Despite the fact that the studio system often stifled individual creativity, a number of gifted filmmakers managed to strike a balance between art and commerce and adapted to the studio system, making personal films that were also commercially successful. Allan Dwan, Rupert Julian, Henry King, and Fred Niblo all made expert genre films ranging from melodramas to action spectacles, and Dwan and King went on to long and distinguished careers in the sound era. Niblo’s Ben-Hur (1925), with a chariot race supervised by action director B. Reeves “Breezy” Eason, was a huge commercial success, while John Ford began his long love affair with the western directing The Iron Horse (1924).
Harry O. Hoyt’s The Lost World (1925) was an early version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic story about a scientific expedition that encounters prehistoric monsters during a jungle trek; the film’s special effects were deftly handled by Willis H. O’Brien, who would later work his magic in the classic King Kong in 1933, directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928) depicted the dehumanizing world of big business with brutal accuracy, while Josef von Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters (1925) consisted of a series of motionless tableaux depicting the drabness of everyday life.
Clarence Brown, a director of silent films known for his romantic lyricism, began directing in 1920. After spending time as an assistant to director Maurice Tourneur, Brown established himself as a director with The Eagle (1925), starring screen heartthrob Rudolph Valentino. Above all, Brown was widely respected as Greta Garbo’s most accomplished director, guiding the star through the silent films Flesh and the Devil (1927) and A Woman of Affairs (1928) and directing five of her most successful sound films, including her debut talkie Anna Christie (1930), Anna Karenina (1935), and Conquest (1937).
While Stiller failed to click as a director in Hollywood, Garbo’s first film, Monta Bell’s Torrent (1926), electrified both critics and audiences, and a new star was born in the celluloid firmament. Other European directors who were lured to Hollywood in the final days of the silent era included Ernst Lubitsch, whose sophisticated sex comedies such as The Marriage Circle (1924) and So This Is Paris (1926) marked the beginning of a long career that would stretch into the 1940s in Hollywood, and the Hungarian Michael Curtiz, who began with silents and would later become one of Warner Bros.’ most prolific directors. One of Curtiz’s key early works was 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932), in which tough con Tom Connors (Spencer Tracy) battles his way through prison life in brutally fatalistic fashion.