A version of this article originally appeared on Classic Movie Hub, where I write a monthly column on silent films. It was an eye-opening one to research–hope you enjoy!
Much like we still do today, silent era audiences flocked to big budget spectacles, as well as thrillers, 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 will be pretty familiar: Ben-Hur, Intolerance, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Robin Hood. What is allegedly 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–who ever said that subtly-acted, bittersweet dramas can’t attract masses of viewers? With that in mind, here’s a look at eight of those forgotten “moneymakers”!
8. Something to Think About (1920)
One of Cecil B. DeMille’s dramas starring Gloria Swanson, Something To Think About was considered a romantic, “wholesome” story with wide appeal. Swanson plays Ruth, the daughter of a blacksmith, and Elliott Dexter portrays David Markley, a wealthy young man who’s also a cripple. David cares for Ruth and decides to become her benefactor so she can get a good education. But 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, however, that tragedy’s on the horizon. Some sources say this drama’s box office rivaled that of Way Down East, a much more well-known 1920 hit.
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 tragic story were acted with Norma’s classic naturalness (there’s a reason she was such a fan favorite).
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. It was a hit that can still draw us in today.
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 ne’er-do-well. Although she sacrifices everything she can for her family, all her children eventually drift away from her and she’s faced a future in the 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 were ofte named after a song or a poem–in this case, it’s 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)
And now we come to it, my friends. The Miracle Man 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 hear about a “faith healer” revered by a small town. Sensing gullibility, they decide to hide out in the town, have one of their member pose as a cripple who receives a “miraculous” healing, and collect donations (supposedly for a chapel). However, their confidence is shaken when they witness a crippled boy receive a real miraculous healing. Reviews were positively glowing, nothing short of ecstatic. Sadly for us all, it’s a lost film, although a couple important clips still survive.
Family drama, cultural differences, heroines overcoming tragedies, faith vs. skepticism, dancers doing the shimmy…all were themes that fascinated audiences back in the day. Studying them gives us a more nuanced view of that long-gone era–and in some cases, it gives us a renewed desire to find more of those all-too-tantalizing lost films (oh for The Miracle Man!).
Note: Selections rely on U.S. box office figures for each year, as you’ve probably figured out.