Introduction: 1927 according to some such as Peter Bogdanovich is considered the greatest year in the Hollywood history. That is why this year contains four great original films in our list of the greatest films of all time, “Metropolis”, “Wings”, “Sunrise” and finally “The Jazz Singer”. 1927 was also the decline of silent film era and the beginning of the sound and talkie movies era until now. Although before “The Jazz Singer” directed by Alan Crosland, there were earlier sound films with dialogue, but they were all short subjects, using “sound-on-disc” technique that was very primitive and of poor quality and not synchronized. In 1923, the “sound-on-film” system was introduced which had synchronized sound and dialogue, but the sound quality was still poor, and the films produced in this process were still short. Then the “Vitaphone” technique was introduced with the film “Don Juan” in 1926 with synchronized instrumental score and sound effects. But it was not until “The Jazz Singer” that the world watched the first film with numerous synchronized singing sequences and some synchronized speech.
This first full feature sound film was not only talkie but the first feature film musical, to be adapted and followed by many future musical films such as “Singin’ in the rain” of Gene Kelly in 1952. The film depicts the fictional story of Jakie Rabinowitz (Jack Robin), a young man who defies the traditions of his devout Jewish family, to be a religious cantor (singer), running away from home, and years later changing his name and identity. Despite all these and the film being a frontier in technical and even the content story, based on a true story and a revolution against religion, the film in the first Academy Award ceremony, won only an award for Darryl F. Zanuck, for the producing the film, but not the direction or else!
From a real life story to a stage show to a historical film: Samson Raphaelson, a native of New York City’s writer, who had attended a performance of the musical Robinson Crusoe, Jr. in Illinois, starring a 30 year-old singer, Al Jolson, a Russian-born Jew who performed in blackface, was impressed by his acting. Then a few years later, he wrote “The Day of Atonement”, a short story about a young Jew named Jakie Rabinowitz, based on Jolson’s real life. Raphaelson later adapted the story into a stage play, “The Jazz Singer”. Later on after a version performance of the show on Broadway, with another actor, George Jessel, Warner Bros. acquired the movie rights to the play in 1926, and signed Jessel to a contract to make a film. Since the studio got into a monetary conflict with Jessel as he asked for more pay, the role was then offered to Jolson, who had inspired the film in the first place.
“Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” is a 1927 American silent romantic drama and suspense film directed by the German director F.W. Murnau and starring George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, and Margaret Livingston. The story was adapted by Carl Mayer from the short story “The Excursion to Tilsit”, from the collection with the same title by Hermann Superman. Murnau used the then new Movietone sound-on-film system, making “Sunrise” one of the first feature films with a synchronized musical score and sound effects soundtrack. The film incorporated Charles Gounod’s 1872 composition Funeral March of a Marionette, which was later used as the theme for the television series Alfred Hitchcock “Presents” (1955–65).
“Sunrise” won the Academy Award for “unique and artistic picture”, best cinematography and best art direction at the 1st Academy Awards in 1929. This was another rare occasion that a great film was recognized by Hollywood, as time goes by such great films are ignored. Janet Gaynor won the first Academy Award for “Best actress in a leading role” for her performance in the film. The film’s legacy has endured, and it is now widely considered a masterpiece and one of the greatest films ever made. In 1989, Sunrise was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the United States by Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.The Academy Film Archive has preserved Sunrise in 2004. The 2007 update of the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films has ranked “Sunrise” at number 82,and the British Film Institute’s 2012 Sight & Sound critics’ poll named it the fifth-best film in the history of motion pictures. Although the original 35mm negative of the original American version of Sunrise was destroyed in the 1937 Fox vault fire, a new negative was created from a surviving print.
Before exploring this great work, its creator, F. W. Murnau will be briefly introduced. Friedrich Wilhelm “F. W.” Murnau (December 28, 1888 – March 11, 1931) was greatly influenced by the great German philosophers Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and the great playwrights, Shakespeare and Ibsen. During the World War I, Murnau served as a company commander at the eastern front and was in the German air force, surviving several crashes without any severe injuries. One of Murnau’s acclaimed works is the 1922 film “Nosferatu” , the first adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a masterpiece of Expressionist film. He later directed the 1924 film “The Last Laugh”, as well as a 1926 interpretation of Goethe’s “Faust”. He later emigrated to Hollywood in 1926, where he joined the Fox studio and made three films: “Sunrise” (1927), “4 Devils” (1928) and “City Girl” (1930). Murnau in “The last laugh”, introduced the subjective point of view camera, where the camera sees from the eyes of a character and uses visual style to convey a character’s psychological state. It also anticipated the cinema verite movement in its subject matter. The film also used the “unchained camera technique”, a mix of tracking shots, pans, tilts, and dolly moves. Murnau’s “Nosferatu” and “Faust” were two of the first films to feature original film scores.
“Wings” is a 1927 American patriotic war silent film, set during the World War I, directed by William Wellman, starring Clara Bow, Charles Rogers, Richard Arlen, and the first appearance of Gary Cooper that launched his film career. Wellman was the only director in Hollywood at the time who had World War I combat pilot experience, and the actors, Richard Arlen and John Monk Saunders had also served in the war as military aviators. Hundreds of extras and some 300 pilots were involved in the filming, including pilots and planes of the US army air corps which were brought in for the filming and to provide assistance and supervision. “Wings” acclaimed for its technical prowess and realism became a landmark for the future aviation films, specially its realistic air-combat sequences. A short list of the films that followed the footstep of “Wings” are Hell’s Angels (1930) by Howard Hughes, remade in 2004 by Martin Scorsese under “The Aviator”; Flying Tigers (1942) of David Miller with John Wayne; The first of the few (1942); Air Force (1943) of Howard Hawks; The Memphis Belle: A story of a flying fortress (1944) of William Wyler; Command decision (1948) of Sam Wood; Flying Leathernecks (1951) of Nicholas Ray; Island in the sky (1953) with John Wayne by William Wellman himself; Reach for the sky (1956); Battle of Britain (1969); Aces high (1976); Flyboys (2006); The Red Barron (2008), and more.
“Wings” is one of the rare true great films in the history of American cinema to be recognized and winning an Academy award, that won for the best picture at the first Oscar in 1929, as the only fully silent film to do so. It also won the Academy award for the best engineering effects. In 1997, Wings was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress and the Academy Film has preserved “Wings” in 2002. Before further discussion about this frontier film, its director deserves some mention.
The Gold Rush is a 1925 American silent comedy film written, produced, and directed by Charlie Chaplin. The film though begins with stating to be a “comedy drama”, it is more comedy romantic. Chaplin in his usual tramp character, from realism with a few tears of “The Kid” moves on to some adventure of gold explorer or greed and romance. Chaplin had said several times that this was the film for which he most wanted to be remembered. This great film that is still on the many list of greatest films of all time, at the 1958 Brussels first World Fair after, was rated by many film critics and filmmakers, the second greatest film in history, behind only Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship of Potemkin. While in “The Kid”, Chaplin is more an adult, a father figure and a rescuer, in “The Gold Rush”, he himself is more like a kid, acts as funny, and with his acrobatic and chuckling moves makes the greedy gold seekers of the time, look ridiculous. While in “The Kid”, he is a savior of a poor little infant left on the street by his mother and raises him, in “The Gold Rush”, he is the savior of love and romance that to him is more vital to life than gold. Before discussing more about the film, Chaplin himself will be explored further.
Charlie Chaplin: One and only one
A century ago before comedy becomes making fun of others to put smile and laughter on people’s lips, there was a Charlie Chaplin whose comedy went beyond laughter and also portrayed the reality of life in a funny way. Chaplin method was to criticize the system and the society instead of a harsh and direct way, through laughter, that worked better on people’s minds all over the world. He was the only one in the history of cinema who made more than the producing and distributing studios did.(United Artists made $1 million from The Gold Rush, while Chaplin himself made a profit of $2 millions.)
Greed is a 1924 American silent film, written and directed by Erich von Stroheim, based on the 1899 Frank Norris novel McTeague. The film is not only unique in many aspects of its originality and technicality, but in the way it was censored and cut to less than ¼ of its original (10 reels down from 42) and the way its creator was berated by the Metro-Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) studio. The original version of Greed has been called the “holy grail” for film archivists, as no one yet has been able to locate its lengthy original version of 42 reels.
The film is about the story of McTeague, a miner who practically without proper education being trained to be a San Francisco dentist, who marries his best friend Schouler’s girlfriend, Trina. Shortly after their engagement, Trina wins a lottery prize of $5,000, at that time a substantial sum. Schouler jealously informs the authorities that McTeague had been practicing dentistry without a license, and McTeague and Trina become impoverished. While living in squalor, McTeague becomes a violent alcoholic and Trina becomes greedily obsessed with her winnings, refusing to spend any of them, despite how poor she and her husband have become. Eventually McTeague murders Trina for the money and flees to the Death Valley. Schouler catches up with him there for a final confrontation, that is still one of the rare memorable scene in the history of cinema.
The Kid is Charlie Chaplin first full-length film as a director in 1921, after 7 years of creating the character of “The Tramp”, a vagrant with a big heart and dignity, helping the poor. Charlie Chaplin is undoubtedly the greatest single name in the history of cinema, an actor, writer, director, editor, producer and composer, or a man of all trades, impossible to match! Charlie Chaplin who goes beyond his films, is the only name in cinema who was known and is still well known by every child, adults and old, not only in US, but across the world. Chaplin who created the character of “the Tramp” earlier from the short film “Mabel’s strange predicament” starring Mabel Normand in 1914, continued with the same character in most of his filmography, so that the name of Charlie Chaplin equals “The Tramp”. This was so much so that Charlie was inseparable from his own character, that when in 1947 he made his first different character in “Monsieur Verdoux”, the world were in shock and hard to accept him in a different role. But since Chaplin was a genius, he shone in his latest films as well and was hailed by viewers and critics alike.
Charlie Chaplin’s character of “the Tramp” that had been a huge success from 1914 as an actor, continued throughout of his career as a filmmaker as it captured the hearts of people in any lands on the face of earth. “The Kid” is Chaplin’s first feature film written, produced, directed, edited and scored by himself in 1921, after losing a child in marriage with the actress Mildred Harris. Chaplin, while maintaining the character of “The Tramp”, he moved beyond comedy to realism alongside of an infant who had been deserted by his mother on the street, to raise him kindly as another tramp. Dealing with issues of poverty and parent–child separation, The Kid is thought to have been influenced by Chaplin’s own childhood and was one of the earliest films to combine comedy and drama. It was released in January 1921 with instant success, and by 1924 had been screened in over 50 countries. In 2011, The Kid was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Innovative in its combination of comedic and dramatic elements, The Kid is widely considered as one of the greatest films ever made.
Due to the uniqueness of Charlie Chaplin and having more than one film in any list of the greatest films of all time, he will be discussed here in some detail.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a German silent film, directed by Robert Wiene, released in 1920, just a year after the end of world war I. Although this film has been commonly considered as a prototype of horror films, but it is also a prototype of thrillers, murder mysteries, and even films with the psychological content of psychotic or insane killers, asylums, mental hospitals, double personalities, sleep walking and else. This great frontier film is the quintessential work of Expressionist movement in cinema, showing and proving that without much camera work and movement, but the application of twisted and distorted set designs and shapes, shadows, lighting, etc. the thrills, emotions, fear and else could be pictured on the screen like painting on canvas. The film has influenced so many filmmakers around the world for years, from Fritz Lang and others in Germany, to Alfred Hitchcock and others in England and US, to the present time when one can see its impact on “The Shutter Island” of Martin Scorsese.
Robert Wiene was born on April 27, 1873 in Breslau, Germany as the elder son of the successful theatre actor Carl Wiene. He first studied law at the University of Berlin, then followed the footstep of his father and brother, by starting to act in 1908 in small parts on stage. Four months after the Nazis took power and when Wiene’s latest film, “Taifun,” was banned on May 3, 1933, he fled Germany to work in a Hungarian film company that had invited him, then after production of “One Night in Venice” (1934), he moved to London, and finally to Paris where together with Jean Cocteau he tried to produce a sound remake of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Wiene died in Paris ten days before the end of production of a spy film, “Ultimatum” after having suffered from cancer.
The Film Plot:
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari opens with Francis, the main protagonist of the film sitting on a bench listening to an older man who complains that spirits have driven him away from his family and home, when a dazed woman named Jane passes them. Francis explains she is his “fiancée” and that they have suffered a great ordeal. Most of the rest of the film is a flashback of Francis’s story, which takes place in Holstenwall, a shadowy village of twisted buildings and spiraling streets. Francis and his friend Alan who are good-naturedly competing for Jane’s affections, plan to visit the town fair. Meanwhile, a mysterious man named Dr. Caligari seeks a permit from the rude town clerk to present a spectacle at the fair, which features a somnambulist named Cesare. The clerk mocks and berates Dr. Caligari, but ultimately approves the permit. That night, the clerk is found stabbed to death in his bed.
D.W.Griffith made this film in response to the negative critics for his “The Birth of a Nation”, as discussed in the related article on this site. This film was made only a year after “The Birth of a Nation” in 1916, when Europe was burning and suffering in the first world war. The anti-war and intolerance of races, nations and else ideology of Griffith that was shown well, but not understood in “The Birth of a Nation” is well spelled out in “Intolerance” and later on his future films. In this film, Griffith shows that intolerance, injustice, hatred, murder and war is not limited to a land or time, but spans across the globe and has always been a subject of human’s nature across ages and throughout the history. Beyond its great ideology and content concept, this epic film is the first to cover more than one time episode, but four across ages and nations, so needed the proper story telling, directing, editing and cinematography and work of camera that Griffith not just managed to do so greatly, but invented it. Since Griffith himself has been introduced earlier in the article on “The Birth of a Nation”, here his ideology then his film “intolerance” will be discussed briefly.
An Ideal Prophecy:
Griffith goes beyond his films! One cannot analyze his films without recognizing his idealism of condemning intolerance, injustice, hatred, murders and wars. He is seeking ideally to end the dark side of the wrong through love, for one another and the humanity at large, through his films. But as idealism in the humans history has been only an empty hope, Griffith not only succeeded in conveying his prophecy to others at his own life time, but he was sacrificed by his own creature, Hollywood! Fortunately his ideas were passed on and replicated by the great filmmakers after him, in anti-war movies and films against injustice and hatred, from “All quiet on the western front”, to “Dr. Strangelove” and “Deer Hunter”.
I will make a song for these states that no state may under any circumstances be subjected to another state, And I will make a song that there shall be comity by day and by night between all the states, and between any two of them, And I will make a song for the ears of the President, full of weapons and menacing points, And behind the weapons countless dissatisfied faces; And a song make I of the One form’d out of all, The fang’d and glittering One whose head is over all, Resolute warlike One including and over all, …….Democracy! near at hand to you a throat is now inflating itself and joyfully singing…….And I will not sing with reference to a day, but with reference to all days,
Walt Whitman Starting from Paumanok Leaves of Grass 1891
The birth of a nation, is an American epic movie about how this country was unified and became The United States of America or USA as we know it today. This frontier movie or the first major American feature film was made by David Wark Griffith (1875-1948) in 1915, at the time when Europe was burning in the World War I (1914-1919). The film was a pioneer in cinema with never seen before advanced camera and editing techniques, by the man who is collectively known as the Father of American Cinema or Hollywood. With a low budget cost of $110,000, it returned tens of millions of dollars in profits, making it, perhaps, the most profitable film of all time, taking into account the inflation rate. (1) Despite all these, the film for its content of portraying Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as the saviors of the white south against the blacks during the “Reconstruction” era after the Civil War, has been widely condemned. This collective condemnation, not only affected the film at least in US later on, if not at the time, it also outrageously disgraced Griffith, who had made 500 films by the time of his death in solitude! (2-3)
This silent film with a length of more than 3 hours, unheard and unusual for the time and years to come, in two acts, is a historical depiction of how the states of America, became united. The first act is on the civil war (1861-1865) of the north against the south to join them by force to the “Union” and make the whole country as one nation. The second act is after the civil war and during the reconstruction era (1865-1877) in the south, to transform the southern united states as directed by the congress with the reconstruction of the states and the society. Later on we will discuss and review these events, that are the content of the story of the film as a historical fiction, for the wrong understanding of many including the media, the film critics and film historians for the unjust condemnation of the film and its great creator. Unfortunately none of these critics have done a descent study and review of the historical events in the film, that indeed happened and cost Americans close to 1,000,000 lives in the civil war, more than any of their wars and both World War I & II combined, and the failure of their “Reconstruction” and transformation of the south and worsening the racial conflict in the south and the whole country. (4-5) But before all these, lets know better the man behind the camera who caused all these negative commotions, and at the same time is respected by other filmmakers, world-wide as a genius, and not deserving a life in isolation at the end!
Before The Birth of a Nation:
Griffith was born in Crestwood, Kentucky to Mary Perkins and Jacob Griffith, who were of Anglo-Welsh ancestry. Jacob Griffith was a confederate army colonel in the civil war and was elected as a Kentucky state legislator. Griffith was raised a Methodist and was taught by his older sister, Mattie Griffith at home. After his father died when he was ten, the family struggled with poverty. When Griffith was 14, his mother abandoned the farm and moved the family to Louisville, where she opened a boarding house, that failed shortly after. Griffith then left high school to help support the family, taking a job in a dry goods store and later in a bookstore. He began his creative career as a playwright but met with little success with only one of his plays being accepted for a performance.Griffith then decided to become an actor, and appeared in many plays as an extra in Biograph company.In 1908, Biograph’s main director, Wallace McCutcheon became ill and his son, Wallace McCutcheon, Jr., took his place, but was not able to bring the studio any success.As a result, Biograph co-founder, Henry “Harry” Marvin, decided to give Griffith the position, and the young man made his first short movie for the company, “The adventures of Dollie”. Griffith would end up directing 48 shorts for the company that year. Four years later he produced, directed and released his first feature, Judith of Bethulia, in 1913, one of the earliest to be produced in the United States. Because of company resistance to his goals, and his cost overruns on the film, $30,000,Griffith left Biograph. He took his stock company of actors with him and joined the Mutual Film Coroporation, and formed a studio with the Majestic Studio manager Harry Aitken that became known as Reliance-Majestic Studios (that was later renamed Fine Arts Studio). (6-10)
The Birth of a Nation:
Through Reliance-Majestic Studios, Griffith produced and directed “The Birth of a Nation”, in 1915, as one of the first feature length American films, as most previous films had been less than one hour long. The Birth of a Nation changed the industry’s standard in a way still influential today, but aroused much controversy due to its depiction of the KKK’s as the saviors of the white south against the black south with strong criticism from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). But despite all these, the film was the first “blockbuster” motion picture, and broke all the box office records, and benefitted people such as Louis Mayer who with the money he made, started his own studios of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. (11)
Metropolis created by Fritz Lang in 1927, at age 37, is a frontier in epic science fiction film, that for years has influenced not only filmmakers, but artists of different trades. This groundbreaking silent movie, that is not only a science fiction, but an incisive depiction of social class struggles, and an avant-garde of “expressionism” merits an introduction of its creator. Fritz Lang (1890-1976) was an Austrian-German filmmaker, born in Vienna to parents of Moravian descent, catholic father and Jewish born mother who converted seriously to Roman Catholicism. After finishing high school, Lang briefly studied civil engineering and eventually switched to art. In 1910 he left Vienna to travel the world, throughout Europe, Africa, Asia America and the Pacific region. In 1913, he studied painting in Paris, and at the outbreak of World War I, he returned to Vienna and volunteered for military service in the Austrian army and fought in Russia and Romania, where he was wounded three times. While recovering from his injuries in 1916, he wrote some scenarios and ideas for films. He was discharged from the army with the rank of lieutenant in 1918 and did some acting in the Viennese theater circuit for a short time before being hired as a writer at a Berlin-based production company.
Lang soon started to work as a director at a German film studio, just as the Expressionist movement was building. In 1920, he met his future wife, the writer and actress, Thea von Harbou, who co-wrote all of his movies from 1921 through 1933, including “Metropolis”, “Dr. Mabuse” and “M”, his first talking picture. According to Lang himself, the Nazi’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbles called him to his office to inform him that his late film “The testament of Dr. Mabuse” has been banned, but that he was nevertheless so impressed by Lang’s abilities as a filmmaker, especially “Metropolis’ and offered Lang a position as the head of German film studio “UFA”. Lang had stated that it was during this meeting that he had decided to leave for Paris, and from there shortly after immigrate to US. While most of Fritz Lang’s film before and after “Metropolis” have been “film noir” and to today’s description, thrillers and horrors, “Metropolis” stands out not just different, but a masterpiece that he or rarely anyone else for years to come could surpass!
Metropolis when first released, it was such a shock in pictorial beauty and complex in techniques and special effects, that was not understood well in its own time and received mixed reviews and reactions. The film’s extensive running time and also its social class struggles in a futuristic world, taken as communist, were criticized. Therefore the film was cut and censored substantially after its German premiere, removing a large portion of its original footage. Numerous attempts have been made to restore the film since the 1970s. Music producer Giorgio Moroder released a truncated version with a soundtrack by rock artists such as Freddie Mercury of “Queen”, Loverboy and Adam Ant in 1984. A new reconstruction of Metropolis was shown at the Berlin Film Festival in 2001, and the film was inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in the same year, the first film thus distinguished. In 2008 a damaged print of Lang’s original cut of the film was found in a museum in Argentina. After a long restoration process, the film was 95% restored and shown on large screens in Berlin and Frankfurt simultaneously on 12 February 2010.