Though I wouldn't necessarily advocating "teaching to the text," your list
is probably contingent on the readings you use and the approach you take.
Still, here are some possibilities (even if most are all too obvious):
BIRTH OF A NATION--First "great" American film? Certainly one of the most
controversial and a great focal point for both the art of film and the
sociology of racism.
SHERLOCK JR. (or almost anything else by Keaton)--highly innovative example
of what silent film was capable of at its best. If you want a specific
historical context, though, you might want to go with THE GENERAL.
THE GOLD RUSH--best "early" Chaplin, or you might want to wait for the more
pointed social critique of MODERN TIMES or comic/romantic lyricism of
STAGECOACH--the first "adult" Western? Still worthwhile for its staging
and cinematography (which influenced Orson Welles, among others) and its
defining role in the mythos of the American West. Pair it off with a
more pro-Indian film or two (FORT APACHE or BROKEN ARROW, then DANCES WITH
At least one Screwball Comedy--MY MAN GODFREY is especially good at capturing
Depression-era fantasies and anxieties while being very funny, but almost
any Capra film from the 1930s might do. For sheer enjoyment, there's
Hawks' TWENTIETH CENTURY.
Speaking of Hawks, try RED RIVER as a slightly different take on the mythos
of the American West.
I could go on, but it's Friday and I still have stuff to catch up on. This
year, PBS is doing a series on American Cinema, and there's an accompanying
text by John Belton, as well as other support materials available. Call
1-800-LEARNER for more info. on the series and a desk copy of the book.
--Don Larsson, Mankato State U., MN