10 great films of 1924

Happy 100th birthday to these milestones of movie history, from Greed to Sherlock Jr.

4 January 2024

By Pamela Hutchinson

Greed (1924)

Silent Hollywood was doing stellar business in 1924, as the increasing corporatisation of the industry brought in Wall Street cash, but forced out independents and outsiders, which is to say the women directors who flourished in the teens.

Stars Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Harold Lloyd dominated the US box office and big deals were being done. This was the year that saw the founding of MGM and the rebranding of Columbia, while Joseph Schenck took over at United Artists. And Warner Bros, just a year old, became the biggest independent studio in Hollywood, thanks to Rin Tin Tin, John Barrymore and Ernst Lubitsch. The business also had to contend with scandal, after the mysterious death of producer Thomas Ince on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht – a crime that remains unsolved.

Over in Europe, the star who would soon become most closely identified with MGM, Greta Garbo, had her big breakthrough in her native Sweden – one of many European stars and directors to cross over to Hollywood in the middle of the roaring 20s. While German cinema still dabbled in Expressionism with iconic horror films such as Waxworks (Paul Leni) and The Hands of Orlac (Robert Wiene), a greater ambition was taking hold – leading directors towards the epic or the experimental.

French cinema embraced the art world, whether producing avant-garde pieces such as Ballet mécanique (Fernard Léger and Dudley Murphy) or the sleek aesthetic assemblage of such gesamtkunstwerk films as Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine.

The spirit of artistic adventure took hold across the world of cinema. One unofficial theme of 1924 seems to be a discomfort with the simple notion of an ending. Films released this year said goodbye creatively: backwards, with irony, awakening from an all-too believable dream, or locked in a gunpoint standoff in the desert, frozen in time.

The Marriage Circle

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

The Marriage Circle (1924)

It may be impossible to overstate the influence of this roundelay of marital infidelity, set in Vienna, “the city of laughter and light romance” – the biggest hit of 1924 for new studio Warner Bros. German director Ernst Lubitsch was fresh in Hollywood but established himself as the king of sophisticated comedy with this film, about two couples: the besotted newlyweds played by Monte Blue and Florence Vidor and the jaded spouses Adolphe Menjou and Marie Prevost.

The humour is famously subtle and visual – the Lubitsch touch resides in a series of knowing looks and significant gestures, leading the audience to surprisingly intimate insights into the two relationships. Having conquered a more elaborate style, making films in Germany that involved vast crowds and towering sets, here Lubitsch employs simple backdrops and just a handful of actors, to represent “life as it is lived by thousands of married couples – just everyday people that we meet all around us… I call it my picture of no regrets.”

Die Nibelungen

Director: Fritz Lang

Die Nibelungen (1924)

The ‘monumental film’ was a speciality of giant German studio Ufa, and husband-and-wife team Fritz Lang and Thea Von Harbou were the best at super-sizing cinema in the mid-1920s. Von Harbou adapted the screenplay from the epic poem, and Lang directed the film, or rather two films, each over two hours long: Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge.

Paul Richter plays Siegfried, the questing hero, and Margarete Schön plays Kriemhild, his resourceful wife. The towering sets and special effects, including a formidable dragon, sow the seeds of today’s fantasy cinema aesthetic, but this is very much a product of its time, not least in the troubling tone of German nationalism in this story. With such a vast canvas, you might not expect how intimate and emotional the story can be, and the human scale. A series of tremendous set-pieces build to a fantastically fiery climax, leaving the audience craving more, not less, from this colossal double film.

The Saga of Gosta Berling

Director: Mauritz Stiller

The Saga of Gösta Berling (1924)

The breakthrough role for none other than Greta Garbo, this adaptation of Selma Lagerlöf’s 1891 novel was directed by Mauritz Stiller, a man whose terrific achievements in Swedish cinema have perhaps been overshadowed by his discovery of the star and his role as her mentor.

Lars Hanson, a very powerful actor, plays the title role of Gosta Berling, a defrocked Lutheran minister, whose life story is told in flashback, while Garbo plays Elizabeth, the woman who falls in love with him while married to another man. Their chemistry is the film’s most alluring quality, while the scene in which their sleigh is chased across a frozen lake by a pack of wolves offers deathless thrills. Even at this stage in her career, Garbo knew how to make a close-up count, asking for a glass of champagne before she let the camera capture her soulful gaze, and intoxicate the audience.

Sherlock Jr.

Director: Buster Keaton

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Hollywood at its most surreal, possibly, and Buster Keaton at his most playful for sure, Sherlock Jr. is 45 minutes of relentless gags, stunts and mischief. This fast-paced comedy is the side-splittingly hilarious tale of a projectionist whose obsession with a movie detective causes him to walk into the screen, playing havoc with the cinematic illusion.

Keaton plays with film itself, as in the disconcertingly witty movie-setting montage, but never neglects to provide the death-defying stunts we crave, as when he rides the handlebars of a speeding, and eventually driverless, motorcycle. In fact, he broke his neck while making this film, although he didn’t realise it at the time. Proof that no one manipulates the mechanics of the movie screen or the real world quite like Keaton, Sherlock Jr. endures as one of his very best films. It didn’t land so well with American audiences at the time, but the avant-garde adored it, and the rest of us caught up quickly.

Ballet mécanique

Directors: Fernard Léger and Dudley Murphy

Ballet mécanique (1924)

You may never look at your kitchenware the same way again. This film, a milestone in early experimental cinema, was a collaboration between artist Fernand Léger and filmmaker Dudley Murphy, and later composer Georges Antheil, who wrote the famously radical score, which was jeered by audiences at its first performance.

A Cubist Charlie Chaplin puppet, a female Sisyphus, multiplying close-ups of kitchen utensils, pistons, swings, mannequin legs, geometrical shapes, and many more elements combine with steep angles and kaleidoscopic effects to represent the pace and alienation of the modern machine era – the jazz-age as a seductive nightmare. Léger’s experiences at the front in the First World War contributed to his fascination with all things mechanical, and so the film makes a virtue out of the rhythm of repetition, while disorienting the viewer with unexpected cuts and angles. This beguiling film mixes Constructivist lines with Cubist collage and the absurdity of Dada to ultimately dazzling effect.

Aelita: Queen of Mars

Director: Yakov Protazanov

Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924)

This Soviet science-fiction film, one of the first from that region to feature space-travel, would warrant a recommendation purely for its stunning Constructivist set designs by Isaac Rabinovich and Victor Simov as well some truly outrageous costumes by avant-garde designer Aleksandra Ekster – in particular an unwearable but very hip pair of angular, framework trousers. The look of this film was deeply influential on the sci-fi cinema to come, from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) to the Flash Gordon serials – and everything that followed.

The plot of the film is a secondary consideration, and yet it is a beauty. Those art-film visuals adorn a surprisingly emotional narrative concerning the Martian queen Aelita who surveys the Earth through a powerful telescope and a Soviet engineer obsessed with space travel who brings the workers’ revolution to the red planet. And there is a trick ending, which you may forgive just this once, given the aesthetic pleasures of the journey to get there.

He Who Gets Slapped

Director: Victor Sjöström

He Who Gets Slapped (1924)

Lon ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’ Chaney stars alongside John Gilbert and Norma Shearer for Swedish director Victor Sjöström, master of the dark psychological drama, in this emotionally devastating adaptation of the Russian play of the same by Leonid Andreyev, first performed in 1915.

HE (Chaney) is a scientist who joins a circus after his magnum opus research, and his wife, are ruthlessly stolen by another man. In his new job as a clown, he masochistically repeats the scene of his great public humiliation every night, being slapped and laughed at by the other clowns. This film announces its subject as “the grim comedy of life”, and it’s a far more bitter film than you might expect, yet it became a huge box-office hit for the brand-new studio MGM. Appropriately enough for the studio, there is an extended peril sequence featuring a caged lion.


Director: René Clair

Entr'acte (1924)

Reject capitalism and logic, and embrace the irrational, with this delectable Dada short made by René Clair, master of the gently surreal silent comedy. Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp play chess on a rooftop, a camel pulls a hearse, a ballet dancer is filmed from underneath his feet, and the Paris skyline tilts like rolling waves.

Multiple exposures, stop-motion and rapid edits are only the beginning of this witty art film’s exercises in style. Even the ending seems to destroy and then reverse itself. Entr’acte was designed to be just that, an interval film for a production of the new ballet Relache by the Ballets suédois in Paris – the score for both ballet and film is by Erik Satie. And yet this artful comic dance through film technique and dream logic has endured as an experimental movie in its own right, and a delightful companion to Clair’s science-fiction comedy Paris qui dort, released the same year.


Director: Erich von Stroheim

Greed (1924)

One of the most notorious gambits in film history, and one of the most famously incomplete movies, Greed is Erich von Stroheim’s exhaustive attempt to adapt Frank Norris’s novel McTeague. The theme is a timeless one, demonstrating that money is the root of all evil as hoarded lottery winnings destroy a marriage and a friendship.

This intense psychological drama features Gibson Gowland, ZaSu Pitts and Jean Hersholt giving career-best performances in the lead roles. Legend has it that Stroheim shot for months, accumulating 85 hours of footage, and his original cut of the film ran over nine hours. The version MGM released was 140 minutes, but there is now a reconstruction that plugs the gaps at 239 minutes. For all that was lost, so much remains: Stroheim’s vicious editing style, vivid yellow tinting for the precious cash, Pitts’s haunting portrayal of Trina and one of the all-time great movie endings.

The Last Laugh

Director: F.W. Murnau

The Last Laugh (1924)

F.W. Murnau’s first film for UFA was a masterpiece. It was also an experiment in form, and a bitter comment on popular entertainment. “All our efforts must be directed towards abstracting everything that isn’t the true domain of the cinema,” he said, vowing to relinquish “all the tricks, devices and clichés inherited from the stage and from books.”

In this film, Emil Jannings, an expert in balefulness, is at his most pitiable as the doorman of a big-city hotel, a man who takes palpable pride in his job and his brass-buttoned uniform, but whose world is shattered when he is abruptly demoted to the role of lavatory attendant. His descent is captured by Karl Freund’s unchained camera roaming the city streets and hotel corridors, as well as image distortion, subjective angles and jarring edits – and the audacious absence of intertitles. A satirical coda mocks the methods by which Hollywood would attempt to salvage a happy ending from the messy anguish of real life. No such luck.

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