The end of a decade is upon us, which means there’s no shortage of best of ’10s lists out there. Even I am getting in on it now, with my favorite films of the ’10s. The 1910s, that is. This is the perfect opportunity to look back at films that are now over a hundred years old, and possibly the most underappreciated decade in film history. It is chock full of films that were innovative then and now, a decade where very every genre grew and matured throughout. Whatever you’re into, the decade produced it in spades. A couple of notes before diving into the list:
-There’s still a lot I need to see from the decade. If there’s a film you love that isn’t on here, I may not have seen it yet. Tell me about it! I’d love to watch it.
-No, The Birth of a Nation is not on the list. Next question.
And with that, onto the list.
10. The Devil’s Needle (1916)
There’s plenty of reason to be skeptical of a drug scare film, which is what The Devil’s Needle is. It is a far cry from the Reefer Madness’ of the world. The end result isn’t cheesy or laughable at all, but rather a dark and grim tale of addiction. Norma Talmadge stars as the casual drug user who gets Tully Marshall hooked on the stuff, not knowing the downward spiral that will befall him. And boy, does it ever.
Talmadge is great force of charisma and personality, with her character covering a lot of ground and emotions as things go down the tubes. As for Marshall, he goes all out into the madness territory. It never goes too far into an area of silly. Thanks to both the performance and the claustrophobic space, he just comes across as a legitimate scary mess. This is a far more unsettling view of addiction than Hollywood often delivers.
9. A Girl’s Folly (1917)
A Girl’s Folly is the earliest feature film I’ve seen that is about filmmaking and Hollywood itself. Doris Kenyon has the lead, and longs for an escape from her ordinary life. Luckily for her, a movie shoot is coming nearby. Of course, things don’t turn out to be quite as glamorous as she expects. There’s some sharp writing from Frances Marion throughout and amusing shots about the reality and superficiality of filmmaking. One title card informs the audience that actors often don’t even know the plot of the film. This is a fun and breezy look at movies, with Kenyon as enjoyable lead. This should be of interest to anyone who wants to see from the other side of the camera.
8. One A.M. (1916)
This is not likely to be the first Chaplin film most would mention from this decade (that’s probably The Immigrant). For my money, One AM is the most memorable. There’s no purer example of Chaplin’s comedic chops as this film, because that’s the only thing present. This is a literal one man show. Chaplin gets dropped off in a cab, and from that moment on, is the only person on screen. What follows is a drunk Chaplin fighting everyday objects in his home, and it is remarkable.
Individually, some of these gags are not all that groundbreaking. This is far from the only film to feature a comedian battling a flight of stairs. But the overall package is perfect simplicity. Chaplin fights and struggles with every conceivable object in the home, and it just works in that overall framework. It’s a perfect snapshot of how sharp he was at his physical peak, just firing off one gag after another. Chaplin has plenty of films that are essential viewing, and this is one to go to for pure, unadulterated slapstick.
7. The Cheat (1915)
The Cheat is not necessarily an easy watch. It’s most shocking moments of violence and brutality are bound to make anyone squirm. That is part of the package here, though, one that is a visually striking experience. Fannie Ward stars as a woman who loses a great sum of money and seeks help from Sessue Hayakawa. Rebuffing his advances leads to him branding her, with further violence and struggling advancing from there. He survives her counterattack, and soon there is a trial for attempted murder.
Cecil B. DeMille creates very stark visuals through limited lighting. A few key moments are told through silhouette and shadow—when Ward’s husband sees Hayakawa has been injured, it’s through a dramatic silhouette and reveal of blood. Hayakawa gives the most memorable performance of the bunch, an eerie calm and coolness no matter what is happening in the film. It’s unsavory at times, but that is the point. And it is a remarkable visual experience.
6. Blind Husbands (1919)
The directorial debut of Erich von Stroheim, this is a fine example of a simple story told well. Stroheim stars as a lieutenant who has his sights set on a neglected wife. He plays it completely to the hilt, the most shameless sleazy player you’ll ever see. And while he may be the biggest slimeball to walk the earth, it’s filled with beautiful imagery throughout.
And just when you think you know where it’s going, things do get more complicated during the climax. For starters, throw the husband and the lieutenant up on the top of the mountain. More twists get thrown in from there, making for a wild and action packed finale. This is quite the directorial debut and a testament to the all around abilities of Stroheim.
5. I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918)
This Ernst Lubitsch comedy isn’t the only film on the list to feature gender-bending, but this one may be the most surprising.
Ossi Oswalda stars as a young woman who likes drinking, smoking and playing cards, much to the dismay of those around her. She decides to go out as a man so she can do whatever she wants. As expected, there’s a lot of good comedy as she adjusts to her new identity.
What’s not expected is that she gets drunk with her totally oblivious male guardian. By the end of the night, the two tuxedo clad men are kissing in the back of a car. The guardian later tells her not to mention their rendezvous. Even a hundred years later, it’s still a moment that surprises.
Aside from that memorable moment, there’s a lot of other good things to enjoy here too. Oswalda, a major German star at the time, oozes personality and charm. It’s practically a one woman show thanks to her endless energy, and it’s very fun to watch. With her charisma and a plot that could make Wheeler and Woolsey blush, this is a must watch.
4. Suspense (1913)
If you’re trying to track down the real first proto-slasher, look no further than right here. The period was ripe with home invasion films, but this is far and away the best of the bunch. Lois Weber (who also wrote and directed the film) is stalked by a home invader while her husband attempts to race home to save her. What follows is a white knuckle short suspense ride. The attacker first appears in the window, with things quickly ramping up from there. One shot is particularly creepy, and it’s amazing that it hasn’t been replicated more: a quick cut between his sneering face looking up and Weber looking down at him from the window.
There’s plenty of other unique shots too: a triple split screen of Weber talking to her husband on the phone while the stalker cuts the wires, a POV shot through a keyhole. Lois Weber is one of the first women filmmakers, and this is one of many films that shows she is a pioneer among all directors stylistically. Suspense is all killer no filler, a short thrill ride.
3. Hell’s Hinges (1916)
Hell’s Hinges is one of those films where the entire town is a living, breathing character. In this case, it’s more like snarling. It is a total degenerate town, filled with vicious lowdown characters. When a pastor and his sister arrive in town, it’s the job of Blaze Tracy (William S. Hart) to run them out of town. But Tracy has change of heart after meeting the sister, and soon he’s at odds with the town over his newfound attitude.
It almost sounds too melodramatic on paper, but Hart sells it in a completely convincing and compelling fashion. One minute he’s cracking jokes about the pastor’s arrival, and the next he’s staring at them with genuine interest and concern. His face tells the whole story, and it’s very emotional and compelling. But don’t worry, he’s still someone you do not want to mess with, as the film’s climax shows. The apocalyptic finale features the town in chaos as it goes up in flames. Hart calmly walking away as the whole thing burns down is one of the coolest visuals you’ll ever see. For as forceful as the emotion and messaging of the film is, equally forceful is Hart’s personality. He’s both wonderfully sincere and dangerous all at once.
And for all those reasons, it’s a truly powerful film experience. It’s a perfect example of the power of silent westerns, and why Hart is a pioneer of the genre and was one of the biggest stars of the era.
2. The Dream Lady (1918)
What a delightful little film. The Dream Lady features one of the most likable and fun protagonists you’ll ever see. She just wants to live in cottage where she can explore her wishes and make other people’s dreams come true. There’s a great early scene where Rosamond (Carmel Myers) creates a shock by announcing she can buy and live in her own home if she chooses to. From there, it gets all the more surprising and progressive.
The best moments of the film involve the gender bending storyline. One of Rosamond’s first client’s is Sidney, a woman who wishes to dress up as a man so she can more fully enjoy her vacation without the pressures of being a woman. This leads to some amazing moments where Sidney’s male companion wants to know if she “doesn’t like women” and Sidney and Rosamond sharing a kiss with screwball comedy implications.
This is just pure, smart and funny stuff and still modern after 101 years.
1. Judex (1916-1917)
Film serials, whether silent or talkie, don’t have a great reputation as high quality entertainment. I’ve always had a soft spot for them, though. My feelings are probably in line with a 1910s audience: they’re just good, lighthearted entertainment. Some serial directors went well beyond that, with Louis Feuillade chiefly among them. Two of his other serials, Les Vampires and Fantômas, are readily available and well worth watching. But Judex is his most complete work, compelling mystery and suspense combined with heart, emotion, humor and sentimentality.
Right off the bat, it’s not a typical serial. Our main focus is not a mysterious villain, but the caped crusader known as Judex. He’s seeking vengeance against a corrupt banker Favaraux (for reasons that become clear later) while also fending off another villain with a dastardly plan of her own.
Yes, there’s two separate villains, which says a lot about the film’s complexity. It has a massive cast, with entire families playing a role in the proceedings. The style and structure remind me more of a great novel: it’s full of subplots and trips down paths with secondary characters, including a portion in the past to provide an origin story. Every character is fleshed out too, and they all get a turn in the spotlight. There’s moments for comedy and sweetness in some of the subplots.
The film is also atypical because it doesn’t rely on cliffhangers the way many American serials did. It does not always end on someone’s life in danger, or on a lingering suspenseful question. The cliffhanger is often an emotional one. One of the most emotional moments of the film, the end of chapter 11, is two characters overcome with emotion. The revelation that led to this has already occurred. We’re hooked on the next chapter because of our emotional attachment in the moments that follow.
Thanks in part to having a long run time, Judex is one of the more complete pieces of film you’ll ever see. Characters battle with their own morality and motives, sometimes switching sides or struggling if they should change course. It’s about much more than Judex’s revenge, for he is also in love with the very daughter of the man he’s after. This weaves a very complex web, and it is worth every minute. Set aside five hours for this. You won’t regret it.