ALL-TIME BOX OFFICE (by dollars)

The charts below show the top ten movies of  All-Time Box Office, as they would have been calculated at the end of each calendar year.

The dollar amounts are for domestic gross only. (U.S. and Canada) Many high-ranking films have been released multiple times over the past century, and the dollar amounts reflect that.

Dollar amounts for many earlier films are estimated due to missing or inexact data.

Follow this link to see the adjusted all-time box office record tables.

Ten different films have held the #1 spot:

The Birth of a Nation (1919-1939)
Gone with the Wind (1940-1955; 1967-1975)
The Ten Commandments (1956-1964)
The Sound of Music (1965-1966)
Jaws (1975-1977)
Star Wars (1978-1981; 1997)
E.T. (1982-1996)
Titanic (1998-2009)
Avatar (2010-2015)
The Force Awakens (2016-Present)

Each curated list at takes into account genre acclaim, prestige, popularity, and awards. They can serve as an introduction to a genre while also challenging film buffs who are looking to round out their knowledge.








INVESTIGATION: Just what *are* Arendelle’s major exports?

Like many parents of young children, I’ve spent a lot of this time of quarantine watching Disney +. A lot of time.

There are a lot of questions to puzzle over in the Frozen franchise. Was Anna included in Elsa’s seclusion or not? She sings as though she’s never been outside the castle, and yet she has a horse and seems to know her way around the kingdom. Why would she be included? And who enforced that rule after her parents’ deaths? For that matter, Elsa’s delayed coronation implies a period of regency, yet no one in Frozen or Frozen II appears to have played that role. There are no advisers or ministers to manage the kingdom while Elsa and Anna go off on their adventures — the royal siblings appoint outsiders Prince Hans of the Southern Isles and Grandpa Troll to watch over Arendelle.

But the biggest mystery in the world of Arendelle is the economy.

The Duke of Wesleton calls Arendelle his “most mysterious trade partner.” What is so mysterious? What goods does Wesleton trade with Arendelle? What are the “riches” Wesleton plans to exploit?

Arendelle is based on the nation of Norway in the early 19th Century. The Disney Wiki uses information from the short sequel Frozen Fever to narrow the setting down to an exact month:

The time period for Frozen is set in July 1839. In the upper left-hand corner of the geographical map shown in Frozen Fever, it is suggested by a set of Roman numerals that the year in which Anna turned nineteen was 1840. (MDCCCXL is the exact numeral order.)

Map from Frozen Fever
The Economic History Association article on the Economic History of Norway
 tells us more about this era:

During the last decades of the eighteenth century the Norwegian economy bloomed along with a first era of liberalism. Foreign trade of fish and timber had already been important for the Norwegian economy for centuries, and now the merchant fleet was growing rapidly. Bergen, located at the west coast, was the major city, with a Hanseatic office and one of the Nordic countries’ largest ports for domestic and foreign trade.

When Norway gained its independence from Denmark in 1814, after a tight union covering 417 years, it was a typical egalitarian country with a high degree of self-supply from agriculture, fisheries and hunting.

Norway’s economy didn’t really take off until 1842, just after the events of Frozen. This was due to trade liberalization and the decision by farmers to switch from arable land to livestock production. Exports of timber, fish, and ships also skyrocketed.

But real-world Norwegian economic history isn’t reflected in what we see in the film.

When Wesleton sees Prince Hans handing out blankets, he angrily confronts him saying:

“Are we just expected to sit here and freeze while you give away all of Arendelle’s tradeable goods?”

Blankets? Blankets are Arendelle’s main export?

No way.

An article at The Fandomentals concludes ice is Arendelle’s primary export:

From the get-go, ice is established as an important industry. And for good reason. As our main man Frederic Tudor showed us around the turn of the 19th century, ice can be quite a valuable commodity. Before the establishment of the ice trade, it was only an item for the aristocracy. But harvesting and storing it in a large quantity allows for the preservation of foods throughout the year without an over reliance on salt, which also in-turn reduces dependency on expensive spices that were used to balance a meal’s flavor-profile.

As strange as it seems, Frozen very much presents ice as the center of Arendelle’s economy.

This presents a disturbing possibility. King Agnarr sequesters his daughter Elsa and tells her not to use her powers. He says this is because he wants to protect his other daughter, Anna. This rationale never really makes sense to most viewers. And why erase Anna’s memory as well? That hardly seems necessary.

But these actions *do* make sense if King Agnarr is trying to protect his country’s economy.

Imagine you’re Prime Minister of Kuwait. Your economy is heavily dependent on exporting oil. Then one day, a girl is born who starts running around, creating oil out of thin air. And not just a little bit of oil — she can generate enough oil to fill a palace ballroom in less than a minute.

If you let her, she’ll give free oil to everyone. Prices will plummet. Your nation’s businesses will collapse, and unemployment will skyrocket. People like Kristoff will starve to death. Within months, your subjects will be brandishing pitchforks at the palace door.

So you lock her up.

One day, when she’s older and can understand, you’ll let her use her power. An inexhaustible supply of oil can bring your nation great riches, as long as it’s properly managed.

In the meantime, you’ll go on a secret voyage to learn more about exactly how the girl got her powers. Obviously, no one else can be trusted with this knowledge — you and your spouse will have to go yourselves.

Hopefully, the boat is waterproof.

Read more

Quick: Name America’s most popular silent film.

No, it’s not anything by Charlie Chaplin. Not Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd either. Film students might answer The Birth of a Nationbut if we judge by ticket sales, that’s wrong too.

Mickey, a film starring comedian Mabel Normand, was by far the most-seen and most popular movie in America for decades.

Mabel Normand, Comedienne

During the 1910s, Mabel Normand was a comedy queen. She combined solid acting chops with incredible comedic timing and instinct. Normand was one of the first people to take a pie in the face on film and helped transition comedies from one-reel shorts to longer-form stories.

She wasn’t just an actress either. She spent time behind the camera, directing Fatty Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin, sometimes in films she also starred in. Chaplin once said she was born “knowing more about comedy and comedy routine than any of the rest of us ever learn.”

Chaplin owed Normand his career. He was a natural clown but initially struggled through the dramatic parts of the films the studio put him in. Producer Mack Sennett was ready to fire him, but Normand convinced him to give The Tramp a second chance. Normand’s tutelage paid off, and Chaplin used the lessons she taught him through the rest of his career.


Mabel Normand used her skills in drama, comedy, and stunt work during the 1916 filming of the film Mickey.

The story is a bit complicated — Mickey lives with her step-father a gold mine before she is sent back east to be turned into a proper lady. Some fish-out-of-water comedy ensues, and Mickey soon has two suitors. The movie climaxes in an exciting, hilarious horse race with Mickey as a surprise jockey.

Mickey was not a success initially. Distributors didn’t know what to do with the action/comedy/romance/melodrama. It was essentially shelved for about a year.

Then, a miracle happened.

Mack Sennett was working in his Long Island office when a knock came at the door. The owner of a small movie theater had a problem. A logistical mix-up had left him without a film to show the next night. Unless he found another movie soon, his theater would sit empty.

Sennett suggested Mickey, and the theater owner agreed.

Audiences loved it. Sennett excitedly phoned Normand, informing her she had a hit on her hands.

But he had no idea just how big Mickey was about to become.


As word spread about the film, critics raved. “No photoplay yet produced is so filled with adventure, thrills and human emotions as Mickey,” said an article in The Tattler. A review in Moving Picture World went further. “Mickey is a digest of the science of producing motion pictures. It has everything imaginable that might be conceived by the most inventive producer, past or present.”

Audiences lined up to buy tickets in the middle of a flu epidemic that shut down most large public gatherings. (Normand herself caught the flu, but survived) “America was not flocking to see movies. They were flocking to see Mickey. Theater owners begged Triangle to send them prints of the film,” author Timothy Dean Lefler wrote.

Mickey helped Hollywood discover a new way to make money: merchandising.

Memorabilia included Mickey hats, dresses, lantern slides, and socks. A theme song was written and released. In the first four days, Americans bought 500,000 gramophone records.

The film’s popularity grew and grew. It was re-released in 1918, 1919, 1920, and 1921. According to The Tattler, “Next to our President there is no better known character in the country today than Mickey.”

The word “Mabelescence” gained circulation. A 1919 magazine explained the term meant “anything peculiarly like Mabel Normand, which means merry and madcappish and warm-hearted and tender.”

Box Office Records

Mickey grossed about $8 million at the box office, according to producer Mark Sennett. (He is sometimes quoted as saying $18 million, but that is almost certainly typo.)

When you take into account average ticket prices during the releases, Americans bought about 40.9 million tickets to Mickey between 1918 and 1921.

That’s more than twice as many admissions as the widely-remembered blockbuster The Birth of a Nation had sold up to that point. The only film that had sold near as many tickets was the 1914 Western The Spoilers, at an estimated 30.8 million.

Mickey held the record for the best-selling movie from 1919 to 1938, when it was passed by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As of December 2019, Mickey is #172 on the all-time chart. That’s a fantastic feat when you realize there are three times as many people alive today as there were when Mickey was in theaters.

The Star Forgotten

Mabel Normand’s career was at its highest in 1918. It plummeted quickly.

Normand ended a romantic relationship with Sennett and left his production company this same year. She fell ill with the flu and struggled to match her previous output.

Her longtime friend and collaborator, Fatty Arbuckle, was accused of murdering actress Virginia Rappe in 1921. The next year, Normand was interrogated in the murder of her friend, director William Desmond Taylor. Then in 1924, Normand’s chauffeur used her pistol to shoot and injure a millionaire oil broker.

Normand was not implicated in any of these incidents, but her association with the scandals changed her public image when she could least afford it.

In 1926 she married Lew Cody, who had played the villain opposite her in Mickey. She developed tuberculosis, was sent to a sanatorium, and died in 1930 at the age of 37.

In 1919, an article in The Tattler proclaimed, “Next to our President there is no better known character in the country today than Mickey.”

A century later, Mickey is entirely unknown to the general public. The film doesn’t show up in the Top 200 Favorite Silent Films on Flickchart or the Top 200 Most Popular Films of the 1910s on Letterboxd

Mabel Normand is not the only early female filmmaker to be neglected by 20th Century historians. Her masterpiece deserves more attention from movie buffs and scholars than they have given it so far.

“Box Office Mojo by IMDbPro FAQ.” IMDb. Accessed December 11, 2019.

Coons, Robbin. “Hollywood Chatter.” Daytona Beach Morning Journal, June 30, 1939.,5479066.

King, Rob. The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

“‘Mickey’ Breaks Record.” Dramatic Mirror, June 24, 1919. 10/New York NY Dramatic Mirror/New York NY Dramatic Mirror 1919 Mar-Mar 1920 Grayscale/New York NY Dramatic Mirror 1919 Mar-Mar 1920 Grayscale – 0686.pdf.

Motography, Volume 19, Issues 1-26. New York, NY: New York Public Library, 2015.

Sennett, Mack, and Cameron Shipp. King of Comedy. iUniverse, 2000.

Sherman, William Thomas. Mabel Normand: A Source Book to Her Life and Films. Seattle, WA: William Thomas Sherman, 2000.

Walker, Brent E. Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory: A History and Filmography of His Studio and His Keystone and Mack Sennett Comedies, with Biographies of Players and Personnel. MCFARLAND, 2013.

Weissberg, Jay. “Explaining Mabelescence: The 3rd Amsterdam Filmmuseum Biennale.” Senses of Cinema, June 1, 2010.

New York City’s Liberty Theater in 1935

D. W. Griffith’s evil, racist film The Birth of a Nation is widely regarded as the most popular silent movie ever made. I believe this reputation is based on a misinterpretation of its box office records.

The Birth of a Nation indeed made an awful lot of money. It had an estimated $18 million gross by the end of 1921, and until Gone with the Wind, it held the record for the highest-grossing film of all time.

from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 19 Dec 1915.
from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 19 Dec 1915.

But it made its extraordinary gross mostly because of its unique release strategy and extraordinarily high ticket prices — not because it was extraordinarily popular.

Most movies of the 1910s were distributed the way they are now. A studio would rent prints to theaters across the country, and those theaters would split the box office revenue with the studio.

In 1915, there were more than 10,000 theaters across the country, and the average ticket price for a movie was between 10¢ and 15¢.

But Birth of a Nation charged $2 for most seats, sixteen times what movie-goers were used to paying. That’s the equivalent of a theater charging $148 a ticket today.

How did it get away with this?

The Birth of a Nation wasn’t the first film to charge such high prices. Tickets for the 1914 Italian epic Cabiria ranged from 25¢ to $2. So it followed that film’s successful pattern.

From an ad in The Oshkosh Northwestern, 18 Dec 1915.
From an ad in The Oshkosh Northwestern, 18 Dec 1915.

The producers told the public this was no ordinary movie. This movie was a spectacle — a film that could only be appreciated in a particular type of quality theater — at quality prices.

New York City’s Liberty Theater in 1935
New York City’s Liberty Theater in 1935

The studio built up a tremendous amount of advance buzz, with screenings in Los Angeles and at the White House for President Woodrow Wilson. Then for its first few years of release, Birth of a Nation was shown only in upscale locations like New York’s Liberty Theater and similar places in San Francisco and Los Angeles. By January 1916, it had been distributed to only twelve locations but had sold more than $2 million in tickets.

The producers eventually did lower their standards for qualifying theaters (unofficially, of course!), and the film gained wider distribution in larger and mid-size cities across the country. Ticket prices weren’t always $2, but they were still much higher than tickets for the other movies playing in town.

So The Birth of a Nation made more money than most silent films by selling fewer actual tickets.

Ad from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 27 June 1915.
Ad from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 27 June 1915.

It’s impossible to know precisely how many tickets The Birth of a Nation sold. Many reports have grossly exaggerated its popularity — but we do have some contemporary estimates.

In August 1915, the New York Press estimated 400,000 people had seen the film. By February 1916, people had purchased an estimated 5 million tickets. By June 1917, the number was up to 10 million.

Ticket sales began to slow at this point, but they continued to trickle in. All tickets from 1915 to 1927 were between 25¢ and $2, with most on the higher end. If we estimate an average of $1 a ticket, we find the film sold 18 million tickets by the end of the silent era.

The 1914 Western The Spoilers sold an estimated 17.5 million tickets in its first year; a re-release sold about 13.3 million more.

1919’s Madame DuBarry (27.4 million), Daddy-Long-Legs (25.8 million), and The Miracle Man (18.9 million) 1920’s Way Down East (22.5 million) 1921’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (23.8 million) and The Kid (19 million) all outsold The Birth of a Nation by the time its steam petered out in 1921.

None of those movies were as big of hits as the 1918 comedy Mickey. That film sold at least 40.9 million tickets in 1918 and 1919.

When counted by the number of tickets sold, The Birth of a Nation is #12 on the list of most popular films from the silent era.

Popular? Very. But it’s not the unparalleled hit many historians make it out to be.

Block, Alex Ben., and Lucy Autrey Wilson. George Lucas Blockbusting: a Decade-by-Decade Survey of Timeless Movies, Including Untold Secrets of Their Financial and Cultural Success. New York: ItBooks, 2010.

“Box Office Mojo by IMDbPro FAQ.” IMDb. Accessed December 11, 2019.

Stokes, Melvyn. D.W. Griffiths The Birth of a Nation: a History of the Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Also Read: The Movie We Don’t Want to Talk About

Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr.

Buster Keaton v a hurricane in Steamboat Bill Jr.The star of a film comedian waxes and wanes more rapidly than that of any other. Actors who seem like comic genius can – in the space of only 5-10 years – deplete their reserves of gags and jokes. Novelty matters in comedy, and when we grow too used to a style, it becomes not only unfunny, but downright annoying. (See Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Jim Carrey, et. al.) Comedy is also the hardest genre to universalize. It doesn’t sell overseas. I have trouble understanding the humor in most imports. Comedies make up 17% of the movies on the critical aggregate They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They top 1,000 list. But when we isolate the list to only silent films, the number rises to 25%. More than half of those silent comedies were made by Buster Keaton. There’s something about his visual style transcends the limits of culture and context, enabling him to remain hilarious nearly a century later

Keaton was born into a vaudeville family, and performed as an infant. He left a stage audition to try out for a role in a film. He made several shorts with Fatty Arbuckle, and then struck out on his own. He was given control of his own production company, and immediately used it to establish his character. Film historian Walter Kerr wrote:

“As a star in his own right, Buster Keaton comes all at once and all of a piece. From the moment he began making short comedies independently in 1920, the whole repertoire – rich, bizarre, unindebted to others, and inimitable in itself – is there.”

Bustin Keaton in One Week

One Week, Keaton’s first-released film, also brings us his first iconic moment – shown in the GIF above. The plot also sets up the Keaton theme of a man vainly trying to accomplish a goal, failing so miserably that his entire world literally collapses around him. He cannot build an instant house in 1920’s One Week, and he cannot launch a boat in 1921’s The Boat. He fails as a stagehand in the surreal 1921 film The Playhouse, in which reality and identity itself seem to fall apart.

Buster Keaton in Cops

In 1922’s Cops, Keaton’s attempt to find success in business gets him arrested as a terrorist. Cops is also one of the best examples of Keaton’s trademark chase sequences later appropriated by Bugs Bunny.

Buster Keaton in Our Hospitality

Keaton’s first feature film as director was really three short films. Three Ages, released in 1923, was made as a parody of D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic Intolerance. It follows three boy-chases-girl stories, set in prehistoric, Roman and modern times. It’s funny enough, but lacks the true Keaton genius that goes on display in Our Hospitality, released that fall, or in The Navigator, and Sherlock Jr. in 1924.

In these films, Keaton first displays the formula he’d employ in most of his feature-length projects. He spends the first half of the film creating a believable (if slightly silly) world. Then, he runs rampant around the screen. His concrete world gives as absurd context to his actions that would otherwise seem simply anarchic, like the Marx Brothers.

Buster Keaton in Seven Chances

This is featured prominently in one of my personal favorites, Seven Chances. Keaton receives notice that he can inherit a large fortune if he marries before 7 p.m. on his 27th birthday — the same day he receives the notice. The first half-hour of the film explores various gags that have since become romantic comedy tropes. It’s very funny, and Keaton’s perfect comic timing is on full display.

Buster Keaton in Seven Chances

But the film shifts gear into something more primitive; more dreamlike, in the Jungian sense. A chain of comic circumstances lands Keaton in a church, where he wakes to find hundreds of prospective brides sitting behind him in their wedding gowns. When they realize he does not wish to marry of them, they chase him out of the church, through the streets, and down a mountain with tumbling boulders. Keaton doesn’t flail or biff. He is in complete control of his movements, and elevates stunt work into a dance that no one had done before and no one will do again. We forget the plot, the characters and all else. We’re transported into a world of pure movement, and pure symbol.

Buster Keaton in The General

Keaton’s next film is widely regarded as his greatest masterpiece. One of the secrets behind his humor was to increase the scale. If Keaton’s stone face and matter-of-fact behavior was funny when confronted with small problems (a furniture mishap, or no where to hang a hat), it became hilarious when contrasted against epic problems (a bomb on his lap, or a Civil War battle).

The General

In The General, Keaton increases the scale as much as he could. Keaton had spent most of his films running. Now, he was running on a train. And riding on the front of it. While being shot at. He went faster and larger and more dangerous than ever. Thanks to computers, we are certain to never see the likes of The General again. Even pre-cgi special effects couldn’t match Keaton. Yes, David Lean blew a train off a bridge, and did a good job doing so. But I’ll take Keaton’s shot better. It’s clearer, run at a normal speed, and doesn’t unnecessarily cut for reaction. Although The General‘s Confederate-sympathizing plot is dated (as is Lean’s imperialism, of course),  its reliance on pure, universal attractions will keep it playing.

Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr.

After this, Keaton kept trying to up the ante. He’d taken on war; now he was ready to fight nature. 1928’s Steamboat Bill, Jr.‘s second act puts Keaton right in the middle of a hurricane. He maintains his trademark stoicism as the wind destroys a city around him. Steamboat Bill, Jr. features Keaton’s most famous stunt — a larger-scale version of the one seen in One Week. A house collapses on top of him, Keaton narrowly escapes, but doesn’t react.

Later that year, Keaton put himself in the middle of another battle; this one between two Chinatown gangs. In The Cameramanshots ring out and villains crawl over each other to murder him, but Keaton keeps his classic cool.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. was Keaton’s last film with United Artists. Its poor box office performance sent him to MGM for The Cameraman. Keaton made one more film on his terms – Spite Marriage – but the studio never even gave him a real chance in the sound area. It took away creative control, and Keaton never made a great film again.

But what a run it was. From 1920 to 1928, Keaton produced about one all-time classic a year. He continually found new variations on a consistent theme that put his uninimitable form of physical comedy on display. No director or actor has created more masterpieces in such a short period of time.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, and the 100th anniversary of the birth of Hollywood. That’s no coincidence. The first true blockbuster – the movie that helped create the modern industry – was director D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. If it had been any other film, the movie industry would be celebrating 2015 as a Jubilee Year, complete with historical programs and special Blu-Ray box sets. But instead, the anniversary has been met mostly with silence.

A few critics wrote about the film’s dark legacy when the anniversary of its release passed in February. I thought about writing something, but decided against it. I wanted to ignore it, and pretend it didn’t happen.

“You rape our women.” – Dylann Roof, terrorist

But the attack on the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina last week made me re-think that decision. The killer in Charleston- like thousands of white supremacist terrorists before him – made use of propaganda and symbols popularized by Birth of a Nation. How can I help fight these ideas if I don’t talk about them?

Based on the novel The Clansman, Birth of a Nation features reenactments of the Civil War that paint the Confederacy in the best possible light. After the war, it portrays Reconstruction as tyranny, and climaxes with the Ku Klux Klan riding in to save the city from black men (played by white actors in blackface) who are trying to rape white women.

The movie was a huge hit. An enormous hit. It may have sold as much as $60 million in tickets in its first run — that’s in 1915 dollars. The Ku Klux Klan had been disbanded in 1872. But in 1915, the filmmakers organized Klan marches and balls organized around the film. But what began as a movie promotion turned real that fall, when the Klan was reorganized in Georgia. The original Klan didn’t have standard uniforms and didn’t burn crosses. The new Klan took these elements from Birth of a Nation and made them the standard symbols of terror that are now known across the world.

We screened Birth of a Nation in the first film class I took, as a freshman. Our instructor warned us about the racism we would see, but told us to look past it and focus on the filmmaking techniques Griffith used. As a senior, I took an African Americans in Film class. This instructor refused to screen it, and said the movie’s importance had been exaggerated by white critics.

Maybe so. But Birth of a Nation’s place in film history goes far beyond its success at the box office. It was the first masterpiece; it codified the grammar that will be used forever; it created an entire art form. Roger Ebert best sums up the way it is generally regarded:

“The Birth of a Nation” is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s “The Triumph of the Will,” it is a great film that argues for evil.”

Ignoring the film is impossible. So, what do we do with this history of evil?

In the 1980’s and 1990’s French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard made a series of television programs called Histoire(s) du Cinéma. It splices together scenes and frames from decades of films, overlaid with a track of Godard musing on various themes or (because Godard is quintessentially French) occasionally the voice of a skinny girl reading poetry in a garden.

Although in many ways, the project is a celebration of cinema, Godard bluntly implicates the art form as complicit in the worst horrors of the past century. Would the Nazis have been as effective without their mastery of film? “Murnau and Freund invented the lighting of Nuremberg when Hitler didn’t even have been money in the Munich bars,” Godard says.

Evil is part of cinema, in the present, past and future. We can’t ignore it, and it’s impossible to simply extract and throw away.

I’m caught up in this film. The movie is racist. Does this mean I’m racist?

Griffith’s mastery of his art is so complete that it is impossible not to be engrossed in his storytelling. How can you not sympathize with the poor, downtrodden Camerons? This creates in uncomfortable feelings and questions for most white viewers.

Henry Walthall and Lillian Gish in "The Birth of a Nation"A shortcut out of the unease is to minimize the evil. Birth of a Nation star Lillian Gish defended Griffith against charges of racism, saying “But Mr. Griffith loved the Negro,” and similar nonsense. Silent film popularizer Joe Franklin put the blame on people who somehow found the pro-Klan movie racist:

“Griffith certainly did not set out to make a biased film, and indeed most of the incessant storm that has continued ever since has been whipped up and sustained not by Negro interests but by political interests–ironically, the same sort of circumstance which caused the unrest in the South in the first place!””

This sort of thinking isn’t unique to Birth of a Nation. Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl has spent decades trying to rehabilitate her image, even making the absurd claims that Triumph of the Will and Olympia were not fascist propaganda at all, but relatively straightforward documentaries.

This is why we need to teach film in public schools.

More now than at any time since the invention of the printing press, the West is an audio-visual culture. Teenagers coming out of high school are voting and buying guns for the first time. They need to understand that just because a film (or a YouTube video) makes something feel right doesn’t mean it is right. If they’re never told the story of Birth of a Nation, they won’t get that lesson.

If Godard wished to continue exploring cinema’s sins, he would have ISIS’s Hollywood production techniques to use as examples. Some critics have compared their propaganda videos to 1990’s action films; I watched the disturbing video of James Foley’s execution as part of my job, and the cut and horrifying tracking shot reminded me of Hitchcock.

ISIS is using filmic techniques to recruit young people to terrorism in exactly the same way the KKK does. A basic understanding of these techniques can help arm our young people against the power of propaganda. They need to see and hear the ways in which great art can serve great evil.

Faust (1926) dir. F.W. Murnau

Faust (1926) dir. F.W. Murnau
""Faust," with its supernatural vistas of heaven and hell, is particularly distinctive in the way it uses the whole canvas. Consider the startling early shot of Mephisto, his dark wings obscuring the sky as he hovers above a little village that huddles in the lower right corner." - Roger Ebert
Faust (1926) dir. F.W. Murnau
"Rembrandt's etchings are brilliant studies of chiaroscuro, the dramatic interplay of light and darkness in a work of art. An etching is a symbolically-rich form for depicting Faust, the classic, oft-told story of the battle between good and evil for one man's soul." - Darren Hughes
Faust (1926) - dir. F.W. Murnau
".. the film is dominated by [Emil] Jannings's charismatic Mephisto, made up like a character in the kabuki theatre." - Philip French
Faust (1926) - dir. F.W. Murnau
"Decades before the advent of digital effects, Murnau was pushing boundaries in terms of visual innovation that still impress and dazzle today. While they may no longer seem photo-realistic, his use of super-imposition, model work, camera movement and other visual storytelling techniques single out Faust as one of the great technical masterpieces of the silent era." - James Marsh
Faust (1926) - dir. F.W. Murnau
"The cosmos aligned itself through emotion for Murnau—it's not a substitute for literature, it's pure cinema." - Fernando F. Croce

The apex of René Clair’s career was during the transition from silent film to sound. Other great directors successfully made the move during the late 20’s and early 30’s, but Hitchcock still had yet to perfect his craft, while Chaplin simply put it off as long as he could. Clair managed to keep a consistent quality and style at the same time he added audio.

While Entr’acte runs as an abstract, Monty Python-esque work of Dada, An Italian Straw Hat is a delightful farce and Freedom for Us is a political satire, Clair’s emphasis on movement across the screen and a rapid pace tie them all together.

Under the Roofs of Paris was France’s first blockbuster talkie. Clair had spent years warning against the potential problems of adding sound to film, but now if he was going to do it, he was going to do it right. The musical numbers flow into the plot organically; there are no awkward stops and starts between dialogue and singing the way there are in most musicals, from The Jazz Singer on forward.

Released just three years apart from each other, Le Million and An Italian Straw Hat provides the best direct comparison between pre- and post-sound Clair. They both feature MacGuffins (a straw hat and a lottery ticket) that kick off a rapid-pace search through the city, with a large cast of comic characters. In Straw Hat, Clair dispenses with the ubiquitous title cards that plagued other films of the time, and focused the humor on visual action. Likewise in Le Million, there isn’t much gratuitous dialogue. When people do talk, it’s usually to say something funny. But when it does fall silent, the silence doesn’t seem out-of-place or shoehorned in; the silence is as natural as the sound is.

The Last Laugh (1924) – dir. F. W. Murnau

The Last Laugh - Der letzte mann - Emil JenningsThe Last Laugh is a true silent film.  It has only one title card, and it is put in as a joke.  Emil Jannings (who later won the very first Oscar, became a Nazi and was burned alive in Inglourious Basterds) does an excellent acting job, but F. W. Murnau’s camerawork is the star.

The technique was called Entfesselte Kamera (Unchained camera technique).  Unlike the heavy, static cameras of the sound age, Muranu’s camera moves, tracks, pans, tilts, zooms and even literally floats.

Or, rather, Karl Freund’s camera.  The famed German cinematographer later worked on Metropolis with Fritz Lang and essentially co-directed Dracula with Tod Browning.

The Last Laugh - Der letzte mann - Emil JenningsThe Last Laugh tells us of a doorman at a posh Berlin hotel.  He parades around in front in his military-style uniform, as though he were one of the dignitaries inside.  He certainly seems to be the toast of his working-class friends.  But he is demoted for being “old and weak” and is given a job as a bathroom attendant.  He steals back his own uniform so his neighbors can remain impressed, but the ruse only works for one night.  He collapses in the bathroom corner, exhausted and disgraced.

Finally, the first title:

a sad ending, but not exactly unexpected.  However, a twist:

The next scene shows a newspaper article, detailing how our protagonist accidentally inherited a fortune.  He is now waited on at that same hotel, and treats all the employees with generosity and kindness.

The happy Hollywood ending is as out of place with the rest of the film as the sarcastic titles are.

Who knew Murnau had a sense of humor?

Two of King Vidor’s late silent films are early landmarks in genre. 1925’s The Big Parade, much moreso than Griffith’s Birth of a Nation laid down the template for war films, World War films in particular. 1928’s The Crowd gives us the biopic of the ordinary man.

The Big Parade follows the story of an American boy who enlists to serve his country in World War I. He is sent off with patriotic cheers and applause, but soon finds out that war is more digging and walking than shooting and being heroic. Starvation makes fast friends, even among the gruff, tough army stock characters.

(I notice that an enormous number of American war films are about American soldiers who seduce French girls while all the Frenchmen are off fighting the Germans. Perhaps this is a source of the French stereotypical antipathy toward Americans?)

But, after his foreign affair is solidified, our hero is called to the front. There, the horrors of war are seen and cannot be unseen. The supporting cast is blown to bits, and the special effects department has its shining hour.

Will our hero recover from this trauma? Will moviegoers forget the sacrifices of our troops?

The CrowdThe Crowd follows John Sims from birth through adulthood. He has high hopes, but his American Dream is constantly just out of reach. Deep ironies and tragedies are punctuated by lucky breaks (not hard work, of course) that break up the deep descent into disappointment and depression. Of course, since the film is for wide release, a hopeful tone is awkwardly tacked onto a bleak story.

Both films were able to make their mark not only through easily adaptable stories, but through Vidor’s creative camerawork. The pan up and into the building and over the leviathan of desks is just one of many memorable shots Vidor used to isolate Sims. Despite our intimate look at his life, we aren’t allowed to forget that he is, ultimately, just another ant.

The No Man’s Land hellscape of The Big Parade is as powerful as it is familiar; most obviously in 1930s Best Picture, All Quiet on the Western Front.