1921 Ten Best Movies

Chaplin and Coogan, The Kid

The Kid is Chaplin’s first feature, and a devastating example of a simple idea (just an hour long) made rich in the doing. According to its description it ought to be horribly sentimental, and Chaplin’s is supposedly a Victorian sensibility, inclined toward ancient conventions that manipulate our nerve endings with unfair doggedness. Those conventions are ancient (and they certainly work), but so much of The Kid is goosed by cheekiness, speed, and the antic  presence of Jackie Coogan, it succeeds beautifully.

Chaplin worked from things he knew, of course, and not just theatrical conventions he absorbed. Among the things he knew: illegitimacy, poverty, and hunger – elements that land with complete authority amidst the very effective gags and the sentiment. Coogan is a hoot, his life waiting to unfold into one of those unlikely Hollywood sagas: fleeced of his considerable childhood earnings by his parents (thus leading to the Coogan Act, still a part of protecting underage performers), he grew up into a non-cute adult and eventually Uncle Fester. When Chaplin returned to the U.S. after his exile for his special Oscar in the early Seventies, he and the 57-year-old Coogan saw each other for the first time in years; at one point Chaplin turned to Coogan’s wife and said, “You must never forget. Your husband is a genius.”

Much grander in scale are Orphans of the Storm and Der müde Tod, large canvases from ambitious filmmakers. The movies were feeling their size, stretching the boundaries, playing with their limits. Ten best movies of 1921:

1. The Kid (Charlie Chaplin)

2. Orphans of the Storm (D.W. Griffith)

3. Der müde Tod (aka Destiny) (Fritz Lang)

4. The Boat (Buster Keaton)

5. Leaves from Satan’s Book (Carl-Theodor Dreyer)

6. Tol’able David (Henry King)

7. The Idle Class (Charlie Chaplin)

8. Vier um die Frau (Fritz Lang)

9. The Blot (Lois Weber)

10. The Haunted Castle (F.W. Murnau)

Keaton had a batch of shorts going into his great period; The Boat is merely one of the most perfect. Of the movies I’ve seen from this year, Hintertreppe (Leopold Jessner/Paul Leni) and The Wildcat (Ernst Lubitsch) are artful, and The Sheik (George Melford), with Rudolph Valentino, awfully fun. Of the many movies I haven’t seen from 1921, the biggest regret is Victor Sjöström’s Phantom Carriage, which I’ve been wanting to see forever and still haven’t got to – the title is too fitting, apparently. (Thanks to Mark Steiner at Scarecrow Video for allowing me to see another movie on this list that otherwise would’ve been hard to see.)

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3 Responses

  1. Kind of funny you picked The Boat, as although I like it, I’d have picked The Goat, Hard Luck, The High Sign, The Playhouse, or The Haunted House sooner. But you can’t go wrong with Keaton. Harold Lloyd has a great 1921 short, too (at least; I haven’t seen them all) with “Never Weaken,” where he uses a construction site to play with the fear-of-heights ideas he’d perfect later in Safety Last.

    I haven’t seen an unusual number of the titles for this year; thanks for the pointers.

  2. In Australia ,where I live, David Stratton the critic is repeating a ten year course on the history of World cinema.
    The earlier years of cinema were covered swiftly and half way through the second year of the course we have reached 1931.
    David shows 15-25 excerpts plus a feature. We had the good fortune of seeing THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE in week one of 1921 and Max Linder’s SEVEN YEARS BAD LUCK in the second week.

  3. Wow, Robert! Another great list. What I love is there is always a film or two i’ve never seen but will check out because you’ve included them on your top ten! I’ve never seen that Murnau and I adore his work! Thanks!

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