1920 – A Cinematic Year Of Darkness And Light

classic-movie-history-project-mary-pickford-bannerThis is my contribution to the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon. The CMHP Blogathon will be running over the next three days, and the idea behind it is that each participant will take a year in classic movie history and post something in relation to that year. The blogathon is being co-hosted by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings, and Once Upon a Screen. For more information on the blogathon, links to all of the articles, and lots of great reading be sure to click on the links above (or the image on the right) and check out all of the great posts.

The year 1920 was definitely a significant one, not only for Hollywood, but for the entire world of film. It was the year that many people who would go on to become highly influential and significant throughout the world of cinema both in front of and behind the camera were born. People such as Federico Fellini, Eric Rohmer, Toshiro Mifune, Mickey Rooney, Montgomery Clift, Gene Tierney, and Viveca Lindfors. It was the year in which “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford was accused of and prosecuted for bigamy because of her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks, It was the year Charlie Chaplin got divorced from his wife and gained full possession of the rights to his great film The Kid. It was the year D.W. Griffith lost Lillian Gish as a contract player. It was the year of director Maurice Tourneur’s return to America.

And it was the year of the release of three very special silent films.

caligari1920 was a year when Expressionism was taking hold in Germany, and nowhere is this more evident that in Robert Wiene’s film Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, or, to use its English title, The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari.

Caligari is a very strange tale, told in a very strange way. If you’re not familiar with the German Expressionist style, it can, at first, be very off-putting, as it has a strong emphasis on shadows, light, and odd angles. It is a style, however, that is very appropriate to the often nightmare-like tone that Wiene was trying to achieve here, and if given a chance is not only evocative and appropriate, but really makes the film a standout amongst its contemporaries.

Also, in an odd development, (Slight Spoiler Alert) because of reported studio interference and insistence, it may very well be the first film with a twist ending about which I will say nothing more except that it is one whose echoes can be felt in much more modern and well-known films such as Psycho and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

At the same time that Caligari was scaring European audiences, a very different horror film was making waves in the U.S., as John Barrymore was bringing to life Robert Louis Stevenson’s two most famous characters, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There have, of course, been many other film and television adaptations of this story, but Barrymore’s portrayal is truly one of the most iconic.

jekyllThe story of the good-natured doctor and his villainous alter-ego is well known, so I won’t go into it in much detail here, but I will say that the transformation scenes, especially considering the fact that so many of these effects were still being worked out are incredibly powerful. Not only do they take advantage of specialized makeup and prosthetics, along with the sort of superimposition and cutaways that would later transform Lon Chaney Jr. into the Wolf-man, there is also simply the superb acting of Barrymore himself who not only begins the changes with spectacular body and facial contortions, but also allows the character of Hyde, once the transformation is complete, to completely overcome him and turn his Hyde into a truly unique, menacing, and, yes, evil creature.

Also, as in Caligari, we see in Jekyll and Hyde a very effective use of light and shadow, of darkness hiding and yet at the same time illuminating the difference between the two aspects of the central character. And again, this is something that I think is lost in a lot of ways once films converted not only to sound, but to color, because there was a special language that these films had worked out (or were still, at this point, working out) that once again added to the air of menace and even to the inevitability of the film’s denoument, and this is something that later film makers will definitely take advantage of once we get to the era of films noir.

Of course, not everything was dark and scary in 1920, and that is reflected in the third film I’ve chosen to focus on from this year, the Douglas Fairbanks adventure film The Mark of Zorro.

mark_of_zorroZorro is much more in the vein of a light-hearted romp of the type Fairbanks would become known for throughout his career, and which would eventually reach it’s peak, at least as far as classic films go in my opinion, with the 1938 Technicolor showcase The Adventures of Robin Hood.

One of the things which makes Zorro interesting, however in relation to both Caligari and Jekyll and Hyde, is that it is also a story which features darkness and light good and evil, and most especially masks and the question of identity. But it does it in its own swashbuckling fun style that really makes it a fun view, and in a way that has its echoes all the way down to contemporary favorites such as The Princess Bride.

As you can see, Ive embedded full-length versions of all three of these films above. I’ll also note that thanks to the fact that all three are in the public domain, they are all available on DVD from various distributors and in varying quality, so if you do want to purchase them for your collection, be aware of what you are buying. Definitely of note, however is news that coincidentally was released this week that Kino Classics will be releasing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a newly restored Blu-ray edition that looks like it will be a beauty.

Finally for today, I thought I would leave you with a few posters showcasing other films that came out in 1920. I hope you’ve enjoyed this look back at a very special year in cinema history as much as I’ve enjoyed revisiting these films and writing about them.

Until next time, as always, Happy Viewing!

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15 comments on “1920 – A Cinematic Year Of Darkness And Light

  1. […] 1920 – A Cinematic Year Of Darkness And Light. […]

  2. The movie posters are stunning! So glad you included Tom Mix in that gallery.

    I had no idea that such influential films were made in 1920. “The Cabinet of Dr. Caliari” is one I’ve long wanted to see and I was thrilled to see that you’ve embedded the movie in your post. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for the fabulous breakdown and great choices to focus on! Caligari, Zorro and Jekyll & Hyde certainly were light and darkness and they were also gateways to new kinds of cinema and career turning points for their stars.

    Couldn’t agree more about black and white vs color. I miss my shadows, dern it!

    • Michael Laws says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post! I was actually really surprised and pleased when I realised that all three of these movies were ones I was going to get to revisit and write about. And yeah, one of the things that I wanted to do was to show that these films were “gateways” and to relate them to movies that some of my readers might be more familiar with. That seems to me one of the best things about this whole blogathon idea. It’s great to look back, but it also helps to put into context where ideas and themes in movies today actually came from.

  4. Embedding the films is a real treat, right up there with your take on the three influential films.

    • Michael Laws says:

      Thanks, Patricia, and thanks for taking the time to comment! As far as embedding the movies, yeah, I was really pleased that I was able to find versions that I could include in the post. That’s one of the reasons that I tend to be such a vocal advocate for a strong public domain: because it does allow us access to these parts of our film and cultural heritage. And it’s one of the great advantages to living today as opposed to times pas, when we wouldn’t have had such simple means to not only talk about these movies, but to share them with each other.

  5. Joe Thompson says:

    You made an excellent selection of films to talk about and posters for us to marvel over.

  6. Great posters and post – Doug will always be my Robin Hood #1 (sorry Errol!).

  7. Catherine says:

    Ooh! The silent version of The Mark of Zorro. What a treat! I’m looking forward to viewing it for the first time – thx for embedding. 😎

    Btw, you make a really astute point about the significance/usefulness of black and white cinematography in relation to both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. πŸ™‚

    Also, nice selection of posters! Love the Caligari and Zorro artwork… simply scrumptious.

    Great post! πŸ™‚

    • Michael Laws says:

      Catherine – Thanks, I’m really glad that you enjoyed the post, and hope you enjoy watching Zorro. It really is, in my opinion, a fun flick. And yeah, one of the things that I love about going back to this time period is taking the time to look at some of the great promotional artwork that was done for some of these films. As a matter of fact, one of the harder parts of putting this together was choosing just which poster to use to represent “the big three”.

  8. girlsdofilm says:

    Thanks for sharing such a wonderful post! I just wasted quite a portion of my morning watching those clips! I recently re-watched the 1938 Robin Hood and I agree that Zorro is in a very similar vein.
    Also: why don’t they make movie posters like that any more? “The Round Up” had me giggling for longer than was probably necessary!

  9. Le says:

    Great article! Thanks for embedding the full movies, I really appreciated it!
    And very nice that you included a poster of The Penalty. It’s a marvelous film.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! πŸ™‚
    Greetings!

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