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.)

1936 Ten Best Movies

Figuring out that movies had authors – that many movies bore the mark of a single guiding personality, which could actually be seen in that person’s various films – was made much easier one summer in the early 1970s when somebody (the Canadian station, or PBS?) broadcast all of Charlie Chaplin’s feature films, in chronological order, once a week.

Along with catching Hitchcock movies whenever they were on TV (and then discovering Francois Truffaut’s Hitchcock interview book), the Chaplin movies were an ideal way for an adolescent to realize this concept of movie authorship. With Chaplin it was easy: he didn’t just write and direct his films, he also played the central character and produced them on his own studio lot. Duh. So you had a model for how a director’s style and vision would carry over through different movies and different eras.

There was also the revelation that Chaplin – who had been a vaguely olde timey figure seen in silent movies projected in Shakey’s Pizza Parlors and other such peripheral sources (sometimes when I see a scratchy old clip of ancient silent slapstick I get a strong sense-memory of pepperoni and root beer) – Chaplin was really funny. Smart funny, not stupid funny. And the funny was wrapped in a way of looking at the world, complicated by a surprising amount of non-funny.

So, 1936: Modern Times wins out in a somewhat less-than-great year, although things were going well in France. As I write this, Criterion’s Eclipse collection is about to bring out a four-film collection of works by Sacha Guitry (who, like Chaplin, was the absolute author-star of his projects), including The Story of a Cheat. If you have never seen The Story of a Cheat, make it a priority; it is a joy. The ten best movies of 1936:

1. Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin)

2. The Crime of M. Lange (Jean Renoir)

3. Partie de Campagne (Jean Renoir)

4. The Story of a Cheat (Sacha Guitry)

5. The Only Son (Yasujiro Ozu)

6. Dodsworth (William Wyler)

7. Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock)

8. Fury (Fritz Lang)

9. Come and Get It (Howard Hawks/William Wyler)

10. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra)

Come and Get It is a real Hawks picture, with Frances Farmer in her greatest chance on screen; Dodsworth is a curiously unsung classic about Americans abroad; The Only Son is a devastating Ozu masterpiece. And speaking of the Japanese, I will have to re-consider someday Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sisters of the Gion and Osaka Elegy, both from this year; I have seen the films but enough time has passed that I couldn’t describe either one.

The year also had: Swing Time (George Stevens), one of the best of the Astaire-Rogers pictures, My Man Godfrey (Gregory LaCava), The Prisoner of Shark Island (John Ford), These Three (Wyler). If you want to see studio production lines moving at full golden-age capacity, behold the blockbusters San Francisco (W.S. Van Dyke) and The Great Ziegfeld (Robert Z. Leonard), the latter the Best Picture Oscar winner. Among the oddities, Things to Come (William Cameron Menzies) is an early example of science fiction on screen. And fond childhood memories of The Plainsman (Cecil B. DeMille) earn at least a mention.

1940 Ten Best Movies

greatdictator2

Chaplin's world.

The Great Dictator might not be the best of Charlie Chaplin’s films; it has some rough edges and quite a bit of that strange quality of unto-itself-ness that Chaplin’s films carry. But it is my favorite Chaplin feature, and its achievement seems stronger as each year goes by, especially in a age when political satire tends to be absent from the movies. Chaplin began writing the film in 1938, when most Hollywood studios were still hesitant to criticize the political developments in Germany, a huge overseas market. There continues to be something exhilarating about the sheer lustiness of Chaplin’s head-on broadsides against Hitler. It’s easy to mount “Springtime for Hitler” in 1967, as Mel Brooks did; trickier to plunge ahead even before World War II had begun.

But Chaplin owned his own studio, and he was Charlie Chaplin. He could do whatever he wanted. And if he wanted to end his film with a lengthy speech in which he might ventilate his own ideas about humanity, he could do that too. The speech is often knocked for a variety of reasons (one being the idea that a humble barber could not possibly summon up such eloquence, a condescending criticism that severely underestimates barbers), but I think it’s swell, and I think it would have been rather amazing to hear it in 1940. And I also like that the speech ends not on Chaplin, but on Paulette Goddard’s face.

That’s my best movie of 1940. The uniqueness of The Great Dictator outpoints unusually good years for John Ford and Preston Sturges (who not only directed his first two features, The Great McGinty and Christmas in July, but also wrote the splendid Stanwyck vehicle Remember the Night, directed by Mitchell Leisen). Here are the Ten Best:

1. The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin)

2. His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks)

3. Foreign Correspondent (Alfred Hitchcock)

4. The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford)

5. The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch)

6. Christmas in July (Preston Sturges)

7. Contraband (Michael Powell)

8. The Long Voyage Home (John Ford)

9. The Letter (William Wyler)

10. Fantasia (Walt Disney et al.)

Fantasia nips in there ahead of that other colorful example of the producer’s art, Korda’s Thief of Bagdad, which I might evelate to the big Ten if I ever see it in a decent print. Also, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence from Fantasia captures, in the way that unaware popular art sometimes does, the mood of the moment, the genuinely frightening sense of the world spiraling out of control.

His Girl Friday is the most modern film on the list, despite the new energy Sturges was bringing to movie comedy. The Letter gives the neurotic Bette Davis-William Wyler collaboration its most charged-up airing, and the two Ford films are beautiful examples of someone working within the studio system and creating truly personal movies.

Where’s Rebecca? Bested by Foreign Correspondent, which has more pure, jumped-up Hitchcock, unadulterated by Selznick’s literary instincts. But Rebecca does have Mrs. Danvers.

Next week: 2002, if I can figure out how to fix movies to a specific year-of-release. Film festival debuts are a scourge to the list-maker.