They don’t make them like they used to. This top 10 discovers why that statement rings so true with a look at some classic films made before 1930 that demand attention.
How many times have you heard the phrase – “…they don’t make them like they used to…”? You may well have used the utterance yourself, I know I have. But what are we referring to – the films they made a decade ago, the films they made in our childhood’s, the films they made generations ago?
Here, I explore ten “classic” films from around the world to give you the armoury to back up the statement that “they don’t make them like they used to.” I’ve gone back to the first thirty years of cinema, when the spectacle of “moving pictures” was a carnival experience where eager audiences were dazzled by this startling entertainment medium.
The following ten films are not only examples of “must see” early cinema, they example the work of pioneers who have influenced the way filmmakers produce movies today. These films, from Melies’ A Trip to the Moon to Lang’s Metropolis, have left an indelible mark on cinema history deserving of celebration.
10. Sunrise (Murnau, USA, 1927)
Sunrise is often remembered for two reasons: it was the first Best Picture recipient at the Academy Awards alongside William Wellman’s Wings; secondly, through further advances in the use of sound, it further progressed cinema towards the “talkie”. The simplistic melodrama that follows the fracturing of a married couple’s relationship when a new woman enters their lives is made far more appealing thanks to Charles Rosher and Karl Struss’ gorgeous photography.
9. Blackmail (Hitchcock, UK, 1929)
Much of Alfred Hitchcock’s most revered work arrived once he made the journey to America – films like Rear Window, Psycho, North by Northwest, and Strangers on a Train immediately conjure mental images of tension-filled drama, red herrings, and murder alongside the sight of Hollywood’s biggest male and female actors starring in roles that would define many careers. However, go back to the late 1920s, Hitchcock was still plying his trade in the British film industry as a relative unknown. That would change when he made Blackmail, the country’s first all-talkie. The film solidified his reputation as the master of suspense after 1927’s silent film The Lodger and set him on a path that would lead him to the USA and significant real estate in the annals of film history.
8. The Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov, USSR, 1929)
Filmmaker Dziga Vertov gained plenty of experience of the moving image capturing real life events in his native Russia. His 1929 film The Man with the Movie Camera was an early precursor to modern documentary filmmaking, utilising innovative editing techniques to reformulate realism to meet his own ends.
7. A Trip to the Moon (Melies, France, 1902)
You could say this is the first science-fiction film. The man behind it – Georges Melies – was known for his eccentric performances as a stage actor and magician. This talent is perhaps most memorably recorded in his depiction of a disgruntled “Moon”, annoyed by the fact a rocket has crash-landed into it. A Trip to the Moon is understandably a “must see” silent film because its entertaining humour and early use of special effects make it a hugely enjoyable experience (which only lasts around 15 minutes – considered extremely long for a film in 1902). There are also a variety of editing techniques evident within the film, that would eventually become commonplace.
6. Metropolis (Lang, Germany, 1927)
This is the first science-fiction epic. Like nothing before it, Metropolis utilised special effects, grand sets and thousands of extras thanks to a mega-budget from Germany’s major film studio UFA. Filled with iconic images such as a futuristic robot burned at the stake and methodical workers “eaten” by the mammoth jaws of a dominating machine, Metropolis is a striking, hypnotic, important film that has lost little of its impact.
5. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, Germany, 1919)
Stylised visuals remind us we are watching the work of a creative artist telling a visual story through the medium of cinema. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is full of imaginative techniques from the costumes to the set design, creating an off-kilter world that works seamlessly with the twisted story.
4. The Jazz Singer (Crosland, USA, 1927)
The influence of 1927’s The Jazz Singer cannot be underestimated. Widely accepted as the first feature-length sound movie the film’s significance within cinema history is not solely based on its technical progress but to the direction of the film industry as a commercial entity.
3. The Birth of a Nation (Griffith, USA, 1915)
Memorable in part for the wrong reasons (the film was based on Thomas Dixon’s racist play The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan), D.W. Griffith’s film is however rightly applauded for its advances in film from both a technical perspective and an artistic one. The film has been widely argued as the most influential ever made.
2. The Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, USSR, 1925)
The Battleship Potemkin is bursting with such memorable imagery (the woman’s bloodied face and broken glasses, the baby carriage on the steps lined with bodies) it is difficult to decide where to begin reviewing it. Eisenstein’s film is a product of its time, a window onto the political and social cooking pot of the period. You can analyse its point of view and the meaning behind its myriad of disjointed images in a number of ways but one thing is for sure: by abandoning the elements that were making cinema so appealing in the West (classic linear narrative structure, character-driven plot, star actors), Eisenstein exampled the way film could be manipulated (principally through the much vaunted montage editing technique) to create meaning without traditional storytelling devices.
1. The Gold Rush (Chapin, USA, 1925)
Of early cinema’s famous male stars there were few as influential, inspirational or enduring as Charlie Chaplin. The Gold Rush marks one of his most elaborate projects with large-scale on-location sets, hundreds of extras, and even some special effects. Chaplin was clearly pleased with the finished film, declaring in later life that The Gold Rush was the film he’d like to be remembered for.
Written and compiled by Daniel Stephens.
Your turn – what are your favourite films from the early part of the 20th century?
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