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1928: The Last and Greatest Year of the Original Motion Picture Art, B.S. (Before Sound)

1928: The Last and Greatest Year of the Original Motion Picture Art, B.S. (Before Sound)

People have been saying that the greatest year for American movies was 1939 (of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz fame) ever since Life magazine published a big piece proclaiming this opinion with all the passion of fact. Coincidentally, in August 1972, a few months before the Life article appeared, Esquire ran a “Hollywood” column of mine on the abundant film glories of 1939 (Ninotchka, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Only Angels Have Wings, Love Affair, Young Mr. Lincoln, Stagecoach, etc.). But the hook for my piece had been that opinions change with the years, and that only time can produce really accurate judgments; I picked 1939 as an example simply because several of my illustrious filmmaking contemporaries and I were all born that year.

My main theme was that back then there were a lot of amazing years, and that we had now moved into an era of decadence. After all, perhaps equally extraordinary to some was 1940 (The Grapes of Wrath, His Girl Friday, Rebecca, The Philadelphia Story, The Great Dictator, The Shop Around the Corner, etc.), and 1941 wasn’t exactly chopped liver (Citizen Kane, How Green Was My Valley, The Maltese Falcon, Sergeant York, The Lady Eve, Suspicion, etc.). Certainly one could easily argue that the artistic zenith for the talking picture fell in that unequalled three-year period just before and after the start of World War II, and before America entered the struggle.

But what about the so-called silent screen? (In fact, no films were ever shown silent, there always being at least a pianola, more often a piano, or organ or full orchestra, often with live sound effects.) It seems to me that the greatest year of what could be called the Original Motion Picture Art, B.S.(Before Sound) was also the final year before talkies virtually took over completely in 1929. Yes, in 1928, the non-dialog movie sang its glorious swan’s song. Charlie Chaplin summed it up most succinctly: Just when they had perfected it, he said, it was all over.

The year 1928 marks the end of the only dramatic art form ever presented to the masses without spoken words, a kind of universal language (needing translation only on the easily altered title-cards). For just 33 precious years, from December 1895 in Paris, to December 1928 in the entire world, publicly exhibited movies in pantomime had enthralled the planet, had the largest audience in the history of the earth, either before or after. Attendance figures moved upward slightly when sound first took over, but the numbers dropped radically within the first eighteen months, and they’ve been dropping ever since.

Since the silent film was such a profoundly unique language, it’s always a good idea to reexamine this real foundation of the art—-telling stories visually—-to see how far we may have strayed and how much we might gain from a re-acquaintance with basic principles. Amazingly, a great deal of this work is currently available for viewing on DVD or some remaining VHS tapes, so there’s no excuse for ignorance.

Ironically, 1928 was also the first year the Academy Awards were given out, though the official movie season for the Academy’s first six ceremonies ran awkwardly from August to August, so the prizes for 1928 were actually given out that year and in 1929, making the results confusing to report. For example, of the three directors nominated that first year for best director of a dramatic picture (comedy direction had a separate category for only this first year) the finest was King Vidor for his heartbreaking 1928 family drama, The Crowd, but he lost to Frank Borzage for his popular 1927 love story, Seventh Heaven. What’s doubly ironic, in fact, is that neither the first best picture award (for 1927-28), nor the second (for 1928-29), went to a 1928 movie. The German superstar, Emil Jannings, was awarded the first best actor prize for two performances: 1927’s adaptation of The Way of All Flesh (now a lost film), and 1928’s more memorable Josef von Sternberg picture, The Last Command.

Both The Crowd and The Last Command are about as good as movies will ever get, in terms of visually depicting characters, plots, emotions, thoughts, much of this through behavior, gesture, looks. The Last Command was based on a story idea from the master himself, Ernst Lubitsch, postulating the notion of a great general in Russia’s Czarist army who, after the Revolution, ends up in Hollywood as an extra, and gets cast as a Czarist general. Far-fetched but possible; and directed and acted with savage dexterity and no sentimentality at all.

As if one masterpiece from Sternberg were not enough, 1928 also saw his hard-bitten yet poetic waterfront slice-of-life, The Docks of New York, in many ways a purer, more eloquent work than The Last Command, equally marked by edgy candor and an astonishing eye for telling detail and photographic composition to evoke emotions and thoughts. (Criterion recently put out a DVD set of both of these, together with Sternberg’s gangster classic, Underworld.) Like The Crowd, The Docks of New York is about working-class stiffs, people on the lower rungs of society, but not unlike Everyman and Everywoman because of the mythic impact conveyed through giant-screen imagery. Bernard Shaw said The Docks of New York was the only perfect film he’d ever seen.

For my money, Vidor’s The Crowd is even a couple of notches better, but we are speaking here only in the highest reaches of the form. Virtually every frame of The Crowd tells its own story; with utter simplicity Vidor conveys a great complexity. Angles, size of image, cutting, continuous shots—-in Vidor’s work, as with all the first great filmmakers—-these are profoundly well chosen to portray meanings beyond words.

Just to help convey the endless bounties of 1928, King Vidor’s delightful comedy, Show People, was also released, a veritable portrait of Hollywood as the silent era ended—-Marion Davies at her comic best is starred—-but there are cameos from, among many others, Charlie Chaplin and John Gilbert, William S. Hart, Douglas Fairbanks (Sr.), and playing a director (of course) even Vidor himself.

Also, Sternberg had his hand in yet another classic release that year: He had been pressed into editing down the “other Von’s” (partially Technicolor) Paramount production—-Erich von Stroheim’s staggering last completed film, The Wedding March, co-starring Stroheim, Fay Wray and Zasu Pitts. Supposedly, Stroheim never forgave Sternberg, but Sternberg would say—-as he did to me once—-“Imagine what the film would have looked like if I hadn’t done it.” As usual with Stroheim, he had shot enough good film for well over two features. Paramount proposed Stroheim cut two two-hour movies—-as Part I: The Wedding March, and Part II: The Honeymoon. Stroheim agreed, but his version of the first part was still too long for Paramount. Stroheim got angry, Paramount got angry. Sternberg was called in to “finish” the editing. That cut was released, and though praised, coming at the end of the era, it passed by quickly. The Honeymoon was never really completed properly and released only in a few isolated places, and is now believed lost.

Nevertheless, we are left with one of the great Stroheim films—-and there is no more important figure in the cinema’s movement toward a grinding realism than Erich von Stroheim—-a star actor known to contemporary movie audiences as “The Man You Love to Hate,” and to other filmmakers from then on as an uncompromising master, among the first moderns. Though he started out as an actor-military consultant for D.W. Griffith, his own films as director, beginning with 1919’s Blind Husbands, shook Griffith’s hold on American popular entertainment, bringing in a strongly European sense of decadence and cynicism. Though, of course, Stroheim was also one of the great romantics. You only have to see The Wedding March to understand that; it’s the towering climactic work in the career of a striking visual artist. That same year, Stroheim began Queen Kelly, financed by Joseph P. Kennedy, and starring Gloria Swanson, at that time involved in an affair with Kennedy. Sound and over-budget costs stopped Queen Kelly; though never finished, an unauthorized video version exists. (For the record, it is footage from Queen Kelly that Swanson shows Bill Holden in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., projected by Stroheim.)

Swanson was nominated by the Academy in 1928 for Raoul Walsh’s popular and tough-minded version of a Somerset Maugham story: Sadie Thompson, in which Lionel Barrymore co-stars along with Walsh himself, is the last film he completed as actor-director before a freak accident cost him an eye. Considered today among the adventurous Walsh’s signature films, Sadie Thompson was only one of three Walsh pictures released that same year; the other two (like the final reel of Sadie Thompson) are lost.

The three foremost comedians of the silent screen all had movies released in 1928. The most popular (and still funny and likeable) was probably Harold Lloyd’s Speedy, with a cameo by Babe Ruth, and an outrageous chase through Manhattan; its director, Ted Wilde, was nominated in the comedy category and lost to Lewis Milestone’s Two Arabian Knights, from 1927. The other losing nominee in that category’s single appearance in Oscar history (this is seven years before they were even nicknamed Oscars) was Charles Chaplin for The Circus. But the Academy could not ignore Chaplin’s epochal work and gave him the first Special Academy Award—-for writing, directing and acting in The Circus.

My own personal favorite, “The Great Stone Face” Buster Keaton, had two 1928 releases: His last independent film, Steamboat Bill, Jr., probably his funniest—among the most hilarious, superbly constructed comedies ever made; and his first under a new MGM deal that would sour very badly, The Cameraman, a decided drop-off after Steamboat Bill, Jr., or indeed any of the previous sublime Keaton features, but still recognizably a Keaton picture. It was downhill for Buster from then on, so Steamboat Bill, Jr. is the final mature treasure from one of our greatest native geniuses.

The other big comedy news in 1928 was the continuing series of uproarious two-reelers starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Putting the “thin one” and the “fat one” together had been the brainchild of the new whiz-kid of laughs, Leo McCarey, who would turn to features within a year, but who either wrote and directed or supervised all the fall-down funny twenty-minute shorts the team starred in that year, including such classics (all available now) as Liberty, Wrong Again, Habeas Corpus, Leave ‘Em Laughing, Two Tars, We Faw Down, The Finishing Touch, From Soup to Nuts, Putting Pants on Philip, etc. (The cameraman on all these was George Stevens who, within half a decade, would become a prominent feature director.)

And then there was the young comedy filmmaker whom Leo McCarey would tell me was even then his “hero”—-Frank Rossellini Capra—-before 1928 known as the director of baby-face comedian Harry Langdon’s two best films, The Strong Man and (not quite as good) Long Pants. Capra was the new wonder boy at a company then called C.B.C. (dubbed “Corned Beef and Cabbage” in the industry), a tiny new studio which would soon become Columbia and within five years win the best picture Oscar (and the four other top awards) for a Frank Capra screwball comedy, It Happened One Night. What we all haven’t realized—-because the key films were thought lost—-is that 1928 marked the real start of what came to be known as “a Capra picture”–“Capra corn,” some people called it. But somehow I think John Cassavetes summed it up most succinctly, especially for people who grew up between 1928 and 1948, the years during which Capra made all his best and most typical films—-the ones that turned Columbia into a major studio–and Capra into the first fully independent filmmaker of the talking era: “Maybe there never really was an America,” Cassavetes said, “maybe it was all Frank Capra.”

In 1928, there were a total of seven Frank R. Capra productions released, all personally directed by the young Sicilian immigrant who captured immediately the flavor of everyday America, or maybe, as Cassavetes implied, it was the America Capra imagined it to be, wanted it to be. Certainly he was a big dreamer himself—-wouldn’t the American dream be the one to beat? On the most popular of the seven features, Submarine, Capra was brought in to save the expensive (for that notoriously cheap studio) production. He did. Of the six other Capras of that year, only two have fairly recently surfaced (through extraordinarily complicated restoration processes at Sony Pictures, which now owns Columbia, and under the patient supervision of Grover Crisp).

Both That Certain Feeling and The Matinee Idol are fresh, fast-paced, innocent yet knowing, at once equally square and hip. They have Capra’s energy, economy and sass; they are also at times—-especially The Matinee Idol—-quite touching and ambiguous in the emotions evoked. More restored surprises to the contrary, on the current evidence, the American screwball comedies thought to have begun in 1934 with It Happened One Night and Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century, really seem to have begun in 1928 with The Matinee Idol and That Certain Feeling. They are both revelations, and prove how invaluable, how crucial picture restoration is if we want to unearth all the buried glories of the past, and get the history right!

What we wouldn’t give, for instance, to see the lost 1928 Ernst Lubitsch film, The Patriot (also starring Emil Jannings), nominated for several Academy Awards in the 1928-29 season; or F.W. Murnau’s Four Devils (the great German director’s follow-up to his 1927 milestone, Sunrise).

But there is still plenty: John Ford (eventually the Academy’s most honored director) had three features and his first sound short released in 1928, all but the last available, one of them among the last great silent successes, the World War I tearjerker, Four Sons (with Ford clearly influenced, as so many were, by Murnau, and especially Sunrise). In one of Ford’s other releases that year, Hangman’s House, the director gives a tall young propman a choice comic bit at a horse race and so begins the film career of John Wayne.

Howard Hawks, only in his third year as a director, makes his first really Hawksian comedy-drama, A Girl in Every Port, featuring Louise Brooks in the role and haircut that defined her and caught German director G.W. Pabst’s eye, leading to this very American gal being cast in one of Germany’s most famous roles, Lulu in Pandora’s Box (1929). In the Hawks film, Brooks comes between the two male leads whose camaraderie outlasts all rivals. (Hawks’ first flying film, The Air Circus, is lost, but Fazil, a totally uncharacteristic novelty in his canon, has survived.)

In 1928, Louise Brooks also appears memorably in what is generally considered director William A. Wellman’s best and most personal film, Beggars of Life (only one of three films he put out that year). And although all three of the pictures Alfred Hitchcock directed in England are readily available, and while all have a certain interest in light of his subsequent career, none of them—-neither The Farmer’s Wife, Champagne or The Manxman—-are really recognizably Hitchcockian pictures. (That would come again the following year with Blackmail, Hitchcock’s and England’s first talkie.)

The best actress Academy award in 1928 went to Janet Gaynor for her 1927 performances in Murnau’s Sunrise and Borzage’s Seventh Heaven plus her 1928 performance in Borzage’s follow-up four-handkerchief romance, Street Angel, which certainly must have influenced his win for Seventh Heaven. (Borzage had a consistent run of moving love stories that included the recently rediscovered silents, The River and Lucky Star.) Besides two of D.W. Griffith’s least remembered (and now lost) films, and two lesser efforts from Cecil B. DeMille, there were a couple from newcomer Gregory La Cava (who would eventually make such classic talkies as My Man Godfrey and Stage Door), and the first two ever from Tay Garnett (director of the memorable The Postman Always Rings Twice), plus a praised but lost work from French master Maurice Tourneur, and four lost comedies from the slipping ace, Marshall Neilan (who directed most of Mary Pickford’s hits), two lost from Oscar-winner Lewis Milestone, and one from pioneer Allan Dwan.

Over in Europe the year produced a number of popular classics: From Germany, Fritz Lang’s first independent work, a prophetic thriller about a master criminal who wants to rule the world, Spione (Spies), the world’s first real spy film; from France, Jean Renoir has a lovely short and two excellent features, including Tire-Au-Flanc, his first of several unforgettable collaborations with the great Michel Simon; also from France, Rene Clair’s delightfully whimsical romantic comedy, Les Deux Timides, and from Russia, Sergei Eisenstein’s smashing second film, and a remarkably influential one, October, also known as Ten Days That Shook the World.

If I were teaching a master class in filmmaking, among the first things I’d assign would be a look at the pictures released in 1928. The end would therefore become, as it should be, the beginning.

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