best film: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from Robert 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).
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.
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
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.
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.
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
- Way Down East
- The Last of the Mohicans
- 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