1925 Ten Best Movies

Can anybody still show Battleship Potemkin to a college class these days, or is this frowned upon as a turn-off for potential customers who should not be challenged with anything made before 1977? ‘Cause I showed it to a class once, and nobody actually left the room, even if there were a couple of students who asked whether we would be seeing anything fun any time soon.

It’s a helluva movie, actually, and not just in a Museum Klassics, interesting-to-see-what-they-could-do-back-then kind of way. People really ought to watch it, though the original political purpose (at least the specific political purpose) has been discredited. (More general political echoes are easy to find.) Maybe Blu-ray could polish it up into a newly striking condition? As a series of events with shapes and shadows colliding in various dynamic ways for the purpose of advancing an idea, the movie really is a pip.

Billy Wilder narrates what he calls the greatest insert in the history of movies: “The sailors are revolting against the food on the ship and the captain says there is nothing wrong. The sailors say there are little animals in there eating away at that meat. ‘OK,’ says the captain, ‘let’s get the doctor down.’ Now in those days we made glasses where one lens slides over the other one and makes a magnifying glass and, when you see through the magnifying glass, there are thousands of maggots. The doctor puts the glasses on, turns to the captain and says, ‘It is perfectly all right.’ That’s when you wanted to jump out of the seat and right away become a Communist.”

Also in 1925 Chaplin and Keaton came up with beauties, and Erich von Stroheim did his bad thing. The ten best movies of 1925:

1. Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein)

2. The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin)

3. Seven Chances (Buster Keaton)

4. The Merry Widow (Erich von Stroheim)

5. The Freshman (Sam Taylor)

6. The Big Parade (King Vidor)

7. Lazybones (Frank Borzage)

8. The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian)

9. Tumbleweeds (King Baggot)

10. Variety (E.A. Dupont)

The Freshman is Harold Lloyd, of course, and Tumbleweeds the final feature for William S. Hart, both true vehicles for their stars. I have never seen the proper version of Variety, if any exists, but there’s enough in truncated prints to suggest the trippiness of the project; and I’ve only been able to see another Weimar hit, G.W. Pabst’s Joyless Street, in weird cut versions, too.

Good movies in the near-misses: Keaton also had Go West; Ben-Hur and The Lost World are impressive in their own ways; D.W. Griffith’s Sally of the Sawdust put W.C. Fields together with Carol Dempster. Tartuffe is a very curious little exercise made by F.W. Murnau between masterpieces, and Body and Soul puts Paul Robeson under the direction of Oscar Micheaux, who still had a few chops at that point.


4 Responses

  1. Lazybones remains a grievous lapse in my viewing history (guess nobody’s ever going to make me a present of that Borzage-Murnau Fox box), but higher than Potemkin in my own 1925 reckoning is Lubitsch’s amazingly eloquent silent-film translation of the Oscar Wilde stage piece Lady Windermere’s Fan. And just behind the Odessa artifact is Dreyer’s slow-gathering but ultimately transfixing Master of the House. Two very promising newcomers also newly came in 1925: Rene Clair with Paris qui dort (aka The Crazy Ray) and Alfred Hitchcock with The Pleasure Garden.

  2. Oh yes, that Lubitsch fellow. I have never seen Lady Windermere’s Fan, nor has fate ever put me near the Dreyer film. This is a scrappy year for home-video availability of big names, but I guess that’s true for a lot of silent years.

  3. Kino’s Blu-ray version of “Potemkin” (mastered from the recent reconstruction/restoration) is superb. Quite a contrast to the first college screening on 16mm, all grainy and jumpy and washed out. I don’t think that folks who came of age in the sixties and seventies and eighties realized that silent films actually looked as stellar and sharp and elegant as the better-preserved films from the forties and fifties. The combination of film restoration and DVD/Blu-ray markets are doing a lot to correct that.

    • Good to know about the Potemkin Blu-ray, which I haven’t seen. I saw the movie first on PBS in the 1970s (probably Charles Champlin’s “Film Odyssey” series of foreign classics), and it looked pretty antique there, but it probably looks antique to most 13-year-olds.

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