The 30 Best Movies of the 1920s for Old Hollywood Fans

Want to explore the early years of film? Here are some of the best

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Paramount Pictures

We don't get the current landscape of film, filmmaking, and acting without the early filmmakers and actors that struck ground and paved the way long before us. Depending on who you ask, some individuals have never given "Old Hollywood" a chance because they believe the films to be boring, slow, and less technical compared to what we're getting now. That's well within their right to think that as we all have our preferences, but I want to encourage a different outlook. The early decades of film are an example of literally doing the best with what you've got as there was limited resources and no prior to examples to pull from. As such, I do believe from a creativity and storytelling standpoint that we got some of the most innovative creations during the early decades, and that's part of what makes the era so fascinating in my opinion. Also, if you look hard enough, it won't take you look to find the original versions of some of your favorite films/film franchises (Dracula for example), and it can be fascinating to witness the evolution over time. To that point, we've put together a list of the best movies of the 1920s to add to your watchlist.

The 1920s aka the "Roaring Twenties" film-wise were a mixture of silent films and the introduction of "talkies" (movies where you could actually the hear the dialogue between actors) towards the end of the decade. These movies are some of the best from that time period to get you started. Scroll down to check them out.

RELATED: How the Last Blockbuster Store Became a Tourist Location

How did we pick the best movies of the 1920s?

Our selections for the best movies came by way of IMDB ratings, and movies that we considered to be an important part of shaping the future landscape for films in terms of its storyline, camera shots, and acting. In short, these were the movies that shaped the generation and how filmmaking was approached in the decades that followed.

1. "The Winning of Barbara Worth" (1926)

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The Samuel Goldwyn Company
  • Directed by: Henry King
  • Starring: Ronald Colman, Vilma Bánky, Gary Cooper
  • IMDB Rating: 7
  • Watch it if you like: La La Land
  • What it's about: A young woman caught between the affection of two men

Starring Ronald Colman, Vilma Bánky, and Gary Cooper, The Winning of Barbara Worth is a silent Western film that focuses on the story of a young woman named Barbara (Bánky), who has always dreamed of irrigating the desert. She winds up meeting a engineer (Willard Holmes) with plans to cross the California desert, who ends up falling for her. The engineer soon realizes he's got some competition for her affection, which results in a battle for the woman's heart. The movie was released on October 14th, 1926, and received positive reviews from critics.


2. "Asphalt" (1929)

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Weimar Cinema
  • Directed by: Joe May
  • Starring: Betty Armann, Else Heller, Albert Steinrück
  • IMDB Rating: 7.4
  • Watch it if you like: The Highway Men
  • What it's about: A man that wants redemption from a life of crime

Released in 1929, Asphalt stars Betty Armann as the tragic hero Else on the path to redemption after previously leading a life of crime. Within this redemption is an exploration of love and a confession as to who Else's true love really is. Asphalt was directed by Joe May, and is considered a groundbreaking jump in the world of German filmmaking.


3. "Sherlock Jr." (1924)

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  • Directed by: Buster Keaton
  • Starring: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Ward Crane
  • IMDB Rating: 8.2
  • Watch it if you like: Inside Man
  • What it's about: A man that wants to be a detective

While not Buster Keaton's most dynamic work, Sherlock Jr. deserves appreciation for its early delve into storytelling and cinematic works with Keaton starring as a movie projectionist that wants to be a detective. His fiancee (McGuire) gets robbed by a thief and unfortunately for the projectionist, he gets framed by the robber for the crime. Now, the poor projectionist must use a detective skills to track the thief, but it doesn't work out. So what does he do next? Well, he falls asleep and dreams that he becomes Sherlock Holmes. Interesting response, but one that entertains us viewers.


4. "The Pony Express" (1925)

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Paramount Pictures
  • Directed by: James Cruze
  • Starring: Ricardo Cortez, Betty Compson, Wallace Beery
  • IMDB Rating: 5.9
  • Watch it if you like: Dead for a Dollar
  • What it's about: A manipulative senator that wants to get his way

There's always been a lot of interest surrounding the Pony Express, so in 1925 a silent western was created to explore the concept even more. Directed by James Cruze and produced by Famous Players, The Pony Express centers around a sneaky California senator that's trying to use the Pony Express as a way to further his plans for a California Republic. The film starred Ricardo Cortez, Betty Compson, and Wallace Beery, and was released in 1925.


5. "My Best Girl" (1927)

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United Artists
  • Directed by: Sam Taylor
  • Starring: Mary Pickford, Charles Rogers
  • IMDB Rating: 7.4
  • Watch it if you like: Funny Girl
  • What it's about: A young woman who falls for a guy that winds up being engaged

Starring Mary Pickford as a stock girl named Maggie Johnson and Charles Rogers as her co-worker Joe Grant, My Best Girl is a tale all about fighting for the love of somebody you're interested in as Joe not only falls for Maggie, but also wants to prove that he has what it takes for a promotion. Maggie becomes interested in Joe, but things start to get messy when she finds out Joe not only has a significant other but is also engaged (how nice of him to not tell her). Maggie leaves the relationship (and rightfully so), but Joe is determined to win her back. Does he succeed? You'll have to watch the film for that, but we will say that somebody gets their heart broken.


6. "Nosferatu" (1922)

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Film Arts Guild
  • Directed by: F.W. Marnau
  • Starring: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schroeder
  • IMDB Rating: 7.9
  • Watch it if you like: Dracula
  • What it's about: A creepy rich guy that's really a vampire

While Nosferatu was originally loosely based on Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula, it has since taken on a life of its own when it comes to classic horror films. Starring Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, and Greta Schroeder, the eccentric Count Orlok (Schreck) summons a man ( von Wangenheim) to his remote Transylvanian castle. From there, he decides to buy a house near and the man and his wife, proceeding to reveal he's a vampire and causing the couple terror. Nosferatu was directed by F.W. Marnau, and celebrated its 100th birthday last year.


7. "The Man Who Laughs" (1928)

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Universal Pictures
  • Directed by: Paul Leni
  • Starring: Conrad Veidt, Mary Philbin, Olga Baclanova
  • IMDB Rating: 7.6
  • Watch it if you like: The Dark Knight
  • What it's about: A disfigured man that gets treated cruelly by society

Ever wonder where The Joker got his creepy smile from? You can thank The Man Who Laughs for that which is about a man who was disfigured by a king when he was a child. As a result, he becomes a clown traveling as part of a traveling carnival. The man is actually referred to as a "freak show," but that's kind of mean don't you think? Well, at least he's able to find somebody who loves him just the way he is, which is an important lesson about not prioritizing and judging the physical over what's on the inside. The lesson sounds cliche, but it seems we've been missing the mark as of late in a lot of different areas.


8. "The Cat and the Canary" (1927)

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Universal Pictures
  • Directed by: Paul Leni
  • Starring: Laura La Plante, Lucien Littlefield, Tully Marshall
  • IMDB Rating: 7.1
  • Watch it if you like: Boiler Room
  • What it's about: A woman that inherits a wealth man's estate

Another 1920s horror film, The Cat and the Canary is about a group of relatives that gather at the estate of a recently deceased loved one to discuss his will. A young woman named Annabelle West (La Plante) gets named the heir to the man's fortune, but only if she gets declared sane by a doctor (Littlefield) first. Meanwhile, a crazy man known as "the Cat" is running rampant around the area killing folks. When the lawyer (Marshall) of the millionaire's estate is found dead, Annabelle believes she's the next target on his list. A very interesting watch that has gained a select audience over the decades.


9. "The Adventures of Prince Achmed" (1926)

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Milestone Films
  • Directed by: Lottie Reiniger
  • Starring: Hannah Schygulla, Dana Dempsey, acteurs inconnus
  • IMDB Rating: 7.8
  • Watch it if you like: The Lion King
  • What it's about: A prince and his magical adventures

We don't get the animated films of the last thirty years or so (or animated films at all really) without The Adventures of Prince Achmed, which is considered to be the world's first feature-length animated film. The movie tells the story of Prince Achmed's magical adventures, and is regarded for its usage of silhouette animation technique. For those wondering, silhouette animation technique is where cut out figures come to life through color prismatic manipulation. The result is a relatively "shadowy" look of the characters where you can only see their black silhouette against a colorful background. By the way, does this remind you of a certain legendary Disney movie? We'll help you—The Lion King. See why we said earlier studying older films are fascinating?

While the movie isn't available on streaming, and you watch certain clips through places like YouTube.

10. "Three Bad Men" (1926)

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20th Century Studios
  • Directed by: John Ford
  • Starring: Tom Santschi, J. Farrell MacDonald, Olive Borden
  • IMDB Rating: 7.5
  • Watch it if you like: Three Men and a Baby
  • What it's about: Two outlaws that become the guardians to a young girl who's father is murdered

Considered to be one of John Ford's best works, Three Bad Men is about three outlaws that come to the rescue of a young girl when her father gets brutally murdered. Two of the outlaws end up becoming a guardian to the young girl, leaving behind their criminal pasts to take care of her completely. A heart tugging story that's sort of an early prelude to films like Three Men and a Baby. The movie was released in 1926, and still receives high praise to this day.


11. "The Circus" (1928)

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United Artists
  • Directed by: Charlie Chaplin
  • Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Allan Garcia, Merna Kennedy
  • IMDB Rating: 8.1
  • Watch it if you like: The Greatest Showman
  • What it's about: A man on the run from the police who joins the circus

A Charlie Chaplin production, 1928's The Circus is considered to be one of his best films from both a directorial and acting standpoint, as he stars as a man wrongfully accused of being a criminal. The chase from the police leads him into a big top where he begins entertaining circus goers by just simply being himself (not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing by the way). This leads to the man getting employed by the circus and falling in love along the way. Classic Charlie Chaplin.


12. A Woman of Paris (1923)

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United Artists
  • Directed by: Charlie Chaplin
  • Starring: Edna Purviance, Carl Miller, Adolphe Menjou
  • IMDB Rating: 6.9
  • Watch it if you like: Pride & Prejudice
  • What it's about: A woman that finds love in Paris after being stood up

Speaking of Charlie Chaplin the director, another great movie in his catalog is 1923's A Woman of Paris, which stars Edna Purviance, Carl Miller, and Adolphe Menjou, and is about a young woman (Purviance) led to believe she's been stood up by her fiancee when he fails to meet her at a train station for their trip to Paris. She then decides to go to Paris anyway, where she meets and becomes a mistress to wealthy man (Menjou). Roughly a year later, her former fiancee shows up again, and now the woman is forced to choose between her old love and her new one who's...taken. Kind of messy but whatever.


13. "Napoleon" (1927)

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  • Directed by: Abel Gance
  • Starring: Albert Dieudonne
  • IMDB Rating: 8.2
  • Watch it if you like: The Last Duel
  • What it's about: The life of Napoleon Bonaparte

Directed by Abel Gance, 1928's Napoleon is about the early life and beginnings of Napoleon Bonaparte. Albert Dieudonne stars as the titular character, with the film spanning from his childhood to the end of military campaign in Italy. Full of great cinematic shots and a haunting score, Napoleon is very much a film that was ahead of its time in many ways. Unfortunately the movie isn't available on streaming, but we're hoping that's something that changes soon.

14. The Ten Commandments (1923)

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Paramount Pictures
  • Directed by: Cecil B. DeMille
  • Starring: Theodore Roberts, Charles De Roche, Richard Dix, Rod La Rocque, Edythe Chapman
  • IMDB Rating: 6.8
  • Watch it if you like: 13 Commandments
  • What it's about: Moses and a contractor that's living a life of sin

Released in 1923, The Ten Commandments actually tells two different stories within its 2hr and 16 min runtime. The first part of this film focuses on the story of Moses leading the Jews from Egypt to the Promised Land, while the second part centers around Richard Dix and Rod La Rocque starring as Moses and a contractor respectively that are living a life of sin. When the contractor's mother passes away, it leads to him wanting to live a life of redemption. Unfortunately for him he's just a bit too late and has more consequences coming as a result of his actions.

16. "The Passion of Joan of Arc" (1928)

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Société Générale des Films
  • Directed by: Carl Theodore Dreyer
  • Starring: Renee Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, Jean d'Yd
  • IMDB Rating: 8.1
  • Watch it if you like: Joan of Arc (2019)
  • What it's about: The story of Joan of Arc

Another 20s classic considered to be among the best released during the decade, The Passion of Joan of Arc stars Renee Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, and Jean d'Yd and is about a 15th-century teenager (Falconetti) on trial and subjected to torture due to claiming that she's spoken to God. While the teen changes her story at first, she then decides she's no longer going to be bullied and goes back to her original claims, which ultimately leads to her being executed and turned into a martyr. A sad story for sure, but still renowned for its storytelling and visuals.


17. Waxworks (1924)

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Neptune-Film A.G
  • Directed by: Paul Leni, Leo Birinski
  • Starring: William Dieterle, Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss
  • IMDB Rating: 6.6
  • Watch it if you like: Man in the Attic
  • What it's about: A poet that gets hired to create stories for a museum

Oh look! An early version of Jack the Ripper! Directed by Paul Leni and Leo Birinski, 1924's Waxworks stars William Dieterle plays a poet hired by a wax museum owner to create a number of different stories. The poet envisioning himself as a significant character in each of the tales which includes a man being haunted in London by Jack the Ripper, a paranoid Russian prince, and a baker who gets sentenced to death. You'll have to pay close attention to the details seeing as though this is a silent film, or you won't fully understand it. Just a heads up.


18. Orphans of the Storm (1921)

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United Artists
  • Directed by: D.W. Griffith
  • Starring: Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Morgan Wallace, Joseph Schildkraut
  • IMDB Rating: 7.3
  • Watch it if you like: Orphan
  • What it's about: Two young sisters who become orphans when their parents die

Sisters Lillian and Dorothy Gish, star as two young sisters in who are trying to pick up the pieces after losing both of their parents to the plague. With one of the sisters being blind, they go to Paris in the hopes of finding a cure, only to wind up getting in more trouble. Upon arriving to Paris one of the sisters gets kidnapped by aristocrat but escapes, and the other gets kidnapped by thieves. All of this is occurring after The French Revolution by the way. Just one bad luck after the other.


19. "The General" (1926)

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United Artists
  • Directed by: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton
  • Starring: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack
  • IMDB Rating: 8.1
  • Watch it if you like: Gettysburg
  • What it's about: A railroad engineer who's fiancee gets taken during the Civil War

Regarded as being one of Buster Keaton's most elite theatrical works, The General takes place during the Civil War, and stars Keaton as Southern railroad engineer Johnny Gray who's fiancee gets accidentally taken away by the Northern forces. Gray is now forced to chase after them in order to get his fiancee back. Slightly military and slightly romantic, The General is truly a great film that deserves more recognition across the board.


20. "Faust" (1926)

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  • Directed by: F.W. Murnaw
  • Starring: Emil Jannings, Gösta Ekman
  • IMDB Rating: 8.1
  • Watch it if you like: Faust 2.0
  • What it's about: An archangel that makes a bet with a demon

Another vampire movie, Faust stars as a demon Mephistopheles that makes a bet with an archangel that he can corrupt somebody good into evil. The innocent bystander in all of this is an older alchemist trying to save his village from getting the plague. Mephistopheles saves the village, but on the condition of the alchemist having to answer him. Those darn vampires. They're always trying to start some mess.


21. "Man With a Movie Camera" (1929)

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All-Ukrainian Photo Cinema Administration
  • Directed by: Dziga Vertov
  • Starring: N/A
  • IMDB Rating: 8.4
  • Watch it if you like: The Mirror
  • What it's about: An in-depth look at Soviet Union

Labeled as being part documentary and part cinematic art, Man With a Movie Camera is directed by Dziga Vertov, and focuses on 1920s Soviet Union from morning to night. Innovative camera shots are at the forefront of this film, with the doc being solely centered on the city. There's no titles, narration, or characters, it's just simply the city and its respective sounds. The camera shots are stunning and frankly way beyond its 1929 release date. We understand if these types of films aren't exactly your thing, but you should definitely give this one a shot.


22. "Safety Last" (1923)

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Pathé Exchange
  • Directed by: Dziga Vertov
  • Starring: Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor
  • IMDB Rating: 8.1
  • Watch it if you like: Bringing Up Baby
  • What it's about: A man that needs to make money to survive in NYC

Safety Last is admittedly slightly idiotic and full of not-so-great choices, and that's what makes it so funny. The film stars Harold Lloyd as a young man who moves to NYC to support his girlfriend, and quickly figures out that moving to the city ain't exactly cheap. One day he overhears where a store manager is willing to pay $1,000 to anyone who can draw customers to his store. This leads to the man deciding to become "the human fly," which consists of him climbing and hanging from a building like a fly. Like we said, slightly idiotic and full of not-so-great choices. He does draw attention though so maybe we're the ones who aren't that smart.


23. "Underworld" (1927)

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Paramount Pictures
  • Directed by: Josef von Sternberg
  • Starring: George Bancroft
  • IMDB Rating: 7.5
  • Watch it if you like: Casino
  • What it's about: A gangster trying to rehabilitate his lawyer

A drama/comedy, Underworld stars George Bancroft as the a gangster kingpin Bull Weed taking on the task of trying to rehabilitate his lawyer who has a drinking problem. He's rather unsuccessful in his quest, but things get even more complicated with the lawyer begins falling for Bull's girlfriend. Something tell us it's probably not a good idea to hit on the girlfriend of a gangster. Just our intuition talking to us a little bit.


24. "High and Dizzy" (1920)

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Pathé Exchange
  • Directed by: Hal Roach
  • Starring: Harold Lloyd
  • IMDB Rating: 7.5
  • Watch it if you like: Cycles South
  • What it's about: A drunk doctor trying to save one of his patients

If High and Dizzy sounds like a film full of chaos, that's because it is a film full of chaos. A comedy short starring Harold Lloyd, High and Dizzy is about a doctor who gets drunk on... homemade liquor. So he goes on about his drunken day and finds one of his patients sleepwalking on a ledge that is almost certainly high enough to kill her if she falls. Now the doctor has to figure out a way to save her, but once again, he's...drunk. Chaotic.


25. "The Wizard of Oz" (1925)

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Chadwick Pictures
  • Directed by: Larry Semon
  • Starring: Dorothy Dwan, Frank Alexander, Joseph Swickard
  • IMDB Rating: 4.9
  • Watch it if you like: Emerald City
  • What it's about: Dorothy and the gang going to the magical kingdom of Oz

They're off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz! Before Judy Garland's portrayal of Dorothy, you had Dorothy Dwan as, well, Dorothy. The 1925 version of The Wizard of Oz sees the Kansas farm girl leading the three farmhands to the magical kingdom of Oz. You might be spoiled from the 1939 version which includes wonderful visual and fun music, but there's value to be found in the short film version as well.


26. "Love" (1927)

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  • Directed by: Edmund Golding
  • Starring: Greta Garbo, John Gilbert
  • IMDB Rating: 6.9
  • Watch it if you like: The Notebook
  • What it's about: A married woman that falls in love with a soldier

The 1920s weren't complete without the works of Greta Garbo. One of her most popular films from the era is 1927's Love, where she portrayed Anna Karenina, the wife of a Russian nobleman who falls in love with a young soldier named Vronsky. Obviously a situation like this is going to present challenging dynamics, societal issues, and family drama. The only question is how does it end up turning out? Does she leave her husband? Does she decide the relationship with the soldier isn't worth leaving her marriage? Does the husband find out about the affair and end up leaving her? All great questions that you'll have to watch the movie for.


27. The Flapper (1920)

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Selznick Pictures
  • Directed by: Alan Crosland
  • Starring: Olive Thomas
  • IMDB Rating: 6.4
  • Watch it if you like: Easy A
  • What it's about: A wild young woman and her adventures

The Flapper is kind of like the 1920s silent film version of Easy A. In it, Olive Thomas stars as a "wild" (the 20s definition of wild at least) young woman named Ginger who gets sent away to a boarding school for flirting with a guy. She arrives at the boarding school and ends up...flirting with more guys. Then she ends up being the fall guy for a robbery. Needless to say, Ginger's life and decision making is just a little crazy. Fun, but crazy.


28. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

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Universal Pictures
  • Directed by: Wallace Worsley
  • Starring: Brandon Hurst, Patsy Ruth Miller, Lon Chaney, Norman Kerry
  • IMDB Rating: 7.2
  • Watch it if you like: Into the Woods
  • What it's about: A hunchback that falls in love with a woman

The Hunchback of Notre Dame but as a silent short perhaps? Set in 15th-century Paris, the film stars Lon Chaney as a Hunchback commanded by Jehan, the evil brother of the archdeacon (Hurst) to capture a woman he's in love with for him. The only problem is that the Hunchback and the woman end up falling for each other which as you can imagine displeases Jehan greatly. So what does he do? Well, he frames the woman for murdering somebody else that was also interested in courting her. He framed the woman he "loved" because he was mad bro. Yikes.


29. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

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Paramount Pictures
  • Directed by: John S. Robertson
  • Starring: John Barrymore, Brandon Hurst, Nita Naldi
  • IMDB Rating: 6.9
  • Watch it if you like: The Invisible Man
  • What it's about: A doctor who creates another personality for himself

Let's take it back to the 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde shall we? With John Barrymore starring as both Jekyll and Hyde, the movie is about the rather uptight and serious Dr. Jekyll who gets "inspired" to create another identity for himself after getting aroused at a show he attends with his friend Sir George Carew (Hurst). He succeeds as creating the alternate persona Mr. Hyde, but Mr. Hyde doesn't just come out lustful, he comes out flat out evil. Barrymore's switching of personalities is rather masterful we have to say.


30. Seven Chances (1925)

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  • Directed by: Buster Keaton
  • Starring: Buster Keaton, Ruth Dwyer
  • IMDB Rating: 7.8
  • Watch it if you like: The Hangover
  • What it's about: A man that needs to get engaged to receive his inheritance

Another great Buster Keaton film is Seven Chances, which is also quite chaotic when you think about it. Keaton portrays stockbroker Jimmie Shannon who on the eve of his 27th birthday finds out that he's due to inherit $7 million dollars. However, he only gets that money if gets married before 7pm on the day of his birthday. He asks the woman he's been longing for his whole life (Dwyer) to marry him thinking that the money will entice her, but she turns him down. Undeterred, he sets out to find somebody random who will agree to the terms and conditions. Get that money by any means necessary Jimmie!

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