As I began to research the year in film for 1922 (with the gracious help of @MoviesSilently, one of the hosts for The Classic Movie History Project Blogathon) I had trouble deciding which films to review. It was the first time I had really looked at just one year in film and didn’t really expect to find so many during such an early period!
The silent era is still a new thing for me and I never really considered it at all until I began to work on my Top 10 Best Family Movies of All Time. I realized that by giving my list this name and if I was going to stay faithful to the “All Time” qualifier that I would have to think about every movie ever made. This will eventually lead you back to the silent era, generally considered to be between 1894 and 1929.
The first “talkie” is usually credited to “The Jazz Singer” (1927) which was certainly the most successful sound movie ever made up until that time. It is often cited as the film that ushered in the sound era and killed the silents, specifically at the moment when Al Jolson utters his first line nearly 20 minutes into the film: “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”
While this is probably old news to most of the bloggers participating in The Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, I thought I’d point it out for any of my other readers who may, as I did, only think about the “talkies” when we consider movies.
I’ve recently enjoyed a number of silent films and have even developed a habit of making sure to watch them with no sound whatsoever. When I hear the music tracks on a silent movie, no matter how authentic it sounds, I just can’t stop thinking about what an audience might have heard in a theatre and how likely it is that they would have heard the same thing. Of course, I’ll never be able to resolve this question and so I mute the speakers and watch them this way. I haven’t found one that will be able to break into that top 10 list just yet, but Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid” (1921) might have the best chance so far.
It was a different world in 1922 and it is hard to comprehend the popularity of silent films at a time when there was no television at all and when radio was only beginning. The President of the United States put a radio in the White House for the first time in 1922 and the BBC wouldn’t have their first radio broadcast until November of this same year.
The most popular movie in 1922, if we judge by the box office, was “Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood” at 2.5 million dollars, followed by the 2 million made by “Oliver Twist” starring the popular child star Jackie Coogan as Oliver and Lon Chaney as Fagin. I decided that I would need to see them at least.
For more I would need to decide between the shorts of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd or Charlie Chaplin, or see the remake of Mary Pickford’s popular 1914 “Tess of the Storm Country” in the 1922 version, also starring Mary Pickford, or see what D. W. Griffith was doing that year with “One Exciting Night”, or see my first Rudolph Valentino film with “Blood and Sand”… I was quickly overwhelmed.
I learned about “Nanook of the North”, considered to be the first feature length documentary ever released or at least the first one to have any success in the theatres and as a lover of the genre (if “documentary” is a genre) I knew I had to include that one too.
I started watching them, enjoyed “The Paleface” with Buster Keaton, started on Harold Lloyd’s “Grandma’s Boy” and then found out that one of the all-time classic horror films was also made in 1922. “Nosferatu” was a name I recognized, the creepy face was familiar too and I couldn’t understand why since I had never seen the film before.
I had to stop myself right there and settle on these four, reviewing them from the “family friendly” perspective and running them here in order as they were released in 1922:
released March 4, 1922
Family-Friendly Rating: “Avoidable” for young children simply because of the vampire and how truly gruesome and freaky looking he is, even now, almost 92 years later. The rest of the family might be interested to watch this famous silent if only to poke fun at the characters and some of the slightly ridiculous scenes where things are happening for no apparent reason or why Nosferatu needs to carry his coffin everywhere he goes — things that I thought to myself while I watched.
The film plays like a strange dream and the abstract style makes it difficult to follow the plot at times but it is certainly interesting to watch as a piece of film history. The costume and makeup on the vampire Nosferatu delivers a strikingly creepy monster that I still find fascinating and would rank him up there with Lon Chaney’s Phantom or any other movie monster for that matter. The only disappointment is that there isn’t enough of him and maybe too much time dedicated to telling the strange story, which was based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 “Dracula”. There is something of a legend about the film and this Stoker connection too.
Bram Stoker had died in 1912 but his widow, Florence Stoker, sued in court for copyright infringement shortly after “Nosferatu” was released. She had already refused to sell the rights to “Dracula” to the producer, Albin Grau, but he went on to make the film anyway and in the hope of avoiding further legal action attempted to make a few minor changes: “Count Dracula” would become “Count Orlok” and a “vampire” would be called a “Nosferatu”.
This wasn’t enough to convince the courts and Florence won her lawsuit. The court ordered that all prints of the film to be burned and they were, except for one print that had already been shipped to the United States. This print was the only one to survive and this is partly why “Nosferatu” developed such a cult following years later.
Besides the tall, creepy monster of a vampire in Nosferatu there are other interesting points in the film, like the short sequence of inverted color when Thomas Hutter is being taken to the Count Orlok’s castle or the use of only shadows of characters to depict the action.
If nothing else, see what you think of the scene where Nosferatu rises out of a coffin and wonder if that wouldn’t have scared your pants off in 1922!
Nanook of the North
released June 11, 1922
Family-Friendly Rating: “Highly Recommended”, but maybe for older members of the family who might appreciate it and there is some slightly uncomfortable content.
This film is considered to be the first successful feature length documentary ever released. The filmmaker, Robert J. Flaherty, had originally shot footage of Eskimos in the arctic area of Canada between 1914 and 1915 but accidentally dropped a cigarette on his nitrate negatives and set it all on fire. He returned to the same area in 1920 and shot footage for almost a year, this time focusing on only one man, nicknamed Nanook and his family and attempted to show how they lived.
In the course of watching Nanook and his family I got to see how igloos are really made (they don’t use those red plastic blocks I tried as a kid which never really worked out) and saw how spear fishing really works. One of the disturbing scenes is when Nanook pulls a fish out on a spear and immediatly bites into its head. It isn’t too graphic but it was a surprise.
There are other more disturbing scenes where Nanook has to break up a vicious fight between some of his sled dogs and other scenes where Eskimos cut open and eat a freshly killed seal but if you can handle it then you will appreciate the filmmaker’s attempt to present life in the artic as directly as possible. There still is some controversy about how much of the scenes were staged and even if the family was really a family, but I won’t begin to get into all of that.
The only other “uncomfortable” scene was the very brief nudity when the family is getting ready to sleep in their igloo and the women can be seen without anything on top. Why any woman would sleep this way in an igloo is another matter. This is what I would consider harmless “National Geographic” kind of nudity and barely noticeable in the brief scenes when it does happen but it could create an awkward moment.
One of my favorite title cards is shown to explain why Nanook has put his sled up on the roof of his igloo:
“If Nanook had not put his sled on top of the igloo for the night the dogs would have eaten the seal-hide thongs which bind its parts together.”
Oh tell me about it! How many times have all of us forgotten to put our sleds on top of the igloo and wake up the next morning to find the dogs had torn up all the seal-hide thongs! If I had a nickel…
Another favorite comes near the end:
“Ikee! Ikee”! Very cold!
Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood
released October 18, 1922
“Fetch me a falcon!”
Only in medieval England could you think of saying such a thing and expect to actually have a falcon brought to you, but this is exactly what happens in “Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood”
Family-Friendly Rating: “Enjoyable” for the entire family, provided you have already got them watching silent movies. If you see any movie from 1922, make it this one. Or at least check out the first few minutes just to appreciate the production value compared to the other 1922 films you’ve seen so far. You have seen others already? Of course!
This is what struck me first about the film: the number of actors and extras in the cast alone, not to mention the larger sets in the castles and forests, the elaborate costumes, the stunts and the action compared to the other films of 1922 that I had seen (including “Oliver Twist” which would be released a few weeks later) sets it apart.
As I would learn later, this film was the first to have a Hollywood premiere and it was written and produced by Douglas Fairbanks who had already been very successful with his previous efforts at producing, writing and starring in The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Three Musketeers (1921) among others before making this one that would include his name and be copyrighted as “Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood”.
Besides the production values, there is also much more to read on the titles than your typical silent film and an almost baffling vocabulary, including:
“I fear you have incurred his enmity — in my behalf”
“All of England fell under the pall of Prince John’s perfidy.”
“I’ll knop your scop!”
“Damn their black hides! I’ll lash them til they bleat!”
“Rouse the townspeople!”
There are some graphic scenes of men being chained and hung from walls, men and women being tortured, branded with irons and whipped under the cruel treatment of the evil Prince John which is most certainly done on purpose to make you loath the villain but might surprise you if you aren’t prepared for them.
The 2 hour and 20 minute run time was a bit too long for me, but if taken in smaller parts you should enjoy this bit of film history too.
Now fetch me a falcon!
released October 30, 1922
“Please sir, I want some more.”
More? OK, one more film from 1922…
Family-Friendly Rating: “Enjoyable” for the entire family since you’ve got them all starting to watch silent films by now. There is some mildly violent action throughout the film. Jackie Coogan as Oliver gets shaken and thrown around like a rag doll in a number of scenes which may have been done for comical and/or dramatic effect. A man kills a woman near the end of the film and he ends up hanging himself accidentally. These scenes aren’t graphic but might be disturbing to sensitive viewers.
If you can handle that, then you and the family might enjoy playing another game that came to my mind while watching this one: call out the words an actor appears to be saying when you can read their lips. “Oliver Twist” seemed to have been directed in a style that not only encouraged the actors to exaggerate their physical movements, which is pretty much the standard technique in silent film, but here the actors seem to make a special effort to clearly mouth their words to help the audience actually “see” what they are saying. This generally happens in silent films too but I never noticed it so much as in “Oliver Twist”.
Lon Chaney does a wonderful job as Fagin, appearing at about 26 mintues into the film, and I wish there could have been more of him in the story. The film is obviously focused around Oliver, played by the 7 year old Jackie Coogan who had appeared in “The Kid” (1921) with Charlie Chaplin the year before. He is just as cute as he was in “The Kid” and I only worried about him getting hurt as I watched him getting shook and thrown around like a sack of potatoes. Later in his life, Jackie would appear on television and might be better known to you as Uncle Fester on the 1960s television show “The Addams Family”.
1922 was an interesting year for other reasons:
For one, it was a pretty big year for the Irish, starting in January when Dáil Éireann ratified the Anglo-Irish Treaty. James Joyce would have “Ulysses” published in February on his 40th birthday. The Irish Civil War would get kicked off in the summer and Michael Collins would be assassinated at the age of 31 on August 22 in Béal na Bláth, West Cork. The Irish Free State would officially exist in December with Tim Healy appointed the first Governor-General.
In the Bronx, far from the tension in Ireland and close to where both of my maternal grandparents were living at the young ages of 10 and 11 years old, Yankee Stadium would begin construction and give a permanent home to my grandfather’s favorite baseball team who had picked up Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox two years earlier.
In Italy, Benito Mussolini would become the youngest Prime Minister of the country at the age of 39.
And back in the world of “movie history” 1922 also was the debut of a silent series produced by Hal Roach called “Our Gang” that would continue for years afterward and become known as “The Little Rascals.”
Color film was possible at the time and just starting to be used more in feature films by 1922. This is yet another broad topic in film history that I won’t begin to touch, but wanted to end the post with this clip from Kodak and a test of color film shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey in 1922 with silent film actresses Mae Murray, Hope Hampton and Mary Eaton.
It looks amazing and hard to believe it was taken so long ago. It must have been even more amazing for people to see at that time, although I couldn’t say who actually got to see these tests in 1922. It seems to play like a preview of what the movies would look like in the future:
Be sure to check out all of the other years in The Classic Movie History Project Blogathon