Silent Movie Day blogathon: The greatest hits of 1922

A year has passed since my last breakdown of the top-grossers of 1921. It’s only natural to follow it up with the hits of 1922!

This is part of the Second Annual Silent Movie Day blogathon hosted by Silentology and In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

NOTE: Properly determining box office for movies made one hundred years ago is a tough feat, pretty much impossible to determine with total accuracy. Like last year, I based my list off the one on Wikipedia—however, something weird happened this time. When Knighthood Was in Flower disappeared from the list in the middle of my writing process. I could not find a reason why this was so beyond someone questioning whatever source was previously used to justify its placement there. I tried to find more precise numbers for its box office in other sources, but I came across little more than claims that the film was a big hit.

This left me with a bit of a conundrum. I try to be as historically accurate as I can with this stuff, even if this still involves a lot of conjecture. I had already done research on other aspects of the film’s production. I’ve decided to post that review separately in the future, as a kind of bonus.

#5 – SMILIN’ THROUGH

Image source: Wikipedia

Release date: February 13, 1922

Box office (est.): 1 million

Summary: Years ago, John (Wyndham Standing) lost his beloved fiancee Moonyeen (Norma Talmadge) when she defended him from the fatal attack of a rival for her hand, Jeremiah (Harrison Ford– no, not the one you’re thinking of). Years later, John is a bitter old man, only comforted by the love of Moonyeen’s orphaned niece Kathleen (also Talmadge), who he has raised as his own. When she falls in love with Jeremiah’s son Ken (also Ford), John tries to break up the lovers, but Moonyeen’s spirit seeks to soften John’s heart from beyond the grave.

Has any major star ever well and truly dropped off the face of pop culture as sharply as Norma Talmadge? In the 1920s, she was arguably the most respected dramatic actress working in Hollywood, as well as a top fashion icon imitated by thousands of women across the country. Celebrated for her dark, expressive eyes and versatility, it’s astonishing how swiftly she fell from stardom into obscurity. When remembered at all, it tends to be through silly myths about the transition to sound (namely, the idea that a Brooklyn accent sank her career overnight) or in relation to her one-time brother-in-law Buster Keaton (and in that case, usually not in the most flattering light).

Talmadge’s films have had only a scant presence on home media, making her difficult to re-evaluate. Not everyone is impressed by what they see, especially considering how Talmadge’s films are often described as prototypes for the “women’s film” genre that became popular in the 1930s. Compared to “women’s film” actresses like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, Talmadge seems far more subdued, with a lot less fire.

In her book Silent Stars, Jeanine Basinger puts this sentiment across best:

“Norma Talmadge’s bad reviews were usually for her material, not for her. She was too professional simply to walk through even her worst roles, yet despite all the different eras and settings in her movies, it becomes apparent that her work is about genre. She has beauty and skill, but she is basically serving the plots of her films, dressing them up with her presence. Her movies are star vehicles, but their significance today lies outside her. She was the genre she inhabited– the woman’s picture. This is not in and of itself a bad thing, but it denies her the significant place in film history that her popularity would ordinarily have earned her. She cannot stand the test of time.”

I don’t know how much I agree with this sentiment. Talmadge’s screen persona is certainly less colorful than the likes of Crawford and Davis. However, I find myself fascinated by it. Talmadge’s characters exist at a crossroads between the Edwardian era and the Jazz Age. She isn’t a vamp or a flapper, and there’s a bit too much solemnity and world weariness in her to qualify as an ingenue. Her appeal seemed to lie in her ability to make the audience admire her characters, specifically their courage in the face of suffering, be it from an unjust prison sentence in Within the Law or from being forced to spend the night with a spurned former beau to save lives in The Woman Disputed. Journalist Adela Rogers St. John once said Talmadge should play Marie Antoinette and The Merchant of Venice‘s Portia, so that should give you a good idea of the types of parts people associated with her: noble, charming, troubled.

In her superstar heyday, Smilin’ Through was considered Talmadge’s signature film. Like a great many Talmadge vehicles, it was based on a hot stage property. Written in the wake of World War I, the play follows a bitter old man haunted by the death of his fiancée Moonyeen. Her ghost is always near him, but his rage prevents her from being able to make her presence known. The sentimental story touched the public deeply, making a film version inevitable.

Talmadge got the juicy dual role of the crinoline and corseted Moonyeen and the more modern Kathleen. She acquits herself well in both parts. I wouldn’t call this Talmadge’s best film, but the script allows her to indulge both melodramatic and comic moments, from a touching death scene to a humorous interlude in which she has to ditch an unwanted beau at a dance. If anything, one might accuse this film of being a one-woman show. The other actors are competent, but the only other performance that stands out is Harrison Ford as Moonyeen’s jilted lover. He has a desperate, compelling energy that stands in stark contrast to the other performers, but he appears all too briefly.

The movie itself is handsomely produced. The story touches on themes of death and love, and the ghost angle is handled well. I was reminded of the spiritualist themes in 1921’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In the wake of the war, spiritualism came into vogue, with people hoping for a sign that their dead loved ones could still be reached beyond the grave. Smilin’ Through‘s appeal was no doubt indebted to this interest in the spirit world.

But the big attraction is still Talmadge. And while I don’t know if she will ever receive a proper, full-scale re-evaluation in the silent film community– let alone film history at large– Smilin’ Through is a good showcase for the expressive versatility Talmadge’s public so prized in her.

Sources:

The Hollywood Story by Joel W. Finler

“The Lady of the Vase” by Adlea Rogers St. John, Photoplay, August 1923, Vol. 24, Issue 3

Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger

#4 – GRANDMA’S BOY

Image source: Reelgood

Release date: September 3, 1922

Box office (est.): 1.1 million

Summary: A cowardly young man (Harold Lloyd) is given a magic talisman by his grandmother (Anna Townsend), who claims it makes its owner invincible. When a criminal starts terrorizing the town, the boy puts the charm to use, but will it work as planned?

(Since Harold Lloyd is the star attraction of 3 and 4 on the list, I just decided to combine the two into one piece.)

#3 – DR. JACK

Image source: Wikipedia

Release date: November 26, 1922

Box office (est.): 1.275 million

Summary: The insidious Dr. Saulsbourg (Eric Mayne) gets rich off a supposedly ill young heiress known as the Sick-Little-Well-Girl (Mildred Davis), shutting her away from sunshine, socialization, and anything remotely resembling fun. The commonsensical Dr. Jack (Harold Lloyd) is called in to give the girl’s desperate father a second opinion, but Saulsbourg will do anything to prevent his patient’s recovery.

For most Americans in the 1920s, Harold Lloyd was the reigning king of comedy. He made more films than Charlie Chaplin and his films tended to have more staying power at the box office than Buster Keaton’s. The great appeal was that Lloyd’s “Glasses character” was closer to earth than the down-on-his luck Tramp or Keaton’s restrained persona—Lloyd was the boy next door, the energetic go-getter out to snag the American Dream by the coat-tails.

In 1922, two Lloyd pictures were top draws at the box office: the first was Lloyd’s debut feature Grandma’s Boy and the second was Dr. Jack. What strikes me most watching these two movies back to back is how versatile Lloyd’s screen persona is. In Grandma’s Boy, he’s a cowardly young man who has to grow into heroism, while in Dr. Jack he’s a confident but static character who rescues a damsel-in-distress from a bad situation. And yet both are undeniably the Glasses character—resourceful and optimistic.

While neither film is as great as Lloyd’s third feature—the immortal Safety Last!—both are quick, charming treats. Lloyd keeps the action moving at a brisk pace and packs every scene with great business. Mildred Davis is the leading lady in both and I always thought it was a shame that she would shortly retire from the screen after marrying Lloyd. The two have sweet, natural chemistry—obviously a side effect of their real life involvement.

Of the two films, I prefer Dr. Jack, if only because it’s slightly less sentimental than Grandma’s Boy. It also has one of my favorite sequences in any Lloyd feature: Dr. Jack pretends to be a homicidal maniac (don’t ask) and terrorizes everyone in a dark house. It’s like something out of a Scooby Doo episode and it’s absolutely wonderful.

But then again, Grandma’s Boy has the scene where Lloyd confuses a box of moth balls with candy, and then he starts making the most reaction image-worthy expressions possible…

Oh damn, I can’t pick between them after all!

Sources:

The Best Moving Pictures of 1922-1923 by Robert E. Sherwood

The Hollywood Story by Joel W. Finler

#2 – BLOOD AND SAND

Image source: Zekefilm

Release date: August 5, 1922

Box office (est.): 1.25-1.3 million

Summary: Juan Gallardo (Rudolph Valentino) rises from poverty to become a successful matador. He has everything, from fame to a loving wife (Lila Lee), but trouble comes in the form of Dona Sol (Nita Naldi), an aristocratic femme fatale out to make Gallardo her newest plaything. Consumed by a passion he can barely control, Gallardo finds everything he holds dear hanging in the balance.

Nineteen twenty-one had been Rudolph Valentino’s golden year. His stardom was established in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, then made secure by The Sheik. Both were massive box office hits. What could he do to top such an iconic duo?

A more dramatic tour de force was in order. Embarrassed by the bodice ripping antics he’d been up to in The Sheik, Valentino returned to Ibanez for his next film, an adaptation of the 1909 novel Blood and Sand. The story of the rise and fall of a matador would allow Valentino to showcase a wider range. Juan starts the film as a wily youth and ends the film a chastened but sadder man. Seen as little more than a pretty boy, no doubt Valentino was eager to show the public his dramatic chops.

Production was frustrating for the newly minted star. Valentino wanted to shoot the movie on-location in Spain. Paramount figured a few costumes and props imported from Spain to a Hollywood backlot would be just as good (and far cheaper). Valentino wanted George Fitzmaurice in the director’s chair. Paramount claimed Fitzmaurice turned the offer down, then offered up Fred Niblo instead (Valentino would later learn from Fitzmaurice himself that the director was never even asked, much to the actor’s fury). Valentino learned real bullfighting moves, but the bulk of the scenes in the ring were cobbled from stock footage.

These setbacks irritated Valentino, but they weren’t enough to prevent the film from becoming the second-biggest hit of the year, as well as a critical darling. Some compared the film favorably to DW Griffith’s tear-jerker Broken Blossoms. The day of the film’s Rialto Theater premiere, patrons starting lining up before noon, eager to get a ticket. Mary Pickford was also a fan, saying she loved the picture enough to see it twice.

Blood and Sand is a hotblooded melodrama, the sort that won’t appeal to everyone, but for those of us who go for that sort of thing, it is a delight. The atmosphere is sensual and torrid, and Nita Naldi is a campy delight as the femme fatale (she literally bites Valentino in lust at one point). If I have any issue with the film, it’s that it gets a bit overly moralizing at times, something that’s more downplayed in the film’s 1940 remake.

However, I can’t fault this movie too much because it did give Valentino something he always desperately craved: the chance to exercise his dramatic skills. Juan is a fleshed-out character brought low by his own lust for life. The very quality that makes him such an appealing guy is also what makes him easy prey for Dona Sol. So while this isn’t close to my favorite Valentino vehicle, it is a great showcase for his talent, so often ignored in the glare of his tragic off-screen demise.

Sources:

Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino by Emily Leider

The Hollywood Story by Joel W. Finler

#1 – ROBIN HOOD

Image source: Wikipedia

Release date: October 18, 1922

Box office (est.): 2.5 million

Summary: Brash and jolly King Richard (Wallace Beery) rushes to the Crusades, leaving his cruel-hearted brother Prince John (Sam De Grasse) in charge of England. John’s tyrannical grasp inspires Maid Marian (Enid Bennett) to reach out to the dashing Earl of Huntingdon (Douglas Fairbanks) for help. Unwilling to pull his king from his “Holy Crusade,” Huntingdon runs back to England and takes on the persona of Robin Hood, giving aid to the poor and hell to John’s regime.

Douglas Fairbanks racked up a great many hits in the 1920s, but arguably none were as loved as his 1922 Robin Hood. He’d already swashbuckled his way through The Mark of Zorro and The Three Musketeers, but Robin Hood would be produced on a scale that surpassed the both of them. Fairbanks had enormous sets constructed and collected a library of hundreds of reference materials related to Robin Hood and the Middle Ages. Immense labor and cost went into recreating medieval England, ensuring this would be Fairbanks’ biggest onscreen adventure to date. The effort paid off handsomely, with both the public and the critics won over by Fairbanks’ romantic yet brutal blockbuster.

Though Robin Hood was Douglas Fairbanks’ greatest financial smash, it has become the most maligned effort of his golden period. The most common complaint is that the movie takes too darn long to get to the actual Robin Hood segments—the first 70 minutes cover the hero’s life as the noble Earl of Huntingdon, where he meets and falls for Maid Marian despite his fear of women, earns the enmity of Prince John and Sir Guy of Gisbourne due to his undivided loyalty to King Richard, and finds himself leaving the Crusades when he hears of how England is being oppressed by John. Having that contrarian streak in me that cannot be denied, I’m going to defend Fairbanks’ choice in delaying the appearance of the expected Robin Hood scenes.

This Robin Hood obviously cannot avoid comparisons with the later, more celebrated Errol Flynn film from 1938. That is a far leaner movie, having Robin Hood in Lincoln green the moment he first rides into the three-strip Technicolor frame. However—and to stave off the bringing out of the guillotine, none of this is meant as a insult to the 1938 version, which I consider a practically perfect movie—Fairbanks’ approach allows for a more epic and emotionally rich story. His Robin gets to come into his own as a hero, going from a callow youth to a man dedicated to “God, his king, and his lady.”

No one would deny the film is largely escapist, but there is a darkness to it too. Prince John’s tyranny is illustrated through some horrifying scenes, such as a man having his eyes burned out of his skull for daring to hunt in royal territory or a woman being whipped in front of her own child for refusing John’s “address.” At one point, Huntingdon believes Marian has died and his transformation into Robin Hood is prompted in part by grief. When he turns into Robin Hood, an intertitle describes his subsequent existence as “bitter but joyous.” There is always a dangerous edge to Fairbanks’ Robin Hood, a simmering rage that makes all the broad grinning and rabble rousing take on a slight air of the grotesque.

Don’t get the impression that this is a mud and blood vision of the Robin Hood story though—we’re still miles away from the bitter, revisionist taste of movies like 1978’s Robin and Marian or Ridley Scott’s 2010 version. This is a film where Robin skips around like a five-year-old on cocaine—though admittedly, few five-year-olds on cocaine could break a man’s back with their bare hands, as Robin does here. This is also a film where the Crusades and King Richard are presented as noble, which would likely make any historian cringe.

However, Fairbanks’ Robin Hood is not a documentary—it is pure cinematic mythology. It combines several different elements of the Robin Hood story that have emerged over the centuries, synthesizing them into a satisfying whole. Even the way its many long shots are composed and lit is reminiscent of 19th century paintings of medieval pageantry and scenes– no interest in gritty “realism” pervades the film in any sense. Watching it again, I was reminded a bit of John Boorman’s Excalibur, because both films do such wonderful work in evoking an otherworldly sense of legend, completely, thoroughly, and without any shred of irony or shame. And to be honest, in a cynical postmodern age, there’s something refreshing in that.

Sources:

Douglas Fairbanks by Jeffrey Vance

The First King of Hollywood: The life of Douglas Fairbanks by Tracy Goessel

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14 thoughts on “Silent Movie Day blogathon: The greatest hits of 1922

  1. Pingback: The Silent Movie Day Blogathon 2022 | Silent-ology

  2. A pretty star-studded list! Hard to go wrong with the likes of Lloyd, Valentino, and Fairbanks. I definitely need to get around to watching more of Norma Talmadge’s stuff. Hoping we get more of her films more readily available in the future.

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      • Just found out they’re screening The Lady as part of the Online Pordenone Silent Film Festival next week if you’re willing to shell out 30 bucks.

        Makes me wish I could be there in person since they’re doing a whole Norma Talmadge retrospective. Fingers crossed those restorations become available on physical media or streaming sometime soon!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Harold Lloyd is in TWO of these top 5 films?! Awesome! I haven’t seen either one, but I’ll be searching for them.

    I agree with the previous commenter who mentioned being unfamiliar with Norma Talmadge’s films. I’m in the same boat, and your review makes me eager to rectify this quickly.

    As for Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood, what a terrific film it is. It’s time to see it again.

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  4. Clearly not in the top 5 but William Powell made his debut in 1922 – Sherlock Holmes, with John Barrymore. He was also in When Knighthood Was In Flower – a sumptuous movie, not surprising given who was bankrolling it!

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  5. What a well researched and well organized post! It’s a great addition to the blogathon, thank you. It’s true that finding out accurate box office stats can be tricky (I’ve sure found that out!) but this definitely seems like a spot on list.

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  6. Nice to read what were the most seen films a century ago. And certainly not easy work to find the box office stats. Especially 1922 was such a year, so many great films were released this year (Murnau’s Nosferatu or Keaton’s Cops are also from 2022).

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