Another early-’20s list limited by the availability of what’s see-able these days. Like other years around it, 1923 contains serious attempts to define the way the cinema could be an art form in step with the other legitimate arts and not merely a disreputable distraction for the uncouth. Thus in the U.S. Chaplin makes an art film, A Woman of Paris, that leaves the Tramp offscreen and by god actually succeeds in being a masterwork; and in France the pre-Napoleon Abel Gance mounted a colossally serious (sometimes laboriously so) epic of rails and quasi-incestuous anguish and Sisiphysian lifecycles, La Roue.
But in the end I give the edge to Buster Keaton, whose Our Hospitality is decidedly less serious but almost seamless in its grace, structure, and humor. The “other” comic genius of the time, Harold Lloyd, released one of his most famous pictures, Safety Last, a delightful movie that nevertheless allows us to firmly state that Chaplin and Keaton fully deserve to be in a league of their own, with everybody else in comedy at least one level down. But Lloyd is still brilliant. The ten best movies of 1923:
1. Our Hospitality (Buster Keaton, John G. Blystone)
2. A Woman of Paris (Charlie Chaplin)
3. La Roue (Abel Gance)
4. Safety Last (Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor)
5. The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille)
6. Three Ages (Buster Keaton)
7. Warning Shadows (Arthur Robison)
8. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Wallace Worsley)
9. The Grub Stake (Nell Shipman, Bert Van Tuyle)
10. The Pilgrim (Charlie Chaplin)
Keaton had a good year, with The Balloonatic and The Love Nest also in release. I saw The Covered Wagon (James Cruze) once upon a time, but if it left an impression back in my teen years (when silent films were a curiosity to be considered along with those movies where you had to read the words in English at the bottom of the screen), it’s gone now. And if you ever get a chance to see The Grub Stake, a wild Alaskan adventure from one of the celebrated women filmmakers of the era, don’t pass it up.