The Penalty (1920)

Lon Chaney. That is all that really needs to be said, and the review could end here. But perhaps a few things about the film The Penalty should be added, just for clarity.

Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920)

The plot is actually very interesting, even without Chaney’s magnificent interpretation. A young boy gets both his legs amputated by mistake. As he grows up, unloved and unloving, he gets involved with the criminal underworld, eventually rising to become a minor but ruthless crime lord, nicknamed Blizzard, and with aspirations for greatness. He has many young girls among his underlings, and his favourite gets to pedal his piano (since his handicap prevents him from doing so himself). The police has nothing substantial on him, so they decide to send their best female agent. Meanwhile, Blizzard is planning revenge on the doctor who amputated his legs, and on his beautiful sculptor daughter.

Even though it tends to get a bit melodramatic at times, this plot along with the crew’s skillful work are almost enough to raise it to the level of memorable contemporary pieces, such as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, The Mark of Zorro or Klostret i Sendomir. But then along comes Chaney and quite by himself elevates the whole thing to the level of masterpiece.

This film is best enjoyed for Chaney’s brilliant acting. He is in total control at every moment. Someone compared him with the Robert De Niro of silent film, and there is some truth in that. Not only because of the acting, but also because of his absolute devotion to each role. For this film, he built a contraption that tied his legs up so that he looks totally convincingly amputated. It is said that it was so painful that he could only wear it for ten minutes at a stretch, and still the man could act better than most of today’s stars.

Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920)

The Penalty
Download link
Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 30 min
Director: Wallace Worsley
Stars: Lon Chaney
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (622 M)

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)

If you investigate the history of the horror movie, you will find that sooner or later the tracks lead back to Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, or as it is known in English, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Werner Krauß and Conrad Veidt in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari / The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari is one of the defining works of the German Expressionism, and it is also one of the most thoroughly expressionistic films ever. The sets are twisted, looming, threatening, and induces a dream-like, or perhaps rather nightmarish, feeling into the film. The acting, by several great actors of the time, is on par, as is the plot.

I will not spoil your experience by telling you much about that plot. Suffice it to say that it deals with a somnambulist who is on display as a fair showcase, a mad doctor, and several gruesome murders. Also, things are rarely what they seem.

While not generally considered the first film in the German Expressionism, the film nevertheless had a tremendous impact on the genre, an impact that directly and indirectly carries on to other genres, not least the modern horror genre.

The copy I otherwise link to in this post is the best I have found at the Internet Archive. However, it is a German version with no subtitles. Another good version with English title cards is available, in case your German is out of practice.

This film is best enjoyed with a good musical score. With poor or random music, or no music at all, much of the nerve and intensity of the film will be lost. Fortunately, both the versions I link to are good in this respect. It is much easier to oversee with some defects in the visual quality.

Elsa Wagner and Friedrich Feher in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari / The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari
Download link
Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 14 min
Language: German (no subtitles)
Director: Robert Wiene
Stars: Werner Krauß, Conrad Veidt
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (576×432)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Matroska (673 M)

Outside the Law (1920)

Crime, treachery, redemption, friendship, love. Those are some of the ingredients in the classic silent Outside the Law, directed by Tod Browning.

Priscilla Dean in Outside the Law (1920)

Browning has gone down in history for a handful of truly classic films, not least Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932). But he made a number of other movies that deserve to be remembered, often working together with Lon Chaney. Outside the Law is an excellent example, not least because of Lon Chaney’s role.

Chaney, one of the greatest actors of silent cinema, especially in dramatic roles, is best remembered today for his horror pieces, but he is just as good here, playing a low-life gangster. Though Chaney is perhaps the best actor in the movie, the rest of the cast, not least Priscilla Dean, are also very good.

The copy available at the Internet Archive is not perfect. There are some defects from the aged film print, especially towards the end. For me, these are easily suffered when watching a good film such as this.

This film is best enjoyed in comparison with some of its contemporaries. D.W. Griffith was one director who dealt with some similar themes around the same time, but while Griffith and others tend to become overly sentimental and melodramatic, Browning has a much firmer grip on his drama. Sure, there is some melodrama at times, but no more than necessary to keep the plot on course.

Lon Chaney in Outside the Law (1920)

Outside the Law
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Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 15 min
Director: Tod Browning
Stars: Lon Chaney
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; classical music partly synchronized with the images; partly silent
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (600 M)

Klostret i Sendomir (1920)

I have already written about the height of Swedish filmmaking in my post about The Outlaw and His Wife. Another of Victor Sjöström’s most famous movies was Klostret i Sendomir (The Monastery of Sendomir in English).

Erik Petschler and Nils Tillberg in Klostret i Sendomir / The Monastery of Sendomir (1920)

The film begins with two travellers who decide to spend the night at a monastery. They become curious as to the monastery’s origins and convince one of the monks to tell them. It turns out that a man who became jealous of his cheating wife decided to fuond the monastery to atone for his sins in connection with this. The majority of the film is a flashback as the monk tells the story. In the end we revert back to the two travellers for a nice twist.

Like many of the Swedish films from this classical period, Klostret i Sendomir was based on a literary original, in this case a short story by the German writer Franz Grillparzer. Compared with modern Hollywood, these Swedish films stayed close to the originals, and in many cases, such as this, they also retained the tragic endings. In fact, Hollywood started to recognize the commercial value of happy endings at least as early as the 1920s, which Sjöström became aware of a few years later, when he moved to Hollywood to continue his career there.

This film is best enjoyed if you are curious about this classical period in Swedish film. It is a genuinely good film, especially compared with most other films from the same period, but directors and producers of the time were still very much experimenting with the medium, and parts of the film tend to feel a little stiff today. Still, it is a very good story, and told in the best way known in 1920.

Tora Terje and Tore Svennberg in Klostret i Sendomir / The Monastery of Sendomir (1920)

Klostret i Sendomir
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Year: 1920
Running time: 53 min
Language: Swedish; English subtitles
Director: Victor Sjöström
Stars: Tore Svennberg, Tora Terje
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Poor; synthesized score not adapted to the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Windows Media (939 M)

The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Depending on what sources you care to trust, the masked hero Zorro turns 95 either tomorrow or nine days ago. And while he would seem to be as vital as ever, he would probably not have become famous at all, if not for the film The Mark of Zorro.

Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro and Robert McKim as Capitán Ramón in The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Zorro was the brain child of one Johnston McCulley, who invented the character and wrote a series of stories about him. But McCulley’s first story, quite frankly, was not very good, nor very interesting. His Zorro was just another masked Western hero, interesting only because of the catchy name (which was not originally in the title of the first story) and the secret dilettante identity (which, frankly, was not very well handled). The trademark Z, carved in the opponent’s flesh, was only added as a throwaway gimmick towards the end. Today, the story feels stale, not only becuase the writing was awkward even by pulp standards, but moreso because it reeks with sexism, racism and lack of historical accuracy.

No, Zorro would have been quickly forgotten, if it was not for Douglas Fairbanks. He was already a popular star in comedies (see my review of The Nut for more information), but wanted more. He was looking for a good franchise to turn into an adventure movie, and found what he was looking for in Zorro.

In adapting the story, Fairbanks changed the title to put focus on the hero and his signature. He also introduced many other dramatic improvements, such as: the black hat and cape; Don Diego’s horseback and fencing skills can be kept secret since he just returned from a long visit to Spain; the underground secret hideout (which was later to become the inspiration for Batman’s cave); the faithful servant who knows the secret; just to mention some of the changes that have come to stay with the character. And, to top it all off, he added his own set of acrobatic stunts and coreographed fights, something which has become characteristic of the entire adventure film genre.

Adventure movies had already existed for some years, especially within the Western subgenre. But the action in those movies was fairly simple, usually taking the shape of gunfights, fistfights or chases with relatively simple stunts and choreography.

In the comedies, on the other hand, geniuses such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton had started to experiment with more advanced stunts, using complex choreography and trick filming, among other things.

Douglas Fairbanks merged the two genres, and threw in his own magnetic screen personality as a bonus. This proved to be enormously successful, and has basically shaped the entire motion picture industry into what it is today.

This film is best enjoyed for its historical significance. The Mark of Zorro has had a tremendous impact upon Hollywood filmmaking. It has more or less by itself defined the entire romantic adventure subgenre, a genre which has not significantly altered during the past 94 years since its origins.

Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro and Marguerite De La Motte as Lolita Pulido in The Mark of Zorro (1920)

The Mark of Zorro
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Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 14 min
Director: Fred Niblo
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.3 G)

The Last of the Mohicans (1920)

The Internet Archive contains a bit of everything. High and low. Old and new. Good and bad. You can find just about every major genre that you can think of (short of hard-core pornography). Diversity is a key word, but if there is one genre which is more dominating, it must be the westerns.

IA has given me some perspective on the incredible number of westerns that have been made. The archive contains hundreds; probably only a fraction of all that have been produced. Many of them have generic titles such as Raiders of Old California, Oath of Vengeance or Gangsters of the Frontier. Now, western is not my favourite genre, but I am always ready to acknowledge a good movie when I find one. And one such good western is The Last of the Mohicans.

Wallace Beery and Barbara Bedford in The Last of the Mohicans (1920)

This is not the typical western with John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. There is no main street, no saloon, no six-shooters and no Mexican bandits. Not even a single cowboy as far as eye can reach. All those clichés were already well established by 1920, but this is not that kind of a movie. Instead, it is a movie about native Americans and impossible love.

“The Last of the Mohicans” was originally a novel by James Fenimore Cooper. It is set in the 18th century, during one of the wars between England and France. In those days, natives sometimes took sides in the conflicts of the Europeans and fought side by side with them.

In the movie, two sisters are travelling across hostile territory to visit their father, an English colonel. They soon find themselves in deep trouble, but are helped by the Mohican Uncas and his father; the last remnants of a once mighty tribe, who have sided with the British.

Very much like modern historical movies, The Last of the Mohicans is not an accurate history lesson. It is highly romanticized and historical events are adapted to fit the story rather than the other way around.

By 1920, the art of film had not yet attained the heights that it was to reach within a few years, neither in terms of visual expression nor in the flow of the story. Even so, The Last of the Mohicans is majestic and beautiful almost beyond belief. Whether vistas of nature or battle scenes, everything is breathtaking. And there is no green-screen and no CGI. This is the real deal.

It is common when this film is mentioned to make note of the fact that Boris Karloff (later famous as Frankenstein’s monster) plays a minor role as an Indian. (There, now I went and did it too.) This is unfortunate, because there are so many other reasons why it deserves to be remembered.

This film is best enjoyed if you love historical costume movies.

Maurice Tourneur and Clarence Brown's The Last of the Mohicans (1920)

The Last of the Mohicans
Internet Archive page
Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 11 min
Directors: Maurice Tourneur, Clarence Brown
Stars: Wallace Beery, Barbara Bedford
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640 x 480)
Soundtrack: Random classical music
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (721 M)