Early Cinema
It’s a Saturday night, and you’re headed to Blockbuster to pick up the latest smash hit on DVD. But you get there too late — all of the copies of “National Treasure,” “Spiderman 2” and “Anchorman” are gone. Do you dare try something outside the new release section?
[filmquote] Instead of rushing to another video store, we have an alternative. Over the next four issues, the Arts & Culture section of The Big Green will explore the best movies of the past century and what made them so great, beginning with early cinema and ending with the 1990s. Whether you want to be a film buff, have an interest in film history or just enjoy watching movies, these fantastic films will be a great start to a more interesting Saturday night.
Around the 1890s came the invention of motion pictures – literally. Early motion pictures were typically composed of only one shot of an everyday event, the modern equivalent of a moving photograph. D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” in 1915 was the kick-start to movies as we know them today.
The 1920s and 1930s were an extremely important time in American and film history. Many of the techniques and genres still present in modern film were first used during this time period. These films are not outdated, but rather classic, and still have the power to make the audience laugh, cry, scared, shocked or surprised, just as they did as “new releases” way back when.
If you’re in the mood to laugh, look no further than two of the most well-known personalities of the ‘20s and ‘30s: Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
“Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” from 1928, one of Keaton’s best films, is a hilarious slapstick comedy about Keaton’s character caught between a family feud and his love. And Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” is just as funny today as it was in 1936.
MSU English Professor Ken Harrow says many of Chaplin’s films and his subsequent popularity were a result of the historical time. During America’s depression, “Charlie Chaplin developed the persona of the poor bum,” Harrow said. Chaplin’s films are non-threatening and were made for the everyday working viewer. They developed the “emotional and sentimental core as obviously as possible,” Harrow said.
[metro] Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent masterpiece “Metropolis” is thought to be the most influential science-fiction movie ever made. Lang paints a spectacular and intricate picture of 2026, where a city is divided between lowly underground workers and rich, privileged city dwellers. This is a story of what happens when one privileged man joins the exploited workers in a powerful revolt.
One of the most critically acclaimed horror films of all time is German director F. W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu,” which debuted in 1922. Count Orlok, the villain in this adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” is unlike any vampire seen before. Murnau’s version, with its large claws and spider-like movements, makes him frightening even to this day. This expressionist film is also unique among horror films in its set design – real castles and villages were used, giving it an eerie and disturbing feel.
The ‘20s and ‘30s were also a breakthrough time for surrealist cinema. In 1929, legendary director Luis Buñuel collaborated with artist Salvador Dali to create one of the most famous and shocking surrealist films ever, “Un Chien Andalou.” Though its runtime is only 16 minutes, it contains some of the most controversial footage ever put on screen. The images are sometimes violent and bizarre, including the opening sequence of an eyeball being sliced by a razorblade. This film is an amazing example of late 1920s counterculture.
Sergei M. Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” from 1925 is a landmark in cinematic history. Famous for its use of montage editing and close-ups, “Potemkin” “evokes a theme and evokes feelings to present an ideological message,” Harrow said. It is a story of a mutiny leading to a demonstration, which eventually brought on the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The images in this film are haunting because of their intensity – the faces of the people slaughtered on the steps of Odessa will be ones you’ll never forget – much like the revolutionary film itself.
[wizardoz] The viewer looking for more traditional “old” films should opt for “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz.” Directed by Victor Fleming in 1939, “Gone with the Wind” captivated audiences and critics alike, winning eight Oscars that year, including Best Picture. The Civil War epic is both a social commentary and one of the greatest love stories of the 20th century.
“The Wizard of Oz,” perhaps one of the most popular movies ever made, still touches hearts today. Though obviously fantastic, it is a story about finding your identity in a very confusing world. According to Harrow, that is what made it so successful – the 1939 audience could easily relate to Dorothy’s longing to get back home. Whether you’ve seen it only once, or a thousand times over, “The Wizard of Oz” is a perfect illustration of the early movie magic of Hollywood.
The pre-1940s-era films are some of the most important in cinematic history – some because of their technique, others because of their storyline and others still just because they can still make you laugh 70 years later. In any case, these films demand to be seen.

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