Some very big movies at the top this year, as though ambitions suddenly crested and brought forth epics. The makers of these epics happen to be the names you’d want to see attached to large projects – Lang, Murnau, Stroheim, Ford – testing the boundaries of the medium see how they would hold. (In the case of Erich von Stroheim, the boundaries held, with a vengeance, but that was quite an act of stretching.)
Stroheim’s epic was Greed, that maddest of long-form schemes, which might have been ten hours (or more) long, but was severely cut before its release. Interesting to think of how film history might have been different if it had been released in super-long form and been a hit – what other grand projects might have been hatched? John Ford settled the West in The Iron Horse and Fritz Lang told the great mythological story in Die Nibelungen, films that (along with Lang’s Dr. Mabuse a couple years earlier) laid down the conventions for about half the genre pictures that would follow. Murnau’s great opus, The Last Laugh (originally Der letzte Mann), is not an epic, but its technical reach and its assumption that film is an art form make it as big as any epic.
And yet the Number One is a small movie, lasting less than an hour, and a comedy. In this case, perfection trumps ambition, and Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. is just about perfect: a tribute to imagination, and a keen observation about film itself (Keaton plays a projectionist who falls asleep and dreams his way through a series of film scenarios). And it’s funny. The best films of 1924:
1. Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton)
2. The Last Laugh (F.W. Murnau)
3. Die Nibelungen (Fritz Lang)
4. Greed (Erich von Stroheim)
5. The Navigator (Buster Keaton)
6. The Iron Horse (John Ford)
7. Strike (Sergei Eisenstein)
8. The Marriage Circle (Ernst Lubitsch)
9. Girl Shy (Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor)
10. He Who Gets Slapped (Victor Sjostrom)
Two Expressionist gems come close: The Hands of Orlac (Robert Wiene), and Paul Leni’s Waxworks, both supernaturally-oriented. Girl Shy is a wonderful Harold Lloyd comedy; hard to pick between that and Hot Water, also a classic Lloyd. As usual with these things, it’s difficult to peg the actual date of some films; Strike is often listed as a 1925 release. But that’s also the release of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, so we’ll let Strike have its moment here.