Monday, July 22, 2013

Five Jaw-Dropping Movies From the Golden Age of Cinema

If you think you don't like "old movies", you're just not looking back far enough. In the late 1920's and early 1930's was the first golden age of cinema. The best films from this time period are shockingly impressive, even by today's standards. By the mid twenties, directors like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang had developed a mind-blowing set of cinematic techniques that wouldn't be rivaled for decades.

What caused the end of this golden age? Well, the arrival of talkies resulted in new technological and artistic challenges, not just for actors but filmmakers as well. Also, the Hollywood Production Code went into effect in the early 30's and put strict limits on the subject matter and artistic expression allowed by studio productions for decades to come. But that five year or so span represents the most freewheeling and exciting period of cinematic history as far as I'm concerned.

Here are five mind-blowing films that modern audiences just aren't likely to watch. Trust me though, they're well worth your time, and I think there's a little something for everyone on this list. They literally don't make them like this anymore. All of these are available on Netflix instant streaming except Sunrise (which is available on DVD).

The Thief of Bagdad (1924 dir. Ludwig Berger)

Let's start things off with a bona-fide crowd pleaser. "The Thief of Bagdad" is unabashed popcorn fun, starring Douglas Fairbanks as the least convincing Arab ever. Achmed is a carefree thief who breaks into the caliph's palace only to fall in love with a sleeping princess. In order to win the right to marry her, he competes with three royal suitors: the one who returns in a week with the coolest treasure gets the girl. This is all an excuse for epic quests, special effects, thrills and spills.

This kind of fun is timeless, and there's a reason "The Thief of Bagdad" continued to be a hit for years after talkies supposedly rendered it obsolete. My wife and I had a great time watching it, and it's the perfect introduction for people who don't think they like silent films.

The General (1926 dir. Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman)

One of my favorite films, The General was an action-comedy ahead of its time. Every Jackie Chan film owes a debt to this, Buster Keaton's masterpiece. Keaton plays a train engineer in Georgia  who tries to enlist in the Confederate army when the Civil War breaks out. Rejected as unfit for service, his girlfriend misunderstands and thinks him a coward. He soon gets his chance to prove his mettle when a group of Union spies steal his locomotive and his woman for a secret mission of sabotage.

What follows is some of the most impressive action and stunt choreography ever filmed, including two huge chase sequences on train tracks and a closing battle that includes a real train plummeting off of a bridge in a spectacular wreck. Along the way Buster Keaton puts in his best performance, his famous deadpan reactions leading to plenty of comedy, but concealing great depth as an actor. I can't hype this one enough. See it!

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927 dir. F. W. Murnau)

Sunrise is perhaps the ultimate silent film. It tells a story so simple and direct that dialogue might have rendered it sappy or unconvincing. A farmer is lured away from his wife by a seductive woman from the city. She convinces him to murder his wife so that they can run away together, but at the last minute he breaks down, unable to bring himself to commit murder. His wife flees to the city, but he follows, determined to apologize and repair their shattered love.

This movie is artistry incarnate. Its story is heightened and a bit artificial, but that doesn't matter when the performances are so touching. You've also never seen a camera do some of the things it does here, particularly in a legendary tracking shot across a foggy countryside. I was blown away by the film-making technique on display here, showing just how far cinema had evolved before clunky new sound cameras brought everything back to the drawing board. The cracking good story and tear-jerking emotion only adds to the package.

L'Age D'Or (1930 dir. Luis Bunuel)

In 1930 Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel unleashed a tour-de-force of WTF so intentionally provocative that it caused riots and was buried for decades. Even to modern eyes "L'Age D'Or" is difficult, but (if you're weird) a hell of a lot of fun. The core story (and boy does it wander) is a frustrated romance between a young upper-class woman and a sociopathic civil servant. They spend the film attempting to meet for sex, but are constantly interrupted or thwarted by the police, the church, her family, and God knows what else.

This film defiantly breaks taboos both big and small: the main character's job is as a "goodwill ambassador", which doesn't stop him from kicking a puppy and beating up a blind man. At a high-society ball, a screaming maid on fire runs through the party unnoticed. The most famous sequence has a sexually frustrated woman licking a statue's toe in orgasmic ecstasy. There's also a healthy dose of surrealist humor: in one scene a man throws furniture out of a high window to shatter onto the street below. Mixed in with the furniture is a bishop, and a giraffe, who mysteriously lands in a faraway ocean.

Scarface (1932 dir. Howard Hawks)

I'll round off this list with a bad-ass crime spectacle. Maybe Howard Hawk's "Scarface" isn't a groundbreaking artistic pursuit, but it's a great example of how freaking violent and grim movies could be before the Production Code killed everyone's fun. Paul Muni plays Tony Camonte, a mobster with big dreams who tries to take over the chicago alcohol trade during prohibition through lethal force. Audiences of the day were shocked by the casual violence: drive-by shootings, dead bodies left on doorsteps, and in the most memorable shot, Tony giggling like a kid on christmas while playing with a new machine gun.

It's surprising just how much of the 1983 remake was already in the original film. There's nowhere near as much stage blood thrown around, but Tony's borderline incestuous protection of his sister and the "out in a blaze of glory" climax are already here, as well as the important phrase "The World Is Yours". I haven't seen the Pacino version in a long time, but I can vouch for the quality of this one. It isn't just "good for its day", it's just plain awesome.

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