This post is part of the Silent Movie Day blogathon hosted by Silentology and In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Today is National Silent Movie Day, a great chance to celebrate early film history! Check out the roster on their blogs to indulge in more silent movie themed goodness!
For this blogathon, I originally considered covering a single film; however, I wanted to do something a bit different from my usual reviews. I got to thinking about box office and what audiences were eating up one-hundred years ago.
The top-grossers of 1921 are largely escapist in nature: an idyllic Victorian past, the glittering mansions of high society, the burning sands of an Arabian desert. And yet, these big hits also contain elements of the zeitgeist, such as the lingering aftershock of World War One and the changing roles of women in society. By this time, Hollywood was also taking its place as the moviemaking center of the world, entering its decades-spanning classic period.
Fun stuff. Let’s get to it!
NOTE: I based my top-grossing films list on the data collected for the “1921 in film” Wikipedia article; however, not being one to take Wikipedia at its word, I went and did my own research, looking up box office numbers in a variety of silent film history books and such. The farther back in time you go, the harder it is to get EXACT box office numbers for any movie, so keep in mind that this list is probably more approximate than exact. I’ve concluded each section with a list of references in case you want to know where I pulled the information from.
#7 – LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY
Release date: September 15, 1921
Box office (est.): 900,000 – 1.1 million
Summary: Young Cedric Errol and his mother “Dearest” live a content existence in 1880s New York City. One day, they receive a message from Cedric’s estranged English grandfather: Cedric is to inherit the family title and must come to England to be trained for the aristocratic life. While Dearest is despised by her father-in-law as a suspected gold digger, Cedric’s precociousness is able to penetrate into the old man’s cold heart.
Doesn’t the very title Little Lord Fauntleroy put you on edge? It’s a triumvirate of words destined to make your teeth rot with Victorian sentimentality! A bit unfairly, I’d say—the book is cleverer than you’d expect with its themes of class conflict and culture shock. The ringlet-laden Fauntleroy (called Cedric Errol in the novel) might be precocious and pure, but his character is presented with a disarming humor that makes the book go down easily.
Of course, Victorian readers took less issue with sentimentality and pure-hearted child heroes than subsequent generations. According to the Polly Horvath introduction to the novel, Little Lord Fauntleroy was the Harry Potter of its era, popular on stage as well as on the page (fun bit of trivia: Buster Keaton got to don the curls when he was a child—he claimed to have enlivened his performances with “accidental” pratfalls). By the early 1920s, it attracted the attention of Mary Pickford, undoubtedly one of the most powerful individuals in Hollywood. Already associated with the child roles that continue to define her screen legacy to this day, “Little Mary” seemed an obvious choice to headline a movie production, even though she was pushing thirty.
No one seems to agree whether or not she fits the part. In 1921, the performance earned nothing but raves from critics and the public. Later in life, Pickford regretted doing it, even going as far as to say no woman should ever essay a male role for realism’s sake. Her stepson Douglas Fairbanks Jr. felt it was her best role, while biographer Eileen Whitfield was unimpressed. Me? If you can buy Betty Bronson or Mary Martin as Peter Pan, then suspending enough disbelief to accept Pickford as a young boy is no biggie. She also has the benefit of forced perspective and camera trickery to complete the illusion that she’s much smaller than the adult characters, including herself as Dearest, Cedric’s long-suffering mother.
As in Stella Maris, one gets the sense that the Cedric-Dearest dual role allowed Pickford to partially break free from the demands of her public, who loved seeing her play children. Pickford could successfully play a great variety of characters and often played young women in her 1910s work, but she was at heart an astute businesswoman with a deep desire to please her public and so she would continue to take on child roles well into the 1920s.
But what about the film itself? Of the 1921 top-grossers, I confess I enjoyed this one the least even though it is a charming enough piece of work. Pickford is good in both roles. The sets are big and lavish. The direction is competent. The book is faithfully adapted, the only additions being some slapstick business and a more action-packed climax (Cedric gets into a round of fisticuffs with the kid imposter out to seize his title). Pickford biographer Scott Eyman claims one can see the influence of Pickford’s husband Douglas Fairbanks all over the film. Just as Fairbanks became more enamored of grand historical settings and spectacle in his own work, Pickford inserted that same grand scale into her own productions.
Little Lord Fauntleroy is an ideal example of a star vehicle, taking a hot property and tailoring it to the popular persona of its lead player. However, I find it mid-tier Pickford, a bit too stately to be as engaging as her other popular films like Little Annie Rooney or The Poor Little Rich Girl.
Mary Pickford: America’s Sweetheart by Scott Eyman
Mary Pickford Rediscovered by Kevin Brownlow
Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood by Eileen Whitfield
Polly Havroth’s foreword for Little Lord Fauntleroy (2004 Simon and Schuester edition)
#6 – ORPHANS OF THE STORM
Release date: December 28, 1921
Box office (est.): 1 million
In eighteenth-century France, adopted sisters Henriette and Louise (Lillian and Dorothy Gish) are drawn to Paris in the wake of a plague that has left the latter blinded. They hope to find a famous oculist—instead, Henriette is kidnapped by a lecherous aristocrat and the abandoned Louise is taken in by a family of beggar-thieves headed by the ruthless Mother Frochard (Lucille La Verne). After Henriette is rescued by the dashing Chevalier de Vaudrey (Joseph Schildkraut), she makes it her mission to find her sister in the thick of the bustling, dangerous city. If only there wasn’t a revolution brewing…
DW Griffith was always one to go big. The mammoth Intolerance grew from a single contemporary domestic story and the rural stage melodrama of Way Down East became a veritable epic under Griffith’s direction. When presented with the long-running theatrical chestnut The Two Orphans for his next project, Griffith had lost none of his preference for a large canvas.
The original play is set in pre-revolutionary France, following the titular orphans as they are torn apart by malicious outside forces. Griffith’s treatment moves the action to the beginnings of the French Revolution, throwing the likes of Georges Danton, Louis XVI, and Maximilien Robespierre into the mix. The orphaned sisters are prey to overwhelming historical forces, giving the story a more epic scope than originally intended. Retitled Orphans of the Storm, the movie also marks the end of an era for Griffith: depending on your perspective, it’s either his final great movie or the beginning of a creative slump.
Whatever one thinks, the film did mark the beginning of Griffith’s box office descent. The movie made quite a sum and proved popular with the critics, but the production was so expensive that it took a long time for Griffith to profit off it. At the very least, every penny is on the screen, from the recreations of eighteenth-century Paris to the massive crowd scenes. The costuming isn’t always faithful (as the delightful Frock Flicks blog puts it, many of the outfits are “The Great Gatsby Goes 18th Century”), but it’s never anything less than stunning.
Most would concede with William K. Everson that Orphans is more representative of “Griffith the Artist-Showman” than “Griffith the Artist-Innovator.” The revolutionary vigor that animates earlier Griffith epics isn’t present this time around and would come in only fits and starts throughout his 1920s work—but does that really matter? Here we have Griffith at the top of his game, mixing melodrama and suspense into a delicious concoction.
But even there, some would disagree. In his biography of Griffith, Richard Schickel argues the movie isn’t a true epic because it does not have a traditionally heroic lead character who engages with historical forces. Both the sisters and Henriette’s love interest are caught up in the revolution and ultimately need to be rescued by Danton, therefore the movie is dramatically unbalanced, granting more agency to a historical cameo than its leading figures. I initially agreed with Schickel’s assessment, even though I enjoy the movie far more than he does. However, perusing comments from Griffith scholar William Drew and The Hollywood Epic author Foster Hirsch made me reconsider my opinion.
Schickel’s problem is that he believes epic heroes are only like Beowulf or King Arthur, people who go out, fight, and shape history themselves. Because he takes that for granted, he calls Griffith’s epic a failure. However, both Drew and Hirrsch argue this is not the only model for an epic hero. They mark Henriette as a heroine in her own right, elevated not by heroic deeds but by heroic suffering—endurance in the face of her antagonists, which range from the selfish ancien regime to the overzealous revolutionaries.
Throughout history, most people are not grand movers and shakers. They are caught up in the “storms” of revolutions and epidemics and wars and witch hunts and other disasters, things which disrupt their modest lives. Henriette is no leader, warrior, or general, but she is a likeable individual we root for, someone who just wants a peaceful life with her loved ones. She cannot change the storm or even avoid it—she must endure it and survive.
Much has been made of Griffith’s bizarre attempts to link his film to then-contemporary problems. He compares the revolutionaries to bolshevists and then calls Danton “the Abraham Lincoln of France” in what might be the movie’s most baffling intertitle. As in Intolerance, Griffith isn’t so much interested in the exact details of history (even though historical research was very much part of his pre-production) as he is in expressing great moral themes with distant times as a backdrop. Just like in the earlier epic, all of humanity’s problems come down to people being unable to embrace Love and cast out Hatred.
And that brings us back to the original accusation that Orphans is just treading old ground. Orphans may not be Griffith’s masterpiece, but I’m with Lea Stans of Silentology on one point: we probably would rate it much better if it were earlier in the Griffith canon or maybe if a younger, greener director had helmed the production. As entertainment, it’s still stunning work, perhaps more accessible to silent film newbies than Griffith’s more critically-acclaimed epics. As for me, I’ve grown to like it the more I watch it.
DW Griffith: An American Life by Richard Schickel
“DW Griffith’s ‘Orphans of the Storm’” by William M. Drew
Frock Flicks review – http://www.frockflicks.com/18th-century-quest-orphans-of-the-storm-1921/
The Hollywood Epic by Foster Hirsch
Lea Stans’ review of Orphans – https://silentology.wordpress.com/2021/02/27/thoughts-on-orphans-of-the-storm-1921/
William K. Everson’s program notes – https://wke.hosting.nyu.edu/wke/notes/huff/huff_580523.htm
#5 – THE AFFAIRS OF ANATOL
Release date: September 21, 1921
Box office (est.): 1.1 million
Young, attractive, and wealthy married couple Vivian (Gloria Swanson) and Anatol De Witt Spencer (Wallace Reid) would appear to have everything, but their marriage is bordering troubled water. Vivian is obsessed with good clothes and a good time, while the fiercely romantic Anatol longs to indulge in heroic fantasy. He spies a potential damsel-in-distress in every woman he meets, first with the gold-digging flapper Emilie (Wanda Hawley) and then with Annie, a suicidal farmer’s wife (Agnes Ayres). Alienating his wife with his naïve “experiments,” Anatol comes close to losing her forever when he starts wondering if she’s gone onto greener pastures with one of his close friends (Elliott Dexter). Will both suspicions and an attempt at a fling with the notorious “Satan Synne” (Bebe Daniels) put an end to their marriage?
The movies—particularly Hollywood movies—have never been shy about indulging in lifestyle porn. Think of those beautifully gowned screwball socialites sipping martinis in Art Deco mansions or James Bond traveling through exotic locations in his smart suits. Cecil B. DeMille is perhaps the first filmmaker to really put lifestyle porn out there as a serious selling point, clothing his leading ladies in the latest fashions and placing his immaculately groomed sophisticate characters on ornate sets.
It’s easy to dismiss these movies as pointless fluff. Contemporary critics certainly did, saving particular ire for The Affairs of Anatol, a loose adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1893 play. Sidestepping the censors, DeMille cleaned up the titular hero’s behavior and lightened the play’s cynical tone. He apparently had no qualms doing so, not holding his source material in high regard and only filming the story at the request of Famous-Players head Jesse Lasky.
Schnitzler is hardly a household name nowadays. Most movie buffs only know him as the author of Dream Story, the source material for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, with which Affairs shares some key points. Both are about an affluent couple dissatisfied with their marriages, and both plots are episodic. One cannot help but see a kinship between Anatol’s jealousy-inspired attempt at adultery and the sexual insecurity which fuels Bill Harford’s surreal odyssey through 1990s New York. The DeMille movie lacks Kubrick’s cynicism and surrealism overall—Kubrick was less interested in the luxurious lifestyle of his anti-hero, whereas DeMille stresses it, to the point where the story almost seems swallowed by the fancy bathrooms, cars, and headgear.
But there is a great deal of intelligence and feeling beneath the glossy opulence. DeMille biographer Scott Eyman has gone to bat for the film, calling it an astute portrait of postwar ideas regarding women and consumerism. Swanson’s character represents the “new wife,” if you will: someone who is just as much a playmate as a helpmate within marriage. Traditionally, married women dedicated themselves to hearth and home; the new wife is allowed to enjoy herself, buying attractive clothes and going out to parties, without being demonized.
The relationship between Anatol and Vivian is most strained by a mismatch of expectations. Anatol’s romanticism is old-fashioned: he longs for a helpless damsel to rescue, the total opposite of his feisty modern-minded wife. The “damsels” in question only turn out to be opportunists: Emilie just wants jewelry and Annie needs to replenish the money she accidentally took from her community’s church funds. Ironically, when Anatol goes for a blatant femme fatale, the deliciously named “Satan Synne,” her wickedness turns out to be a pretense: she sells herself to support her husband, a war veteran still suffering from lingering injuries. Anatol’s “virginal innocent in peril” fantasy is punctured again and again by reality since he can never understand nor predict what’s going on with any of these women.
Actually, even the opportunistic women have softer sides: Emilie seems fond of her original sugar daddy, even accepting a marriage proposal from him once she’s done with Anatol, and the preacher’s wife wants to do right by her husband. In a story that could easily go into “good versus bad woman” territory, all of the women are rather complicated, never evil and sometimes even well-intentioned. When Anatol returns to Vivian and declines to really find out if she has been unfaithful to him, it’s a touching moment of trust and respect. The De Witt Spencers are able to resume their marriage on equal footing and free of illusions.
I have to go with Eyman: Affairs might glisten, but the gold isn’t only on the surface. Unlike some of DeMille’s other hit films, there’s a beating heart beneath the lifestyle porn. In a way, this is Hollywood entertainment at its best: simultaneously vicarious fantasy and emotionally involving.
Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille by Scott Eyman
#4 – THE SHEIK
Release date: November 20, 1921
Box office (est.): 1.5 million
Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres) is a “madcap” English aristocrat who insists marriage is captivity, rejecting suitors and venturing out into Middle Eastern deserts without a chaperone. Unfortunately for her, her blonde beauty attracts the attention of Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan (Rudolph Valentino). Carried away by hormones, Ahmed kidnaps Diana and holds her captive in his tent, hoping to make a conquest of her. But the proud Diana won’t budge, even when she starts developing feelings for her wily kidnapper. Will these crazy kids ever find love?
The Sheik was pretty much a guaranteed profit. The 1919 novel of the same name was a smash, titillating and scandalizing its massive readership in equal measure with its tale of a macho, glowering sheik kidnapping and ravishing a “liberated” modern Englishwoman. The question was how would Hollywood manage to adapt it without provoking the snip of censor shears.
I’m reminded of the ad campaign for Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of Nabokov’s Lolita. Posters beckoned with the question, “How did they ever make a movie out of Lolita?” When the movie was finally released, critic Bowsley Crowther answered, “They didn’t.” The same applies to the movie version of The Sheik. The explicit (for the time) sex was all but cut from the script, keeping it extremely vague as to whether or not the central relationship involves any kind of hanky-panky. The domineering titular character (a charmer who says things like, “We teach our women obedience with the whip” or “Better me than my men”) is made into a rather affable fellow whose looks of lust are famously reaction-image worthy. No one on the set seems to have taken the project seriously: director George Melford went for a more theatrical style, staging scenes and directing the actors accordingly.
No one flocked to The Sheik because they wanted a masterpiece of cinema. As film historian Jeanine Basigner once said, they went to get “sexed up.” Women went crazy for Valentino, nostril flares and all. He represented the ultimate sadomasochistic fantasy, an uncompromising bad boy with no qualms taking what he wants. In an era where the sexual double standard was firmly in place, the Valentino phenomena fascinates—his image was clearly curated for a “female gaze.”
It can be easy to discredit Valentino as a performer. He’s often accused of being little more than a good-looking guy who knew how to pose attractively with a cigarette. However, as much as I enjoy making fun of this movie, I have to give Valentino his due—he’s honestly more at the mercy of the material and his director than anything. As Valentino lamented, “I was forced… to play this wild Arabian charmer as though he were an associate professor of the history of English literature at Oxford.” (I would say it’s more like Melford told Valentino to pretend he was a stoner with a rabid case of the munchies and that Ayres was a giant bag of potato chips, but I digress.) Regardless, a few scenes allow him to show off a more restrained acting style and easy grace, like the moment he takes pity on a weeping Diana and sends a servant to comfort her.
Even though Valentino was basically at least 50% the reason people bought their tickets, Paramount top-billed Agnes Ayres, who you might remember from The Affairs of Anatol. To put it bluntly, she was much better there. For a sharp-shootin’ daredevil madcap, Ayres’ Diana sure lacks fire. Combine that with her almost matronly looks and it can be hard to figure out just what’s driving Ahmed crazy about her. Maybe it’s because she held her own in that staring contest they had by the casino? I don’t know. As Howard the Duck once said, love is strange.
Love may be strange, but the box office results aren’t. Even if the critics complained that the book’s sexual frankness had been neutered, the audience didn’t care. A bowdlerized version of a bodice-ripper could still be shocking—in fact, the film was banned in Kansas City for being too smutty for local tastes.
Even if The Sheik is not the best silent film by a long shot, it’s goofy fun, a delight because of its unashamed silliness. And don’t congratulate us moderns for being more sophisticated—the Twilight movies were big hits and they often trend on Netflix. We still love hokum.
Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino by Emily Leider
Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille by Scott Eyman
Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger
#3 – THE THREE MUSKETEERS
Release date: August 28, 1921
Box office (est.): 1.5 million
Summary: In seventeenth-century France, young D’Artagnan (Douglas Fairbanks) seeks adventure as one of the king’s musketeers. Initial rejection does not deter him and he soon finds himself embroiled in court intrigue. The honor of the queen (Mary MacLaren) is at stake due to the machinations of the nefarious Cardinal Richelieu (Nigel De Brulier) and Milady de Winter (Barbara La Marr). Allying himself with musketeers Athos (Leon Barry), Porthos (George Siegmann), and Aramis (Eugene Pallette), D’Artagnan must reclaim the queen’s diamond brooch from her lover before the king (Adolphe Menjou) discovers the affair.
The 1920s would mark a shift in the career of Douglas Fairbanks. Previously a star of light comedies, in 1920 he fulfilled his ambition to create a swashbuckling adventure in the form of The Mark of Zorro. The film was a success, so naturally a follow-up was in order. Fairbanks had long adored Alexandre Dumas’ adventure classic, The Three Musketeers. For whatever reason, Hollywood producers felt the general public had no use for costume dramas. Fairbanks didn’t care. He was emboldened by Zorro’s profits and embarked on a Dumas adaptation, exhibitors’ anxieties be damned. He imported several alumni from Zorro to his new project, including director Fred Niblo and leading lady Marguertie de la Motte as D’Artagnan’s love interest Constance.
Needless to say, the movie was a hit, its New York City premiere a thing of legend. Patrons lined the streets hoping for a seat and a glimpse of both Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. The additional appearance of Charlie Chaplin only added more glamor to the event. Neither the two-dollar admission fee nor the dreaded “costume picture” label could keep the crowds away.
Though beloved in its day, this movie has gotten a tepid reputation over time. Silent film historian William K. Everson never failed to call it “turgid” whenever it was screened. It might also suffer from direct comparison with its 1929 sequel, The Iron Mask, which is a much slicker production. However, the lukewarm reputation baffles me—I find Fairbanks’ Three Musketeers one of his most satisfying movies. Like Zorro, it has a breeziness that keeps the grand historical elements from overwhelming the fun. Sure, it’s slow in places, but it moves along at a better pace than his more regarded costume movies like Robin Hood or The Thief of Bagdad, hitting a happy median between spectacle, story, and humor.
Fairbanks is also fantastic in his dream role, the high-spirited D’Artagnan. While it takes a while for him to appear on-screen, he is worth the wait. Some actors can handle being much older than the intended ages of their characters and Doug was so packed with joie de vivre himself that he is the ideal D’Artagnan. He so identified with the role that he kept the mustache he grew for it until the end of his life.
If I have any big problem with the movie, it’s that the other musketeers don’t leave much of an impact. George Siegmann and Eugene Palette are fantastic actors, and Leon Barry is no slouch in the part. However, they are denied any major developments, their individual personalities a bit sidelined in this adaptation. The same applies to Barbara La Marr, given precious little to do as Milady de Winter.
Luckily, the same cannot be said for the rest of the supporting cast. Adolphe Menjou is great as the frivolous but jealous Louis XIII, Mary MacLaren generates a great deal of sympathy for her adulterous Queen Anne, and Marguerite De La Motte is sweetly likeable as Constance (even if they take some of the bite out of her relationship with D’Artagnan by making her an unmarried ingenue rather than a married woman). But it is Nigel De Brulier who most stands out. His Richelieu is cold-blooded and intelligent yet not without a wry sense of humor. He is so fantastic in the part that he would return to the role three more times in The Iron Mask, the 1935 talkie version of The Three Musketeers, and the 1939 James Whale adaptation of The Man in the Iron Mask.
Overall, Fairbanks’ Three Musketeers avoids any pretense, which might be why some audiences avoided costume pictures. The film never tries to be “good for you” since it is wholly uninterested in actual history or Grand Weighty Themes. It’s a classic adventure story and a perfect vehicle for its star.
United artists: the company that built the stars by Tino Balio
The First King of Hollywood by Tracy Goessel
#2 – THE KID
Release date: January 21, 1921 (premiere), February 6, 1921 (general release)
Box office (est.): 2.5 million
When an unwed mother (Edna Purviance) abandons her child, the Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) reluctantly adopts the little tyke. Five years later, he and the Kid (Jackie Coogan) make a hand-to-mouth living repairing windows (after the Kid busts them first, of course), but outside forces threaten their bond. The boy’s mother, now a wealthy stage star, yearns for her lost child and the local social workers feel the Tramp is not a suitable father. Will the father-son pair be split up?
The Kid is representative of the biggest leap forward in Chaplin’s art by the early 1920s. Chaplin’s shorts had been dabbling with dramatic stakes for a while, most boldly in A Dog’s Life from 1918, but The Kid goes into pure tear jerker territory with its sentimental story of a tramp and an orphaned child almost torn apart by society’s meddling. The story definitely hit a chord with worldwide audiences (according to Chaplin biographer David Robinson, by 1924, only the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Colombia had not screened the film). It sealed Chaplin’s reputation as one of the great geniuses of cinema and made Jackie Coogan a top-tier child star.
Chaplin never had a better screen partner than Jackie Coogan nor perhaps an actor as ideally suited to his direction. His directorial style was more about getting the other actors to mimic his conception of their roles than to let them loose with their own interpretations, and it seems he never found a better mimic than Coogan, who could replicate Chaplin’s movements down to the least detail. Something in Coogan struck Chaplin to the heart: he argued Coogan’s character embodied all the orphans created by the Great War, but it might be more apt to say he saw something of his child self in the little guy.
Along with Limelight, The Kid is Chaplin’s most autobiographical work. Most know the project was sparked by the loss of Chaplin’s first child, but one can also see echoes of his mother, the tragic Hannah Chaplin, in Edna Purviance’s unwed mother (though there is, admittedly, some poignant wish fulfillment in her fate as a successful actress—Hannah wanted to be a stage star but mental illness and a lack of support would interfere). The threatened workhouse sentence for the boy calls back to Chaplin’s own miserable childhood stint there. Even little details, like the attic apartment where the tramp and the kid live, is a reference to Chaplin’s living situation at 3 Pownall Terrace, where he slept under a slanted ceiling and hit his head when getting out of bed every morning.
The autobiographical elements are filtered through Dickensian whimsy and sentiment. The poverty and the child of the slums who does not know his true identity could have come right out of Oliver Twist. Still, there’s a fairy tale timelessness to the film’s setting: the setting is a blend of the Victorian world of Chaplin’s childhood and the sensibility of early 20th century America. This is a story that could conceivably take place anytime and anywhere, which might be why it has held up so well.
The Kid might not be Chaplin’s funniest movie, though it does have some earthy gags that scandalized critics at the time (particularly the potty humor—one can only imagine how they’d react to the abundant fart jokes in modern comedies). The bittersweet elements are more potent here than even in City Lights—the threat of separation and subsequent loneliness suffuses the film. Even the ending is ambiguous: mother and child may have reunited, but is there a place for the tramp in that equation? Overall, the film certainly lives up to the description in the opening title cards: “A picture with a laugh—and perhaps a tear.”
Chaplin: His Life and Art by David Robinson
#1 – THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE
Release date: March 6, 1921
Box office (est.): 4.5 million
In pre-war Argentina, powerful landowner Madriaga openly favors his French-descended grandson, the libertine Julio Desonyers (Rudolph Valentino) over the offspring of his German son-in-law. When Madriaga dies, halving his wealth between his two daughters, Julio’s family returns to France and his cousins go back to Germany. Julio spends time teaching socialites the tango and pursuing an affair with the unhappily married Marguerite (Alice Terry), but rumors of encroaching war begin to disrupt his fancy-free lifestyle.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’s success is a classic underdog story. No one expected it to be the hit of the year when it debuted in 1921. While it was based on a blockbuster of a novel, conventional Hollywood wisdom dictated that the public was burned out on anything to do with the Great War. Not only that, but the movie didn’t even have guaranteed star power behind it—the hero was played by some Italian bit player with a name a mile long and the leading lady was hardly in the same league as a Norma Talmadge. And yet, this movie proved to be not only the biggest money-earner of 1921, but one of the most successful movies of the entire silent era and a true zeitgeist hit.
What made Four Horsemen such a success? At the time of release, critics compared it to The Birth of a Nation, only more modern in both style and subject matter. It was definitely sexier than Griffith’s movie, what with Valentino’s tango or the ardent way he handles his leading lady (in one decidedly pre-code moment, he actually cups her breast). Pictorially, Four Horsemen is gorgeous: director Rex Ingram was heavily influenced by painting and sculpture, and these instincts leaked into his compositions and lighting.
However, none of this is satisfactory in answering the question what made this blockbuster such a hit? Later Ingram films move more quickly and feature even more stunning imagery. Later Valentino films are sexier and more exciting. Later WWI movies are more nuanced in their treatment of the war. And yet few left as much of a cultural impact. Certainly, none made as much money.
The best answer I can muster is that Four Horsemen was made at the perfect time: the public was far away enough from the war to be willing to engage with it on-screen again and society was just shifting to the faster, looser Roaring Twenties, making Four Horsemen a natural step in the evolution of the Hollywood Epic, picking up where the more Edwardian Birth left off.
If a movie must have an “auteur,” then Four Horsemen has two: June Mathis and Rex Ingram. Ingram brought his artist’s eye to the film and Mathis was the executive producer in all but name. She played up the original story’s spiritual bent (the bearded mystic Tcherkoff gets more of a Christlike presence here) and made the decision to cast Valentino in the lead after being impressed by his brief but memorable role as a heartless gigolo in the 1919 Clara Kimball Young melodrama The Eyes of Youth.
You can’t discuss Four Horsemen without mentioning Valentino. His turn as Julio is often considered the best performance of his short career, the most dramatic and least encumbered by Hollywoodisms. Comparing his performance here to his coked-up antics in The Sheik is a revelation for those who think he was just a pretty face sans acting skills. Hell, comparing it to his performance in Eyes of Youth is interesting—there, his character is marked by bold sensuality and danger, traditional signs of 1910s Hollywood villainy. Julio shares these qualities, but he’s a diamond-in-the-rough. By the 1920s, the dangerous lover was a far more popular fantasy, outplacing the clean-cut screen heroes of the previous decade.
Julio’s introduction might be the most perfect example of a star-making moment I can name. Author KM Weiland often talks of what she calls “the characteristic moment,” a scene which introduces the protagonist in a strong, immediate way, showing the audience why we should bother investing in them emotionally. The tango scene is a perfect characteristic moment. We get the sense that Julio is a handsome libertine, a bit selfish and entitled but loyal enough to those he loves (he ditches his newly-won conquest when she mocks his aged grandfather). That he’s so likeable is a quality I attest to Valentino’s innate charisma—in the book, Julio comes off as far more callow and childish before his eventual redemption.
Being a war story, this redemption naturally comes via military service. Though the story takes place during WWI, Four Horsemen is quite unlike later treatments of that conflict. When WWI is brought up at all, people tend to see it as a tragic waste of life. Unlike its sequel, there are no definite “good guys” or “bad guys.” But perhaps that was still too new a viewpoint in 1921, because Four Horsemen paints the war in definite good versus evil terms: the French are noble and good, the Germans are goose-stepping authoritarians who must be stopped.
Even within the Madriaga family, the Germans are pure evil, presented with no moral greyness. When Julio comes face-to-face with a German cousin on the battlefield, the moment is no equivalent to that heartbreaking scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where Paul recognizes the humanity of the enemy in the French soldier he killed—the Germans are never allowed humanity, not even the slightest, which is why I have always been puzzled by Four Horsemen’s anti-war reputation.
I am not, however, puzzled by its popularity with audiences of the time. It feels in some ways like the Ultimate Hollywood Epic, big in the same way Ben-Hur and Gone with the Wind and hell, even the Infinity Stone saga of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are big. There’s family drama, forbidden love, attractive heroes and heroines, sweeping battles, world-shattering events, everything people still love about blockbuster movies. That it was so in tune with the zeitgeist also made it lightning in a bottle, as evidenced by the lesser reception to the film’s 1962 remake. The old adage once more proves true: you can only get lightning in a bottle once.
Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino by Emily Leider
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