In 1928, the movie industry was as obsessed with recognizing its own accomplishments as it is today. And let’s face it: we are too. Reflecting on the year’s best every year, or the summer’s best every summer, or the decade’s best every decade, is a way of championing the movies that have made us think and feel and love. Movies stir within us strong emotions, some more than others, and recognizing accomplishments in the art and craft of filmmaking is a way of expressing those reactions. And we’re organizational beings by nature. We classify and sort and arrange and label, because that’s how we make sense of the world. If we do that, not only does it help us identify how we feel about things and make sense of the world, but it’s a way of communicating with others, too. Hey, if you loved the sixth best tearjerker of the year, you’ll really love these other five!
Of course, evaluating art and craft is a subjective process with few rules. We all seem to arrive in the same ballpark, strangely enough. For all the arguing we engage in about whether some particular title is great or terrible, generally speaking we form a reasonable consensus. Most of us who have an opinion at all recognize that Citizen Kane is a greater artistic accomplishment than Cat Women of the Moon, even those of us who would rather watch the latter.
But that rough consistency of opinion is exactly what makes tracking it so interesting. Big changes probably mean something. Mrs. Miniver gets a lot of flak today, but it was exceptionally well respected in its day and even won the Best Picture Oscar of 1942. I still think it’s a great film, but if you look at it, the perspective it espouses and the storytelling techniques it uses, then consider the contrast between how our culture views wartime today compared to the World War II era, suddenly the shift of critical evaluation over time suggests a reason that can be further explored.
I’ve seen far too few films from the silent era, as much as I love medium and especially things like comedy and expressionism that it was particularly good at. So this post is a starting point, not an end point, for understanding why tastes toward 1928 titles have changed. This first scan lists The Patriot as the #1 critically acclaimed film of 1928. Way down in 7th place is Sunrise, only one of three titles from 1927-1928 that ever appeared on the Sight & Sound Top Ten poll, conducted every ten years since 1952 and almost certainly the most respected best film lists ever. The other two, The General and The Passion of Joan of Arc do not appear, although to be fair, they were probably considered by The Film Daily for 1927 and 1929 respectively.
Comparisons to today’s IMDb ratings is also a sketchy proposition because several of these titles are lost, including The Patriot. But here is what the IMDb ratings think are the best films of 1928:
- The Last Command
- The Wedding March
- The Wind
- West Point
- Show People
- The Cameraman
- The Crowd
- The Patsy
- The Circus
- Lilac Time
- The Passion of Joan of Arc
Note some of these highly ranked titles — The Wedding March and The Cameraman, for example — appear way down on the Roll of Honor on the Film Daily’s list. Of course, even two different contemporary lists are going to have some big differences, but most of the differences here fall in synch with the respect that specific directors and stars have had at different times. Erich von Stroheim and Buster Keaton, of The Wedding March and The Cameraman respectively, were admired in their day, but arguably more so today. On the other hand, Frank Borzage (Street Angel) was a top director in 1928 and not particularly studied today. There’s a third case, too. John Ford is still considered one of the greatest directors of all time, but nobody remembers Four Sons, which ranks #4 on The Film Daily’s list, overshadowed as it is by such later work as The Searchers and The Quiet Man.
This chart of the best directors of 1927-28 is littered with forgotten names. Nobody remembers Herbert Brenon, even those who know his great 1926 adaptation of Beau Geste. Nobody knows James Cruze or Fred Niblo. Most of the others are still giants, but surprisingly few are known for their films from the late 1920s. In the Honorable Mentions list, though, I’m lucky to know one name in ten.
It’s interesting to see the evolving terminology of the business. “Players” would be replaced by “Actors” or “Stars” today. And who compiles a list of the best stars by month? And what list of the year’s best actors would essentially outright require performances in at least three different movies? Today, if an actor is in three different movies during a single calendar year, he’s overexposed.
Anyhow, there’s John Gilbert again. Pretty much every time we’ve ever mentioned how the sound era killed the careers of a lot of silent movie stars, either on the podcast or here on the web site, John Gilbert comes up as the prime example. It’s obvious from reading the literature of the silent era how highly he was thought of as a star. But his fame is all but gone today.
By way of contrast, here’s the same list for the year before.