Reading David Bordwell’s blog is a rewarding and deeply demoralizing experience. For a mostly self-taught (and self-proclaimed) film aficionado such as I, the amount of cinematic knowledge he and his fellow blogger (Kristen Thompson) have at their fingertips is a bit mind-boggling — a treasure trove of information, once I have managed to check my easily-bruised ego at the door.
Kristen’s latest post — “never too late silents” — is just such a trove, detailing the Criterion Collection’s release of Josef von Sternberg’s three “final surviving silent films:” Underworld, The Last Command, and The Docks of New York.
As a die-hard silent film fan(atic) — yes, we’re an odd (and often, ironically, a highly unsilent) breed — I was particularly struck by this observation:
Certain years in the history of film stand out for having produced more than their fair share of masterpieces. 1927 was one such year. In the United States alone, there were Buster Keaton’s The General, Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven, F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise, Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother, and Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld. On a slightly less exalted plane there were Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg and William Wellman’s Wings, the latter the winner of the first best-picture Oscar.
An embarrassment of riches, to be sure. The General and Sunrise alone would have made it an impressive year, and that’s without any mention of Lang’s Metropolis or Gance’s Napoleon — two more bellwether silent films from that same year. And in 1928, Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr. and The Cameraman combined with Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Chaplin’s The Circus for another incredible year of silent films.
Of course, 1927 was also the year of The Jazz Singer, so the seeds of the era’s demise were already being sown even during its time of greatest triumph.