1928: The peak and the fall

I don’t believe in golden ages and “great film years.” Every year since the beginning of cinema has had good and bad films. But there’s something special about 1928. At least in America, it was the artistic pinnacle of silent film. And yet it was also the year where silence began to die.

Movies kept improving throughout the silent era. People made and released non-talking movies for more than 30 years, and yet the best came out in the last decade. Most of the major masterpieces, including The General, Sunrise, City Lights, The Gold Rush, The Big Parade, The Kid Brother, all came after 1924.

The Kid Brother (1927)

This didn’t just happen. The silent era was a time of experimentation. Filmmakers kept inventing new ways to tell a story, or create an atmosphere, all without dialogue. By 1928, the average silent film was a thing of beauty.

But in October 1927, Warner Brothers released the Jazz Singer, the part talkie that launched the sound revolution. A year later, American moviegoers had lost their love for silents. By the end of 1929, the American silent cinema was all but dead.

Here are just a few of the best silent classics of 1928:

A+ The Crowd

A young man comes to New York, dreaming of success and wealth. But reality refuses to live up to his dreams – perhaps because he dreams too much – in King Vidor’s masterpieceTold with daring photography, real locations, surreal sets, and subtle pantomime, The Crowd brings you through dizzying joy and wrenching tragedy as it follows the story of an ordinary man who refuses to accept that he’s ordinary. Unfortunately, it’s a difficult film to see; it’s unavailable on disc and currently not streaming anywhere (at least not legally). Read my longer appreciation.

A Steamboat Bill, Jr.

In Steamboat Bill, Jr., Keaton plays the effeminate son of a macho steamboat captain (Ernest Torrence) who’s fighting against big business. Breathtaking and exciting, and very funny, it contains what is probably the most dangerous stunt ever performed in a movie, and almost certainly the most dangerous one done by a major star. You can read my Blu-ray review.

A- The Wind

Lillian Gish, arguably the first thespian to figure out how to act for the camera, gives a superb performance in her last silent film. Her character finds herself thrown into a harsh environment where the people are rough, but the landscape is rougher – with constant wind blowing sand outside and in. Director Victor Sjöström (anglicized to Victor Seastrom for Hollywood) and cinematographer John Arnold create an unforgiving terrain where few would dare to live. Unfortunately, MGM insisted on giving The Wind an unbelievable but commercial ending.

And that’s not all. Along with Steamboat Bill Jr., Keaton also released The Cameraman
in 1928. For additional laughs, Charlie Chaplin opened The Circus and Harold Lloyd gave us Speedy. For more serious work, Josef von Sternberg gave us The Last Command and that glorious romance among the downtrodden, The Docks of New York.

The Docks of New York

But this was also the year where the major studios dipped their toes into the new technology of talking pictures, where they found a lot of money and killed an art form.

Halfway through the year, Warner’s released the first all-talking musical, Lights of New York. It’s a horrible movie, worthy of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but from a historical (or unintentionally hysterical) point of view, it’s fascinating. The cast just stands around and awkwardly talk. It’s often ridiculously obvious that everyone is hunched around a hidden microphone. Nevertheless, it was a huge commercial triumph. It’s not streaming anywhere in America legally, but I found a pirated version.

Lights of New York

To my knowledge, Lights is the only all-talkie feature of 1928. But plenty of part-talkies popped up that year. Most of these are lost or at least impossible to see. The titles include Glorious Betsy, Lonesome, Interference, and Alias Jimmy Valentine. I would love to see them – if only for historical reasons. The most important of these is an almost all-talkie called The Singing Fool. Like The Jazz Singer, it stars Al Jolson – sometimes in blackface. Few films are as covered with schmaltz.

And yet it was one of the biggest hits of the decade. I’ve seen this one, years ago, and didn’t care for it much.

Some films got caught between silence and talk. Consider Cecil B. DeMille’s event picture for the year, The Godless Girl. It opened in August as a pure silent, and it bombed – a rare reaction to a DeMille flick. The powers that be (including DeMille), felt that audiences just didn’t want to watch silent movies anymore. So they reshot two scenes with dialog and released it with talking in March 1929. It bombed again.

There may be another reason why The Godless Girl bombed. I have the original silent version on DVD (as part of a boxed set; I didn’t spend money to buy just that movie), and despite a few good scenes, it’s pretty bad. From what I’ve read, the talkie version is even worse.