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A century ago, the world didn’t look so different, even if the movies did. We had not long shaken off a flu pandemic, financial austerity was biting deep and political extremism was on the rise.

The turbulence of the times doubtless made its mark on entertainment, with countries across Europe producing a darker shade of cinema. In Germany especially, amid the fallout of the war, a wrecked economy and Hitler’s first steps towards power, psychologically bleak films such as Hintertreppe (Backstairs), Scherben (Shattered) and Murnau’s Der Gang in die Nacht (Journey into the Night) made their debut. Further north, Victor Sjöström’s ethereal The Phantom Carriage and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Leaves from Satan’s Book were key precursors of the horror genre. In Italy, André Deed made a foray into science fiction with battling robots in The Mechanical Man.

If you’re looking for a pat metaphor for the surging popularity of commercial American cinema, you’ll note this was the year that the fast-food chain was born, with the opening of a White Castle hamburger restaurant in Wichita selling sliders for five cents a pop.

The Affairs of Anatol (1921)

Certainly this was a period of booming business for Hollywood, with the $1 million Loew’s State cinema opening on Broadway and a slate of hit feature vehicles for the business’s holy trinity of Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin – not to mention hilarious short films by one Buster Keaton. In the US, escapism sold tickets, which meant humour and glamour, as combined in risqué comedies such as those perfected by Cecil B. DeMille and Gloria Swanson.

It was the appetite for sex that rocked Hollywood in 1921, first innocently enough, as Rudolph Valentino turned heads with his steamy tango in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (America’s biggest hit of the year). His next film, The Sheik, would capitalise on his exotic appeal to make more than a million at the US box office. Elsewhere, the tragic death of Virginia Rappe at a party in a San Francisco hotel room would result in a lurid manslaughter trial for Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle (eventually acquitted but effectively blacklisted) and a period of queasy introspection for Hollywood, which resulted in the censorship mandate of the Hays Office. A new era of prudishness was on its way.

The Sheik (1921)

Back in the UK, audiences waited eagerly for Hollywood exports. It would be January 1922 before The Sheik arrived to make cinema-goers swoon. The salacious novel on which it’s based, by Anglo-American author Edith Maude Hull, is hard to read now, with its offensive rape fantasy and imperialist viewpoint, but was indicative of new attitudes to women as expressed in popular literature and, particularly, film. The heroine Diana is punished for her independence of spirit but doesn’t have to die – progress from the treatment of heroines in D.W. Griffith’s heyday.

It was another Hollywood arrival that excited the British film audience above all others though, and that was the return of Charlie Chaplin to his native London. Hundreds of thousands turned out to welcome their hero home. The Kid, so reminiscent of London despite being shot in Los Angeles, only increased Chaplin’s huge popularity in a Britain desperate for cheerful distraction.

Familiarity, cash-strapped British filmmakers were finding, was a surefire way to get an audience. By adapting popular characters from literature, they produced some good films such as Kipps, based on H.G. Wells’s novel of 1905 – the competent American Harold Shaw directed, with lovely coastal locations and naturalistic acting. Chaplin – whose visit to England was partly in response to repeated invitations from Wells – was polite at the film’s premiere, especially about the star, George K. Arthur (who went on to have a long Hollywood career); privately, he thought it lacked the polish of typical American product. The same was probably true of the Stoll Company’s adaptation of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, but the detective’s popularity was such that the series and two feature films both did well.

Not everyone was playing it as safe. In Europe Ernst Lubitsch produced The Wildcat (Die Bergkatze), a hilarious, over-designed “grotesque in four acts”, starring Pola Negri at her kittenish best; but for the most experimental of 1921’s surviving films we need to return to America. In Manhatta, the artist-photographers Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand made a short study of a day in the life of New York, every frame a beautifully composed image, condensing the dramatic roofscapes and dense crowds of people into a perfect expression of the optimistic energy of 1920s America through its signature artform, the cinema.

1. The Sheik

The Sheik (1921)

George Melford, US

Rudolph Valentino will forever be associated with this desert bodice-ripper, from a bestseller by E.M. Hull (“shy wife of a Derbyshire pig farmer”, as the press called her in contrast to the erotic exoticism of her creation). Sex-starved post-war womanhood went wild. It was a pivotal moment in the rise of the Hollywood star system.

2. Destiny

Destiny (1921)

Fritz Lang, Germany

This macabre portmanteau fairytale – originally entitled Der müde Tod, ‘Weary Death’ – was Lang’s breakthrough. Death (Bernhard Goetzke) challenges a young woman to save three people (in exoticised takes on the Middle East, Venice and China) from their mortal destiny in order to preserve her own imperilled sweetheart. It’s an outlandish fantasy: partly a trick film, partly what The critic Lotte Eisner called a “parody of Expressionism”.

3. The Phantom Carriage

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Victor Sjöström, Sweden

Körkarlen – to give it the original Swedish title – is a harrowing ghost story set on New Year’s Eve, based on the legend that the last man to die in a year will spend the next 12 months collecting the souls of the dead. A creepy premise fleshed out with a genuinely moving melodramatic narrative, and deft use of flashbacks and double-exposures. It’s popularly celebrated as one of Ingmar Bergman’s favourite films and biggest influences.

4. The Blot

The Blot (1921)

Lois Weber, US

Lois Weber’s ripped-from-the-headlines subject is middle-class income inequality, but the devil is in the details of this beautifully crafted melodrama. It’s softly realist in style, with location shooting, embedded class critique and two candid performances, from Margaret McWade as a college professor’s harried wife and Claire Windsor as his ingénue daughter. But you may never look at a chicken, or a pair of shoes, the same way again.

5. The Boat

The Boat (1921)

Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline, US

A mechanically ingenious short from Buster Keaton to rival One Week, his solo debut the year before, The Boat sees the Great Stone Face and family setting out to sea in a vessel called Damfino (a name that sets up one of the film’s best, and most delayed, gags). Calamity piles on calamity in an enjoyably surreal fashion, not least when the family is adrift in a bathtub and Buster pours his child a glass of water from the tap.

6. The Affairs of Anatol

The Affairs of Anatol (1921)

Cecil B. DeMille, US

As couples go, Gloria Swanson and Wallace Reid are drop-dead gorgeous, but drifting into the marital doldrums. Seeking excitement, Reid’s Anatol gets himself into scrape after scrape, including a disastrous tryst with one Satan Synne (Bebe Daniels), in a hit based on a play by Arthur Schnitzler. It’s the climax of a run of carnal comedy dramas from Swanson and DeMille that began in 1919 with Don’t Change Your Husband.

7. The Love Light

The Love Light (1921)

Frances Marion, US

The collaboration between Mary Pickford and screenwriter Frances Marion defined both women’s careers. In this, Marion’s only solo directing credit, 28-year-old star and producer Pickford grasped her opportunity to play an adult role in a poignant, topical film, whose charm largely evaded the contemporary critics. The setting is Italy during World War I: Pickford plays a girl who unwittingly falls in love with a German spy (Fred Thomson, Marion’s husband) and faces censure from the locals.

8. Manhatta

Manhatta (1921)

Charles Sheeler & Paul Strand, US

This consciously made art film by two photographers is based on Walt Whitman’s stirring poem ‘Mannahatta’. It’s an exquisitely composed portrait of a day in the life of the machine-city of New York, allowing us to gaze, godlike, from the tops of skyscrapers that rise like fantastical ancient temples on the insignificant mortals below.

9. The Wildcat

The Wildcat (1921)

Ernst Lubitsch, Germany

This wacky pantomime – in German, Die Bergkatze – is set in a remote snow-bound military camp, where a disgraced, womanising lieutenant is posted. He falls foul of a bandit chief’s daughter, played with extraordinary cartoon-like slapstick moves by Pola Negri, in her pre-diva days. The Jugendstil set designs, the dream sequences and the vignetting of shots make this one of Ernst Lubitsch’s most delightful confections.

10. The Kid

The Kid (1921)

Charles Chaplin, US

Chaplin’s first solo feature is his most autobiographical, exorcising some demons from his London childhood. In his adventures with the ‘Kid’, the abandoned baby of an actress, he pulls off the tricky challenge of combining comedy with serious social comment. Later in 1921 Chaplin returned to London for the first time in many years to crowd numbers that wouldn’t be seen again till Beatlemania.

11. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1921)

Maurice Elvey & George Ridgwell, UK

Arthur Conan Doyle himself approved of Eille Norwood as his famous fictional detective in the films by the Stoll Company, which ran to three series and two feature films. Serials and series films were an important part of the growing cinema business, encouraging repeat attendances and creating a loyal fanbase for popular literary figures like Sherlock Holmes.

12. Kipps

Kipps (1921)

Harold Shaw, UK

A draper’s assistant in Folkestone comes into money but struggles to behave as befits his income in class-ridden Edwardian Britain. American director Harold Shaw makes the most of locations on the coast and at the Savoy Hotel in London. Chaplin, on his 1921 home visit, stayed with the novel’s author H.G. Wells and attended the premiere, praising George K. Arthur’s convincing performance.

Further reading

The peak of silent cinema

After decades of neglect and condescension, contemporary filmmakers, critics and audiences are learning to appreciate the marvels of silent film, and how much more it was than talkies minus the words. During the highpoint of the silent era, between 1926 and 1930, the form reached a zenith of poetic expression and subtlety before the coming of sound swept it all away. From the Deep Focus feature in our November 2013 issue, we present a personal selection of 15 key films from that period.

By Ian Christie

The peak of silent cinema

Sight and Sound, Summer 2022

Sight and Sound celebrates its 90th anniversary in style. Plus: the Cannes bulletin, Pedro Almodóvar, Ukrainian cinema, The Innocents and Edgar Wright interviewing Daniels.

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