing that has not changed since the World began is — LOVE.”

Synopsis:
In three different historical eras (the Stone Age, Roman times, and 1920s New York), a young man (Buster Keaton) vies for the attentions of a beautiful girl (Margaret Leahy) against a bigger, stronger, and/or wealthier suitor (Wallace Beery).

Genres:

Review:
Buster Keaton’s first feature film (originally conceived as three separate two-reelers, in case it bombed as a full-length movie) is an enjoyable satire on D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), similarly presenting thematic links — here, on the challenges of romantic pursuit — between several historical eras. It’s amusing to witness Keaton’s hapless yet doggedly resilient persona facing such similar challenges in each of his iterations, and to see the immensely clever — if occasionally foolhardy — ways in which he attempts to foil his opponent. The film’s most surreal moment (just one among many): Keaton gives a lion a manicure. (!!)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Plenty of humorous moments and classically Keatonian slapstick


Must See?
No, though it’s certainly of historical interest, and a must for diehard Keaton fans.

Links:

Palm Beach Story, The (1942)

“You have no idea what a long-legged gal can do without doing anything.”

Synopsis:
A woman (Claudette Colbert) plans to divorce her financially unsuccessful husband (Joel McCrea) so she can seduce a millionaire and convince him to finance one of McCrea’s business inventions. On her way to Florida to obtain the divorce, she meets one of the wealthiest men in the world (Rudy Vallee), who falls in love with her — but will McCrea allow Colbert to follow through with her plans?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that this “delightful screwball comedy by Preston Sturges” is “fast-paced and consistently funny”, and accurately points out that “McCrea and Colbert are an engaging screen couple” (though their relationship, naturally, is strained from the get-go). Indeed, as brilliant as I find this film — it remains a comedic treasure, and one of Sturges’ best — I’ll admit to feeling a vague sense of discomfort throughout (which is likely exactly what Sturges intended!). While Colbert’s plan may be “noble” at heart, it’s genuinely difficult to watch her romancing a likeable schmuck like Vallee and know that, in a romantic comedy like this — with an “engaging screen couple” like Colbert and McCrea waiting in the wings — there’s really only one outcome possible. (Though to his credit, Sturges soundly blasts that notion with an inspired — if dubitable — ending, about which I’ll say no more.)

Despite its decidedly discomfiting premise, however, the film remains consistently amusing and engaging, with “stars McCrea, Colbert, Vallee, and Mary Astor (as Vallee’s sister, who takes a liking to McCrea when he poses as Colbert’s brother) weaving their way through a crazy world of landlords, cops, cabbies, eccentrics, men named Toto, and the gun-toting, boozing, harmonizing Ale & Quail members” — yes, the storyline really is as wacky as that rundown indicates! I’m especially tickled by the performances given by Vallee and Astor, who prove beyond a doubt that the idle-rich are indeed — as Sturges himself believed — “funny” folk; and Robert Dudley is note-perfect as the deaf old coot who starts the narrative ball rolling. Meanwhile, Colbert is at her loveliest (it’s nice to see her with her hair down here — literally!), and handsome McCrea is well-cast as her perpetually affronted husband.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Rudy Vallee as John D. Hackensacker
  • Mary Astor as Princess Centimillia
  • Robert Dudley as The Wienie King
  • Claudette Colbert as Gerry Jeffers
  • Plenty of clever and/or zany dialogue: “Chivalry is not only dead, it’s decomposed.”

Must See?
Yes, as a certified comedic classic. Nominated by Peary as one of the Best Movies of the Year in his Alternate Oscars.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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