1920s

Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)

Diary of  a Lost Girl 1929

On the day of her confirmation, Thymian (Lousie Brooks) is given a diary as a gift. It was also the day her life started a downward slide. She’s the daughter of a pharmacist who can never resist having affairs with the family’s housekeepers. When the latest one, Barbara, is pregnant, she’s sent away, but Thymian doesn’t know why. Barbara later commits suicide and when her body is brought back to their home, Thymian is understandably upset. That night, her father’s business partner Meinert (Fritz Rasp) comes to console her, then rapes her, which results in Thymian having a child out of wedlock. She never admits who the father is, so her family reads her diary to learn the truth. They want her to marry Meinert, but she refuses, so they take her child away from her and send her to reform school.

Life in the reform school is brutal and Thymian desperately wants to get out. She gets in touch with a friend, Count Orsdoff (Andre Roanne), who has also fallen on hard times. He had been supported by a wealthy uncle, but was cut off when he fails to succeed at any subject in school. She tries to get him to talk her father into getting her out, but he’s just married Meta (Franziska Kinz), the family’s new housekeeper, and doesn’t want Thymian around. Instead, Orsdoff helps Thymian and her friend Erika (Edith Meinhard) escape.

The first thing Thymian wants to do is see her child, but finds out the baby has died. With no one to take care of her and no job skills, she and Erika become prostitutes. One night, her father, Meta, and Meinert see her in a nightclub in the city and are shocked to see what’s become of her. But shortly afterward, Thymian’s father passes away, leaving her as sole heir. She stands to inherit a lot of money since Meinert is buying her father’s share of the pharmacy and she plans to use her money to start a new life. She even plans to marry Orsdoff so she can have a new identity and help Ordoff start a new life. But when she sees that Meta and her two young children have been left with no money and no place to go, she decides to give them the money because she doesn’t want the children to wind up like her.

Since Ordoff now isn’t able to start over in life, he kills himself. Ordoff’s uncle feels terribly guilty for disowning him and decides to make up for it by taking care of Thymian and helping her start over. She earns a more respectable place in society and people start trying to get her involved in charities — including the reform school she was once imprisoned in.

Diary of a Lost Girl really ought to have been titled Diary of a Lost Girl: Men are Terrible. Everything bad that happens to poor Thymian is the result of being forced to be around terrible men like her father, Meinert, and the super creepy warden at the reform school. This movie is definitely not short on melodrama and Louise Brooks gives a wonderful performance in it. She’s absolutely radiant and lights up a screen like few other stars ever could. Brooks greatly benefits from G.W. Pabst’s direction; they were such a great actress/director pair, like Dietrich and Von Sternberg or de Mille and Gloria Swanson. If you liked Pandora’s Box, you’ll probably also like Diary of a Lost Girl. Between Brooks’s performance and Pabst’s direction, Diary of a Lost Girl remains entertaining and compelling and stands apart from being ordinary melodrama.

Seven Years Bad Luck (1921)

Seven Years Bad Luck 1921 Max Linder

After his raucous bachelor party, Max (Max Linder) comes home very drunk the next morning. He’s so drunk he doesn’t even recognize his own bedroom. The next morning, his butler accidentally breaks Max’s mirror while flirting with the maid and tries to pretend nothing happened, even going as far as to convince another house employee to dress up as Max and stand on the other side of the mirror and mimic him while he gets ready until the mirror can be replaced. It doesn’t take Max long to realize what’s going on and make him want to destroy the illusion. But then his fiance Betty (Alta Allen) calls and interrupts him and while he’s away, the mirror is replaced. So when he comes back to throw something through the mirror frame, he ends up breaking the mirror.

Max is a bit superstitious, so the thought of starting seven years of bad luck just before his wedding horrifies him. He does everything he can to avoid bad luck. When he goes to see Betty, her maid offers to read his palm for him while he waits for her and she tells him he’ll have bad luck with a dog. Since Betty has a dog, Max tries to get rid of it and Betty isn’t pleased and breaks things off with him. She changes her mind, but Max’s behavior once again bothers her and she ends it with him again. Desperate to save their relationship, Max gets his friend to talk to Betty on his behalf, but his friend has been in love with Betty and tells her that Max has run off one of his old girlfriends. Deeply hurt, she decides to marry Max’s friend out of spite.

When Max finds out what’s been going on, he decides to get away from it all with a train trip. But he gets robbed before he can get on the train and tries to sneak on.  His presence doesn’t go unnoticed by the train conductor and Max has to spend the trip trying to evade the train employees. Eventually he’s arrested and has to see a judge, but it just so happens Betty and Max’s friend are there to see the same judge to get married. But is Max’s streak of bad luck over?

Out of all the silent film comedians, I’ve long felt like Max Linder has been overdue for rediscovery by classic film fans. He was a tremendous influence on so many of the great classic comedians like Chaplin, Keaton, and the Marx Brothers and Seven Years Bad Luck is an excellent example of how brilliant he was. The whole scene with Max’s employee trying to be the mirror image of Max was clearly an inspiration for Groucho and Harpo’s famous mirror scene in Duck Soup. Even though it’s a slapstick comedy, Linder does a fantastic job of handling everything with style and grace. Seven Years Bad Luck is not the broad, over the top style of slapstick that something like Tillie’s Punctured Romance is. It’s a very fun and clever little comedy that I’ll admit kind of starts to drag a little bit near the end, but is still highly enjoyable.

Lonesome (1928)

Lonesome 1928

Mary (Barbara Kent) and Jim (Glenn Tryon) have never met, but they have much in common. They both live in New York City, they’re both single, and they’re both feeling pretty lonely. Mary is a phone operator and Jim is a factory worker and on 4th of July weekend, they’re both invited to join some of their coupled friends out at Coney Island. Not wanting to feel like a third wheel, both Mary and Jim decline the invitations, but after spending some time alone in their respective apartments, they decide to head out to the beach by themselves.

Jim and Mary’s paths finally cross while they’re at the beach and the attraction is instant. They spend the entire day together having fun at the beach and at the carnival. At last, they’ve finally found the companionship they’ve been longing for. By now, they’re very much in love with each other, but when they end up getting separated during a commotion, it’s an uphill battle to find each other again. They only know each other’s first names and have a picture of each other to go on.

I love Lonesome. I recently picked it up during a Criterion 50% off sale never having seen it before and I’m so glad I did. It’s a very pleasant, poignant film with a lot of very innovative things going on in it. Lonesome isn’t a completely silent film, it does have a few scenes with recorded dialogue. It also has a lot of very interesting editing and superimposition, which might not seem too exciting if you’re thinking of the modern editing technology available today. Those types of things were much more difficult in 1928. Director Paul Fejos even experiments with color tinting in some scenes. If you’re a big fan of getting to see vintage New York City and Coney Island pictures and footage, you’re in for a real treat with Lonesome because this has a lot of footage that was shot on location. It’s a beautiful film that deserves to be more well known.

Spite Marriage (1929)

Spite Marriage 1929

Elmer (Buster Keaton) is the biggest fan actress Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian) could ask for. He never misses one of her stage performances and if he knows where she’ll be throughout the day, he tries to be there so he can see her. His presence hasn’t gone unnoticed by Trillby or her entourage. Whenever they see him, Elmer is always dressed in a very nice looking outfit, so they all assume he’s a very wealthy admirer. In reality, he works in a laundry and borrows the nice clothes.

However, Trillby is in love with fellow actor Lionel Benmore (Edward Earle). One night, an actor in the show is unable to go on at the last minute and since Elmer has seen the show so many times, he fills in. Of course, the show ends up being a complete disaster, but since Elmer was very heavily costumed on stage, he was able to sneak backstage and get back into his nice clothes without anyone being the wiser. As if the show wasn’t disastrous enough, after the performance is over, Trillby finds out Lionel is engaged to another woman. When she runs into Elmer backstage, she decides to marry him purely out of spite.

It isn’t long before Trillby realizes what a terrible idea this all was. Elmer isn’t the wealthy man she thought he was, Lionel is off with another woman, and she’s so unhappy that she spends her entire wedding night completely drunk. The next day, Trillby’s managers come to help her out of the marriage and convince Elmer to go away for a while so she can get a divorce for desertion. He leaves and accidentally ends up working on a boat with some bootleggers. Eventually, he ends up making his way to being a sailor on a private yacht, which just happens to include Trillby and Lionel as passengers. When a fire breaks out on the ship, it surprisingly ends up being the opportunity he needed to prove to Trillby just how much he loves her.

Spite Marriage was the last silent film by the great Buster Keaton and although it isn’t quite the masterpiece that some of his other movies are, it’s still a darn good movie with some really great laughs in it, particularly when Elmer is trying to put Trillby to bed when she was black-out drunk and when Elmer’s filling in for the stage actor and putting on his costume.  Buster’s good in it and the movie also greatly benefits from Dorothy Sebastian’s performance; she does a wonderful job of holding her own alongside Keaton.

The overall execution of the movie just isn’t quite up to par with some of Keaton’s earlier work primarily because Keaton wasn’t allowed as much creative control over the project. Spite Marriage is widely noted for being the turning point in his career when it started going downhill. This was the second project he made while under contract at MGM and was the last project he made there where he’d have any creative control over during his time there. But even with that lack of control, it was still a very enjoyable swan song for a silent film legend.

Male and Female (1919)

Male and Female 1919

Lady Mary Lasenby (Gloria Swanson) comes from a very wealthy, socially important family. She’s never had to work a day in her life and is used to having other people do everything for her. Her family’s butler William Crichton (Thomas Meighan) is in love with Mary, but Mary is a strong believer of marrying within one’s own class and is engaged to another upper class man. Tweeny (Lila Lee), one of the family’s maids, is in love with William, but he only seems to have eyes for Mary.

One day, Mary, her family, and their servants head out on a yachting trip and wind up getting shipwrecked on a deserted island. Naturally, the servants prove to be the most adept at survival while the wealthy family is completely clueless. With no money to divide the classes anymore, the tables quickly turn and the servants end up becoming the leaders. They are all left on the island for a couple of years and over time, Mary begins to fall in love with the William. They decide to get married in a simple little island ceremony, but right as they’re about to say their vows, a ship finally comes to rescue them.

When they return to home, everything goes back to the way it was. Mary and William still love each other, but when one of Mary’s friends visits, William begins to reconsider his decision to marry Mary. Mary’s friend has become a social outcast after marrying her chauffeur. William decides he’d rather marry Tweeny instead and move someplace where class isn’t so important.

I was really hoping to like this movie, but unfortunately, it just didn’t do anything for me. I’d heard so much about the famous scene where Gloria Swanson is together with the lions so I was hoping to like it if only for that. The story had a very interesting premise, but it just didn’t hold my interest. A little too slowly paced for my liking. It’s very typical of other Cecil B. DeMille movies from this era in that it takes a modern day social commentary and weave it in with a flashback to historical times; in this case, ancient Babylon. The Babylon scenes are classic Cecil B. DeMille with grand sets, Gloria Swanson in fabulous costumes, and those live lions which Gloria did, indeed, really lie down with. It’s ultimately unnecessary to the plot and slows down an already slowly paced movie, but it’s definitely a good example of what made DeMille the legend he is. A lot of other people seem to like this movie, but unfortunately, I just didn’t see the appeal.

The Mysterious Lady (1928)

The Mysterious Lady 1928

On the night of a sold-out opera, Captain Karl von Raden (Conrad Nagel) is only able to get a seat when another patron returns their ticket at the last minute. When he finds his way to his seat, he discovers his seat is next to the beautiful Tania Fedorova (Greta Garbo). The patron who had returned their ticket at the last minute was her cousin. They’re very attracted to each other and when Karl offers to take her home after the show, she hesitates at first but reluctantly agrees. Before they know it, they’re having a blissful day together out in the country.

When Karl has to leave for duty, his uncle Colonel Eric von Raden (Edward Connelly) tells him Tania is actually a top Russian spy. He boards his train absolutely furious at Tania for betraying him. Tania follows him onto the train to apologize and tries to tell her that she really does love him, but he won’t have any of it. In a fit of anger, she steals the plans he was carrying and sneaks off the train during the night.

Once Karl’s train reaches its destination, he has to pay dearly for his fling with Tania. He’s publicly degraded by his officers and spends some time in jail, but his uncle has a plan for how he can redeem himself by exposing a real traitor. As part of the plan, Karl has to pose as a piano player in Warsaw, but as fate would have it, he ends up playing at a party being thrown for Tania. They both still have feelings for each other and when they get to spend a brief moment together, it’s enough to put both of them in danger.

I love The Mysterious Lady. Is there any more perfect title for a Greta Garbo movie than that? This is, in my opinion, one of Garbo’s most underrated movies. She and Conrad Nagel had good chemistry together and the story is really entertaining and fascinating. This is the kind of movie that’s really good at grabbing your attention at the very beginning and holding onto it at the very last second with lots of twists and turns along the way. My only complaint about it is that the ending feels a bit forced and tacked on. But otherwise, it’s fantastic. I’d love to see this movie on the big screen some day because Garbo is so stunning in it, seeing it in a theater must be absolutely breathtaking to see.

The Patsy (1928)

Marion Davies The Patsy

Pat Harrington (Marion Davies) is an awkward young woman who always feels like the odd one out. Her mother (Marie Dressler) clearly favors Pat’s older sister Grace (Jane Winton) and Pat’s father (Dell Henderson) doesn’t approve of the way Pat is treated, but his wife is too domineering to listen to anything he has to say. Grace always seems so elegant and sophisticated and has no problem attracting attention from men, making Pat feel like even more of an outcast in her own family. Grace has been dating Tony (Orville Caldwell) and while Tony adores her, Grace is hardly loyal. Pat is in love with Tony, but he’s too wrapped up in Grace to notice.

Pat wants nothing more in the world than to be noticed by Tony and get treated with more respect. When she manages to spend some time with Tony alone after a party, she laments that men never seem to notice her and he says men like a woman with personality So she decides to take his advice and gets some books on how to develop a personality, which involves going around saying odd platitudes in hopes of sounding smart and witty, but she really makes no sense. Her family is absolutely dumbstruck by Pat’s strange behavior and think she’s gone crazy. But when her father realizes what’s going on, he encourages her to keep up the act.

Of course, Pat tries to use her new “personality” to win over Tony and he likes Pat. After all, she shows more of a genuine interest in him than Grace or anyone else in the family. But when Grace sees that Pat has designs on Tony — and is actually winning him over — she makes a point to put a stop to it. So when Pat sees Grace leave with Tony, she goes to see Billy (Lawrence Gray), another man Grace has been seeing, so she can make it seem like she’s in trouble and Tony can save her from it. This time, she ends up pushing her entire family a little too far, but it all works out in the end.

The Patsy is, in my opinion, one of the all-time great silent comedies that doesn’t get the amount of credit it deserves. It’s a completely and totally delightful film; the sort of movie I can put on when I’ve had a bad day and it always cheers me up. It’s by far one of the best movies Marion Davies ever made and is a fine example of why she ought to be considered one of the best comedic actresses of the silent era. The scene where Marion impersonates other big silent film stars like Lillian Gish and Pola Negri is well worth the price of admission. Marion is, indeed, the star of the movie, but she has a lot of help from a wonderful supporting cast. They couldn’t have found a more perfect actress for Pat’s mother than Marie Dressler and Dell Henderson was spot-on as the put-upon father. I simply can’t think of a bad thing to say about this movie.

Toll of the Sea (1922)

Toll of the Sea Anna May Wong

One day, Lotus Flower (Anna May Wong) finds a man floating unconscious in the sea. She calls for help to rescue him and he’s nursed back to health. The man’s name is Allen (Kenneth Harlan), an American visiting China. As he recovers, Allen and Lotus Flower fall in love with each other and they decide to get married and Allen plans to bring Lotus Flower back to America with him. They’re both absolutely thrilled, but Allen’s friends don’t think he should bring Lotus Flower back with him and some women Lotus Flower knows are convinced he’s going to go back to America and forget all about her.

Lotus Flower is really looking forward to leaving for America, but Allen succumbs to peer pressure and tells her that he can’t bring her home with him at that time. She’s absolutely heartbroken and as the months go by, she spends every day waiting to hear from him. When her son is born, she names him after Allen, despite the fact that she still hasn’t heard from him.

Eventually, Allen returns to China and Lotus Flower is ecstatic. She can’t wait to introduce her son to his father. But he arrives with a guest she wasn’t expecting — his wife, Barbara (Beatrice Bentley), an old childhood acquaintance. She knew all about Lotus Flower and insisted the only honorable thing Allen could do was return and tell Lotus Flower the truth. The news is understandably devastating to Lotus Flower, who pretends her son is an American neighbor child. She later admits the truth to Barbara and insists she take the child back to America with her.

If you’re a fan of early Technicolor, Toll of the Sea is one you absolutely must see. It’s one of the earliest examples of a movie filmed in color that’s known to exist. But Toll of the Sea is more than just a technological milestone, it’s a great showcase for the wonderful Anna May Wong, who was very early in her career at this point. She was still a teenager when she made this movie and her performance is very heartfelt, sensitive, and sympathetic. Given that Anna May Wong wasn’t a big star at this point, I’m impressed the producers cast a real Chinese-American actress in the lead role and not a better-known white actress in yellowface, especially since I can’t imagine this was a low-budget movie since it was filmed in color. I really wish I heard this movie being discussed more than I do, because it’s a very good little movie.

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

The Phantom Carriage 1921

It’s New Year’s Eve and Salvation Army sister Edit (Astrid Holm) is lying on her death bed. There’s no hope for her, but the one person she wants to speak with before she passes on is David Holm (Victor Sjostrom), a poor, local drunk who is ringing in the new year by drinking with his friends in a cemetery. He tells his friends a story his friend Georges had told him about how the spirit of the last person to die on New Year’s Eve will spend the next year driving a carriage of death around the world, collecting the souls of those who die that year

When a Salvation Army worker finds David, he refuses to go see Edit, much to his friends’ dismay. His friends try to get him to make him go, but he dies after being hit on the head. David’s spirit is greeted by the spirit of his friend Georges (Tore Svenberg), who is driving the spirit carriage because he was the last one to pass away the previous New Years Eve.

Before taking over Georges’s job of driving the carriage, Georges warns David that driving the carriage is an absolutely horrible duty it is to have. Georges reminds David how he used to be married  father of two children, before Georges had corrupted him with alcohol. Sister Edit had taken a particular interest in reforming David and spent much of the previous year trying to do so. Georges also reminds David how he could sometimes be violent, like when his wife asked him to stay away from the children to prevent them from getting sick and he breaks a door down with an axe.

Being reminded of what’s been going on in his life inspires David to make things right again. He wakes up in the graveyard, just in time to get his life back in order.

Whether you’re looking for a really eerie movie to watch on a fall night leading up to Halloween or for something different to watch on New Year’s Eve, The Phantom Carriage is a great choice. If you want something very atmospheric and creepy, this movie has it in spades.  It’s creepy and atmospheric in a distinct way that only silent movies seem to be able to pull off. The plot may have some things in common with A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, but The Phantom Carriage is completely unique unto itself. In fact, think of The Phantom Carriage as It’s a Wonderful Life if George Bailey were a total lowlife, if the movie had been produced away from the glossy Hollywood system, and if it lacked the sentimental touch of Frank Capra. The Phantom Carriage manages to be simultaneously familiar (at least when viewed with nearly a century’s worth of films that came out after its release in mind) and distinct.

The Saphead (1920)

The Saphead 1920On the surface, Bertie Van Alstyne (Buster Keaton) might seem like your typical, rich, layabout. He stays out all night cavorting at nightclubs and casinos. His father, Wall Street magnate Nicholas Van Alstyne (William H. Crane) is completely dismayed by his son’s behavior and would much rather see him take his career seriously. What Nicholas doesn’t realize is that Bertie isn’t the kind of person he seems to be. Bertie had read a book that says modern women are attracted to men who behave like that and since he’s trying to get the attention of Agnes (Beulah Booker), decided to take the advice. He actually finds that kind of lifestyle kind of dull.

Instead, Nicholas is much more fond of Mark (Irving Cummings), his daughter Rose’s (Carol Holloway) husband. Mark is a very unsuccessful man who’s been carrying on an affair with a woman named Henrietta. One day, he receives a letter from Henrietta saying she was very ill and broke and needed help.

Fed up with his son’s behavior, Nicholas cuts Bertie off, giving him a million dollar severance check, but gives Bertie and Agnes his blessing to get married. On the day of their wedding, evidence of Mark’s affair with Henrietta comes to light and Nicholas tries to frame Bertie with it. This time, Nicholas is so furious he disowns him. Before long, Mark is in left in charge of handling the family’s finances and has a plan to take all of their money for himself and it’s Bertie who ends up saving the family.

The Saphead was Buster Keaton’s first starring role in a feature-length film. It’s not the best vehicle for Keaton’s talents; it doesn’t have as many opportunities to showcase what an absolutely brilliant physical comedian he was. There are certainly some good laughs in The Saphead and it’s not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. I actually did enjoy it, but I can see why a lot of people might not appreciate this one as much as they would The General or Steamboat Bill, Jr.  But if you’re a serious Buster Keaton fan, it’s well worth seeing if only for the chance to see something a little different than you might expect from one of his movies.