Silent features from a century ago available for free online viewing

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John Mulderig
Catholic News Service

NEW YORK — A number of notable films will reach their centennial this year. Since all films made before 1925 are now in the public domain, several of these silent centenarians can be viewed for free online.

Following are capsule reviews and links for a quartet of features that fall into this convenient category. The Catholic News Service classification for all four is A-II — adults and adolescents. None of them have been rated by the Motion Picture Association.

“The Flapper” (Selznick Pictures)

Credited with helping to popularize the titular lifestyle, director Alan Crosland’s broad comedy follows the exploits of a strictly brought-up boarding school student (Olive Thomas) who yearns to be taken for a sophisticated lady of the world. So she spurns the affections of her boy-next-door beau (Theodore Westman Jr.) in favor of the attention given her by a polished older man (William P. Carleton). But she also gets mixed up with a schoolmate (Katherine Johnston) who’s a true renegade with a gangster boyfriend (Arthur Housman). Some of the comedy has held up over the decades, such as the mayhem that ensues when Westman’s ever-boastful character pretends he knows how to drive a horse-drawn sleigh. And it’s easy to see why Thomas — who would die tragically within months of the picture’s release, aged only 25 — was a major star. Yet, while trumpeting its own innocence, Frances Marion’s pre-Production Code script parlays its protagonist’s lack of worldliness into an opportunity to dabble, at least briefly, with some distinctly grown-up material. Mature references, including to spousal abuse and the loss of virginity, an absurd suicide attempt.

https://archive.org/details/The_Flapper

“The Mark of Zorro” (United Artists)

Landmark swashbuckler, set in Mexican-ruled California, in which Douglas Fairbanks plays a young nobleman who pretends to be an indolent nitwit to avert suspicion that he is, in fact, the crusading hero of the title. As he protects both put-upon indigenous people and a local Franciscan priest (Walt Whitman) and battles the oppressive authorities (Robert McKim and George Periolat), he also finds time to romance a genteel senorita (Marguerite De La Motte) who rejects an arranged marriage with him in his feeble public guise but falls for the gallant man behind the mask. A bit of hoary dialogue doesn’t get in the way of the evergreen stunts, swordfights and all-around derring-do of director Fred Niblo’s lively romantic adventure, adapted from the serialized novel “The Curse of Capistrano” by Johnston McCulley. Some stylized violence, including sexual aggression.

https://archive.org/details/markofzorro-1920

“Way Down East” (United Artists)

While visiting wealthy relatives in Boston, an innocent New England country girl (Lilian Gish) falls prey to a sophisticated sensualist (Lowell Sherman) who arranges a fake private wedding ceremony to seduce her, pleading that he has to keep their marriage concealed from his father. When, after the trauma of learning the truth and a series of other travails, she later falls for the son (Richard Barthelmess) of the prosperous farmer (Burr McIntosh) in whose household she eventually finds refuge, her hidden past threatens to blight their romantic aspirations. There’s a preachy and pompous tone to the narrative and the comic relief fairly creaks. But director D.W. Griffith’s visual flair is on full display and, together with Gish’s all-in performance — especially during the film’s famous climax, set on the floes of a partly frozen river — it helps to rescue the movie from the limitations of its source material, a Victorian stage melodrama written by Charlotte “Lottie” Blair Parker and reworked by Joseph R. Grismer. Mature themes, including an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.

https://archive.org/details/WayDownEast_201312

“Within Our Gates” (Micheaux Film Co.)

This is the earliest known surviving film directed by an African American — Oscar Micheaux, who also wrote and produced it. Ostensibly the life story of a young black woman, played by Evelyn Preer, the drama is really a survey of early 20th-centurey race relations and touches on topics like the value of education and the tragedy of lynching. Traveling north from Mississippi to Boston to raise funds for the school at which she teaches (led by S.T. Jacks), the protagonist gains the support of a wealthy Yankee matron (credited as Mrs. Evelyn), is opposed by a visiting Southern racist (Bernice Ladd) and finds love with a local doctor (Charles D. Lucas) to whom her cousin (Flo Clements) eventually recounts the previous chapters of her biography by way of an extended flashback. Crowded with heroes and villains from both sides of the color divide, Micheaux’s picture is vivid but sometimes confusing, perhaps because the intertitles tend to explain preceding action rather than lay the groundwork for what’s to come. A devious preacher and his overexcited congregation come in for much satire, though whether Christianity itself is being attacked is less clear. Stylized violence, including an attempted rape, a negative portrayal of the black church.

https://www.loc.gov/item/mbrs00046435

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

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