10 great films of 1923

As Harold Lloyd’s nail-biting climb up a skyscraper turns 100, we doff our hats to Safety Last! and nine other landmark films celebrating their centenary this year.

23 March 2023

By Pamela Hutchinson

Safety Last! (1923)

In ‘Hollywoodland’ as the brand-new $21,000 sign on the hillside termed it, 1923 was a boom year. The industry was increasingly financially flush and the city of Los Angeles was thriving, not least because of the influx of movie money and high-living moviemakers.

That said, the writing was on the wall for silent cinema. April saw both the founding of the studio, Warner Bros, that would making pictures talk in 1927, and the first trials of Lee DeForest Phonofilm system, which incorporated the soundtrack on to the film itself. And yet the silent form still had high peaks to climb before the talkie revolution. In Hollywood, the trio of slapstick comedians whose work dominates the popular recognition of commercial 1920s cinema, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, all outdid themselves with remarkable feature films. And to much less fanfare, brothers Walt and Roy O. Disney founded an animation studio.

In Europe, film art was treading new ground. The short-lived surge of German Expressionism was dying down in favour of monumental epics – Fritz Lang would release Die Nibelungen a year later. While in France, cinematic impressionism was flourishing, with filmmakers including Jean Epstein and Germaine Dulac creating some of their best work in the intimate domestic scale, while Ivan Mosjoukine directed epic fantasy drama Le Brasier ardent for Albatros, a production company newly established by Russian exiles. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, Sergei Eisenstein released his first short film. Earthquakes were coming.

Salomé (February)

Directors: Charles Bryant and Alla Nazimova

Salomé (1922)

Made in Los Angeles but not by a Hollywood studio, this early American art feature (premiered in New York on New Year’s Eve 1922 and released in February) was the decadent vision of Russian-born bisexual star Alla Nazimova. As Norma Desmond would dream of doing in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950), Nazimova plays Salomé, the stepdaughter of Herod, who demands the head of John the Baptist on a platter. The stylised costumes and décor mimicked the black-and-white illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley for Oscar Wilde’s text, and the characters emerge out of inky darkness in this wonderfully weird, entirely studio-shot film.

Nazimova gives a mesmerisingly sexual performance, in dazzling outfits. The erotic charge of the film and the quantity of skin on display have long boosted the titillating rumour that the film’s entire cast and crew were gay – a demand made by Nazimova out of respect for Wilde. It’s probably only partially true, but do look out for some men in drag and a certain amount of camping it up. Sadly for Nazimova, the film was a flop, which finished her as a producer, but its entrancing oddness, gorgeous aesthetic and queer allure mean that its reputation has risen steadily.

The Grub-Stake (February)

Directors: Nell Shipman and Bert Van Tuyle

The Grub-Stake (1923)

Nell Shipman was a filmmaking powerhouse – writer, producer, director and star – but she turned down a Hollywood contract from Samuel Goldwyn to make films in Priest Lake, Idaho for her own production company. These included The Grub-Stake, directed by her then-partner Bert Van Tuyle, a story about a city girl called Faith (Shipman) who heads north to make her fortune in the Gold Rush. It’s a dramatic action feature, bursting with violence, romance, comedy and adventure, shot in stunning mountain scenery. It’s very much in the vein of the female-led action serials of the previous decade, but expanded to feature length. The story is enlivened further by Shipman’s own menagerie of scene-stealing animals, who featured in all her films.

Shipman’s independent spirit makes her a joy to watch on screen, but it wasn’t good for business. When the distribution deal for The Grub-Stake fell through, Shipman was unable to release this, her final feature film.

The Covered Wagon (March)

Director: James Cruze

The Covered Wagon (1923)

James Cruze’s episodic saga of life on the Oregon Trail was adapted from a recent novel by Emerson Hough, but the filmmakers’ attention to period detail marked it out as one of the most realistic of all westerns and therefore a key step in the process of elevating the genre from entertainment to epic national mythmaking.

Usual authentic vintage wagons, this film stars J. Warren Kerrigan and Lois Wilson as the leader of the train and his sweetheart facing the slings and arrows of frontier life, while Alan Hale plays the caravan’s troublemaker who angers the native population and tempts many of the pioneers to travel to the California Gold Rush. Filmed on location at great expense, the film features such spectacular moments as a dramatic buffalo stampede, but it’s the human drama that resonates and makes this such a compelling, and enduring favourite.

Safety Last! (April)

Directors: Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor

Safety Last! (1923)

Harold Lloyd’s tendency towards stunt comedy reached its apotheosis in this highly suspenseful comedy. The image of our bespectacled hero dangling from the clock face 12 storeys above the city streets is one that can legitimately be called iconic. Lloyd plays a department store salesclerk determined to impress a girl (Mildred Davis, who married Lloyd the same year) by climbing to the roof of the building. Or rather by appearing to do so. But fate intervenes and he must clamber to the top himself, floor by increasingly precarious floor, as the traffic rushes by below.

The giddy effect is created with the help of a clever camera angle and a stunt wall on a Los Angeles rooftop. What’s truly impressive is that Lloyd, who did most of his own stunts, was missing the thumb and forefinger of his right hand when he shot this film. You’ll grip the arm of the chair a little more tightly thinking about that.

A Woman of Paris: A Drama of Fate (September)

Director: Charles Chaplin

A Woman of Paris: A Drama of Fate

It may be a Charlie Chaplin film in which Chaplin himself is (almost) nowhere to be seen, yet A Woman of Paris represents some of his finest silent work. A vehicle for his former co-star Edna Purviance, this is a sophisticated drama about a young woman who has her head turned and her heart broken by the big city. Adolphe Menjou plays the debonair cad who leads Purviance’s country girl Marie astray: he claimed working with Chaplin changed the way he approached screen acting for good.

Subtitled ‘A Drama of Fate’, this is a delicately handled melodrama, where small details reveal everything. It’s the perfect showcase for Chaplin’s highly refined skills in filmic storytelling and conveying emotional nuance, sowing the seeds for his mastery of melancholia in City Lights (1931). And he does appear just once, but very briefly, barely recognisable as a railway porter throwing down a heavy trunk.

Schatten (October)

Director: Arthur Robison

Schatten (1923)

One of the last gasps of pure German expressionism, Arthur Robison’s gothic shadowplay is one of the most enjoyably lurid of all 1920 German horrors. The towering shadows of the expressionist aesthetic take centre stage in this film known as Warning Shadows in English and subtitled ‘A Nocturnal Hallucination’.

A jealous count (Fritz Kortner), who suspects that his wife has taken a lover, throws a dinner party, where the evening’s entertainment is provided by a travelling magician. The performer (Alexander Granach), named as a ‘shadowplayer’ in the credits, has a creepily clairvoyant act. He projects visions on the wall showing the grotesque and bloody consequences of the count’s temper if he fails to contain his rage and men continue to make passes at his wife. A simple trick of the light, and an even simpler moral, are thrown into confusion by an ending that leaves key questions troublingly unanswered.

Our Hospitality (November)

Directors: John G. Blystone and Buster Keaton 

Our Hospitality (1923)

For too long an underrated Buster Keaton movie, Our Hospitality is one of his darkest, most personal and most thrilling films. The storyline satirises the notorious Hatfield-McCoy feud, which embroiled rival families from West Virginia and Kentucky in a dispute lasting decades in the late 19th century. Here Keaton plays young New Yorker Willie McKay who meets Virginia Winfield (Natalie Talmadge, Keaton’s new bride) on the train south. They fall in love, and although Willie has been brought up in ignorance of the old feud, Virginia’s father and brothers still hold a fearsome grudge against his family.

There’s plenty of Keaton’s beloved railroad business, but the film’s most famous stunt involves Keaton swinging on a rope into a waterfall to save Talmadge from the rapids. Keaton’s first real feature, Our Hospitality assembles his signature mix of nailbiting action and bitter black comedy to tremendous effect. It also features his father Joe Keaton as an ornery engineer and his own baby son in a small role.

Coeur fidèle (November)

Director: Jean Epstein

Coeur fidèle (1923)

Brooding, passionate performances and the poetry of cinematic impression converge to make Coeur fidèle one of the greatest of French silent films. René Clair wrote: “Coeur fidèle must be seen if you want to understand the resources of the cinema today.”

Jean Epstein’s exquisite drama is set on the Marseille docks, where orphan Marie (a wonderful Gina Manés) works in the bar owned by her cruel adoptive parents. Secretly in love with dockworker Jean (Léon Mathot) she must endure the attentions of a local brute, Petit Paul (Edmond Van Daële). It’s a melancholic tale with a worldly, heartsore ending. For all that, watching Coeur fidèle is an intoxicating experience, thanks to its subjective camera and innovative editing – the sequence set at the fairground, the film’s emotional climax, is rightly celebrated.

The Smiling Madame Beudet (November)

Director: Germaine Dulac

The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923)

This short impressionistic drama directed by Germaine Dulac is one of the earliest films to take an explicitly feminist stance, depicting the miserable life of an intelligent woman unfulfilled by her married life. Germaine Dermoz plays Madame Beudet, whose tedious husband Alexandre Arquillière likes to win laughs by pointing an empty revolver at his head – a practical ‘joke’ that has become as stale as their relationship. The wife survives by entering her own fantasy worlds, but when her husband locks her beloved piano shut she seeks revenge.

You may guess madame’s desperate plan but not the sharp ending of this avant-garde melodrama. It’s a puzzling, experimental film, exceptionally beautifully lit and photographed, which takes place mostly in the liberated space of Beudet’s own liberated imagination rather than the stifling chamber of her loveless marriage.

The Ten Commandments (December)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

The Ten Commandments (1923)

The biggest hit of the year at the US box office was this legendary, didactic epic directed by Cecil B. DeMille and written by Jeanie MacPherson. The film opens with a warning that the First World War happened as a result of ignoring God’s teaching and moves into a Biblical prologue describing how Moses discovered God’s Commandments at Mount Sinai. The rest of the film is a contemporary story of two brothers, played by Richard Dix and Rod La Rocque, one of whom is a humble carpenter following the Bible to the letter and the other a corrupt builder who rejects his faith and seeks material success.

Intensely spectacular, The Ten Commandments makes lavish use of crowds and two-strip Technicolor, most famously in the sequence depicting the parting of the Red Sea. How to portray such a miracle on screen? Apparently the answer was a block of Jell-O. DeMille was already an established director at this point, but The Ten Commandments represented an auspicious start to his string of Biblical blockbusters – not least his own 1956 film of the same title.

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