This 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.
1920 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.
The 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.
Zorro 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!
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (monstersfilmandlit.wordpress.com)
- Photographic documentation for CALIGARI restoration partially online (diastor.ch)
- The Cabinet of Dr: Calbari (naviernaj1920sfilms.wordpress.com)
- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (lpowell5engl2230.wordpress.com)
- New Caligari Frames Discovered (diastor.ch)