The following list reflects my personal choice of the best films of each year, in order of preference. Certain titles are included mainly because of historical interest, because of their popularity or because of their director’s more noteworthy later career. Films with an asterisk (*) have full sound but little or no spoken dialog; they are the final few non-talking “silent” pictures. Officially, the last of these was in 1936, with Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, though Charlie does sing some French gibberish near the end.
The Love Parade (Ernst Lubitsch)
Hallelujah! (King Vidor)
Eternal Love (Ernst Lubitsch)*
The River (Frank Borzage)*
Lady of the Pavements (D.W. Griffith)*
Applause (Rouben Mamoulian)
Blackmail (Alfred Hitchcock)
Thunderbolt (Josef von Sternberg)
The Iron Mask (Allan Dwan)*
Salute (John Ford)
Flight (Frank Capra)
They Had to See Paris (Frank Borzage)
Dynamite (Cecil B. DeMille)
Since 1929 was the first year of full sound, the most interesting work was in the use of this new technique, which altered the essential dynamic of the medium. Lubitsch and Vidor, two great silent masters, each took it all the way and made musicals—“all talking, all singing, all dancing” ran the ads–which used the new spoken words and songs brilliantly while still managing to preserve some of the behavioral magic of the silents (The Love Parade and Hallelujah!). Lubitsch also released his last non-talking picture–a tragic love story with a superb performance from John Barrymore: Eternal Love was a flop in its day but has an extraordinarily modern style and remains extremely moving.
The Love Parade is one of my favorite movies–all the songs sung live with the orchestra just off-camera; no lip-sync gives Maurice Chevalier (in his first full-length feature) and Jeanette MacDonald an amazing intimacy and charm. Part of the audacity and genius of Lubitsch’s first talkie is that among the very first things he has Chevalier do is to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience. Hallelujah! is a daring all-black musical that retains much of its power. The master, D.W. Griffith, often called the father of film narrative, released his final silent, and a commendable work it is too (Lady of the Pavements), while arch-romantic Frank Borzage showed his last non-talking love story–a masterpiece from the fragments that remain: The River is very touching even though much of it is lost to us. Hitchcock started Blackmail as a silent, but went back and reshot sections with sound, so that it became England’s first talkie (though quite dated in parts).
Mamoulian’s Applause and Sternberg’s Thunderbolt are particularly good examples of sound technique–indeed, Applause is considered by many to remain its director’s best film. Dwan’s largely silent final Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler, The Iron Mask, delivers what fans expected and is Dwan’s fond farewell to the medium he adored and regretted the loss of to the end of his days, some fifty years later. The Ford, Capra, and other Borzage are essentially of historical interest, though all are fun—John Wayne (in a bit) speaks his first lines in Salute–and the DeMille is typically over-the-top but skillful.