The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Help! Suggestions solicited

I'm teaching a class on American culture of the 1920s and, obviously, I need to address film. But I know next to nothing about film of that time. Can anyone--thinking of you, zp, and your film friends--recommend easily available and representative films of the time that would work well for undergrads? Obviously I'm going to show parts of THE JAZZ SINGER and that Harold Lloyd film SAFETY LAST where he hangs from the clock. What else? Marx Brothers? Pre-code and Hays Office films? Did D.W. Griffith make popular films in the 1920s? Chaplin?


  • At 10:01 PM, Blogger pittgirl said…

    I was just watching the Phantom of the Opera last night, starring Lon Chaney. Silent film made in 1925. The latest version of it has some color. Pretty interesting to watch. You can get it on DVD in the classics section.

  • At 10:22 AM, Blogger zp said…

    You brought out the librarian in me. Combine that with film and . . . I was totally stumped!

    My strongest recommendation is The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928) - a silent melodrama (with lots of light comedy mixed in) that satires the American dream, the happy family and the 9-5 job. Great NYC scenes, Coney Island, Niagra Falls, sexual innuendo. Is that a ukelele you're holding? I saw this as an undergrad and I loved it then and love it now.

    Chaplin's The Kid (1921) is good period slapstick and sentiment and social critique, and Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates (1920) is an interesting "response" from an African-American director to Griffith's Birth of a Nation. It's a lynching story and very moving and suspenseful and based on a novel.

    I’ve been taught Keaton’s Our Hospitality more than once, but I find it dull on every level. I like The General better, for formal reasons, good crosscutting and use of train.

    Hillman has all of the above.

    I think film studies proper sort of ignores US films of the period . . . since most of the films really pale by comparison to other times (a little earlier, a little later) and places (Europe) . . . The following aren't recommendations, more a list of names that might be helpful if you played with IMDb for awhile:

    Dorothy Arzner (female director) directed Clara Bow (prolific period hottie) in The Wild Party, a girls' school romance (1929).

    Fairbanks and Anna May Wong appeared in Thief of Baghdad (1924) and Garbo in Wild Orchids (1929) if you want to explore an "orientalism" trend. Mary Pickford, Cecil B. DeMille's 10 Commandments (ug), Valentino . . . Anita Loos wrote screenplays, which might work nicely, depending on what kind of writing you are teaching, but I've never seen any of her films . . .

    But abroad you have:

    Metropolis (Fritz Lang 1927 German)
    Pandora's Box with flapper icon Louise Brooks (GW Pabst 1929 German) Both of these directors eventually leave Germany to work in the US . . . and Murnau.

    In France (1929), dark, artsy Dane Carl Dreyer made the Passion of Joan of Arc and Dali and Bunuel made Un Chien Andalou.

    Eisenstein in the Soviet Union.

    Picadilly (1929 Brit) is great, also with Anna May Wong, who works with Dietrich and Sternberg later in Shanghai Express (1932 US).

    A little later too, there are the great Sternberg and Dietrich films: Blue Angel (1930 German) and Blonde Venus (1931 US).

    And earlier, there are the great Griffith shorts (Corner in Wheat, New York Hat), the awful Birth of a Nation. Way Down East is (1920) OK, I guess. Also earlier are Mabel Normand, Fatty Arbuckle and the exotic siren from Cincinnati, Theda Bara.

    So depending on how strictly you are thinking “American” and “1920s” any of these might be useful.

    There are people who know a lot more about this period of US film, and they think its a gold mine (for proto-romantic comedies, I think), so happy hunting!

    ps. Eric von Stroheim's Greed, adaptation of Norris' McTeague.

  • At 10:27 AM, Blogger zp said…

    PS. Old roomate recommends Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. which is a little "meta" - Keaton is a film projectionist who enters Sherlock film he is projecting. I haven't seen this, but it's a popular conceit in early cinema, part of the fascination with the technological medium and the new problems of representation the medium offers the audiences of the period.

  • At 7:20 AM, Blogger mzn said…

    You might have a look at Cecil B. DeMille and American Culture, a book by Sumiko Higashi. Many of DeMille's films are available on DVD from Kino. I also recommend An Evening's Entertainment by Richard Koszarski, one in a series of books on American film history.(Here via zp's blog, btw.)


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