Feature Article

GREAT AMERICAN FILMS, PT. 2: 1921-1930

Lists of great American films have been published by a variety of sources, including the American Film Institute. Our chronological, annotated list will focus on obscure and less celebrated American masterpieces. Part 2 covers films released from 1921 to 1930.

THE FILMS

  1. The Kid (1921)
  2. Tol'able David (1921)
  3. Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1922)
  4. Foolish Wives (1922)
  5. Our Hospitality (1923)
  6. Marriage Circle (1924)
  7. Dancing Mothers (1926)
  8. The Strong Man (1926)
  9. Beau Geste (1926)
  10. Kid Brother (1927)
  11. The Gaucho (1927)
  12. Last Command (1928)
  13. Street Angel (1928)
  14. Lonesome (1928)
  15. Show People (1928)

THE HIGH ART OF SILENT FILM

During the 1920s silent film reached a high level of artistry.  All aspects of filmmaking were perfected.  An experienced audience understood and readily interpreted the vocabulary of film. Direction and acting were subtle and fluid. Cinematography produced beautiful images of actors and their surroundings Small movements of face, hands and body conveyed great meaning. Film design excelled in graphic art, expressive sets and costumes.

Silent films were romantic and capable of expressing intense romanticism and strong passion. Subtle facial expression and body movement alone get across the thoughts of a character.

Viewed with understanding, and appropriate musical accompaniment that provides tonal color and emphasis to the onscreen action, the best silent films communicate exceptional expressiveness and appeal.

SOCIAL CHANGES REFLECTED IN FILM

The subject matter of film mirrors the society and culture of the times. During the twenties, the movies reflected the considerable changes occurring in American society and culture.

American participation in World War I produced new outlooks in society. Men returned from war had seen brutality and suffering. In Europe their world view broadened. Cultural exchange with European nations increased.

The constitutional amendment prohibiting the manufacture or sale of intoxicating beverages was enforced from January, 1920. Prohibition led to flaunting of the law, especially in urban areas.

In 1919, a constitutional amendment legalized female suffrage. Socially, women were less constrained in their behavior; public interactions between men and women became more open.

The ideal of female beauty changed with the twenties. The female body profile became flatter, blouses were flatter, and the waistline dropped. Hairstyles simplified. As the decade advanced, women’s hair and skirts became shorter. The standard hair cut was the bob with the hair shortened to the neck. Skirts rose to the knee, and a seated woman showed her nylon-clad leg.

The modern young woman came to be known as a flapper. She used make-up freely, patronized speakeasies, listened to jazz, smoked and drove alone. She danced the Charleston with legs flying. 

During the final years of the decade,the flapper was epitomized by movie stars, Clara Bow and Colleen Moore, lively, fun-loving, open to new experiences, but basically moral and clean living, young women.

THE FILMMAKERS

Although some of the major actors (Ronald Colman, Mary Pickford) and directors (King Vidor, Ernst Lubitsch, Henry King, Frank Capra, Erich von Stroheim) of the silent era are still fairly well known, many other prominent actors and directors of the era, such as Alice Joyce, Richard Barthelmess, William Haines, Herbert Brenon, and Rex Ingram, to name only a few, are obscure today. The better known actors and directors are mostly remembered from films made in the talkie era. Actors and directors whose careers were mostly confined to the silents are little known.

The great silent comedians — Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd — are the best known group of silent filmmakers. Their action-filled comedies appeal directly to an audience.

D.W. Griffith, who had dominated the 1910s (four of his films are discussed in Great Films, 1911-1920, continued to make films through the 1920s, however he did not significantly advance in story or method, and his films, while interesting, have an old-fashioned tone. 

THE FILMS

Our list consists of outstanding silent films that should be seen and appreciated. We echo the apophthegm of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival: “True Art Transcends Time”.

THE KID (1921)

TOL'ABLE DAVID (1921)

FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE (1922)

FOOLISH WIVES (1922)

OUR HOSPITALITY (1923)

MARRIAGE CIRCLE (1924)

DANCING MOTHERS (1926)

THE STRONG MAN (1926)

BEAU GESTE (1926)

KID BROTHER (1927)

THE GAUCHO (1927)

LAST COMMAND (1928)

STREET ANGEL (1928)

LONESOME (1928)

SHOW PEOPLE (1928)