Updated: Jan 30, 2020
When I watch a classic film that was made more than a century ago, I am amazed and grateful…grateful to organizations such as The National Film Preservation Foundation, and Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation. They have saved and restored more than 3000 historically and culturally significant films ranging from one-reelers by Thomas Edison to avant-garde animation. Unfortunately, tens of thousands of classic films have been lost. That’s why I consider watching a 100-year old movie to be one of a miracle of today’s technology. Many of the surviving films are just a free click away on internet sites such as YouTube or archive.org.
How do we determine what were the best films in 1919? Today, we have the Academy Awards and the Golden Globe Awards to give us an ideal of what the best films of the year are, but 1919 was 10 years before the first Oscar was handed out and 25 years before the first Golden Globe was presented. So, we go to the millions of classic film fans and scholars united by the internet. After researching several classic movie sites, I began to noticed a handful of titles that showed up on every list. That was the best indicator of a “Best Picture” nominee. The only other requirement for this list was that the film be accessible and watchable in its entirely today. Here we go…
#10: WHEN THE CLOUDS ROLL BY
Douglas Fairbanks plays an egger beaver, albeit gullible young man dooped by a demented psychiatrist bent on pushing the young man into committing suicide, and oddly…this is a comedy thanks to innovative plot twists and special effects.
Directed by Victor Fleming and Theodore Reed
#9: YOUNG MR. JAZZ
Harold Lloyd was one of the greatest cinematic comedic geniuses in the history of film, and his creativity is well on display in this short film.
Lloyd’s character falls for a bathing beauty, but her family is not in the least amused by the possible union. On the run from the woman’s fuming father, the innocent young couple stumble into a nest of thugs and cutthroats. Now they are caught in the middle, trying to escape the angry dad on one side and the murderous mob on the other side. As they say in the business, comedy ensues.
Directed by Hal Roach
#8: TRUE HEART SUSIE
Good ol’ True Heart Susie, played by Lillian Gish, sells her favorite pet (which is of course the family cow) to secretly pay for her stupid boyfriend’s college. After graduating and becoming a minister, the doofus dumps True Heart Susie, never knowing she paid for his success. In 1919, this was heart-breaking drama. Today it would be a multi-million dollar palimony lawsuit.
Directed by D.W. Griffith
#7: MALE AND FEMALE
Ah, the classic tale of a total incompatible couple strained on a deserted island, only this time it’s a British aristocrat played by Gloria Swanson and her butler. Well, you know they’re going to fall in love, but first they have to confront the battle of gender, class, and role reversals.There's a good chance their offspring are the kids from Lord of the Flies.
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
#6: THE DRAGON PAINTER
A talented young Japanese painter is convinced his missing fiancée is actually a princess turned into a dragon. Well, don’t you think for one minute that kind of dementia doesn’t go unnoticed by a swindler who wants to profit on the artist’s exceptional paintings. The cheat convinces the Dragon Painter his daughter is the missing betrothed who does look different, but at least she doesn’t look like a dragon anymore.
Directed by William Worthington
Two Frenchmen in love with the same woman in their village, find themselves serving side-by-side in the bloody trenches of World War I. Meanwhile, their love back in the village is captured and raped by German soldiers. She gives birth to child and is ostracized by the other villagers. When her two French soldier admirers find out about it, they decide to take their revenge on the battlefield.
The film’s climatic scene of the return of the dead made J’accuse an international sensation.
Directed by Abel Gance
#4: DADDY LONG LEGS
Jerusha Abbott becomes a successful author after a rough start in life as a baby in a trash can discovered by a cruel matron of an orphanage slash work camp. Once young Jerusha becomes the oldest child at the orphanage, a mysterious wealthy benefactor pays to send her to college. She calls the mystery man, “Daddy Long Legs.”
After publishing her first book, everything is cool, but lonely for Jerusha. Things get really screwed up when she gets involved in a love triangle with a young guy and an old dude who is secretly “Daddy Long Legs.” Whoops!
Directed by Marshall Neilan
#3: BLIND HUSBANDS
A doctor and his hot wife are vacationing in an Alpine village when they meet an Austrian Lieutenant slash playboy who has “Goo-Goo” eyes for the doctor’s wife. While the doctor is away, Lieutenant dude is putting the moves on Mrs. Dr. Hottie.
As luck would have it, the doctor takes the out of shape Lieutenant on a mountain climbing expedition. That’s when the doctor starts to suspect a little hoochy-coo between his wife and the slimeball and that has tragic consequences for Lt. Slimeball.
Directed by Erich von Stroheim
Sam De Grasse
Erich von Stroheim
#2: HEART O’ THE HILLS
Watch out for Mavis. She’s sweet, beautiful and deathly…a crack shot on trial for homicide, but the townsfolks love Mavis, the Heart o’ the Hills. They all take credit for the shooting death of Mavis’ neighbor and the judge has no choice but to drop the murder charges against her.
Mavis decided to turn her life around and goes to college, but before the story ends, Mavis will kill again. Murdering Mavis.
Directed by Joseph De Grasse and Sidney Franklin
Sam De Grasse
Nothing can destroy idealism faster than the brutality of man. Just ask Cheng Huan who left his home in China to spread the peace and love of Buddha to the Anglo-Saxon lands. He found his mission in the unwanted and abused daughter of a prizefighter.
Cheng’s devotion to the “Broken Blossom” doesn’t sit well with her drunken dad who drags the girl back home for a ruthless punishment. SPOILER ALERT: There is no happy ending.
Directed by D.W. Griffith
When you read the names of the directors and stars of these films from 1919, you are reading an extremely important part of movie history. Those people were innovative artists who created the massive, epic, blockbuster-filled movie industry we know today. Their contribution to not only entertainment, but to humanity cannot be overstated. We are lucky to still be able to see their work firsthand and be thrilled by it and to cry and laugh at their artistry.
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