best film:  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from Wiene is by far the best film from 1920. It’s the birth of German expressionism, and, largely, mise-en-scene (or at least set design) in feature film (though of course Georges Méliès was working in shorts before with an expressionism to match the Lumiere brothers realism).

 

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from Wiene is by far the best film from 1920

most underrated:   The TSPDT consensus list is underrating Caligari. I have it at #56 and they have it outside of the top 200. Way Down East is the only other 1920 film that lands on their list and it is at #1245 on TSPDT—that’s a fine spot for it. However, The Last of the Mohicans from Clarence Brown should be somewhere in the top 2000 and isn’t.

James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel clearly makes for great cinematic source material. This version, the 1920 version is superb– as is the 1936 version and of course Michael Mann’s 1992 version.

most overrated:  Nothing here in this category for 1920 with only two films on the consensus list and one is underrated (Caligari) and the other is just fine (Way Down East).

gem I want to spotlight: The Mark of Zorro from Fred Niblo

  • Largely in the archives for some nice action sequences involving Douglas Fairbanks’ acrobatics
  • Fairbanks was really trying to break into a new mode- get away from romance films- quite a move here becoming the 1920’s version of Errol Flynn
  • Detail in the “Z” and sword designed title cards
  • Strong myth-making in the narrative- the Spanish Robin Hood set in California
  • Duel identities- secret entrance to mansion- the story’s influence on Batman
  • Fairbanks is comedic- agile
  • The word “oppressors” is like “bondage” in The 10 Commandments– it’s oppressive to the viewer—would make for a fun drinking game
  • Blue day-for-night tinting, green tinting for the garden
  • Some admirable attempts at Spanish décor
  • Zorro here is a goofball- shadow puppets, magic and feigns being aloof—stops during a big battle for a bite to eat
  • Tons of dialogue- when he confronts a table of idlers his speech is 4-5 pages long
  • The best scenes are the climactic battle- jumping over a horse, scaling walls, sword-play and chance for Fairbanks to show off his physical talents

The best scenes are the climactic battle- jumping over a horse, scaling walls, sword-play and chance for Fairbanks to show off his physical talents

 

trends and notables:  Caligari is the real landmark here as it kicks off an imaginative use of one of cinema’s most central artistic palate usages (mise-en-scene). German expressionism is an important movement in cinema history and we have a great launch of that here with Wiene’s masterpiece.

cinema is often divided into realism and expressionism– and you cannot tell the story of cinematic expressionism without Caligari

it kicks off an imaginative use of one of cinema’s most central artistic palate tools: mise-en-scene– here specifically the hyper-stylized set design

best performance male:  Werner Krauss as the titular doctor in Wiene’s great work walks away with easily the strongest male performance of 1920.

best performance female: Lillian Gish does it again in Way Down East. She has perfected the art form of the melodramatic close-up at this point—it is impossible to tell the story of Griffith’s run without Gish.

Griffith’s (and Gish’s) run continues with 1920’s Way Down East

top 10

  1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
  2. Way Down East
  3. The Last of the Mohicans
  4. The Mark of Zorro

 

Archives, Directors, and Grades

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari- Wiene MP
The Last of the Mohicans- Brown HR
The Mark of Zorro– Niblo R
Way Down East- Griffith HR

 

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives