1919 Ten Best Movies

D.W. Griffith rules the year with two of his finest films: both tender, but in different keys. Broken Blossoms is an acknowledged classic, a high-pitched drama about an abused girl (Lillian Gish in a performance for the ages) who finds kindness from a Chinese gentleman (Richard Barthelmess) in the slums. If you know that film, consider True Heart Susie, a lesser-known gem that puts Gish as the next-door neighbor to farmboy Robert Harron, in a sentimental story that also pokes gentle fun at its sentimental conventions.

The movie is also a textbook for film directing, a lesson in the geography of screen space (backyard, interior, human face) and how to arrange it to tell an emotional story. It’s a beaut. Those two pictures top the worldlier offerings of Erich von Stroheim and Ernst Lubitsch, and an uneven year for Charlie Chaplin. Ten best of 1919:

1. Broken Blossoms (D.W. Griffith)

2. True Heart Susie (D.W. Griffith)

3. Blind Husbands (Erich von Stroheim)

4. Male and Female (Cecil B. DeMille)

5. Madame Dubarry (aka Passion, Ernst Lubitsch)

6. Sunnyside (Charlie Chaplin)

7. The Oyster Princess (Ernst Lubitsch)

8. South (uncredited director; photographed by Frank Hurley)

9. Different from the Others (Richard Oswald)

10. The Hayseed (Roscoe Arbuckle)

A list going back this far is limited by availability of titles and the murkiness of pre-1920 silent inventory. But all of these are interesting: South is the account of the Shackleton expedition, and incredible for its very existence; Madame Dubarry is cheeky history that helped put Lubitsch on the world stage; The Hayseed is Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton in a series of nice gags (Keaton was about to go solo). Sunnyside is a scattershot Chaplin two-reeler that goes up a few notches for the sequence in which the day laborer goes on a bucolic dance with wood nymphs, a truly Shakespearian interlude and a crazy autobiographical daydream on the part of the director/star. (Chaplin’s other 1919 release, A Day’s Pleasure, has some funny gags but is similarly random.)  Different from the Others is a fascinating (and no longer complete) plea for tolerance of homosexuality in an era when gayness was illegal in Germany, with a tortured performance by Conrad Veidt. Next he would star in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and the course of film history would change.