Eight Forgotten Hit Films of the Silent Era
Much like today, silent era audiences flocked to big-budget spectacles, witty comedies and other crowd pleasers (well, maybe “witty comedies” are a rarity nowadays). If you found a list of the top box office attractions in the 1910s and 1920s, a lot of titles would be pretty familiar: Ben-Hur, Intolerance, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Robin Hood. The biggest hit of the entire era, The Big Parade, might ring a bell too.
But there are other titles in those “top grossing” lists that have fallen into obscurity. Some of them might surprise you — whoever said that subtly-acted, bittersweet dramas can’t attract masses of viewers? Here’s a look at eight of those forgotten “moneymakers”!
(Note: Selections were made from lists of top grossing films from each year, and rely on figures from the U.S.)
8. Something to Think About (1920)
One of Cecil B. DeMille’s dramas starring Gloria Swanson and Elliott Dexter, it was considered a romantic, “wholesome” story and had wide appeal. Swanson plays Ruth, the daughter of a blacksmith, and Dexter portrays David Markley, a wealthy young man who is a cripple. David cares for Ruth and decides to become her benefactor so she can get a good education. When she returns from school, she defies her father’s wish for her to marry David and picks a different swain instead. Little does she know, though, that tragedy’s on the horizon. The film grossed about $9,150,000, almost double the amount of Way Down East, another big 1920 hit that’s well-remembered today.
7. Secrets (1924)
Norma Talmadge is a little-discussed actress nowadays, but back in the 1920s, she was one of the biggest names in the movies. Secrets was one of her many hits and gave her an opportunity to show her acting range. It begins by showing her character as an elderly woman, looking back on her tough, action-packed life on the frontier with her husband. The twists and turns of her oft-tragic story were acted with Norma’s classic naturalness.
6. His People (1925)
One of Universal’s hits of the mid-1920s, His People revolves around a Jewish family from Russia trying to make ends meet in New York’s Lower East Side. The oldest son is drawn to scholarly pursuits, while the younger son becomes a boxer, and — gasp! — falls in love with an Irish girl. The clash of cultures is portrayed with surprising sensitivity, and the energy of the bustling tenement neighborhoods is artfully captured.
5. Aloma of the South Seas (1926)
One of your “exotic island paradise” flicks, Aloma of the South Seas revolves around a dancer falling in love with an American man. It became the highest-grossing picture of 1926 and apparently ranks in the top ten list of 1920s box office hits. Its star, Gilda Gray, was famous for popularizing the “shimmy” dance. While Aloma is lost today, we can get a sense of what it was like by watching the 1941 Dorothy Lamour version (warning: it’s pretty silly).
4. Over the Hill to the Poorhouse (1920)
People adored this bittersweet film, about the hardships of a mother of six children whose husband is a neer-do-well. Although she sacrifices everything, all her children eventually drift away from her and she’s faced with going to a poorhouse. All is not lost, however, when one son decides he must make things right. (Pro tip: whenever silent film titles sound odd or overly old-timey, they often were named after a song or a poem–in this case, a poem.)
3. The Better ‘Ole (1926)
This comedy smash was one of Chaplin’s best efforts–pardon me, one of Sydney Chaplin’s best efforts. Set in the World War I trenches, it follows the exploits of “Old Bill,” a British soldier who gets into various scrapes involving the Germans. While Sydney is sometimes overlooked today (despite having an uber-famous brother), he was a talented comedian in his own right, as The Better ‘Ole proves. It’s also interesting to compare it to Charlie’s Shoulder Arms (1918), the first feature-length WWI comedy.
2. Smilin’ Through (1922)
Another big success for Norma, Smilin’ Through was an adaptation of a popular stage play. Partly a drama and partly a “costume picture,” it gave her a chance to play the dual roles of Moonyeen, who is killed by a rejected suitor on her wedding day, and Kathleen, who twenty years later is unknowingly planning on marrying the son of the rejected suitor. Kathleen’s lover is played by Harrison Ford — no, not that one, the earlier Harrison Ford. Smilin’ Through was called “a perfect classic,” “one that will live for years to come.” It’s unfamiliar to all but silent buffs today, but happily, a decent copy is available.
1. The Miracle Man (1919)
This was a megahit of the silent era, the biggest grosser of 1919. It’s also notable for being Lon Chaney’s big break. A gang of criminals hears about a “faith healer” revered by a small town. Sensing gullibility, they decide to hide out in the town, have one of their members poses as a cripple who receives “miraculous” healing and collect donations (supposedly for a chapel). However, their confidence is shaken when they witness a crippled boy receive real miraculous healing. Reviews were positively glowing, nothing short of ecstatic. Sadly for us all, it’s a lost film, although a couple tantalizing clips still survive.
Family drama, cultural differences, heroines overcoming tragedies, faith vs. skepticism, dancers doing the shimmy…all were themes that fascinated audiences in the day. Studying them gives us a more nuanced view of the long-gone era. And with any luck, some of these forgotten hits can also find new, appreciative audiences.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.