If you’re a weird film fan I imagine you’ve seen, or at least heard of, German Expressionist horrors Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, the nightmarish documentary Haxan, early science fiction Metropolis and Un Chien Andalou, the most well-known silent Surrealist film.
Instead I wanted to share films you might not know. I had to be really strict with myself, there were so many I could have included such as The Passion of Joan of Arc, Hitchcock’s The Lodger, The Unknown, Within Our Gates and anything with Clara Bow (all highly recommended). And then there are modern offerings like Call of Cthulhu, The Artist and anything by Guy Maddin. However I decided to share my personal favourites, the ones I would show on a first night if I opened my own art deco cinema.
Pandora’s Box (1929)
The traditional German story of Lulu has her ruining all men who have the misfortune of falling in love with her. GW Pabst doesn’t go for this simplistic narrative, a fairly common trope at the time. Instead Lulu, played by Louise Brooks, is a free spirit who carelessly does what she wishes, whether it’s leaving one man for another or quitting a dance show for a circus. The men in her life project their wants and desires onto her, ruining themselves, until eventually they ruin her too. Considered extremely taboo (there’s lesbianism, sex work, murder and a hint at incest), it was frequently chopped to pieces in cinemas.
Here’s professional curmudgeon Mark Kermode discussing it:
Curse of Quon Gwon (1916-17)
A Westernised woman marries into a traditional Chinese family. Directed by Marion E Wong, she also appears as the film’s antagonist and members of the family make up the rest of the cast.
The lack of intertitles and the film’s incompletion make it difficult to know what’s happening. An accusation is made and the main character wanders off into the woods, then wanders back, and… I don’t know. The reason I like it so much are the little touches, like the main character secretly brushing her fringe back out after her hair is arranged in the Chinese way. It gives a timeless feel to the experience of acclimatising to new countries and new cultures.
The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928)
Made a full year before Un Chien Andalou, Germaine Dulac’s beautiful, dreamy images are a stark contrast to the violence in Dali and Bunuel’s film (which are also good, don’t get me wrong). At the time the other Surrealists dismissed it completely but these days it takes its rightful place as the first Surrealist film. Also check out her earlier feminist short The Smiling Madame Beudet.
The Goddess (1934)
Ruan Lingyu plays a mother who must slip out at night to earn money through sex work. She navigates her way through police, pimps and hurtful gossip. Although beautiful in traditional Chinese dress, she’s cool and rebellious. Then, when she holds her baby or goes to his play when he’s older, she’s warm and loving. Ruan Lingyu, like Louise Brooks, was a naturalistic actor which audiences didn’t always understand at the time. This, along with hurtful gossip of her own, contributed to her suicide in 1935.
Gallery of Monsters (1924)
The opening scene, with the whole circus onstage, is fantastic. The editing and visuals throughout feel very modern. However, for the characters, it’s the world’s worst place to work. A clown who looks like a Tim Burton creation and his wife are concerned for their ill baby, but the ringmaster doesn’t care. He’ll blackmail and threaten his performers into doing his bidding, and up their rent. Not only that, every time the goth clown is out of the trailer, the strong man tries to assault his wife.
It’s enjoyable also for the presence of Kiki de Montparnasse, a well-known figure among artists and filmmakers of 1920s Paris.
Unfortunately I couldn’t find one with English subtitles
The Wildcat (1921)
Ernst Lubitsch is a well-known, well-loved director for a reason. The Wildcat is an explosion of pure joy and fun with surrealist moments, fantastical moments and bits that made me proper belly laugh. A lieutenant is due to marry the Commander’s daughter but a member of a band of robber’s, Pola Negri, sneaks in and steals his heart instead. The end doesn’t go where you think it will, which makes for a better film, but I was still sad.
A Page of Madness (1923)
Also lacking intertitles, this wasn’t found until the 70s. This experimental film was made by Shinkankakuha, or the School of New Perceptions. Wanting to do away with all natural style they created a visual assortment of bizarre images which translate really well into gifs. The story doesn’t really matter – a man enters an asylum to rescue his wife – it’s the eyeball treats that are the reason to watch.
Our Modern Maidens (1929)
Made as part of a trio of unrelated films, Our Modern Maidens is known as a squib, meaning a silent film with a scene or two of sound.
Before Joan Crawford became the monster of Mommie Dearest, before even her face became the mask we think of today, she was a feisty flapper with wonderful outfits.
Our Dancing Daughters is a better film but I prefer this one. Joan looks beautiful, especially during a dance at a party, Douglas Fairbanks Jr is fun, and the story is quite racy for the time (he gets another girl pregnant and it’s not frowned upon). Also, the final romance between Joan and the man she chooses… let’s just say, if it was me, I’d have run a mile.
So there we have it. I hope you enjoy and that it leads you to search out more, I enjoy having people to chat with about silent films. Toodle pip!