Modern Times (1936) – Film #0006

Directed by Charlie Chaplin 
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 1989 
I first watched it on Feb. 10th, 2021 

What It’s About:

A down-on-his-luck factory worker and a young homeless woman try to make their way in a world that seems determined to keep them down.

My experience with the film:

Getting my critiques out of the way first: I did think it was somewhat strange that the younger sisters of Paulette Goddard’s character were practically forgotten halfway through the film (I kept expecting her to try to reunite with them). Likewise, the age difference between the two lead characters feels uncomfortable by modern standards (despite the actress being 25, her character is implied to be a minor). 

That said, this movie was hilarious, and adorable, and I loved it. This was only my second time watching a Chaplin film. The first was The Great Dictator (it will get its own entry eventually), which I watched about a year ago. I enjoyed The Great Dictator quite a bit (largely for its message), but I thought that some of the physical humor didn’t work and/or dragged on a little too long. This may explain why Chaplin decided not to make Modern Times a “talkie”—perhaps his style of humor does indeed work better in silent films. Whatever the reason, I found myself laughing in practically every scene of Modern Times. It was full of slapstick humor, but it also never felt too over-the-top, unrealistic, or cartoonish.

And while Charlie Chaplin’s physical acting sold the humor of the film, I felt that it was Paulette Goddard who sold the heart. She was every bit as endearing as he was and I really enjoyed the give-and-take nature of their relationship—they took care of each other and looked out for each other fairly equally. (For example: one day he’d sneak her into the department store at night for food and shelter, and then later, she’d find an abandoned shack for them to stay in.)

Honestly, this is probably my favorite film that I’ve newly watched for this NFR project so far (keep in mind that I’m still fairly early in working my way through this list, and that I’m not including movies that I had already seen before starting this project as being eligible for the aforementioned “favorites”). I definitely look forward to revisiting it in the future. 

I should also note that several of the resources that I found mentioned that this is a great film to use to introduce your kids to the world of silent film. Aside from a little bit of substance use throughout (smoking, drinking, and, surprisingly, some accidental ingesting of “nose powder” that leads to some hilarious results), I’d say that I agree. If you have kids in your life (your own, or nieces/nephews, cousins, etc.) who haven’t seen a silent film (or if you haven’t, for that matter), this is a great one to start with (even if it’s not technically completely silent, since it came out nearly a decade after the dawn of the “talkie”; in addition to having a score and sound effects, it also has an occasional moment of spoken word or song). You and the kids will be laughing the whole time. 

Availability:

Modern Times (1936) is available to stream on the services listed here: https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/modern-times 

To learn more about the history and significance of this film, I recommend the following resources:

For the complete list of films in the National Film Registry, including information on how you can view each film, and links to every entry that I have written, please see my NFR Directory

Follow the NFR Completist on Twitter and Instagram

Intolerance (1916) – Film #0001

Directed by D. W. Griffith 
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 1989 
I first watched it on Jan. 12th 2021 

What It’s About:

The film portrays four different tales of intolerance during four different time periods: the fall of ancient Babylon, the life and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1500s France, and a “modern” (at the time) tale of intolerance that focuses largely on the life of hardship that one young woman experiences.

My experience with the film:

The story of how I went about watching this is in the “Availability” section below (largely because the film is somehow both easy and complicated to find), but, in general this marks my new trend of watching the NFR films roughly from the beginning of when the Registry started. I’ll still watch random films from later in the Registry here and there (largely for reasons that I’ll probably note), but many of the films that I watch for the next few months will be from among the 1989 and 1990 inductees to the Registry. 

With that out of the way, I should say that I’m both pleased and disappointed that my overall take on the film seems to align with commonly held views of the film. Pleased because I feel justified in my opinion (since it is shared by many others), disappointed because I don’t have much to say that hasn’t already been said. 

By far the most stunning (from a production point of view) segments of the film are the scenes that take place in Babylon. The sets, the costumes, and the sheer number of people have to be some of the most epic and extensive that I’ve ever seen in a film. It strongly reminds me of old epics like 1956’s The Ten Commandments, or even newer films like the Lord of the Rings trilogy (the battle scenes in this film are especially reminiscent of the sieges of Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith). If for no other reason, fans of massive film productions (like myself) should see this movie for the Babylon story alone. 

However, for fans of a good heart-felt character drama (also like myself), the most compelling storyline was the one in the “modern” day of 1916. The actress (Mae Marsh) who played the character “the Dear One” (many of the characters have nonspecific names like this) was great at initially playing her with youth and liveliness, and then later effectively portrayed her sorrow and desperation. Some might consider her performance to be over-acting, but that tended to be the style in silent films when actors had to convey the emotions of their characters with physicality alone. The writing (or I suppose I should say editing, since the director filmed most of this movie without a script) in the final parts of this storyline is particularly effective. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the Dear One’s husband (simply called “the Boy”) is about to be hanged for a murder that he didn’t commit, and the scenes leading up to the end were a roller coaster of suspense and emotion as the film kept me guessing as to whether he would actually be hung, or whether he would be saved at the last minute (you’ll have to watch for yourself to find out). 

However, the other two segments of the film didn’t really work for me. The scenes with “the Nazarene”, as He is called (I think they were uncomfortable with the idea of straight-up referring to Him as “Jesus” in movies back then, for some reason), are barely in the film (I think there were only 4 or 5), and while I get that they were there mainly to add to the titular theme of “intolerance” through the film (they specifically showed how the people were intolerant of Christ and various others, like the woman caught in adultery, back then), I feel like the film would have been fundamentally the same without them. It also seemed strangely weird to me to feature Christ in a film that also focused heavily on Babylon and their gods, and specifically seemed to paint the fall of Babylon as a tragic event, when Babylon is typically depicted as both a literal and figurative enemy in the Bible (especially the Old Testament). I honestly don’t know enough about ancient Babylon to have any kind of opinion on their civilization, I just found it somewhat ironic to have “Babylon” and “Jesus” be the “good guys” in the same movie, when the Bible paints their civilizations as opposing forces. 

Likewise, the scenes in renaissance France didn’t add much to the movie. These segments of the film were the hardest for me to follow largely due to a lack of any character development and because I think the movie expects you to be familiar with the story of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. I honestly don’t remember ever hearing about the event before this movie (not sure if I fell asleep that day in World History in high school, or if it was just never covered). The film does give you a character to root for in the form of a woman called “Brown Eyes”, but she doesn’t get nearly as much characterization as “the Dear One” or “the Mountain Girl” (the protagonist of the Babylon story). When they started killing all the Huguenots in France, I honestly wasn’t sure whether she had been killed or not yet until the intertitles finally mentioned her by “name”, as I honestly couldn’t really tell her apart from the background extras. 

Of course, the other elephant in the room (besides all of the elephants carved into the intricate sets of the Babylon era) is that of the director, D.W. Griffith. He made Intolerance as a follow up to his previous film “The Birth of a Nation,” a film that was not only the most financially successful American film ever up to that point in early cinema history, but also a film that was extremely controversial upon its release, and one that continues to be condemned even more strongly today. (And for good reason, it’s a deeply racist film, and one that is often credited with single-handedly bringing the KKK back into popularity.) “Intolerance”, on the other hand, is sometimes incorrectly seen as an “apology” for his previous film, but on the contrary, Griffith thought that the people who were upset with “Birth of a Nation” were the “intolerant” ones, and he made “Intolerance” to criticize the people that he felt were being intolerant toward him. Luckily, his racist sentiments don’t really seem present in the film, at least not overtly (aside from the fact that the Babylonians are played by white people, but that is an unfortunately common practice in Hollywood that still continues even to this day; see recent films like “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “Gods of Egypt”). However, there are some strangely sexist vibes in the “modern” scenes, since it pretty blatantly says something along the lines of “unmarried women tend to become busybodies and hypocrites” in one of the intertitles (I’m heavily paraphrasing). These “busybodies” are the antagonists of the “modern” segment, and they end up doing some pretty cruel things. 

Availability:

This is where things get complicated. The short version is: it’s extremely easy to find on the internet, but there are several different versions of the film. This section on Wikipedia provides an overview of the four main restorations that are available, and also points out that there are many low-quality public domain options that are also available. I did not know about the different versions prior to watching it, and my original plan was to watch the DVD Netflix version, but it was such a poor quality transfer of the film (I’m assuming it was one of the public domain versions) that it was nearly impossible to read many of the intertitles (an absolute necessity for a silent film). After about 20 minutes of watching that version, I switched to the Kanopy version of the film (a free streaming service that is available through many local libraries), which had an extremely high quality image (it appears to be “The Official Thames Silents Restoration” mentioned on Wikipedia), and a score that was recorded specifically for this film (always a plus with silent films.) However, there was one scene that wouldn’t play (it would always just eternally load when I got to that scene). If I skipped past it, the rest of the film played fine, but that one scene never loaded. (I tried on two different devices.) So, I briefly switched to the Amazon version (which doesn’t seem to be any of the four versions mentioned on Wikipedia) to watch that scene, but then I decided to switch back after the scene was over, because I preferred the image quality and the score over on Kanopy (I had no additional issues after that one scene.) So, I suppose all of that is to say: good luck. I’d recommend the Kanopy version if you have access to it. Otherwise, Google it, and click around until you find a version that seems good enough to you (there are a few versions on YouTube, some of which are probably illegal uploads of the four different high-quality restorations). If you’re feeling especially enthusiastic, you can always buy The Official Thames Silents Restoration on Blu-ray.

To learn more about the history and significance of this film, I recommend the following resources:

For the complete list of films in the National Film Registry, including information on how you can view each film, and links to every entry that I have written, please see my NFR Directory

Navajo Film Themselves (1966) – Film #0341

Directed by Al Clah, Susie Benally, Alta Kahn, Maxine Tsosie, Mary J. Tsosie, John Nelson, and Mike Anderson
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 2002

Background

Navajo Film Themselves is a collection of seven short silent films. They were produced as part of a university research project. Two professors (one of communications, Sol Worth, and one of anthropology, John Adair), along with one of Worth’s former students (Richard Chalfen), wanted to learn how films made by individuals from the Navajo culture might differ from films of other cultures. Specifically, they were interested in what individuals within the Navajo culture would choose to document about themselves given the choice to document anything they wanted. In the past, when one culture would study another, it was typically the culture doing the studying that chose what to document. The researchers wanted agency to play a key role by allowing Navajo individuals to choose what they felt to be worth recording. They also emphasized that one purpose of this research was to preserve aspects of the culture, so that future generations of Navajo could know what Navajo culture was like at the time.

To do this, they taught a group of young adult Navajo students how to use filming equipment, and allowed them to make films about whatever they wanted. These seven films are what the students produced, and the researchers wrote a book entitled “Through Navajo Eyes” that discussed the experience. 

This project wasn’t without its problems. Sol Worth became frustrated that many of the students weren’t filming “correctly.” He seemed to be more concerned about learning how to teach technology use to aid communication between cultures rather than focusing on what could be learned about the Navajo culture based on their choice of filmmaking style. Indeed, there was tension between Worth and one of the Navajo students, Al Chah, because Chah was more interested in making an artistic-style film than a traditional documentary.

The films

The seven films that make up Navajo Film Themselves are:

The Intrepid Shadows (directed by Al Clah) is an art piece that depicts the movement of shadows, wheels, and a ceremonial mask. Like the other films in this series, it was recorded as a silent film, though Clah wrote a poem that was meant to accompany the film as a narration. 

A Navajo Weaver (directed by Susie Benally) captures the process of weaving a blanket—from tending the sheep, shearing the wool, cleaning and prepping the wool, making it into yarn and dyeing it, and finally the actual weaving process.

Second Weaver (directed by Alta Kahn) is similar to the previous film, and it depicts the process of weaving a woman’s belt.

The Spirit of Navajos (directed by Mary Jane and Maxine Tsosie) shows a medicine man preparing for a conducting a ceremony which includes a sand painting. 

Shallow Well Project (directed by Johnny Nelson) depicts the building of a well.

Navajo Silversmith (directed by Johnny Nelson) shows a silversmith collecting silver from a mine, creating a mold, and then using the mold to create small silver figurines. 

Old Antelope Lake (directed by Mike Anderson) first depicts the scenery surrounding a lake, and then it shows a boy collecting water from the lake and using it to wash some clothes.

Availability

Navajo Film Themselves is only available on DVD. I was able to find it in my university library. If you wish to watch it, you can check to see if your local library has it, of if they can get it through interlibrary loan. Otherwise, it’s available to purchase on this website: https://www.shopvisionmaker.org//product.asp?s=visionmaker&pf_id=NFTS%2D66%2DH&dept_id=23427 

Information sources and additional resources

The Crowd (1928) – Film #0005

Directed by King Vidor
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 1989

What It’s About:

The Crowd follows the story of John Sims. When he is born on July 4th, 1900, his parents have great aspirations for his life, and as he grows up, he takes those aspirations to heart, thinking that he’ll one day be a great and important man. He gets a job in New York City, falls in love, gets married, and has children. All the while, the pressures of life continue to eat away at him and he soon realizes that life is much harsher and more cruel than society would have you believe. Can the “American Dream” be reality, or is it exactly what its name implies: only a dream? 

Context and Significance:

The director, King Vidor, intentionally cast an unknown actor (James Murray) in the lead role, since he wanted to reinforce the idea that his character was just a face in the crowd, rather than using a well-known actor that would stand out. Vidor claimed that Murray was an extra that he found on the MGM lot, however, Murray had appeared in a few small film roles before.

Tragically, Murray’s life ended up reflecting that of his character—he became an alcoholic and a panhandler, living on the street. When King Vidor discovered this, he offered him a job, but Murray refused. Eight years after the release of this film, Murray was found dead in a river, likely as a result of an accidental drowning, though the possibility of suicide was never ruled out. 

MGM wasn’t pleased with the film’s dour tone, so seven endings were filmed and tested with audiences, and when the film was finally released, it came with two endings that the theaters could choose to show. Most went with the original ending that Vidor intended, though a few showed the more cheerful ending that MGM wanted. 

My Thoughts:

This film is just as relevant today as it was when it came out in 1928. Anyone who has ever felt like “a cog in the machine” or had the realization that adulthood doesn’t hold the excitement and promise that it seemed to when you were younger will see a bit of themselves in John Sims. It’s really unfortunate that this film is so hard to find nowadays (I’ll discuss that below), because it deserves to be seen and known as much as classics like Casablanca and Citizen Kane. 

In addition to great writing (and acting), The Crowd is also full of great camera work: there are dynamic shots of locations like the streets of NYC and Coney Island, experimental shots that use image juxtaposition to express things like thoughts and memory, and of course there’s this iconic shot:

If you can get your hands on this movie, I highly recommend it! Otherwise, perhaps we should start a letter-writing campaign to Warner Bros (who currently holds the rights) asking for this to finally be released on DVD/Blu-ray? 

To see one-minute videos about each film on the National Film Registry, and to get previews of upcoming posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Availability:

The Crowd is extremely hard to find. It was released on VHS and Laserdisc in the 80s, but it hasn’t had a home media release since then. It apparently has aired on the cable channel “Turner Classic Movies” in the past (and thus probably will again in the future), and according to JustWatch.com, it’s currently available to stream with certain cable TV subscriptions (such as DirecTV and Fubo). I found it on DVD at my university library, however, it appears to be a Chinese release of the DVD (Chinese characters were used throughout the packaging, as well as in the DVD menu screens), and a review of the film that I found on YouTube also appears to feature a Chinese copy of the DVD, so it does appear to have a Chinese home media release, but I imagine that those would be hard to come by in the U.S. (There also appears to be bootleg copies of the DVD on eBay, so do with that information what you will.)

Information sources and additional resources: