1920 might have been the first year the art of filmmaking, storytelling, and acting come together in abundance in cinema. So many films released that year have become legendary and have stood the test of time. They are still popular and well-known even though it has been 100 years since they first entertained audiences.
In complying this list of suggested movies from 1920 to watch in 2020, I pulled 20 film titles from “Best of” lists provided by Ranker and IMDb, then watched all 20, some for the first time. From those 20 movies, I picked 10 to suggest. The ranking is in no particular order. I leave the ranking up to the reader. My only criteria in making this list was that each film still be available for viewing and be a full-length feature, no shorts except for Buster Keaton. The Great Stone Face deserves a special exception.
Again, this is not a “Top 10” list, merely my suggestions. You will be the one to decide a film’s value, you be the critic. All of these movies can be viewed on YouTube or Internet Archive.
Director: John France Dillion
Starring: Mary Pickford, Albert Austin, Harold Goodwin, Rose Dione
Mary Pickford is a frail and penniless sweet young woman named Amanda working in a laundry, hence the title Suds. Her co-workers are none to kind and bully her relentlessly. Amanda responds with imagination and lies. She tells her co-workers that a handsome customer is actually her boyfriend. The lie seems to be safe at the time, because that customer hasn't been into the laundry in months. He has never picked up his cleaned clothes, so he’s most likely never going to return. WRONG! Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.
The handsome tardy customer does return for his laundry and Amanda covers her lie with more lies and actually wins some romantic intentions from the apple of her eye, at least for a little while before he dumps her at a fancy shindig, but don’t fret. Karma always has a way to even things out, even in a web of lies.
Director: Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton
Starring: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts
This is the only two-reeler short to make this list, but that’s only because it’s Buster Keaton and 19 minutes of jaw-dropping stunts and explosive gags that only Keaton could pull off.
Buster and his new bride purchase a DYI house. Yeah, back then you could buy a Build-It-Yourself house kit. The big problem with Buster’s kit is the numbers on the crates have been changed by one of his bride’s former admirers who's just downright vicious with his jealously. Buster follows the assembly instructions, but ends up with a grossly misshapen abode. Added to that is the discovery that they have built their Home Sweet Home monstrosity in the wrong location and have to move it. What follows is one of Keaton’s most memorable series of amazing and shocking film moments.
DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE
Directed by: John S. Robertson
Starring: John Barrymore, Martha Mansfield, Charles W. Lane, Nita Naldi
We all know the story of the brilliant Dr. Jekyll who is driven to create better lives and better manners through chemistry. He falls well short of that goal and instead creates a separate devilish and cruel version of himself.
What makes this film version standout is the magnificent performance by one of the world’s greatest actors. It’s John Barrymore in the title roles. The first few moments when Dr. Jekyll convulses into his evil alter ego that is Mr. Hyde, Barrymore used no makeup. The scene relied on the great thespian’s talent. His facial and body contortions are a thing of wicked beauty.
Directed by: Wallace Worsley
Starring: Lon Chaney, Charles Clary, Doris Pawn, Jim Mason
By 1920, Lon Chaney was well on his way to being one of the top box office stars in the world. The Penalty is another early display of his talent for makeup and often painful contraptions used to contort his body.
In this film, Chaney plays a double amputee criminal obsessed with murdering the doctor who mistakenly chopped off his legs as a child. Oh, but wait. The legless hoodlum doesn’t plan to stop with just murder. He schemes to destroy the doctor’s entire family by wooing the chop-happy surgeon’s daughter into marriage.
THE HEAD OF JANUS
Directed by: F. W. Murnau
Starring: Conrad Veidt, Magnus Stifter, Margarete Schlegel
This is the first of two German Expressionism films on this list starring Conrad Veidt, and the second one on this list adapted from the novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The names in this adaption have been changed to protect the innocent and avoid a copyright infringement lawsuit.
In this version of the story, the Jekyll copycat character is as far as we know, not into hitting the chemicals to free himself of his inhibitions and put his Hyde on a frightening party circuit. Instead, it is the evil spirit in a bust of the Roman god Janus that injects the dual personality disorder.
THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI
Directed by: Robert Wiene
Starring: Hans Janowitz, Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher
This film consistently ranks #1 among critics as the best movie of 1920. They have called it the first real horror film, the first cult film, and the quintessential German Expressionist film. In other words, it’s just freaking creepy!
What does Dr. Caligari keep in his cabinet? Well, it’s a young man who suffers from sleepwalking. Yeah, Caligari is one disturbed PhD. He’s able to control the sleepwalker and use him to commit murders. No one is safe here and in the end…well, let’s just say there is no happy ending in a straightjacket.
THE GOLEM: HOW HE CAME INTO THE WORLD
Directed by: Paul Wegener
Starring: Paul Wegener, Albert Steinruck, Lyda Salmonova, Ernst Deutsch, Lother Muthel
1920 was a breakout year for German Expressionist filmmakers. The Golem: How He Came into the World is yet another excellent example of the movement. It is the third of three Golem films produced by Paul Wegener, and like a very early predecessor to George Lucas, Wegener made this installment of the trilogy a prequel to the other two Golem movies.
The Golem itself has the disposition of Godzilla. Sometimes he’s good and sometimes misguided and just acts like a fool. He was created out of clay and brought to life by a medieval rabbi who used the Golem to do chores around the house and impress his friends. However, there’s always someone who sees the negative side of everything, even a giant man of clay with the strength of an army, and that negative person is always up to no good and exploits the situation with disastrous consequences. This film is no exception to that rule.
THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS
Directed by: Maurice Tourneur
Starring: Wallace Beery, Barbara Bedford, Lillian Hall, Alan Roscoe
If you’re looking for what has been considered a masterpiece of American cinema, this is the movie for you. It’s the classic, and often reinterpreted war, survival, betrayal, and love triangle story.
Uncas is the last of the Mohican warriors, hence the title. He’s sent by his father to warn the commander of an 18th Century British army post that a bunch of French soldiers and their Huron Indian friends are headed that way and they plan to wipe them out. Uncas gets a crush on one of the commander’s two daughters, which doesn’t sit well with her boyfriend. But, as fate would have it, the daughters are snatched by the slime ball French soldiers and their Huron buddies. Uncas, and remember here that he is the last of the Mohicans, grabs his daddy and a guy with the super cool name of Hawkeye and they sent out to rescue the commander’s desirable offspring. The title of this film will give you an excellent idea how that plan ends.
THE MARK OF ZORRO
Directed by: Fred Niblo
Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Marguerite De La Motte, Noah Beery Sr., Noah Beery Jr., Wallace Beery
SWASHBUCKLING! What a great word and this film lives up to its definition. It’s the first film adaption of the masked avenger Zorro, a rich master swordsman who robs and generally makes life miserable for the rich and the tyrannical rulers. It's almost as if Douglas Fairbanks invented swashbuckling to play the title character, and no one would equal his swashbuckling until Errol Flynn picked up the sword and swung through the air almost 20 years later.
This film is also somewhat of a family affair for the Berry clan. Noah Beery starred alongside his half-brother Wallace, and Noah’s little boy Noah Jr has a small role which started his 46-year acting career. After The Mark of Zorro, his dad thought it would be a good idea to add “Sr.” after his own name.
WAY DOWN EAST
Directed by: D. W. Griffith
Starring: Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Lowell Sherman
Who doesn’t like a great romantic story, especially when it revolves around a sweet, innocent young woman who’s historically tragic love life comes to the point where she’s clinging to a piece of broken river ice and head toward a waterfall. That cold-blooded climax is still famous today, 100 years later.
Way Down East was a box office hit, but it is what audiences didn’t see in the film which is most interesting. Some state censors required as many as 60 scenes cuts before screening the movie for the unprotected audience. Some of those deletions included scenes of women smoking cigarettes and a mock wedding and honeymoon between the sweet, innocent young woman and the dude who knocked her up. The largest and most confusing edit was the removal of anything referring to the fact the dude knocked up the sweet, innocent young woman out of wedlock. Suddenly, a baby appears on screen out of nowhere and the audience has a single mom it has to deal with without any reasonable explanation. They were convulsive with confusion, much like this image of John Barrymore doing the herky-jerky to end this story.