All the roar over film magazine Sight and Sound‘s latest Greatest Movie poll accomplishes one thing: It gets us talking about films that might otherwise go neglected. In a time where remakes galore and unimaginative comedies rule the box office, there was a time when studios wanted to produce quality motion pictures for their audiences. Duly noted is the fact that no film past 1968 made the Top Ten (Kubrick’s 2001).
Director D.W. Griffith was the leading director of motion pictures in the early days of silent movies. He is credited for popularizing many cinematic techniques that have become staples of film-making. Close-ups, dissolves, cutaway reaction shots – all are the first thing any aspiring filmmaker uses when starting their career. From 1908 through 1914, Griffith made “one-reelers” for Biograph, a leading movie company in New York. These were shorts, about 15 minutes in length that generally played for a week, and then were swapped out for another one. (That’s why many of the films of this era are lost. No one thought that they had any value beyond their moment in the theater.)
As Griffith perfected his storytelling and technical craft, he became influenced by some of the longer films coming out of Europe and the work of others now working in Hollywood, including producer Thomas Ince. Griffith began working on a Biblical drama, Judith of Bethulia, which was to be one of the first U.S. feature films. To the dismay of the studio heads (because features cost more money), longer films were accepted by audiences. In 1915, Griffith released his controversial film, The Birth of a Nation, which made so much money “they lost track” of it, according to Lillian Gish, who appeared in the film.
By then, studios were looking for any advantage to entice audiences to their films. Adolf Zukor, an immigrant from Hungary who had become quite successful in the fur business, got into the movie business and, in 1912, started Famous Players Studio. His idea was to entice famous actors of the day, putting them into roles of classic theater. “Famous Players in Famous Plays” was the company’s slogan. Zukor picked up a French film starring Sarah Bernhardt, which did great business stateside. He is credited for creating the star system on Hollywood, and later, after his merger with Jesse Lasky to form a corporation that would become Paramount Studios, he released films with such stars as Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, and Clara Bow – the biggest stars of their day.
So what does this have to with the 2012 Sight and Sound Greatest Films of All Time, or whatever it’s called? Seven silent films are included in the Top Fifty, with three in the Top Ten alone. This can be encouraging to filmgoers. If the list entices someone to check out F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise from 1927, which made the list at #5, or Chaplin’s brilliant City Lights, or Buster Keaton’s The General, both of which made Top Fifty, along with the others, then it has achieved a higher purpose. As I mentioned earlier, debate about films is one of those of those great discussions that rank right up there with sports talk, politics, and the national furor over The Sexiest Man Alive.
Alright, time now for my thoughts on the displacement of Citizen Kane as the Greatest Film the World Has Ever Known, Will Know, and Forever Let It Be Said That It Is the Greatest Film, etc…
It’s no secret that I am a big Orson Welles fan and not much of a Hitchcock fan. Citizen Kane isn’t even my favorite Welles film (that would be The Magnificent Ambersons) and Vertigo isn’t my favorite Hitchcock film (that would be North by Northwest). But, I’m not upset about the rankings. It’s only a list.
Most discouraging are the headlines for every article about the Sight and Sound Poll (all actual headlines):
‘Citizen Kane‘ Dethroned by ‘Vertigo‘ as Greatest Film of All Time
Three Theories for How Vertigo Dethroned Kane
Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo Beats Citizen Kane to Be Declared the Best Film of All Time!
Hitchcock Knocks Welles Off Top of ‘Greatest Film’ Poll
How the mighty have fallen. Kane won the poll for five consecutive decades, and even won the AFI’s poll in 1998 and 2007. It’s almost a repeat of Orson Welles’ own personal topple when his RKO contract was terminated, after basically three films and an unfinished project, and began the life-long journey of becoming a acting/directing gypsy (and of course making some of the other greatest films in the process). Even Welles recognized his predicament when he said, “I started at the top and worked my way down.” (He also told Peter Bogdanovich, “Oh, how they’ll miss me when I’m gone.”)
It’s not the end of world for Kane fans. It did place second, after all. It’s not like Citizen Kane has to pack up and leave town in shame, run out on a rail, never to be seen again. As cinema, it is a masterpiece. It’s a tour de force for Welles, who was only 25 years old when he acted, directed and co-wrote Citizen Kane. It was his first film. Hitchcock had been a working director for over 30 years when he made Vertigo.
I’m sure many of you who take film seriously, and even those who don’t, have their own favorite films that don’t even include any films by Welles or Hitchcock. The Director’s Poll in the same Sight and Sound survey picks Yasujiro’s Tokyo Story as Number One, with Citizen Kane tied for Second with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Vertigo is Number Seven.
So, we have the pleasure of open discourse about film, and more importantly, all the films in the Sight and Sound poll are available for viewing. No matter what your favorite film is, whether it be 8 ½, The Godfather, or even Porky’s (which would be sad), the Greatest Movie Ever Made will continue to be a discussion as long as there are people around with an opinion.