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The Greatest Films of All Time, According to 1923 Audiences

Lists of the greatest films (or music, TV shows etc.) are unavoidable. As December  rolls around, the year-end lists are bound to pop up everywhere. From IMDB’s top 250, to AFI’s series of lists, and every film blog in between, you can find endless “greatest films of all time” lists. Creating a list like that now is bound to be a perilous task: with well over a 100 years worth of films to choose from, any list will have glaring omissions bound to make a comment section grumble. And it turns out, those kind of lists are nothing new.

In the winter of 1923, Screenland sought to find out what the greatest films ever made were. The magazine solicited lists from film industry professionals (mostly writers, with some actors and producers as well) and fans alike. Over several issues, the results were published, listing favorites of 19 professionals and 16 fans. Most of the results aren’t terribly surprising. Many of the films that would come to mind first are there. There isn’t even a huge difference in the two sets of lists. But it is quite notable that while the industry professionals kept their lists mostly homogeneous, the fans were not very much in agreement.

Below are the top ten lists for the two separate groups. Thanks to ties in the number of votes, each list features multiple entries in the number ten spot. Included in parentheses is the percentage of lists the film appeared on.

Industry Professionals

  1. The Birth of a Nation (79%)
  2. The Covered Wagon (68%)
  3. The Kid (68%)
  4. Tol’able David (56%)
  5. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (42%)
  6. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (37%)
  7. Robin Hood (37%)
  8. Passion (aka Madame DuBarry) (37%)
  9. Broken Blossoms (32%)
  10. The Miracle Man/Intolerance/Nanook of the North (26%)

Fans

  1. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (63%)
  2. Broken Blossoms (56%)
  3. The Birth of a Nation (56%)
  4. The Covered Wagon (56%)
  5. Passion (50%)
  6. The Kid (38%)
  7. Tol’able David (38%)
  8. Orphans of the Storm (31%)
  9. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (25%)
  10. Foolish Wives/A Woman of Paris/The Miracle Man/Way Down East/The Prisoner of Zenda/Blood and Sand (19%)

For the most part, the differences come down to the order of films. Eleven films appear on one list but not the other, (Robin Hood, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nanook of the North, Intolerance, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Orphans of the Storm, Foolish Wives, A Woman of Paris, Way Down East, The Prisoner of Zenda and Blood and Sand) thanks to logjams at the bottoms of the lists. But there are some interesting differences.

The professionals were largely in agreement, especially at the top of the list. Only four voters left The Birth of a Nation off their lists, which should come as no surprise. The mythology of that film as a landmark picture didn’t grow only in later decades. Clearly, the aura of the film was already huge. The Covered Wagon and The Kid also dominated the vast majority of all lists.

The fans, however, liked some films a lot more than the professionals. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse tops the list and does significantly better, as does Broken Blossoms. And although The Birth of a Nation is again towards the top of the list, it appears on far fewer ballots. That’s because there is so much more variety on the fans’ lists: 41 different films appear on only one list. These fans have their own personal favorites that vary wildly from other fans. These include films we are quite familiar with like Safety Last and The Hunchback of Notre Dame , along with films you aren’t likely to hear about now, such as Peg O’My Heart and Jazzmania. One fan even compiled a special list of films he “liked a great deal better than most million dollar productions that I have seen.” See, the lovers of indie films were always there.

A couple other items of note: The Kid fared well on both lists, and Charles Chaplin landed a second film on the fans’ list. It’s an unexpected choice, his 1923 drama A Woman of Paris. Reports are that Chaplin’s attempt at a dramatic film was a critical success but a flop at the box office. So it is interesting to see that it had at least some fans at the time.

Also of note is that the lists skew towards newer films. All but five of the films are from the 1920s, with five selections coming from 1922 alone. As a result, many of the top grossing and most acclaimed films of the 1910s are absent from the list. It appears that placing a lot of weight on more recent films has always been the case.

So while the overall totals don’t reveal some unknown or forgotten classics, there is good news: with the exception of The Miracle Man, all of other films listed above are extant. There’s no excuse to miss out on these gems of the silent era, making these lists a good beginner’s guide. And each individual list, particularly those from the fans, provide a great opportunity find more quality films. The lists are crowded with lesser known films worth exploring. Maybe single vote getters like Zaza or Broadway Rose could become new personal favorites.

The full lists can be viewed in issues at the Media History Digital Library. Screenland’s issues from November 1923-January 1924 contain the entirety of the lists. If one takes umbrage with the list of a fan, Screenland did go to the trouble of listing their full names and addresses. Then again, it’s probably not a good idea to direct angry letters there now.

 

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One response to “The Greatest Films of All Time, According to 1923 Audiences

  1. Marcy Elliott-Rupert ⋅

    Very nicely done. I will go check out some of these I have never seen or haven’t seen in many years.

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