A Century+ of Cinema: The 1910s

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The film within a feature film goes at least as far back as Hoodoo Ann (1916), written by D.W. Griffith and directed by Lloyd Ingraham.

I think it’s safe to say that, before this project, the 1910s was probably my weakest decade in terms of exposure to the classics. Or any films at all really. Of the films that ended up on my essentials list (see my previous post on Considering the Essentials), I had only seen one of them prior to 2019—The Immigrant, a Charlie Chaplin short. So, even though many of the industry developments during this period were well known to me from my dissertation research, I had a lot to learn about the films of this decade.

But let’s start with what I knew.

To begin with, the defining characteristic of the 1910s is probably its transitional and inconsistent nature, with dramatic changes in the film medium as well as modes of production, distribution, and exhibition.

Although the first narrative features emerge in the middle of this decade,* until 1919, popular films could be anything from a one- or two-reel comedy (about 25 minutes) to grand epics of more than two hours to ten-episode serials with episodes of varying lengths. Many multi-reelers were episodic in nature and more like one-reelers strung together, for example, the grand epics Cabiria and Intolerance both have multiple narrative threads. My essentials list reflects this variety: There are eight shorts, sixteen features, and one serial. The sixteen features on my list have running times from 50 minutes to almost 200 minutes, although the majority run between 50 and 65 minutes. [Side note: For purposes of this project, I am using the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences definition of a feature, that is, a film with a running time of 40 minutes or longer.]

Production in the 1910s also experienced seismic shifts. At the beginning of the decade, French companies controlled the vast majority of film production: Before World War I, 60–70% of films imported into the U.S. were French. Gaumont was the largest studio in the world, with Louis Feuillade in charge and cranking out his popular crime serials Fantômas (1913–14), Les Vampires (1915–16), and Judex. Also in Europe, Scandinavian directors began experimenting with narrative continuity and, in 1913, Victor Sjöström directed the social drama Ingeborg Holm, which used long takes, precise compositions, and nuanced performances in what is often considered the first true narrative feature.*

The death of the family patriarch, which sets the film’s plot in motion, in Ingeborg Holm (1913), directed by Victor Sjöström.

At the beginning of the decade in the United States, production was still based in New York and New Jersey and primarily controlled by the Edison Trust. It was here that the star system emerged when Carl Laemmle revealed the identity of “the Biograph girl” (aka Florence Lawrence) to the world. While the trust’s monopoly would eventually end the European domination of the industry—with a large assist from the onset of war—it was also one reason many independent filmmakers shifted production to the West Coast. In Los Angeles, not only was there abundant sunlight and diverse geography for exteriors, but the distance from New York made it harder for the trust to exert control through patents and fees. The trust would eventually be dismantled in 1918 in the wake of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. While the Hollywood studio system wouldn’t fully develop until the 1920s, by the war’s end, Los Angeles had become the epicenter of film production and directors such as D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille had already made their mark there. More on them later.

Unsurprisingly, these production developments also affected the distribution and exhibition of films. As the United States entered the 1910s, it was the age of the nickelodeon—the first type of dedicated indoor cinema space where patrons paid a nickel for entrance. However, as longer films became the norm, people wanted more comfortable venues for watching them, leading to the death of the nickelodeon and the rise of the cinema palace. These purposely built cinemas represented a full evening’s entertainment, and it is at this point that we see the establishment of the newsreel. Longer, narrative films also led to a shift in the use of intertitles: By the mid-1910s, dialogue intertitles had begun to outnumber expository titles, and the concept of screenwriter was born.

In short, this was a turbulent but exciting time for the industry. Nevertheless, I was somewhat dreading looking at the films of this period, mostly because I didn’t really know much about them beyond The Birth of a Nation (which I have deliberately excluded from consideration as part of this project). I had seen a few Chaplin shorts, I had watched Suspense when I originally got the Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers collection out of the library, and I had made it through the first couple of episodes of Les Vampires when I did my Great Unseen project back in 2017; however, everything else was new to me.

The innovative triple split screen of Lois Weber’s Suspense (1913).

Despite the fact that I think the 1910s is likely to be one of the weakest cinema decades when all is said and done, I’m happy to say I discovered some real gems.

Favorite Feature Film: Shoes (1916) by Lois Weber. I first watched Shoes on Valentine’s Day 2020 and it was love at first sight. While ostensibly strictly a “social” film inspired by Jane Addams’s book A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil about the problems faced by underpaid working women, it is also a proto-Sex and the City that opens with our heroine crushing on a pair of shoes in a shop window. We eventually learn that our heroine wants them, not just for a fashion statement, but because she has worn out her own soles working in a five and dime. However, her family is destitute and all her earnings must go to support them. Like an O. Henry story gone very, very wrong, she eventually trades sex for the shoes. The story is great, if bleak, but this film also stands above the rest for its innovative camerawork.

In Lois Weber’s Shoes (1916), a woman crushes on a new pair of shoes she can’t afford and takes desperate action.

Favorite Director (Drama): Cecil B. DeMille. After Shoes, one of my favorite discoveries of the 1910s was DeMille’s Male and Female (1919), which quickly replaced The Cheat (1915) on my essentials list. Not that The Cheat isn’t good, it is, but I had seen a sound version of it previously and so I already knew the story. Plus, Male and Female is simply on another level, both technically and artistically. The film, which is a drama about gender relations, a satire of social class, and an adventure story all rolled into one, is based on a play by J. M. Barrie (of Peter Pan fame) and stars Gloria Swanson as a spoiled aristocrat who looks down on the attentions of her butler until she finds herself and her family stranded on a deserted island with him. It is best known for an elaborate fantasy sequence about ancient Babylon. If you are an opera lover, I would also recommend DeMille’s Carmen (1915), which stars American soprano Geraldine Farrar in the title role alongside film star Wallace Reid, popularly known as “the screen’s most perfect lover.”

The Ancient Babylon sequence in Male and Female (1919), directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

Favorite Director (Comedy): Ernst Lubitsch. This wasn’t even close. I really enjoyed all three Lubitsch features that I watched for this decade. My favorite was Die Puppe (The Doll) (1919), somewhat based on the ballet Coppélia, but also Hoffmann’s short story “Der Sandmann” (later adapted into the opera Les contes d’Hoffmann). Ossi Oswalda, the star of all three Lubitsch features I watched, is incredible here as the daughter of the dollmaker who acts as “the doll” hired by the protagonist to fool his rich uncle into thinking he has gotten married. In Ich möchte kein Mann sein (I Don’t Want to Be a Man) (1918), Oswalda is an independent young woman who enjoys both playing poker and smoking (heavens!). When a new strict guardian arrives, she sneaks out on the town disguised as a young man. However, she soon discovers that her newfound freedom is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Finally, there was The Oyster Princess (1919), about a spoiled rich girl who absolutely insists her father find her a royal husband. Hijinks ensue. I didn’t like the broad comedy of this one quite as much as the other Lubitsch films, but it has an incredible foxtrot scene towards the end that is certainly worth watching.

Ossi Oswalda gets her drag on in Ich möchte kein Mann sein (I Don’t Want to Be a Man) (1918), directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

Favorite Discovery: The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) by Władysław Starewicz. I am no fan of animation, so I wondered whether I even wanted to include this Russian stop-motion animated short that uses dead insects as its protagonists, but it showed up on so many lists that I figured I’d give it a go. OMG! The detail! The drama! I’m linking to a subtitled version below since, if you’ve never seen this, you must watch it right now. It even contains the classic “movie with the movie” bit (which just goes to show you that almost nothing is truly new).

Favorite Epic: Cabiria (1914) by Giovanni Pastrone. Where to begin? Cabiria is an Italian epic set during the Punic Wars with a plot revolving around a young girl (Cabiria) who gets separated from her family during the eruption of Mount Etna and later is kidnapped and taken to Carthage, where she is destined to be sacrificed to the god Moloch. Although she will continue to reappear, the story really isn’t focused on Cabiria but rather the great historical events of the day, including the alpine trek of Hannibal, the defeat of the Roman fleet at Syracuse, and Scipio’s North African campaign. In addition to being extremely entertaining (really, the 180 minutes just fly by), it is also extremely innovative, featuring the extensive use of a moving camera, including a type of dolly tracking shot initially referred to as a “Cabiria shot.” Cabiria was the first feature film shown at the White House and was a major influence on D.W. Griffith. I had already seen Intolerance by the time I watched Cabiria, and, frankly, Cabiria blows that film out of the water.

One of the quieter moments of Cabiria (1914), when Sophonisba dreams of triple-eyed Moloch.

Favorite “Social” Film: Traffic in Souls (1913) by George Loane Tucker. This is one of the first films of the decade I actually saw since I found it looking up which silent classics were on Kanopy. As shocking as it may sound for the time, Traffic in Souls is a frank crime melodrama about forced prostitution (aka white slavery). It is also one of the first examples of a narrative feature in the U.S. Like a number of social films during this decade, it takes on the plight of the naïve immigrant and the difficulties faced by working women. Gretchen the Greenhorn (1916), which stars Dorothy Gish, is another example of this genre, though a somewhat more romantic one. Both were enjoyable despite their grim subject matter, featuring exciting chase-and-rescue sequences. Gretchen the Greenhorn also features the legendary character actor Eugene Pallette, in an early role as the villain.

Favorite Mary Pickford: The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) by Maurice Tourneur. I watched a bunch of Mary Pickford films for this project, including some of her early shorts under the direction of D.W. Griffith at Biograph, the best of which is The New York Hat (1912), from a screenplay by Anita Loos, and co-starring Lionel Barrymore. However, although Stella Maris (a 1918 film where Pickford plays the dual roles of wealthy invalid and orphan servant) is surely her acting tour de force, I have a fondness for The Poor Little Rich Girl, where she plays a fun-loving but neglected daughter of rich parents. This feature, adapted by Frances Marion from a Broadway play, was a certified box office hit. The production used forced perspective and other tricks to make it appear that the diminutive Pickford was an eleven-year-old girl. Unfortunately, the success of the film meant that Pickford got pigeon-holed in child roles for much of the rest of her career, even playing the lead in Little Annie Rooney in 1925, at the age of 33.

Mary Pickford is quite the charmer in Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), adapted by Frances Marion and directed by Maurice Tourneur.

Favorite Film That Changed the Course of Film History: Snow White (1916) by J. Searle Dawley. Snow White was another pleasant surprise. One reason I watched this was that it apparently had a major influence on Walt Disney, who saw this movie as a teen in Kansas City and recalled it as “a perfect story.” But, influence aside, I really like this version of the tale, which is based on a 1912 stage production where the witch and the evil stepmother are separate characters. Fun fact: The dwarves in this version are named Blick, Flick, Glick, Snick, Plick, Whick, and Quee. Dawley also directed the earliest known screen adaptation of Frankenstein in 1910, which you can find on YouTube but I wouldn’t particularly recommend (see below).

Marguerite Clark is justifiably suspicious of her visitor in Snow White (1916), directed by J. Searle Dawley.

Favorite Film to Feature a National Park: The Dragon Painter (1919) by William Worthington. I’m not sure how I stumbled upon the existence of The Dragon Painter, but when I saw that the library had a DVD copy, I jumped on it. The story is a sort of fairy-tale about a young Japanese painter who lives in the mountains and believes his true love has been captured and turned into a dragon. A visiting surveyor sees his artwork and convinces the painter to go to Tokyo to be mentored by a celebrated artist he knows (by telling the painter that his dragon love can be found there). There, the painter falls in love with his mentor’s daughter, but loses his ability to paint. Hijinks and much melodrama ensue. The film stars Japanese acting power couple, Sessue Hayakawa and Tsuru Aoki, and was produced by Hayakawa, who had risen to fame as the star of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat. The easter egg for me was when I started the film and slowly but surely realized the painter lived in Yosemite National Park!

Sessue Hayakawa and Tsuru Aoki in The Dragon Painter (1919), positioned (appropriately enough) at Artist Point in Yosemite National Park, with Half Dome in the background.

Favorite Hero: Judex (1916) by Louis Feuillade. As I noted in my post on Considering the Essentials, I had watched the first few episodes of Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1915–16) during my The Great Unseen project, but I just couldn’t get into it at that time. However, I knew I should watch at least one of Feuillade’s serials for this decade and so chose Judex. Judex was a direct response to Feuillade’s earlier serials, which focused on criminal gangs and had been criticized for glorifying crime. With the character of Judex (Latin for judge), Feuillade essentially created a proto-Batman, a character who, in response to the death of his father, decides to make his life’s work seeking revenge on a villainous financier and his network. He has a secret identity and lair, multiple gadgets and disguises, and mad fighting skillz. Of course, along the way, he falls in love with the banker’s innocent daughter. The total length of this serial is five hours, but they really do fly by, in part because of the fantastic characters we meet along the way. My favorite was Le Môme réglisse, aka The Licorice Kid.

The Licorice Kid explains what’s what to his new friend in Judex (1916), directed by Louis Feuillade.

The Genre of the Decade: The Western

Like many genres, the western has been around since almost the beginning of film history, with Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery appearing in 1903 and The Story of the Kelly Gang, an Australian bushranger film often considered the world’s first full-length narrative feature,* appearing in 1906. [Side note: Unfortunately, only 17 minutes of the latter film are known to have survived.] About 1908 or so, the popularity of the genre exploded and, by 1910, one-reel westerns would account for 25 percent of U.S. production. Part of me actually wonders if the popularity of westerns is one reason for the industry’s move out to California, where obviously location shooting for this genre would be greatly facilitated. In any case, I love westerns, so I was happy to find so many during this period.

Though he wasn’t the first to make them, the producer most associated with the western genre is Thomas Ince. Ince leant a new authenticity to the genre, notably by bringing in Native Americans (primarily Oglala Sioux) to play Native American roles—groundbreaking! In 1912, he purchased a ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains, which would become his first studio, featuring stages and elaborate sets, offices and prop houses, and even labs for printing film. Sadly, his legacy as Hollywood’s first producer and studio head has been overshadowed by his death after a trip on the yacht of William Randolph Hearst. For this project, I watched one of his early pictures, The Invaders (1912), a very serviceable cavalry western.

With the emergence of multi-reel westerns in the middle of the decade, one actor emerged as a key player: William S. Hart, often an uncredited director on his films. Even though he was almost fifty at his film debut, Hart had starred in a number of westerns on the stage. In 1915, Hart began production on Hell’s Hinges (1916), nominally directed by Charles Swickard, but helmed by both Hart and producer Ince. Hell’s Hinges was Hart’s sixth feature and one of the most famous of the early westerns (along with The Virginian, by Cecil B. DeMille). The film has a slow build, as an East Coast preacher moves out to a wild frontier town and gradually becomes corrupted by some of the locals who are plotting to get rid of him. In the meantime, one of the local gunslingers falls in love with the preacher’s sister. It all ends in a literal blaze of glory and/or hellfire, take your pick.

Hell’s Hinges was one of five westerns to make their way onto either my essentials list or my favorites list. The others were Le Railway de la mort (The Railway of Death) (1912), a dark western from France that reminded me of Frank Norris’s McTeague; ’49-’17 (1917) a light western that plays on nostalgia for the Old West (and directed by a woman who hails from my hometown!); Bucking Broadway (1917), an early John Ford western that starts off with the beautiful landscapes of the West and ends up with horses galloping through Manhattan; and Out West (1918), a two-reel western comedy directed by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and co-starring Buster Keaton. I also watched Wild and Woolly (1917), another comedy, written by Anita Loos and starring Douglas Fairbanks, and The Battle of Elderbush Gilch (1913), directed by D.W. Griffith. Like many of Griffith’s films, the basic plot was good but you have to be willing to overlook the egregious racism to appreciate it. (I’m not willing.)

Hell’s Hinges, the story of a preacher and his sister who move out west to a lawless town.

Personal Highs and Lows

One of the pleasant surprises for me in this decade was the strong presence of women. To start with, there are the directors: Alice Guy-Blaché, who was head of production at Gaumont until her marriage and founded her own studio in the U.S. in 1912; Lois Weber, who by the middle of the decade was Universal’s highest-paid director; and Mabel Normand, who was the first to direct Charlie Chaplin’s tramp character. Additionally, about half of all films written before 1925 were written by women. In fact, from 1915 to 1935, Frances Marion, who had been discovered by Lois Weber, was the highest paid screenwriter of all, eventually winning two Oscars in the 1930s (The Big House, The Champ). Finally, in a field that would long be dominated by women, there was editing. Perhaps the best known editor of the period is Margaret Booth, the editor for D.W. Griffith.

I like to direct, because I believe a woman, more or less intuitively, brings out many of the emotions that are rarely expressed on the screen. I may miss what some of the men get, but I will get other effects that they never thought of.

—Lois Weber (Lois Weber in Early Hollywood, p. 72)

Speaking of Mabel Normand and Charlie Chaplin, I watched a lot of comedy shorts for this decade, many coming out of Keystone Productions, where both Normand and Chaplin got their start under Mack Sennett. I also watched some early Harold Lloyd shorts directed by Hal Roach. I have to say, not being a huge vaudeville/slapstick fan, I don’t really “love” any of these, but, if that is your sort of thing, I think you would like most any of the following: Mabel’s Dramatic Career, Mabel’s Blunder, Mabel’s Busy Day, The New Janitor, Dough & Dynamite, Mabel and Fatty’s Wash Day, One A.M., The Rink, A Dog’s Life, Bumping into Broadway.

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Mack Sennett argue while watching Mabel Normand onscreen in Mabel’s Dramatic Career (1913), a short directed by Mack Sennett.

And, at long last, we get to D.W. Griffith. I haven’t said much about him here because, frankly, I didn’t really like most of his features in this decade. I tried to watch The Birth of a Nation but turned it off after about fifteen or twenty minutes because I found it so utterly boring that I thought, “Why stick it out just to get to the super racist parts?” Broken Blossoms is a powerful story with some fantastic acting by Lillian Gish, but also incredibly racist and disturbingly violent. Intolerance is a tremendous spectacle but I don’t think it holds a candle to Cabiria. In fact, given that he didn’t actually invent the many things he gave himself credit for (close-ups, cross-cutting, etc.) and that others mistakenly credit to him as “firsts” even to this day, I even considered removing him from the essentials list altogether; however, I didn’t think I would quite get away with that. And I would recommend some of his shorts, including The Girl and Her Trust, The Musketeers of Pig Alley, and The New York Hat. In any case, we will be talking about Griffith again for the 1920s.

Mary Pickford, with co-star Lionel Barrymore, admires a hat in a shop window in The New York Hat, directed by D.W. Griffith.

Finally, a few adaptations that I was looking forward to but ultimately missed the mark. Oddly enough, these films were all released in 1910. They are all about a dozen minutes long.

As noted above, J. Searle Dawley, the director of Snow White, directed the earliest known Frankenstein. Like another adaptation of his the same year, A Christmas Carol, I could follow the story, but only because I knew it, and there were a lot of missed opportunities. In both, however, he was able to do interesting things with effects. Still, I thought R.W. Paul’s Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost (1901), which is the first known use of intertitles, did a much better job at condensing Dickens in half the time. In a similar way, Edwin S. Porter’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a fun version of the Lewis Carroll story with great effects, but it really could have used better intertitles to tell the story for those unfamiliar with it. Lastly, if you want to see some truly bizarre sh*t, check out The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Otis Turner. This is the first surviving film of the Oz story and the story is surreal: the scarecrow is alive from the beginning in Kansas, Toto is a big puppet dog (and there’s also a cow and a mule for some reason), everyone line dances at one point, and the finale features an appearance by the unionized women workers of Emerald City.

Alice at the end of the trial of the Knave of Hearts, just before she wakes up from her dream in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1910), directed by Edwin S. Porter.

Additional Resources

In addition to the resources listed in my original post on the subject back in January 2020, for this period of cinema history, I highly recommend the documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time, currently streaming on both The Criterion Channel and Kanopy. The documentary tells the tale of the discovery in the 1970s of a treasure trove of silent films buried in the permafrost of the Yukon Territory and explains how and why they got there.

For podcast lovers, check out Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast. In 2018, she did a whole series on fact-checking Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, which included episodes on D.W. Griffith, Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, and Thomas Ince.

For more on Lois Weber, see Shelley Stamp, Lois Weber in Early Hollywood (UC Press, 2015).

Finally, a boxed set that didn’t make my original post: Lubitsch in Berlin by Kino Lorber. This includes seven early Lubitsch features, including the three I discuss above.

Essential Films of the 1910s
Afgrunden (The Abyss) (Gad, 1910)
The Cameraman’s Revenge (Starewicz, 1912)
A Fool and His Money (Guy-Blaché, 1912)
Le Railway de la mort (The Railway of Death) (Durand, 1912)
Ingeborg Holm (Sjöström, 1913)
Suspense (Weber/Smalley, 1913)
Traffic in Souls (Tucker, 1913)
Cabiria (Pastrone, 1914)
Mabel’s Blunder (Normand, 1914)
Hell’s Hinges (Smith/Hart/Swickard, 1916)
Intolerance (Griffith, 1916)
Judex (Feuillade, 1916)
Shoes (Weber, 1916)
Snow White (Dawley, 1916)
Bucking Broadway (Ford, 1917)
The Immigrant (Chaplin, 1917)
The Poor Little Rich Girl (Tourneur, 1917)
Terje Vigen (A Man There Was) (Sjöström, 1917)
Out West (Arbuckle, 1918)
Stella Maris (Neilan, 1918)
La Cigarette (The Cigarette) (Dulac, 1919)
The Dragon Painter (Worthington, 1919)
J’accuse (I Accuse) (Gance, 1919)
Male and Female (DeMille, 1919)
Die Puppe (The Doll) (Lubitsch, 1919)

For those that took up my Century+ challenge oh so long ago, did you manage to see anything on my essentials list? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.

For previous posts in this Century+ series, click below:
Film 101—A Century+ Silent Film Resources
A Century+ of Cinema: The Early Silents, 1895–1909
A Century+ of Cinema: Considering the Essentials

For my film lists, click below:
A Century+: The Essentials
A Century+: Female Filmmakers
A Century+: Westerns
A Century+: Silent Films
Movies of the Decade: 1910-1919

*The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) is considered the world’s first full-length narrative feature. Said to have an original running time of 70 minutes, only 17 minutes are known to survive. Therefore, it is hard to know if it is truly a narrative feature. Otherwise, I have found no mention of any other films of this length until the 1910s.

Note to email subscribers, there is embedded video in this post that may not appear in your email. Please click through to the actual post to see the complete list of selections.

A Century+ of Cinema: Considering the Essentials

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Contemplating the essentials in Bucking Broadway (1917), by John Ford.

It’s true! At long last I am getting back to my Century+ project. This past January, I managed to catch all the “essential” films I had planned on watching for the 1910s and I’m ready to state whether or not they are indeed essential. [SPOILER ALERT: #NotAllEssentials]

Before we get to my overview of the decade, however, I wanted to spend a minute or two considering the very idea of essentials. One reason for the delay in posting about my “January” films is that I went back and forth on whether my final essentials list for each decade should remain at twenty-five selections or not. I thought having a list of three hundred films was rather unwieldy—and it certainly is in some ways—so I initially decided that, as I went through the year, I would cut each decade’s list down to ten films, for a final total of 125 films, or approximately one film for each year of cinema history.

This was fairly easy for the first couple of decades, however, once I started thinking about what I would do for the 1920s, I realized that cutting down the lists like this would somewhat defeat one of my main purposes in undertaking this Century+ survey, that is, coming up with a more diverse list of essentials than one usually finds out in the wild (Sight & Sound, I’m looking at you). Of course, just by spreading the films out over the entirety of cinema history there would be selections you don’t usually find on these lists,* but, in cutting the number so drastically, it was going to be difficult to include the wider array of films I had planned on.

At the same time, as I started to finalize my list for the 1910s, and think about the one for the 1920s, I realized I was constantly wanting to include personal favorites. Sort of how favorite films always sneak into my Oscar Pool selections, even if I know they don’t realistically have a chance of winning. I just can’t bear to leave a movie I loved out of the running. This problem became more acute when paring the lists down even further.

Of course, this is a problem for any “best of” cinema list: Do I take into consideration the enjoyment a film might provide me (or anyone else), or do I only consider its “importance” or “quality” (however I decide that might be judged)? Both aspects seem important since another purpose of this project is to emerge from it with ready answers to questions like “What are the top five films of the 1950s?” or “What are your three favorite westerns?”

In the end, I decided to keep my essentials list at twenty-five films per decade, for a total of three hundred, and I also created a new series of lists, one for each decade starting with the 1910s. These decade lists will rank my twenty-five favorite films of the decade, whether they are deemed “essential” or not. You can find links to each list in progress on my main essentials list. [Side note: I also have an ongoing ranked list of silent films that covers every feature of the silent era that I have watched in the last five years.]

So, the basic plan for each decade is to make a list of twenty-five films that are seen as canon, watch them if I haven’t, and decide whether or not I agree. At the same time, I have a number of additional films I will try to get to if I can, and I will consider whether or not they (or anything else I have already seen) deserve to supplant what is on the canonical list. The twenty-five films that best represent the decade in cinema will go on the final essentials list and my twenty-five favorites will go on a separate ranked decade list.

Let’s see exactly what that means when it comes to the 1910s.

Contemplating the essentials in The Immigrant (1917), by Charlie Chaplin.

My original list of essentials was as follows:

Afgrunden (The Abyss) (Gad, 1910)
L’Inferno (Dante’s Inferno) (Bertolini, 1911)
À la conquête du pôle (The Conquest of the Pole) (Méliès, 1912)
The Cameraman’s Revenge (Starewicz, 1912)
Ingeborg Holm (Sjöström, 1913)
Suspense (Weber/Smalley, 1913)
Traffic in Souls (Tucker, 1913)
Cabiria (Pastrone, 1914)
The Cheat (DeMille, 1915)
A Fool There Was (Powell, 1915)
Les Vampires (Feuillade, 1915)
Hell’s Hinges (Smith/Hart/Swickard, 1916)
Intolerance (Griffith, 1916)
The Ocean Waif (Guy-Blaché, 1916)
One A.M. (Chaplin, 1916)
Shoes (Weber, 1916)
Snow White (Dawley, 1916)
Where Are My Children? (Weber/Smalley, 1916)
Terje Vigen (A Man There Was) (Sjöström, 1917)
The Poor Little Rich Girl (Tourneur, 1917)
Stella Maris (Neilan, 1918)
La Cigarette (The Cigarette) (Dulac, 1919)
J’accuse (I Accuse) (Gance, 1919)
Die Puppe (The Doll) (Lubitsch, 1919)
Die Austernprinzessin (The Oyster Princess) (Lubitsch, 1919)

Some of these titles were mentioned in my film books (though I have very little on silent film), others I came across doing further research, and still others were added after watching the first segment of The Story of Film. Some were added simply because I knew I would be able to watch them in the boxed sets I took out of the library and mentioned in my resources post. All in all, I think it was a good list to start with. However, as I watched, it was clear I would need to make some alterations to it.

In the first place, I switched out Les Vampires (which I just couldn’t get into) for Judex (1916), another multi-episode crime serial by Louis Feuillade. Judex is lesser known, but I had read good things about it and, in fact, ended up liking it enormously. Otherwise, I watched all the films on the original list.

A few of these films came off the list immediately after watching them because I really, really didn’t like them and they weren’t innovative enough to keep despite that. These are L’Inferno (Dante’s Inferno), A Fool There Was, and Where Are My Children? [Side note: It’s a real shame that most of Theda Bara’s films are considered lost, because I did like her “vamp” character in A Fool There Was, I just didn’t like the film itself. Like many silent film fans, I would love to see her Cleopatra.]

A few other films got replaced by better examples of the directors in question. DeMille’s The Cheat made way for his Male and Female (1919), Chaplin’s One A.M. got bumped for The Immigrant (1917), and Alice Guy-Blaché’s A Fool and His Money (1912) replaced The Ocean Waif. In the two former cases, I not only preferred the final selections but thought they had more to say overall. In the latter case, it was simply a question of historical importance: A Fool and His Money is the oldest known film with an all-Black cast. Ever the pioneer, our Alice.

Other films I came across that I decided had to be added were Le Railway de la mort (The Railway of Death) (1912), a bleak French western short shot in the Camargue; Mabel’s Blunder (1914), a gender-bending comic short directed by former Gibson Girl turned comedienne turned Keystone director Mabel Normand; Bucking Broadway (1917), an early John Ford western that features a finale with horses galloping through New York City; Out West (1918), a very fun, smart send-up of westerns starring Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle; and The Dragon Painter (1918), a Hollywood motion picture partly filmed in Yosemite, but set in Japan and starring the Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, who also produced the film. These new additions unfortunately also meant knocking À la conquête du pôle (The Conquest of the Pole) and Die Austernprinzessin (The Oyster Princess) off the original list.

Contemplating the essentials in J’Accuse (1919), by Abel Gance.

Here is my final chronological list of essentials for the 1910s:

Afgrunden (The Abyss) (Gad, 1910)
The Cameraman’s Revenge (Starewicz, 1912)
A Fool and His Money (Guy-Blaché, 1912)
Le Railway de la mort (The Railway of Death) (Durand, 1912)
Ingeborg Holm (Sjöström, 1913)
Suspense (Weber/Smalley, 1913)
Traffic in Souls (Tucker, 1913)
Cabiria (Pastrone, 1914)
Mabel’s Blunder (Normand, 1914)
Hell’s Hinges (Smith/Hart/Swickard, 1916)
Intolerance (Griffith, 1916)
Judex (Feuillade, 1916)
Shoes (Weber, 1916)
Snow White (Dawley, 1916)
Bucking Broadway (Ford, 1917)
The Immigrant (Chaplin, 1917)
The Poor Little Rich Girl (Tourneur, 1917)
Terje Vigen (A Man There Was) (Sjöström, 1917)
Out West (Arbuckle, 1918)
Stella Maris (Neilan, 1918)
La Cigarette (The Cigarette) (Dulac, 1919)
The Dragon Painter (Worthington, 1919)
J’accuse (I Accuse) (Gance, 1919)
Male and Female (DeMille, 1919)
Die Puppe (The Doll) (Lubitsch, 1919)

And here is my ranked list of twenty-five favorites for the 1910s:

The Cameraman’s Revenge (Starewicz, 1912)
Die Puppe (The Doll) (Lubitsch, 1919)
Shoes (Weber, 1916)
Judex (Feuillade, 1916)
Male and Female (DeMille, 1919)
The Dragon Painter (Worthington, 1919)
Snow White (Dawley, 1916)
Traffic in Souls (Tucker, 1913)
Cabiria (Pastrone, 1914)
’49-’17 (Baldwin, 1917)
La Cigarette (The Cigarette) (Dulac, 1919)
Stella Maris (Neilan, 1918)
Gretchen the Greenhorn (C. Franklin/S. Franklin, 1916)
Hell’s Hinges (Smith/Hart/Swickard, 1916)
The New York Hat (Griffith, 1912)
Out West (Arbuckle, 1918)
The Broken Butterfly (Tourneur, 1919)
The Poor Little Rich Girl (Tourneur, 1917)
Hoodoo Ann (Ingraham, 1916)
When the Clouds Roll By (Fleming, 1919)
Ich möchte kein Mann sein (I Don’t Want to Be a Man) (Lubitsch, 1918)
Bucking Broadway (Ford, 1917)
The Ocean Waif (Guy-Blaché, 1916)
Carmen (DeMille, 1915)
Fanchon the Cricket (Kirkwood, 1915)

To read more of my thoughts on the cinema of the 1910s, see A Century+ of Cinema: The 1910s.

To see my revised list of potential essentials for the 1920s (i.e., viewing for this month), read on.

Contemplating the essentials in Shoes, by Lois Weber.

In light of the above, I will be revising each decade’s original list of selections as I move on to focus on that decade.

For the 1920s, I will be considering the following as “canon” to start with:

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) (Weine, 1920)
Way Down East (Griffith, 1920)
Häxan (Christensen, 1922)
Nanook of the North (Flaherty, 1922)
Nosferatu (Murnau, 1922)
Safety Last! (Newmeyer & Taylor, 1923)
Greed (Stroheim, 1924)
The Thief of Bagdad (Walsh, 1924)
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (Niblo & Brabin, 1925)
The Big Parade (Vidor, 1925)
Body and Soul (Micheaux, 1925)
Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin) (Eisenstein, 1925)
The Gold Rush (Chaplin, 1925)
Lady Windermere’s Fan (Lubitsch, 1925)
Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed)
   (Reiniger, 1926)
The General (Keaton, 1926)
Konets Sankt-Peterburga (The End of St. Petersburg) (Pudovkin, 1927)
Metropolis (Lang, 1927)
Napoléon vu par Abel Gance (Napoléon) (Gance, 1927)
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau, 1927)
Wings (Wellman, 1927)
La Coquille et le clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman) (Dulac, 1928)
La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc) (Dreyer, 1928)
Chelovek s kino-apparatom (The Man with a Movie Camera) (Vertov, 1929)
Un chien andalou (An Andalusian Dog) (Buñuel, 1929)

Again, these are the films that I have determined are considered “canon” for the decade, based on film books, major critical lists such as the Sight & Sound 250 and the AFI Top 100, and other research.

Tune in at the end of the month to see what makes my final lists!

Contemplating the essentials in Lady Windermere’s Fan, by Ernst Lubitsch.

For previous posts in this Century+ series, click below:
Film 101—A Century+ Silent Film Resources
A Century+ of Cinema: The Early Silents, 1895–1909

For my film lists, click below:
A Century+: The Essentials
A Century+: Female Filmmakers
A Century+: Silent Films
Movies of the Decade: 1910-1919

*There are only four silent movies on the AFI list and only twenty-one on the Sight & Sound 250, and of course, the Oscars only start up just at the end of the silent period.

Twelve Days of Christmas Movies

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I had intended to write up my holiday movie watching on Epiphany but that day was a little chaotic here in the U.S. Instead, I decided to post a game of sorts. You know, if you are looking for something to distract you from our crumbling democracy.

This year, in the spirit of the season, I watched (or rewatched) forty-eight holiday-themed or holiday-adjacent films between December 1 and January 6. Starting on Christmas Day, I decided to tweet some of my favorites—one (or two) per day—as a cinematic version of the 12 Days of Christmas.

See if you can match the films to their line in the song.

Note: Two of these lines each cover two different movies. Here’s a visual hint for two of the movies that go together for one line.

On the 12th day of Christmas my true love sent to me…

12 soldiers marching,
11 men with letters,
10 BB pellets,
9 friendly squatters,
8 thousand dollars,
7 murder suspects,
6 packs of Twinkies,
5 new in-laws!
4 troubled souls,
3 timed ghosts,
2 dollar bets,
and a jailbird out of prison.

Movie List
A Christmas Story
Die Hard
I’ll Be Seeing You
It Happened on 5th Avenue
It’s a Wonderful Life
Miracle on 34th Street
The Muppet Christmas Carol
The Ref
Remember the Night
Scrooge
The Thin Man
Trading Places
While You Were Sleeping
White Christmas

Did you get them all? How many have you seen? Which ones are your favorites?

What is your favorite Christmas movie not on this list and what would its line be?

Thank God That’s Over With: All Hail 2021

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Happy New Year!

As ever, despite the trials and tribulations of the past year and the fact that it looks like we will be under shelter-in-place orders for many more months, I find myself filled with optimism this January 1.

We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called Opportunity and its first chapter is New Year’s Day.

—E. L. Pierce

For one, I am going into 2021 with two major editorial projects that should take me well into 2022. And, unlike last year’s project from hell, which was with a new client, both projects are with two favorite clients of long standing. They are also projects that should have relatively flexible schedules so that (hopefully) I will be able to plan my time and spread out my work hours a bit better than last year.

In terms of blogging, I can’t really have a worse year than last year, but who knows? Mostly I hope to at least get through my Century+ project. After all, if the almost 400 films I watched last year are any indication, I can at least get through films regardless of circumstance. Beyond that, I also hope to continue my Women 101 series in March. In one sense, that should be more than doable since it dovetails nicely with one of my work projects—a textbook on world history—but we’ll see.

Finally, whether I blog about it or not, I’d like to get a lot more reading done. However, don’t worry, I’m not tempting fate by setting a ridiculously high reading challenge number on Goodreads or resolving to read War and Peace yet again. In any case, if there is one thing the pandemic has taught me, it’s to feel less guilty about (or bound by) that sort of thing.

How about you? Are you making any resolutions this year?

2020: A Journal of the Plague Year

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Well, it’s been quite a year, hasn’t it? Instead of my usual round-ups of books, movies, and opera, and since I decided in October to just abandon any thoughts of serious blogging until 2021, I’m going to take a cue from one of my favorite books of the year and simply run down the year I had. (Never fear, I couldn’t resist making a few lists here and there and, of course, my annual list of singles that got me through it.)

JANUARY — My year starts off great. I return to San Francisco from New England just after the New Year ready to get both a major work project and my Century+ project off the ground. Noir City at the Castro has an “international” theme and I manage to catch the France, Italy, and Japan nights. January will turn out to be the last time I am out of the city limits until December.

Top Five Films of the 1910s Viewed for A Century+:
Shoes (Weber, 1916)
Male and Female (DeMille, 1919)
Snow White (Dawley, 1916)
Judex (Feuillade, 1916)
J’accuse (Gance, 1919)

FEBRUARY — As per usual, the Math Greek flies up from L.A. for my annual Oscar dinner and pool. We eat food from my local taqueria, drink Parasite (peach) and 1917 (cherry) margaritas, and have make-your-own Irishman sundaes. My French cousin drinks a little too much despite having an important interview the next day, nevertheless gets the job, and her new boss goes on to win a Nobel Prize. Coincidence? I think not. Best of all, my favorite film of the year actually wins Best Picture! But, hey, what’s this? The MG comes down with a mysterious virus the day he leaves. It hits him like a ton of bricks but, no, we have no idea if it was COVID. I also get hit with a ton of bricks, but in my case, we know for sure it was a case of the work project from hell. My year starts to go downhill very quickly, even before the shelter-in-place orders.

Top Five 2019 Movies (FINAL):
Parasite (Bong)
Hustlers (Scafaria)
The Farewell (Wang)
The Nightingale (Kent)
Little Women (Gerwig)

MARCH — In early March, the MG comes up again and we are already talking about him staying long term. I’ve begun stocking supplies, including what will be the first of too many cases of wine, and we notify the landlord of our intentions in case of a lockdown. We also attend a critics screening of First Cow with the ever-generous Mel Valentin. I buy sanitizer wipes at the Target next door and wipe everything down before sitting down in the almost empty theater. This will turn out to be the first and last 2020 movie I see on the big screen. In a sign of what is to come, my March 14 outing to the ballet to celebrate La Belle Chantal’s birthday is cancelled. The MG heads back to L.A. to take care of a few things, but ends up renting a car to drive back one-way on the day lockdowns are announced for both San Francisco and L.A. We think this might be for a month or two. Maybe three. Spoiler alert: He’s still here.

Top Five 2020 Movies (so far):
First Cow (Reichardt)
Nomadland (Zhao)
La Nuit des rois (Night of the Kings) (Lacôte)
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Hittman)
Palm Springs (Barbakow)

APRIL — Having started my #LockdownCooking Twitter thread on March 17, the first full day of sheltering in place, I get used to regularly cooking for two. This sucks. I don’t really like to cook, but I don’t like to eat takeout often. (I usually restrict it to the five days a month or so that the MG is here.) I can’t figure out why I feel like I’m cooking all the time until I realize that usually when I cook just for me I have leftovers for days so I can eat home cooking almost all the time without cooking constantly. It takes me far too long to realize this and adjust accordingly.

Top Three Most Used #LockdownCooking Recipes:
Crispy Slow Cooker Carnitas
Garlic Butter Sheet Pan Salmon & Asparagus
Paloma Tequila Cocktail

MAY — At the beginning of 2020, I had planned to take the second half of May off to attend two different weddings, a family affair in France and that of my college roommate’s eldest son outside Seattle. These were obviously both cancelled (to take place as small private ceremonies months later). This was probably for the best as I invoice 150 hours for the first two weeks in May and the project from hell shows no sign of becoming less hellish. Thankfully at this point my other two projects have wrapped up and I don’t drop and break my laptop until late June (because, of course, it’s 2020).

Favorite Discovery of the Year (Household Products division): Dr. Bronner’s sugar soap. The only way I could get my hands on some hand sanitizer early on in the pandemic was to order a lavender gift box from Dr. Bronner on Amazon. In addition to two spray bottles of sanitizer, the box included a pump bottle of lavender sugar soap. Like everyone, we had been washing our hands a lot, so much so I had started to use hand lotion, something I actually never needed before. However, after a week or two of washing constantly with the sugar soap, I found myself asking the MG, “Is it me, or is this stuff making our hands softer?” If you’ve never tried it before, do yourself (and your hands) a favor. Runner-Up: my LapGear lap desk

JUNE — By June I finally work up the nerve to read The Hot Zone, a non-fiction thriller about Ebola that the MG sent me back in February as we started to get prepared for the inevitable. I really struggled to get through books this year, and not just because they were too scary to contemplate. But I read a few good ones, especially as I wait for my laptop to get to and from the Lenovo Repair Center, which has a three-week backlog since they moved to what would become a COVID hotspot at the beginning of the pandemic.

Top Five New-to-Me Books Read in 2020:
Alex (Lemaitre)
A Journal of the Plague Year (Defoe)
His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae (Burnet)
A Holiday for Murder (Christie)
The Hot Zone (Preston)

JULY — In July, we realize that there is at least one flea in the apartment. Or, rather, I do, since I am the one with all the flea bites. I have no animals. Although I am convinced that it came in via one of the many dogs that are now living in my “dog-free” building, the exterminator assures me that it probably came in via the tree just outside my window. While the endless vacuuming and apartment prep are a pain, the most difficult element of the pest control visit turns out to be finding a place to go during the six hours we must vacate the apartment. We end up renting a car and heading out to La Belle Chantal’s place for a backyard visit.

Favorite Discovery of the Year (Food and Drink division): Fresh kielbasa sausage. For the early part of the pandemic, I mostly sourced groceries through Whole Foods (when I could get a delivery time) or by waiting in the line at the nearby Trader Joe’s. However, at some point, I realize it might be safer to go to smaller local stores and the outdoor farmers markets. At the Ferry Building Farmers Market, I discover a vendor who makes fresh kielbasa sausage, which I had never had before (although I pretty much eat kielbasa any chance I get). Runners-Up: Bicycle Coffee medium roast; Rue Lepic’s fried chicken with jalapeño coleslaw sandwich

AUGUST — Just as I begin recovering from the July flea circus, seemingly all of California catches fire. Between the fear of new fleas and the smoke, our windows remain closed all the time. (The full implications of this practice will not emerge until late September.) The project from hell continues apace, and yet I begin negotiating and background work on what will be my two major projects of 2021. Otherwise, August is somewhat of a respite and I begin to miss the fact that I can’t travel in a major way, especially since the fires mean there is nowhere to go even for a weekend getaway.

Biggest Regret of the Year: Not crossing another national park off my list

SEPTEMBER — In September, I discover mold on a suitcase in the closest. Turns out that making room for an extra person by stuffing your extra things in the walk-in closet, and then never needing to go in there for different kinds of clothes, and having your windows sealed shut all the time, is really not good in terms of humidity levels and air circulation. I get rid of the suitcase, bag up all my clothes just in case, and generally move everything out of the closet. As I slowly go through items, I realize the problem is worse than I thought and end up getting rid of bunch of stuff. Most of my clothing looks okay, but everything that can be washed is, with added vinegar. This is more exhausting than trying to source groceries at the beginning of the pandemic. This is not helped by having a minor medical issue and call to the doctor turn into six different in-person Kaiser appointments over the course of ten days. Never fear, after 6 weeks and approximately $6000 in medical tests and procedures, I’m fine. Oh yeah, and the sky did this one morning…

Favorite Discovery of the Year (Accounting division): Kaiser’s Medical Financial Assistance (MFA) program

OCTOBER — October is filled with mold remediation projects and stress over medical issues and the upcoming election. However, the resulting de-cluttering of the apartment leaves me feeling really good, like a psychic weight is off my shoulders. I further reduce the psychic load by accepting the fact that my Century+ project is just not going to happen this year and being okay with that. I make a pact with myself that I will not even think about blogging until the end of the year (except, of course, for my annual first lines challenge, which I have been putting together throughout the year as usual).

Favorite Television Series of the Year: The Queen’s Gambit

NOVEMBER — I vote on Election Day and then proceed to obsess about the election results for weeks. I rejoice in the fact that Orange Foolius will soon be gone. (Not soon enough.) My brother, cousin, nephew, niece, and I surprise my sister with a Zoom call on her birthday. This is not a thing we normally do, even in the pandemic, but clearly we should do it more often because it lasts six hours. I remain stunned that anyone even contemplated getting together in person for Thanksgiving.

Favorite Discovery of the Year (Games division): Pandemic (the board game) on Steam

DECEMBER — I reach December absolutely exhausted but feeling lucky to have survived the pandemic so far, worked steadily throughout, and lived through it all with the MG by my side. I finally leave the city limits again to rendez-vous with La Belle Chantal’s family to visit a Christmas tree farm and pick out our trees. I love having a tree again after so many years spent away from home at the holidays. I remain hopeful that there is a light at the end of this dark tunnel and that it is not an oncoming train. I hope you can say the same.

May the new year bring us all a little more peace, love, and joy.